Sandra Villines wasn’t an athlete during her time at Stockton’s Edison High School. In her words, she was “overweight.”
When she toed the starting line at the STYR Labs Badwater 135 – dubbed the world’s toughest footrace – in July, her credentials didn’t match up against those of the 135-mile race favorites.
Her ultra running résumé began only two years ago!
Yet, in the wee hours of Nov. 5, the 45-year-old district manager for Walgreens smashed the U.S. trans-con record when she completed her run from the steps of San Francisco City Hall to the steps of New York City Hall.
Villines shaved more than two weeks off the old record of 69 days, 2 hours and 40 minutes by completing her 3,126-mile trek in 54 days, 16 hours, 24 minutes.
▪ Relying on a two-person crew of sports massage therapist/chef Cinder Wolff and accountant Jay Lee, Sandra Vi (as she is known in ultrarunning circles) woke up in the morning for her first run, took a break for lunch, and then completed another run for her daily total of about 54 miles.
▪ She used eight pairs of running shoes following the route that 2016 Badwater men’s champion Pete Kostelnick used in breaking the trans-con record in 42 days, 6 hours, 30 minutes. (Wolff served as chef for Kostelnick’s run).
▪ She shut herself off from social media and did not follow any news. In fact, she didn’t talk to her family during those 55 days on the road.
▪ She totaled about 770 hours of running.
So, how did her body hold up?
“I really felt that my body got stronger physically as we went on,” said Villines a few days after flying into Fresno Yosemite International Airport. (She spends three days a week with her parents in Madera; and the rest of the week with her daughter in Tracy).
“The only thing I suffered was a little bit on my wrists from the constant drinking from the bottle,” said Villines, who will be a grandmother for the first time in February. “I gave myself a little bit of carpal tunnel syndrome, but, other than that, nothing major.”
Her endurance run garnered little media attention, outside the running community’s social media circles and a few running publications.
Media attention was never her goal.
“The record wasn’t the biggest thing,” she told Runner’s World. “I just wanted to see America on foot, to enjoy the journey, and to inspire others by accomplishing things that don’t seem accomplishable.”
That modesty doesn’t diminish her endurance record.
“It’s one of the greatest achievements in sports, just truly remarkable,” said Badwater race director Chris Kostman in describing Villines’ run. “Not only to break the record by two weeks, and a record that has stood since 1979, which tells you how impressive it was originally, but her consistency.
“Every day, she never had a day off. She always ran 50 miles or more!”
Villines, who was born in Bakersfield and considers herself a Valley resident, got the idea to go for the trans-con record last year. She told her coach, Florida attorney Dave Krupski. He endorsed the plan.
“I have always been very ambitious,” she said. “Dave just said, ‘Oh, OK.’”
Her family’s response?
“Oh, that’s really nice honey.”
The last 1,000 miles were all mental. Your body will do the work, but that’s when your head starts to kind of wander. It’s a lot of discipline to get up every single day.
Villines knew the challenge wasn’t easy.
“It’s such a big endeavor to take on. It almost sounds impossible,” she said. “I’m just an ordinary girl that lives next door. I just want to inspire people that they can do whatever they want to do.
“I’m not an elite athlete. I don’t have a huge background of awards over the years. I just started running ultras a couple of years ago.”
That lack of pedigree was probably the reason most doubted she could handle the challenge.
“There was probably a lot of speculation like, ‘Oh, she’s not going to make it.’”
That only made her resolve stronger.
“That was another reason why I really just wanted to focus on doing my best every day,” said Villines. “Which is why I cut everything off.”
That determination is what Kostman has noticed about Villines, and other Badwater competitors.
“There’s so much more to her than just looking at her or reading her résumé from the past,” he said.
“She’s not a professional athlete, and essentially has no sponsorship of any major note,” said Kostman. “Yet, she just went out and did this. She wasn’t seeking fanfare. She wasn’t trying to prove to anyone but herself what she could do and hopefully inspire other people, especially women, along the way.”
Villines used a gameplan she developed with the help of Krupski, Kostelnick and Badwater veteran Marshall Ulrich, who holds the senior trans-con record. (Kostman hopes to team the three of them for the Badwater Salton Sea run next April).
Her original plan was to finish in 53 days to 55 days.
Villines began her run on Sept. 11 and quickly ran across California, the first of 11 states on the route. It was not until she got to Colorado that she encountered her first major challenge: A blizzard in Rabbits Ear Pass in the Rockies.
“We had the possibility that if I didn’t go out and do this third run that night, we could be stuck there and I’d lose two days’ worth of time,” said Villines. “I did not want to do it. My head was not in the right place.”
So, she went out and covered about 20 miles more. She ended up running more than 70 miles that day.
The other difficulty came up at the end, when her mind started to waiver a bit.
“The last 1,000 miles were all mental,” she said. “Your body will do the work, but that’s when your head starts to kind of wander. It’s a lot of discipline to get up every single day.”
Villines would hear rain falling in the morning and not want to go run in wet and cold conditions.
“It was getting harder and harder towards the end. I wanted to just be done.”
Otherwise, the 55 days were a routine: Wake up, go run. Stop for lunch. Run again. Stop for shower and dinner, and possibly a massage. Repeat.
“I had such a structured schedule,” said Villines, who only spoke with Wolff and Lee during the 45-minute break at the end of the day before she had to get her sleep.
Another difficulty was eating, lots of eating to get the calories needed to keep her body going. It got to the point that Villlines “got tired of chewing,” so Wolff would make mashed potatoes and put them inside Ziploc bags with a corner cut out for easy squishing into her mouth.
On the road, it was just herself and the 600 songs she had on her Bluetooth set to a metronome beat. There were days when fellow runners, like Kostelnick, would show up to run with her.
Her favorite was when children would run alongside her.
“That was very touching for me,” said Villines, who is now trying to figure out how to motivate children.
She also enjoyed the scenery of the Rockies in Colorado and the autumn trees in Pennsylvania.
“I felt like I was in a Bob Ross painting all the time with the trees and the way it was colored,” she said. “It looked like a picture.”
This was the first time Villines has been in most of those states. She lived in Connecticut for several years.
Villines hopes to compete at Badwater next July. Until then, she’ll help pace or crew other ultra runners and try to figure out what’s next for her.
“This running has taught me that I definitely have a calling in life, but I just have to figure out what it is,” said Villines, who would like to coach children in the future.