PORTSMOUTH — Over the course of time, the area that is Southeastern Ohio has produced a litany of outstanding runners, with many of those hands going on to great success at Shawnee State — such as Adam Schroeder, Anna Havranek, Joe Stewart, Brooke Smith, 2019 NAIA National Champion Seth Farmer, and 2020 Hall of Famer Brad Liston, to name just a few.
However, what Sarah Biehl has been able to accomplish during her time as a runner — even after her official eligibility at Shawnee State has concluded — has been truly above and beyond.
The 26-year old Biehl, one of the best runners in Shawnee State history, will only further cement that status — regardless of her showing — when the Lowell, Ohio native runs in the 2020 U.S. Olympic Trial Marathon on Saturday, Feb. 29 at the famed Centennial Olympic Park in Atlanta, Ga.
There, Biehl will look to accomplish what no other SSU runner, either before or since, has done — achieve a qualifying spot in this summer’s Olympics, which are scheduled to be held in Tokyo, Japan from July 24 to August 9.
For Biehl, the simple chance to possibly qualify for such a stage is truly remarkable in and of itself.
“It’s a dream come true,” Biehl said. “It’s so rewarding. I just feel so happy just to be there and get to where I’ve been so far. I’m really excited for this opportunity.”
For her excellent accolades as a runner, such as being a part of two of the highest-finishing cross country teams in history and qualifying for various national stages at the NAIA level, one would think that Biehl has trained for this moment all of her life.
However, that fact is not the case.
According to The Marietta Times, Biehl, a native of Lowell who attended nearby Fort Frye High School, didn’t even start running cross country in high school until her sophomore year.
Once Biehl hit the trails, however, she was a natural.
In her very first year on the trails, Biehl not only qualified for state, but was named as a Division III All-Ohio honoree.
The Cadet added in two additional state qualifications in cross country, never finished outside of the top-three in Division III East District competition during her three seasons as a runner, and set a fast time of 19:20.6 — a time that still sits second all-time in Fort Frye’s history in women’s cross country.
As a track runner, Biehl proved to be just as accomplished.
An exceptional long distance runner due to her cross country acumen, Biehl set school records in at least fivedifferent events according to Ohio Milesplit, including the 4-by-400 meter relay unit that ultimately qualified for the Ohio High School Athletic Association’s (OHSAA) Division III State Championship by taking home a Division III Regional Championship with a still-school record time of 4:08.61.
Biehl, along with fellow 4-by-400 members Bailey Thieman, Stephanie Huck and Natalie Hart, followed with a 4:09.60 at state to claim a 12th-place finish in the event.
In addition to the 4-by-400, Biehl also set school records in the 400 (1:04.74), 800 (2:25.52), 1600 (5:24.93) and the 4-by-800 meter relay — on two separate occasions — with a time of 10:17.67 in 2009 and a mark of 10:14.89 in 2012.
Those exceptional benchmarks, and a growing pipeline of Fort Frye runners finding their way to Shawnee State, made the decision an easy sell for Biehl.
One of the best runners in Southeastern Ohio paired up with one of the best coaches in the NAIA? It was, as the cliched saying goes, a perfect marriage.
Throughout her cross country and track careers, Biehl proved to be at the forefront of taking both women’s programs to new heights.
From high school to college, Biehl shaved nearly two full minutes off of her personal best time en route to running a mark of 17:40 — which is, to this day, the fastest time in the history of the women’s cross country program.
She won two Mid-South Conference Runner of the Year Awards in cross country, finished as a First-Team All-MSC runner in cross country from her sophomore year forward, and led the Bears to 13th, 12th, and 12th place finishes as units from 2013 to 2015.
In track, Biehl kept the success going.
A back-to-back First-Team All-MSC honoree in her junior and senior campaigns, the standout won the 5,000-meter run in back-to-back seasons, the 4-by-800 meter relay in her junior season in 2015, and the 1,500-meter and 10,000-meter runs in 2015 and 2016.
She ultimately qualified for the NAIA National Championships three times in the 5,000-meter run alone and twice more in the 10,000-meter run, and posted the women’s unit’s best finishes in both events with a NAIA National Runner-Up finish in the 5,000-meter run (second) and a 37:06.56 in the 10,000-meter run (fourth) to cap off one of the best careers as an SSU runner, regardless of class.
Putnam, however, knew that Biehl had more to give from a running standpoint.
The latter, who maintained honors status throughout her college education prior to graduating with a 3.55 GPA, was hired by the former as an assistant coach, where she proceeded to lead the SSU women’s cross country unit to its best-ever finish at the NAIA National Championships — ninth — in 2016.
Her knowledge of courses, work ethic, and running talent, however, had Putnam thinking on a larger scale.
So he pushed Biehl to run in the Nationwide Children’s Marathon in Columbus, knowing that Biehl would have as stout of a chance as anybody to potentially push for an Olympic bid.
“Eric is an inspiration to many, and he was actually the one that put this idea in my head,” Biehl said. “I owe a lot of this to him. He was the one that had the idea and thought that I could do this. Knowing that he thought that I could actually accomplish something like this made me believe that I could.”
At the 2018 Columbus Nationwide Marathon, Biehl made good on Putnam’s belief.
From the outset, Biehl placed herself comfortably inside the top-45 of all runners and never looked back from there, running an average mile of 6:17 en route to posting a final mark of two hours, 44 minutes and 25 seconds to place an astounding 41st in a field of 3,215 runners — and fourth of the 1,379 women that took part in the event.
Of the 165 women that took part in Biehl’s age group — the 20-24 women’s division — Biehl finished first, and most importantly, used her mark of 2:44.25 to best the necessary 2:45 needed for ‘B’ Standard qualification by seven one-hundreths and five one-thousandths of a second.
“I felt relieved to be hitting the time, because that was the goal,” Biehl said. “I felt relieved, accomplished, and excited for what the future would hold.”
For much of the last year-and-a-half, Biehl has attempted to prepare herself for what is arguably the biggest race of her life.
Despite running a time that very few people, women or men, could match back in 2018, Biehl feels that she could’ve done a better job preparing for the Centennial Olympic Park course in Atlanta — which features a more mountainous landscape than what is offered in Columbus.
However, her experience running on hilly terrain at SSU, Biehl says, should still prove to be an advantage.
“I probably should’ve prepared more for the hill portion,” Biehl said. “It’s very hilly, while Columbus is very flat. It is kind of difficult to have access to the hills, but it is nice coming from a place like Shawnee State, where we used to go out once a week or every other week to the Shawnee State Forest and run out there. Having that knowledge of how to attack the hills will really help me a great deal. There are some elevation gains and some sharp turns, pretty hilly,. It’ll be a challenging course, pace-wise, but a fun experience to have so many runners in a pack, and a group that is running the same pace as you.”
Regardless of how Sarah Biehl does, it is clear that Biehl feels the love, with the Fort Frye and Shawnee State communities behind her, along with sponsors like Brooks and Columbus Running Company backing her in her track endeavors.
And they will be proud of Biehl — no matter how the results shake out.
“It’s an honor,” Biehl said. “I love Lowell, Fort Frye, Portsmouth and all of the small towns and communities in between. I just feel honored to represent them at this stage, and want to make everyone proud. “There’s a lot of personal support, and I’m just really glad that I can represent them and get their names out there. With Brooks and Columbus Running Company supporting me along the way, it’s been awesome. It means so much to have support from them and to have them back up your non-pro runners. It means a great deal to me.”
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