Sumpter’s hardest race yet

by Symptom Advice on September 22, 2011

Former Healdsburg star, no stranger to challenges, now overcoming cancer Published: Saturday, September 17, 2011 at 8:45 p.m. Last Modified: Saturday, September 17, 2011 at 8:45 p.m.

DAVIS — Cloverdale’s Sarah Sumpter never felt better, that was the thing. she was in the best shape of her life — toasty, rosy, ready to lead UC Davis’ women’s cross country team to a conference title. Repeat her 2009 honor as the Big West Conference Women’s Athlete of the Year? Yep, that was certainly possible. Fatten that resume, which included her winning the Division IV CIF state championship while at Healdsburg in 2007? that was there, too.

“I was on a roll,” Sumpter said.

OK, so she had missed her menstrual period. it happens with women runners. Might as well get it checked out anyway, she thought. it was Sept. 10, 2010, and Sumpter saw the upcoming doctor visit as eventful as going into a convenience store for a doughnut. It’ll just take a sec. Heck, Sumpter had a race the next day in Sacramento. it was like she was fitting this pesky thing in between classes.

The MRI was taken at Sutter Davis Hospital. Half-hour later, the doc emerged.

“I need for you to come into my office with me right now,” he said.

“You are not going to tell me anything good, are you?” said Sumpter, reading the body language.

“unfortunately not,” the physician said.

He showed Sumpter four X-ray panels. A growth was on the right side of her brain, and had advanced to the point that it was pushing against the left side. “Smashing” was the verb Sumpter used. “Huge” was the way it appeared to her.

“I don’t know what it is,” the doctor said, “but I am not comfortable letting you leave this hospital.”

“does this mean I will live,” Sumpter asked, “or die?”

“I don’t know” was the reply.

Her mind hit the throttle and in no particular order, but in rapid fashion, she was flying everywhere. I have no symptoms. I’ve got a race the next day. I am on a roll. never felt better. I came through anorexia. Now this? Nah. maybe the panels are inconclusive. maybe this. maybe that. maybe. maybe. maybe. one thought kept repeating itself.

“Is this it? Is my life over? I have way too much left to do.”

The solemnity of the moment was driven home by the reaction of the medical personnel. You are running, competing for Davis? Sarah, you shouldn’t even be walking! she remembers that, too.

Tumors never cross the radar in young athletes.

“You’re going to make the Stanford meet, aren’t you?” Sumpter remembers her teammates asking her of a competition that would take place in two weeks.

Ten days later Sumpter underwent surgery. Eighty percent of the mass was removed. the remaining 20 percent had wrapped itself around cords that affect motor functions. the surgery would have been too dicey. Weeks later, tissue examination revealed a Stage 3 malignancy in a small part of the mass.

Within days, if not hours later after the surgery, Sumpter knew what she must do. Go on the offensive. No pity party here. it was the same Sarah who decided to go public with the Press Democrat in 2008 about her battle with anorexia.

“I got a gerbil in my head,” she joked.

Sumpter had six weeks of radiation, five days a week. she began to take and still takes a chemotherapy pill, Temodar, twice a day, three weeks on, one week off.

But the exercise! What about the exercise, Sumpter wanted to know. I want to walk. Go ahead, but stop if you get dizzy or nauseous. within two weeks, Sumpter was walking three to four hours a day in Cloverdale. By mid-November Sumpter told her oncologist, Dr. Nora Wu, “I can’t stand walking this much!”

She was a runner! It’s my religion, she said. Sumpter begged, pleaded.

“I finally broke her down,” said the 5-foot-1, 104-pound academic junior. “she realized I was not a normal case. I’m an athlete.”

OK, OK, Sarah, do some aqua running. Sumpter went to the swimming pool at the Finley Center in Santa Rosa. In February she ran unattached in some meets. Last Saturday, for the first time in over a year, Sump-ter competed. In that same cross country Hornet Jamboree she missed a year ago, Sumpter placed third against a field that included runners from Sacramento State, Cal, St. Mary’s and Santa Clara. she was named Big West Athlete of the Week, an honor reflecting not only her high finish but her journey over the previous 12 months.

“I feel so blessed,” Sumpter said. “I found out how stubborn I am. I also found out how much I am loved. my family, my friends, my teammates have been incredible. and my coach … ”

Sumpter paused to catch her breath. Drew Wartenburg was the second person she called that day after she called her mother, Shawn. Wartenburg was at the emergency room in 10 minutes. he was there for every bit of news, development, reaction. he was there for the person, not so much for the athlete.

“I’m really glad you are here,” Wartenburg told her time after time, whether it be in the hospital, watching a meet, running with those shuffling baby-steps in those initial recovery days. Wartenburg was the parent, the uncle, the friend, the coach, the lamppost to lean on.

“I don’t have the words,” said Sumpter, when asked to explain his value.

When her cross country teammates all bought and wore pink backpacks last season that read “FOR STUMP,” she didn’t have the words for that, either. When the UC Davis men wore bracelets in last year’s conference meet that read “STUMP,” she went quiet again. some things reach so deep for her, it is as if the issuing of words would cheapen their impact.

“the dark night of the soul,” is what she said of those first nights after the MRI and then again after surgery. Sumpter is a little over a year from getting her degree in psychology and she has had a lot of on-the-job training forced upon her. Sumpter fought back, as is her nature, like she did to conquer her eating disorder, to rebound from the hip flexor injury that shelved her freshman year, and now the tumor.

She doesn’t know, no one does, if that chemo pill will perform its idealized function and disintegrate that remaining tumor mass. but she refuses to worry about what she can’t control. Rather, she concentrates on what she can speak of.

“Athletes think of themselves as tough, and we are,” said Sumpter, 21, “but we are so incredibly fragile, mortal. A year ago I was running my fastest times. I had even developed muscles, if you can believe that. I felt more confident than I ever have in my life. and then this happened. Drew and I call it the ‘new normal.’”

Appreciate what is. Don’t waste time on what could be or what was. her teammates have embraced that thought spectacularly.

“They want to paint the Aggie symbol and the Aggie colors on my scar,” said Sumpter of the 12-inch, crescent-shaped mark on the right side of her head.

Will she let them?

“oh, yeah,” Sumpter said with smile a lot bigger than that scar. “oh, yeah.”

For more North Bay sports go to You can reach Staff Columnist Bob Padecky at 521-5223 or

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