Running enabled Sheridan Wilbur to see the world. Running allowed her to leave Duke University with not one but two degrees.
The North Smithfield native knows she wouldn’t be where she is today without running.
“Running did open a lot of doors for me,” said Wilbur one day not too long ago when reached by phone.
Runners are a unique breed of athlete. From shaving seconds off the previous time to increasing the weekly mileage, they are perpetually chasing after the proverbial white whale.
With her college running career completed going on seven months, time has been on Wilbur’s side when it comes to reflecting on what a special ride it has been.
No longer is she consumed with how she fared in a meet or worried about what would happen if she missed a day of training. Her final spring season of eligibility was washed away due to the coronavirus pandemic, yet Wilbur spent enough time in the NCAA running circuit to walk away with a strong sense of fulfillment despite the sudden and abrupt crash landing to her Duke athletic career. She ran 16:49 in the 5k at the Penn Relays, 9:48 in the 3k at the Duke Invitational and 21:14 in the 6k at D1 Pre-Nationals for cross country competition during her collegiate tenure.
“Five years running with commitment at a Division I level is an accomplishment,” said Wilbur.
Wilbur was a long-distance runner for the Blue Devils, competing in the 3,000 and 5,000 when it wasn’t cross-country season. She spent her formative years as a figure skater before finding a niche that was partly due to genetics.
John Wilbur – her father – earned high marks as a runner at Woonsocket High and later in college at Bryant, where he set a Bulldog record in the 800-meter run in 1:49.74. Sheridan Wilbur was proud to share that her dad was a second or two away from the 1988 Olympic Trials held in Indianapolis, Indiana.
“I look up to what he accomplished,” said Wilbur. “Growing up, I watched how hard he worked, and still works, waking up at 5 a.m. to run and just knew it would take hard work to get there. I’ve always looked up to that. He was the first person who inspired me. But his accomplishments were not a big conversation in our house. I didn’t even know what he ran in college until I asked more questions in high school.”
Wilbur ran at North Smithfield Middle School as a sixth and eighth grader. Next up was La Salle Academy where she started from the back of the pack before maneuvering her way to a prominent place as a top point getter. There was no differentiating between cross-country or track. With the Rams, Wilbur through hard work and determination became a runner for all three seasons.
She went from running 22:35 in the 5k at JV Cross Country State Championships her freshman year to grabbing the 5k Outdoor R.I. state record in 17:11 as a senior.
“I was actually the worst freshman on the team. My dad was there to guide me when I was about to quit and try out for lacrosse. He didn’t put too much pressure on me to perform and gave me enough space to make running into my own” said Wilbur, a former reporting intern with The Woonsocket Call. “There was no secret about it. I kept working a little bit harder at it and steadily improved. It was through that focus where I fell in love with the process of the sport.”
Over four years, she became one of La Salle’s top runners, winning the state title in the 3,000-meter Indoor and Outdoor State Championships and was a leg on the 4xMile team that won both Indoor and Outdoor National Championships in 2015 and broke the indoor state record in 20:26 seconds.
Wilbur recalls pushing herself in her high school but never got too wrapped up in the race’s outcome. To her, it was about letting the chips fall where they may and seeing if you can improve the next time. Running was about pure enjoyment.
“Because I wasn’t focused on getting places, running actually helped me to get places,” she said.
It helps to catch the eye of an Atlantic Coast Conference program when you earn multiple All-State selections which Wilbur did before graduating from La Salle in 2015.
Running was never part of her long-term vision until she had an injury her junior year, the peak year for recruitment to college coaches. During this injury, she was faced with the choice to rehab and return or walk away. She spent eight months in physical therapy before making a return to the competitive circuit.
“When running was taken away, it made me reconsider my dedication to this sport and how much I wanted it,” she said. “I probably wouldn’t have gone to Duke if it wasn’t for cross-country and track.”
The jump from the R.I. fishbowl to ACC territory wasn’t that daunting as Wilbur cited the primary source as to why she wasn’t overwhelmed upon landing at Duke.
“It wasn’t as hard of a transition to train with women who were faster than me and that’s because of my high school coach, Coach Martin [now, Kelly Raso]. She didn’t allow us to have an ego. All of our performances were team based. It was, ‘Do what you can for the team and the rest will follow,’” said Wilbur. La Salle’s relays such as the 4 x Mile and 4 x 800 were always more important than any individual race.
An illness robbed Wilbur of her freshman indoor season with the Blue Devils, one she was able to recoup down the road after getting redshirted. She learned early on in her college career about the importance of time management – a necessary skill for student-athletes in their seemingly never-ending quest to balance athletics and academics.
Wilbur has lost count on just how many times she took exams in the Hampton Inn or wrote political science essays on buses or during flight layovers.
The good news is that she formed a solid bond with her Duke teammates and that they all looked out for each other academics-wise.
“Traveling was one of the best parts of bonding with my teammates. We all understood the workload expected of us, studying in vans, but found time to goof off, sync up our pre-race jitters before a meet and listen to music,” she said. “It was a constant battle between the priority of running and the priority of school – and being a human being.”
In 2019, Wilbur got to the finish line of her undergraduate degree requirements with two seasons of track eligibility – one indoor, one outdoor – still on the table. Her time as an undergrad included more than hitting the oval and books. She spent one summer living in Cape Town, South Africa where she completed an oral history project through Duke’s community-driven service program.
Her degree in political science in her possession, Wilbur applied to two journalism schools and a master’s program at Duke. Ultimately, she opted to stay in Durham, N.C. and pursue a master’s degree through Duke’s Graduate Liberal Studies program. This way, she could study journalism and creative writing as well as take film and philosophy classes.
“There was something about the versatility of this degree that I was drawn to, without overly specializing in one career. I was able to design my own curriculum and open myself up to so many creative skills, which is empowering,” said Wilbur, named twice to the ACC Academic Honor Roll during her college running career. “I feel lucky to have that opportunity. I know it’s pretty rare.”
Under the conditions of her athletic scholarship, Wilbur needed to fit the 10 courses that were required for her graduate degree into a single year. Last summer, she got a head start on requirements by taking two creative writing classes at the University of Oxford in England.
Again, Wilbur knows the opportunity to study abroad would not have been possible without running.
“I couldn’t imagine being able to travel internationally without Duke. My participation through running helped me get there. I feel endlessly fortunate for that,” she said.
With one graduate course credit in the books, Wilbur broke down her 2019-20 schedule so that each semester would consist of four classes plus her thesis. With no cross-country season, she spent the fall of 2019 gearing up for her final two campaigns on the track circuit.
Wilbur raced two indoor meets before the coronavirus resulted in a major nationwide shutdown across the board. Once it was learned that the 2020 outdoor season had been nixed, she hunkered down and finished her requirements online while remaining Durham.
These days, Wilbur is living in Boston with a few fellow competitive runners out of Rhody, where she’s freelance writing and teaching meditation. Her portfolio – www.sheridanwilbur.com – tells you where she’s been and where she hopes to go in life.
As for running, Wilbur is still running decent mileage on most days, though for the first in a long while, no big races are on the horizon. She’s found new purpose in running and making sure she’s doing it for [her]self.
Down the line, it’s possible she may join a running club or become a fixture on the road-racing circuit.
Now 23, Wilbur is keenly aware that she owes a lot to running.
“I’ve had so many amazing experiences,” she said, knowing full well what has served as the main conduit for the places she’s traveled and what she’s accomplished to date.
Follow Brendan McGair on Twitter @BWMcGair03