Four feet, a single focus

by Libby James
reprinted from Colorado Runner, November 2018

“Someone has to be last,” I told myself. OK. I’ve talked myself into it. I’ll sign up for the Mountain Avenue Mile.

I turned 82 not long ago and there’s no such thing as age groups for this community-friendly event that starts less than a block from my house on Mountain Avenue in Fort Collins. The course heads east toward downtown on a tree-shaded boulevard, then turns north and finishes a few blocks away near a small park. It doesn’t draw much of a crowd—maybe a couple hundred people who compete in six divisions ranging from fun run to boys and girls competitive, open male, open female, a four-person relay and a Beauty and the Beast division, where all the male and female entrants 40 and over compete together. Each division has a separate starting time. Participants cheer each other on, then migrate to a popular Mexican restaurant for awards and margaritas.

With some trepidation, I paid my $15, pinned on a number and waited until it was time for the beauties and the beasts to approach the start line. Turns out, there was plenty of time. And I spent it well, visiting with Amy and Sarah, who I’d known years ago as the DeMartini twins, waiting with me to compete in the Beauty and the Beast division.

“I’m so delighted to finally meet you two,” I said. The twins were household names in the Colorado running scene during their high school and college days in the late 1980s-early 1990s. As cross-country runners at Poudre High School in Fort Collins, both of them earned state championships. I’d watched their careers, I recognized them, but we had never met until that early August evening on Mountain Avenue.

Smiling and vivacious, they shared that between them they had 11 children ranging in age from 4 to 18. They were still committed to running every day. Several of their children were runners. As sisters and twins, they remained as close as they had been while growing up. “You two are a story and I want to be the one to tell it,” I told them. We made a plan to meet and talk.

Moments later they sprinted out of sight. I didn’t see them again. Just for the record, I wasn’t last. There was one person behind me—so far behind me that I thought I was last until a friendly fellow told me something different. I did the mile in 7:46. The twins finished at 6:53 and 7:02.

Growing up in Fort Collins, as the “middle pair” in a four-girl family, Sarah and Amy first caught the attention of Poudre High School cross-country coach Randy Yaussi. He corralled them in the hallway early in their high school careers and talked them into going out for cross-country, probably because he’d been coaching their older sister, Mary, knew talent when he saw it, and he was counting on the twins’ genes. The girls hadn’t run much until then, but it wasn’t long before they were valued members of the newly formed girls’ cross-country team. In those early days, girls’ cross-country was in its infancy in Colorado. Mary had trained with the boys. By the time the twins came along, enough girls had emerged to form a small team.

“I told Sarah and Amy that they were going to be my next two superstars. I was right,” Yaussi, now a high school principal, said. “They would run through brick walls for me. Super coachable. Two of the best human beings I’ve ever met. I love talking about them.” The time would come when he entered them in the cross-country nationals, where they took first and second place.

When the girls were 15, they dropped out of competition for a year. Their dad, Colorado State University professor Dr. James DeMartini, took his family to Kenya for a year, where he studied cattle disease. Along with their sisters, Sarah and Amy attended the international school in Nairobi. While there, the twins broadened their athletic focus, getting involved in basketball, field hockey and, almost incidentally, they ran track as well.

Once back home, they found that their “year off” had no negative effect on their racing. At a 30-team event in Aurora, a suburb of Denver, they emerged first and second overall. Later on that year, at the state cross-country meet, Sarah took first place for her school. After being targeted and roughly pushed to the ground by a competitor, Amy picked herself up and continued to run, catching up enough to finish in fifth place. T. S. Berger, Poudre’s assistant coach, called Amy’s recovery “a stunning event.”

Berger remembers a time during the twins’ final year at Poudre, when Amy beat her sister by less than a second in a two-mile track meet. “With a half-mile to go, it was just the two of them out ahead,” he said. “First Sarah would surge, then Amy, and it went on like that until the finish.”

Although it’s hard for me to believe, as this outgoing pair chats openly with me, the twins admit to being very shy until their college days. Coach Berger, an art teacher as well as a coach at Poudre, specializing in ceramics, had both girls in class. “It was tough to get either of them to answer a question with more than a single word,” he said. He recalled treating the cross-country team to hamburgers at Burger King after an away meet. When everyone had ordered and were enjoying their meal, the twins were standing around frozen, looking forlorn. They had not ordered any food. “Turns out they had never been to a fast food restaurant, didn’t know what to do, and certainly were not going to ask anyone.”

The girls were standouts in Berger’s ceramics class. They had no need for words to express themselves in their art work. Each won a gold key for excellence in a Scholastic Art Competition while at Poudre.

As the time to attend college drew near, the girls made plans to go to the same school. Because of their high school running records, they had some tempting scholarship opportunities away from home. In the end, because of Colorado State University’s warm welcome from coach Doug Max, they elected to stay in their hometown.

They moved into an athletic dorm at Colorado State University where, according to Amy, “We were the annoying girls. They didn’t like us much because we had no trouble getting up at 5 a.m. to get in an early run.”

And therein lies the secret of their relationship with each other, the source of their success as runners and in their lives as wives, mothers, and compassionate members of their communities.

“We’re competitive, but not with each other,” Sarah says.

“We push each other,” Amy adds.

They agree that their common love of running makes them closer than they would be otherwise. From the beginning of their running careers, they have competed almost as if they were one. They don’t care about which one of them comes out on top in any given race. What they do care about is that they take advantage of the push they get from each other in order to do their best.

“I see them as four feet with a single focus,” Berger says. He remembers Amy dominating in their early high school years and Sarah taking over that role later on.

Ask the girls and they’ll tell you they can’t remember who was faster when.

And now, at age 45, with a passel of kids between them, they chuckle about who runs the fastest. “It’s the one of us who has the longest time span since the birth of their youngest child,” they like to say.

Running is an important and continuous thread in their lives. It’s not often they manage a run together these days. Sarah lives in Wellington, north of Fort Collins, and Amy lives about 25 miles south in Loveland. What with school and activity schedules, getting together for a run is not easy. Yet, every morning they both go out alone. “Usually between three and five miles,” Amy says.

“And sometimes it’s as long as nine or 13,” Sarah chimes in. “It doesn’t matter. We just know we need to run.”

There was a time when Sarah’s husband Tom questioned why she needed to go for a run when there were so many other things they could be doing. “But then he got it,” she said. “He and Amy’s husband, Todd, understand that running is something we need to do.”

At CSU, Amy studied art education, and Sarah followed in her father’s footsteps and studied animal science. Together they entered marathons in Minnesota and Michigan in hopes of qualifying for the Olympic Trials and missing each time by a couple of minutes.

By the time she was through college, Amy had been dating Todd for four years. Sarah met Tom near the end of her college career. The twins married within six months of each other in 1998 and 1999.

No. They’re not competitive—especially not with each other, and not when it comes to having babies either. Yet, from all appearances, it looks like they are keeping pace with each other. Now, at age 45 and with children ranging in age from 4 to 18, neither of them will say for sure that their family is complete. “It is harder now,” Amy said, sharing her sadness about the baby she lost last year.

Amy was teaching art in an elementary school when she had her first child. “It was so hard for me to leave her to go to work,” she said. She finally quit her job and made the decision to home school her children. The two older ones attend high school now but she continues to home school the younger three, now 12, 10, and 6.

“I’m a pretty flexible home-school teacher,” she says. “I do it because I love teaching and because I want to be with my children. We try to complete school work early in the day so that we have time to play. We like to study until noon and then go fishing.”

The “big kids,” Jackie and Lawson, attend Loveland High School, where Jackie runs cross-country and Lawson plays football, wrestles and runs as well. When Berger dug up a photo of Amy displaying her state championship trophy and sent it to her recently, her children were surprised. “Mom, we didn’t know you were state champion!”

Amy finds time to pursue a thriving pottery business, producing many awards for running races. Her work is in Stonehenge Gallery in Georgetown and at the Cupboard in Fort Collins.

Sarah returned to school to earn a master’s degree and spent two years teaching technology education at Rocky Mountain High School in Fort Collins. “I haven’t used my animal science degree but for many years I hoped to go to vet school. That’s probably not going to happen now.”

Her daughter Amber and son Dean attend Poudre High School, her alma mater, and have been drawn to cross-country. Dean also wrestles and Amber plays basketball.

Sarah and Amy’s children see each other often enough that they feel more like siblings than cousins. From the time they first had children, the twins have been sharing child care with each other. As busy as they are, they still find time to talk to each other by phone “at least four times a day,” Amy says.

“Sometimes more often if something funny happens,” Sarah adds.

As for the Mountain Avenue Mile, 2018, they came in nine seconds apart, four feet with a single focus.

They promise to return in 2019 to run together, pushing each other as hard as they can. Their times won’t matter to them. The fact that they are running together is what will be important.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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