It was a miserable experience.
Amelia Sawyers Holt — she was just Amelia Sawyers at the time — was living away from home for the first time, at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte — under the pressure of a demanding college workload, and certainly not wanting to engage in some of the more unsavory stress-release methods college students are infamous for.
So she put on a pair of shoes, went outside and decided she was going to run a mile.
Except she couldn’t even finish the effort.
“I had to walk-run,” she said, explaining she’d run a bit until her body couldn’t go any longer, then slow to a walk until she was rested enough to try another run.
“Like I said, it was miserable.”
So naturally, a few nights later she was back out, doing it again.
“It was miserable, but I wanted to try again, to see if I could make it easier, see if I could make it longer. It seemed like the healthier alternative to what other college kids were doing.”
Armed with that simple bit of wisdom, combined with a competitive fire born in her childhood and teen years, Sawyers Holt was off, running whatever roadways and courses she could find.
“I signed up for a 5K shortly after,” she said recently, a race that covers a distance of 3.1 miles. While 5Ks are popular foot races for the casual runner, awards for those winning such events, or taking top spots in age group competitions within the larger overall race, are usually reserved for individuals with years of running experience, often born on high school track teams or cross country squads.
Sawyers Holt announced her entry into the world of running by shattering that standard.
“The competitor in me wanted to win,” she says. “And I did. I won my first 5K in my age group, and from that moment on I was hooked.”
Over the intervening years, Sawyers Holt’s life has taken many turns. She graduated from college in 2012 with a bachelor’s degree in sociology and gerontology. She married Devin Holt, a childhood friend she’d known all of her life, they had a daughter together (Edison, who will turn 3 in November); and in January she bought a Mount Airy business, Traxx, an athletic footwear store.
Along the way, she’s kept running.
For several years after her first 5K, she continued running 5ks, occasionally stretching her limits to try out a 6K race, but she was never really interested in pursuing longer distances.
In 2014, she set her sights on the Tobacco Road Half Marathon in Cary.
“It was good, I finished it,” she said of completing the 13.1-mile race. “I was pretty proud of my time, I wanted to finish it in under 2 hours, and I did, I finished in one hour and fifty minutes.”
While she didn’t take top spot, she did manage to snare what’s often referred to as a podium finish, taking third place in her age group, again outrunning many with far more years of experience behind them.
That was the longest she was interested in trying until she hooked up with the Granite City Athletics, a local running group with athletes who do some serious pavement-pounding.
“It wasn’t until I started hanging around with those guys that I started to go after a marathon. They were running that distance and I wanted to keep up.”
Sawyers Holt decided she would take a run at the longer distance — 26.2 miles — until her life changed in a big way.
“I found out I was pregnant,” she said, so she took a bit of time off, but not long after Edison’s birth, she was back at it.
“I wanted to run my first marathon before my daughter’s first birthday,” she said of her motivation at the time.
Again, her competitive fire pushed her to reach that goal — she completed the City of Oaks Marathon in Raleigh on Nov. 3, 2018, less than a month before Edison’s first birthday, finishing the course in 3:42, again placing third in her age group and in the top ten overall for female competitors.
Four months later, in March of 2019, she ran her second marathon in Myrtle Beach, shaving 26 minutes off of her previous time. Not only was the improvement remarkable in such a short time, the finish also qualified her for the granddaddy of all marathons — the 2020 Boston Marathon, held every April.
That is, until this year. Organizers of the race postponed the event until September because of the coronavirus pandemic, then earlier this summer, they cancelled it, though competitors were able to do their own, virtual marathon, anytime between Sept. 7 and Sept. 14. Those who have electronic timing and distance measuring capabilities — available with most any smart watch — are able to turn in their results to the Boston Marathon organizers and receive a certificate of participation, along with any age or other division awards they may have qualified for.
And, they still get to go to Boston in 2021 if the race is held. Sawyers Holt has opted for both, having completed her virtual marathon on Saturday and planning to travel to Boston in the spring, if that race is held.
That Sawyers Holt would do so well in her running should be no surprise to those who know her. As a multi-sport athlete growing up, and a four-year player on the East Surry womens’ basketball team, she loved athletics and the work that goes into building a winning effort.
But it was at home where those first competitive fires were lit.
“I was the third of four,” she says of her siblings, with just five years between the oldest and youngest of the crew. “We’ve always been close.” And competitive.
“We were all in athletics…yeah, it could be competitive. I would say it was especially with my brother and me. He’s the second, I’m the third. Us two, in the middle, we always tried to outdo one another, whether it was playing tag outside or playing sports. Little league, high school. We weren’t playing the same sports, but we still wanted to outdo each other.”
That sense of competitiveness spills over even into their casual lives, she explains. “My brother’s a Carolina fan, I’m a Duke fan,” she says with a laugh, knowing anyone who has grown up in the Tar Heel state understands that may be the fiercest rivalry of all.
Despite that competitiveness, Sawyers Holt speaks of her family in loving terms, and it’s no wonder — they get together quite often.
“We go to church as a family every Sunday, then to my grandmother’s,” she said of Reva Flippin. “She fixes lunch for the whole family.”
By whole family she means not only her siblings and their spouses and children, but for her cousins and their children as well. “We hang out there every Sunday with family. It’s nice.
“It’s a lot of fun, and she loves to cook. Ever since my grandfather passed away, it’s even more special.” Her grandfather, Wesley Flippin, passed in April 2019.
Of course, when competitive siblings, and cousins, get together, it’s hard for a little mostly fun contests not to break out.
“We’ll do cornhole, or kickball, or throw a Frisbee, or some made up game,” she said. “They’re mostly for fun. But, it’s hard for the competitors in the family…not to be competitive.”
In the end, though, the competitiveness gives way to the close family ties.
For Sawyers Holt, some of those family ties have even become part of her running routine. She says some of her most enjoyable runs are when her two sisters and brother join her for a quick jaunt, and when her husband runs along side her — though he generally sticks to the shorter distance.
She also believes her daughter, Edison, may join the running fold when she’s old enough.
“She’s one of my biggest fans,” she says of her little girl. “She’ll see me lay out my running clothes the night before and ask if I’m going running in the morning. When I go out to start, she’ll do the 3,2,1, go countdown. And she will cheer ‘go momma go!’
“She loves to run now. I can see the competitiveness starts early.”
While young Edison may one day hit the road for the competitive races, her mother is happy to keep carrying the mantle for her family, with plans to compete in Boston in the spring, and then to keep finding racing challenges.