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April 7, 2009

Taking it in Stride - A Family-Friendly Affair

By: Jimmy Robertson

Natalie Sherbak

Rebecca Motley remembers the evenings vividly. Usually spent from a day of working and facing a lengthy list of chores at home that simply demand a mother’s full attention, she remembers hopping in her cold car nonetheless, twisting the ignition switch and jostling a stiff gearshift into ‘D.’

She remembers doing this simply to fulfill the wishes of a headstrong teenage daughter – is there really any other kind? – who simply needed a fix for what ultimately had become her addiction.

“From the time she was a kid, she was interested in sports,” Motley said. “But once she made the decision to get into running, she was independent with that. She ran every day. She ran on weekends.

“Sometimes, she didn’t get her run in during the day, so she’d come home at night and it would be dark outside and cold, and she’d want to go for a run. So either my husband or me would get in the car at night and follow her as she ran, just for her safety.

“My husband and I would fight because sometimes she’d want to get up at 5:30 in the morning and go for a run. My husband was for it, and so was she, so she’d usually go. It would be minus-degree temperature outside and she’d go running. She’d do that all winter long.”

Natalie Sherbak hasn’t stopped running ever since. She has run herself into a rather decorated career, first at the prep level and now at the collegiate level, where the 23-year-old holds multiple ACC crowns and All-America status and is literally on her final lap at Tech. But the end simply will mark the beginning of the next race, whatever it’s named and whenever it takes place.

“Oh yeah, I love it,” Sherbak said. “I love it so much. I’m going to do it even after I’m done here.”

Motley certainly understands her daughter’s obsession. She used to be a runner herself, and as a toddler, Sherbak’s older sister, Rachel, ran in middle school.

Looking back, it seems fitting that family got her involved. After all, she has seven sisters, and in a family that large, you’re always running – somewhere.

Which, of course, is fine with Sherbak. For someone with such an overwhelming desire to put one leg and one foot in front of the other as fast as possible, the finish line just doesn’t exist.

Motley insists she wasn’t going for a boy.

“People always ask that,” she said, chuckling. “I’m used to it. I usually have a clever answer.

“It’s probably for the best. I think about it now. What would I have done with a boy?”

Even though she and her first husband, Michael Sherbak, were in the Navy – she as a nurse and he as a regular – they knew they wanted a big family. So they had five daughters, with Natalie being the third.

The Sherbaks ended up divorcing and Rebecca later married Todd Motley, another member of the Navy. They decided they wanted children, too, and together, they added three more – all girls.

The eight sisters (clockwise from the bottom) - Caroline (6 years old), Julia (11), Hannah (19), Natalie (23), Rachel (26), Susan (25), Emma (22) and Abigail (14).[Photo courtesy of the Sherbak’s]

Eight girls in all, ages from 26 years old to 6. Rachel is the oldest, followed by Susan, Natalie, Emma, Hannah, Abigail, Julia and Caroline.

Typical of the Navy life, or any military branch for that matter, the family bounced around. Natalie was born in Jacksonville, but later, the family got transferred to Brunswick, Maine, and then to Virginia Beach, where they currently live. Once they got there, they moved into a four-bedroom house, a veritable palace of hormones. Four bedrooms are typically big enough for most families, but not for this atypical bunch.

“We were fortunate that me and my husband had good jobs and could buy a big house,” said Motley, who ultimately got out of the Navy and became an elementary school teacher. “We had three girls to one bedroom and one of the first things we did was buy office partitions, so that each one of them could have their own private space.

“They all did fine. They all liked being a part of a big family.”

“I’ve lived like three to a room my entire life,” Sherbak said. “It’s a little crazy having a family that big. But it’s fun, too. I have a huge fan club.”

It was Rachel Sherbak who inadvertently fired the starter’s pistol on Natalie’s illustrious career. Rachel ran track in middle school, and Natalie was on hand as her sister broke six minutes in the mile.

“That now sounds really funny, but I thought, ‘Wow, I want to be as good as Rachel,’” Natalie said. “I played soccer before then, and then in high school, I played field hockey during the cross country season and then ran track. But I decided my senior year that I wanted to focus on running and that’s how it became just running.”

In doing so, she switched to maybe the one true sport in this world. After all, there aren’t any timeouts in running. There are no halftimes or substitutions either. If you don’t cross the finish line first, you can’t blame officials or teammates. It’s all on you.
Which may be why she loves it the most. She certainly blistered the competition her senior year at Kellam High School, becoming the Michael Phelps of prep running. She won an unprecedented six state championships, and of course, the sisters were there practically every step of the way.

They were her biggest fans – and critics.

“They’re definitely my biggest fans and they definitely keep me humble,” she said. “I remember once in high school we’d run the 4x400 at the end of the meet and my sisters would come at the end. We’d end up losing because we were not a good 4x400 team, and my sisters were like, ‘We didn’t come to see you lose.’ I’d be like, ‘Yeah, but you didn’t see me win the others.’

“They’re really supportive, though. All of them are my biggest fans.”

Sherbak has an unquenchable passion and it becomes evident when you hear the story of how she celebrated her 21st birthday.
Rather than run from bar to bar and set a breakneck consumption pace, Sherbak made the rather adult decision to celebrate such a milestone by doing what she loves to do – forsaking a long-established tradition among her college peers in the process.

“I ran for 21 miles rather than the whole go out-and-get hammered thing,” she said. “I think my coaches were probably more upset that I did that. But I really like long runs.”

For those who knew of her maturity then, her decision came as no surprise. Deeply religious, this is a young woman who has done missionary work in Mexico and helped build homes in Tennessee as part of community service projects.

Certainly, long runs aren’t the social activity of choice on most people’s 21st birthdays. But she hardly classifies as most people and that she’d rather run a near marathon on her 21st birthday speaks volumes.

Of course, her definition of ‘long’ differs from the average Joe. She routinely goes on 12- to 14-mile runs, often using the time to think and to pray. The common person defines long as five miles and prays, too – prays that he or she makes it without slipping into cardiac arrest.

Natalie Sherbak (behind the Iowa runner) isn’t as tall or long as some of her competitors, but her leg strength and determination more than offset the difference.

“I do get bored sometimes, but for the most part, it’s very therapeutic,” Sherbak said. “I have time to think, and I pray a lot while I’m running. I just think a lot and process more. I pray. I don’t know. I just enjoy running.”

She certainly must because her training regimen borders on insanity. She runs between 50 and 70 miles a week, with the norm being 60 to 70, and she’s “on the higher end.” Three days a week, she and her teammates do two-a-days, with shorter, intense running combined with longer runs. They’ll also mix in pool workouts.

But the overwhelming majority of her workouts consist of feet pounding the ground, a pain-inducing process that starts at the soles of her feet and slowly works its way into her ankles, calves and upward.

Sherbak, though, never lets her body tell her mind what to do. After all, the body would give up.

“You get sore,” she admitted. “But I’m a resilient runner. I can do higher mileage. My bones are strong and I handle the stress on my body pretty well.”

“You wouldn’t think she’s a runner,” Motley said. “Most runners are taller and thin, with long legs. But she’s all muscle. We’re always like, ‘Wow,’ when we watch her run.”

The honors are ‘wow’ worthy, too. She won the distance medley relay at her first ACC indoor championships (2005). Last year, during the outdoor season, she won the 10,000-meter run at the ACC championships.

Then, a few weeks ago, she blew away the competition in the 5,000-meter run at Rector Field House, winning another ACC crown, and she finished second in the 3,000. She has qualified for the NCAA Championships on four occasions (twice in the outdoor 10,000, once in the indoor mile run, and once in cross country). She earned her first All-America honor a month ago when she finished 10th in the mile run at the NCAA’s indoor meet.

But perhaps more stunning than her honors and times is the sheer amount of tread this young woman burns in a year. She goes through two or three pairs of shoes each semester and two pairs during the summer – six or eight during a calendar year.

She runs just about every single day, and said she and her teammates only get a week and a half off during the summer.

And if you’re wondering if those kids ever get tired of the monotony of running, then you’re not alone.

“Any time you take off is a setback to an extent,” she said. “But I do take strategic breaks.

“Some days, I’ll tell coach [Ben Thomas] I need a break or that I need a run where I can go out and run where I want to run, when I want to run and how long I want to run. Because I love it and it’s something I enjoy, those days are a break for me. Then there are other times, too, when I just don’t want to think about running and I’ll take a day off.

“I think if you take strategic breaks, you can avoid burnout. We’re given the option of a day off once a week and I take it maybe once every three weeks.”

Basically, the moral of her story is – when you love something, you never get tired of it.

Natalie Sherbak is striding toward the finish line of her collegiate career, with only a handful of races remaining and only a solitary chance at yet another ACC crown in mid-April when she and her teammates head to Coral Gables, Fla., for the conference’s outdoor track championships.

But the starter’s pistol is cocked and ready for her next race – whenever and wherever that may be.

“I actually don’t know what I’m going to do,” she said. “I’m really praying about it and seeing where the Lord leads me. I’m involved with Athletes in Action on campus and part of me is thinking that I’d like to go into the ministry and work on staff with Athletes in Action, or I’d love to coach.

Natalie Sherbak was all smiles after winning two medals at the ACC Track and Field Indoor Championships held in Blacksburg in March.

I also want to continue to do my own running. I’m trying to see if all the things I’m passionate about really come together into something I can support myself with.”

She already has two willing pupils to mold – her sisters, 11-year-old Julia and 6-year-old Caroline. Thanks to her, both have gotten into running, and after the final event of the ACC’s indoor meet at Rector Field House, Caroline provided a glimpse of the next generation when she got to run a mile on Tech’s indoor track.

“She’s my biggest fan,” Sherbak said. “She’s my best friend.”

Rest assured, though, wherever she goes and whatever she does, Sherbak will have the winds of support from a strong family at her back.

“My kids always say that she is my favorite,” Motley said. “But the funny thing is she is their favorite, too. If you asked any of them who they’d like to hang out with, they’d all say her.”

Regardless of where life takes her, she’ll leave Blacksburg as a champion. But she didn’t become a champion when she crossed the finish line first at all those races.

She became a champion when she started preparing so many years ago.
Just ask her family. They certainly can attest to that.