is nothing about Sarah Barnett to suggest she may be one of the more astonishing athletes in SA. Her running shorts and shoes with the toes cut out to prevent blisters carry some clue. But Barnett is not physically imposing, and her gentle nature certainly carries none of the swagger and ego of a world-ranked sportsperson.
Yet in April, 36-year-old Barnett was in Flushing Meadow, New Jersey, where over 10 days she ran 697 laps of a 1.609km circuit. That’s 1121.7km. It was the best performance by a female runner in the race.
At the start of our chat the softly-spoken Barnett hands me a list of all her runs dating back to 2005. It’s tiring just reading them. A six-day race here, a 10-day race there; 714km in Sweden, 1000km in Greece, 675km in Denmark and 913km in Monaco. And then, of course, there was the 50-day 4000km run from the top of Norway to Turkey – just for fun.
Barnett started running after a recommendation from her meditation teacher. She had no athletic background, even describing herself as lazy, but found once she started she couldn’t stop. The running became an extension of her meditation. It was a way to free the mind and become closer to God. “You are running at 2 or 3 three in the morning and it’s very silent,” she says. “You are basically praying. Either consciously or unconsciously you are talking to somebody. It’s very, very beautiful.”
Barnett says it’s a spiritual rather than religious feeling that takes her through the dark, cold nights and drags her out of a tent after two hours sleep and lets her run again. There is also a simplicity to her life she finds appealing. She lives in a small flat, rarely watches television and has no computer. She has sold her car which means she runs between her jobs as a cleaner. She wakes up each day and meditates before going for a run. At night she goes for another jog with one of Adelaide’s running clubs. “I think there is an element of the hermit in me,” she says with a laugh.
She can see herself continuing to compete well into her 40s but is also aware she needs to settle down at some stage and return to her profession as an occupational therapist. In the meantime there is another eight day race in France to look forward to and the feeling that only running can bring.