One of the best female distance runners in Northeast Ohio has joined the Saint Ignatius cross country coaching staff.
The Wildcats' newest coach won the 2018 Rite Aid Cleveland Marathon and recently ran in the 2020 U.S. Olympic marathon trials in Atlanta.
Sarah Horbol has joined the Cross Country Cats' coaching staff.
"I'm excited to coach at Ignatius," says Horbol. "The school has a great atmosphere. As far as the team goes, it's a Division I program with lots of talent. I consider it an honor and a privilege to coach at Saint Ignatius."
The Cross Country Cats' head coach, Dr. Michael Gallagher '71, is also honored to have Horbol aboard after Kelly Gallagher departed the staff.
"I think the world of Sarah," Gallagher says. "We're fortunate to have her step into the role. She brings a lot of experience and talent. She'll bring out the best of our guys."
Horbol is not a newbie to the Saint Ignatius community. Wildcats fans may know her older brother, Jake, graduated in 2002. Her father is also a familiar face. A retired Cleveland Police officer, he often served as a security officer at dances and basketball games for many years.
Horbol and Gallagher also go way back. As it so happens, Gallagher coached Horbol when she ran at St. Bernadette's in grade school. As far back as third grade, her talent did not go unrecognized by Gallagher.
From St. Bernadette's, Horbol moved on to Magnificat High School. She enjoyed plenty of success with the Blue Streaks during her four years in Rocky River. Though at Magnificat, she was a sprinter rather than a distance runner.
Sarah then headed to The Ohio State University, leaving competitive running behind for the time being. She loved her time as a Buckeye, earning a Bachelor's degree in human development and family science before acquiring her Master's in middle childhood education.
Horbol spent nine years as a teacher at various schools before getting into educational sales two years ago. She currently works as an educational sales rep, providing workbooks and a digital resource to schools.
In 2014, Horbol decided to run in her first marathon. She competed in the Cleveland Marathon on May 18, 2014. As we spoke on the phone, she was feeling sentimental about it.
"I really enjoyed it. When I finished, I said, 'Okay, I want to sign up for another one!' My first marathon went really well," Horbol recalls. "I went to school with Doc's daughter. She told me after the race, 'My dad always said you were a long-distance runner.'"
Horbol continued to train and run in marathons for the next few years. And then in 2018, her breakout occurred.
Horbol won the 2018 Rite Aid Cleveland Marathon with a great time of 2 hours, 51 minutes, and 36 seconds.
"It was very exciting," Horbol says. "It was definitely unexpected. I exceeded my own expectations in terms of time and my place. I'm still very proud of winning the race. I kept the banner."
Her time in the Cleveland marathon was six minutes off of the time needed to qualify for the Olympic trials. So, she decided to train and try to qualify for the trials.
Later that year, Horbol ran in the 2018 Twin Cities Marathon in Minneapolis-St. Paul, hoping to hit the qualifying time of 2 hours and 45 minutes needed to clinch a spot in the Olympic trials.
Horbol shattered her goal in Minnesota. The Clevelander clocked in at 2 hours, 42 minutes and 58 seconds, a personal record. That's an average of 6 minutes and 13 seconds per mile.
Her impressive time punched her a ticket to Atlanta. She trained intensely for the marathon, readying for the Olympic Time Trials scheduled for February 29, 2020.
After months of preparation, the day arrived. And it was just as amazing as Horbol imagined.
"It was one of the most memorable experiences of my life," says Horbol. "You're surrounded by the other qualifiers, all amazing runners. Running the race itself was amazing. There were 200,000 people on the streets of Atlanta cheering us on. The course was completely lined with people. It was an electric atmosphere, with people cheering and screaming for you the entire time."
Horbol was realistic about her expectations. To qualify for the U.S. Olympic Marathon team for the 2020 Olympic Summer Games in Tokyo (which have since been postponed), Horbol needed to finish in the top three. But she did beat her pre-race ranking.
A total of 510 women qualified, and 451 competed in the race. Horbol finished 221st out of 451 runners, beating her ranking of #247 heading into the race.
Shortly after the Olympic time trials, COVID-19 erupted onto the scene and canceled or postponed just about everything. Luckily, the time trials were completed before the pandemic, so Horbol didn't miss a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
Having achieved her primary goal, Horbol started thinking about her next ambition. Coaching immediately came to mind. So, when Gallagher approached her with the chance to join the Wildcats' coaching staff, it was a no-brainer.
"I've been thinking over the past few years that eventually I'd like to coach cross country or track & field," Horbol says. "When he asked, I said, 'Here's the opportunity. I've been wanting to do this.' I achieved my goals to run in the trials, so it was time to move on to another running goal, and this one isn't for myself. It's to help other runners by being a coach. It presented a way to accomplish a new running goal, by helping other runners to achieve their goals."
Last year, amidst her training for the Olympic trials, Horbol took time to talk with the Cross Country Cats.
Gallagher and the Wildcats walked away impressed.
"When she talked to the guys last season, they were very impressed by her training and dedication," Gallagher says. "We were all impressed by the way she approaches a race. She's a competitive athlete at the top of her game at the national level."
Horbol's words of wisdom for the Wildcats also apply well for the amateur runner.
"It's important to stay disciplined and enforce the idea that they are capable of pushing their limits," Horbol says. "You're stronger than you think. Sometimes in a race, it's mind over matter. The body can endure almost anything, so you need to convince your mind. Even when you're tired and you don't think you can keep going, you can convince yourself to. With a marathon, it's such a far distance, so you need to convince yourself, 'I can do this even though my body is tired.' You're capable of pushing through and overcoming challenges."
As we wait for the fall season, Horbol is staying in shape by competing in Second Sole of Lakewood's Social Distance Challenges, short segments that you run on your own. The Westlake native runs every day to stay in peak shape.
Gallagher is excited to watch her thrive in the new role as a coach.
"She's one of the premier distance runners in Cleveland and in Ohio. She almost won last year's marathon despite the fact that it was 85-90 degrees, she wouldn't quit. And she may have won again this year," Gallagher says. "She's at the height of her game. Our guys can learn from her tenacity and technique of a runner of her pedigree."