September 20, 2021

Geology professor runs 40 miles on 40th birthday to raise money for students

Sarah Brownlee, associate professor in Wayne State's Department of Environmental Science and Geology, raised $4,630 for Run 4 the Rocks, created to celebrate her birthday and benefit undergraduate field trips in environmental science and geology.

As Sarah Brownlee’s 40th trip around the sun approached, she did what anyone would do — run 40 miles in a day to celebrate.

After all, the Wayne State University Department of Environmental Science and Geology associate professor has jumped out of an airplane more than 1,500 times. So, what’s 40 miles on the ground?

“Honestly, the mental part of running is bigger than the physical. Your body can do it, as long as your mind allows it to keep going,” said Brownlee, who came to Wayne State in 2011. “And some of the big differences between jumping out of a plane and running 40 miles — it's a lot slower, there’s more energy expended and more time for thinking.”

To break up the monolithic 40-mile journey through Detroit, Sarah Brownlee enlisted friends, Wayne State students and colleagues to help. Taking on the bulk of the mileage — 10, to be exact — was neighbor-turned- friend and fellow university employee, Ashley Flintoff (left).

But instead of running for herself (and not a mid-life crisis), Brownlee also did what any good professor would do — help their students. On Sept. 10, Brownlee finished her nearly double marathon in seven hours and 52 minutes at an 11:48/mile pace while also raising $4,630 — exceeding her original $4,000 goal — for Run 4 the Rocks, the fun run Brownlee created to celebrate her birthday and benefit the Environmental Science and Geology Field Trip Fund. The fund supports WSU undergraduate field trips in environmental science and geology.

“Field trips are essential educational opportunities that give students hands-on experience and preparation for careers in environmental science and geology,” Brownlee said. “In addition, the trips are once-in-a-lifetime field exposure to places such as Yosemite, Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon that are made possible for all students, regardless of their ability to pay. But the barrier to student participation is often a financial one, so I wanted that to be something I could help eliminate through raising money.”

Brownlee’s 40-mile excursion took place on the streets of Detroit, starting from her home in the Woodbridge neighborhood next to Wayne State’s campus. Forty miles in one day is no easy feat to do alone, either. To break up the monolithic journey, Brownlee enlisted friends, students and colleagues to help. Taking on the bulk of the mileage — 10, to be exact — was neighbor-turned- friend and fellow university employee, Ashley Flintoff.

“If you've met Sarah, you know she really does care about her students,” said Flintoff, director of planning and space management in WSU’s Facilities Planning and Management. “She's always said that when she did field work in undergrad, it was what really helped her get interested in geology. I think the field trips are really important to her, and so that was a natural progression of raising money for this field trip fund.”

Sarah Brownlee (front row center) with her running support crew.

Flintoff’s and Brownlee’s friendship began almost immediately in 2014, upon moving months apart into their respective neighboring Woodbridge homes. The connection cemented over their love of dogs and grew from there into a love for running. At one point, thanks to the pandemic and not much else to do, the duo ran every single day of January 2021.

“That’s when Sarah started thinking about her 40th birthday.” Flintoff said. “She said to me, ‘I’m doing all this stuff and I’m turning 40. I want to do something big.’ I told her, ‘That’s great. I will support you.’”

By the end of the 40 miles, Brownlee had more than Flintoff to help keep her on track — five other adults, two dogs and a 1-year-old in a stroller, to be exact.

“Their help was absolutely critical. Having company was really key in the beginning to keep my spirits up,” Brownlee said. “But around mile 32, I was struggling. And then the last four miles, I had everyone walking with me, which was so important. I knew I wasn’t going to quit, at that point I had come so far, but it was getting really tempting to stop. Having that extra energy helped more than anything.”

And while Brownlee hasn’t yet committed to 45 miles on her 45th birthday, she will soon head back to the city streets on Oct. 16 for another 26.2 miles as she runs the Detroit Free Press Marathon.

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