Mike Sandrock earned degrees in biology and business at CU Boulder, but he’d chosen those fields for the wrong reasons, he says; taking another path helped him find meaning in art and life
For Mike Sandrock, getting to Africa in 1986 had come at a price. He’d quit his job, sold all his belongings, walked away from his training in biology and business—just to make it to Cameroon, where he represented the United States in a marathon.
Twenty miles in, however, he hit “the wall,” when a runner’s glycogen—or stored energy—is depleted, when legs become lead. It was bad luck and good fortune.
That episode symbolized his choice to take the road less traveled. Over time, that choice has made a difference to him and thousands of people in developing countries who have benefitted from his philanthropy, which began that day.
On the rocky dirt road, Sandrock, then a 26-year-old runner and recent University of Colorado Boulder graduate, struggled in vain to keep pace. As barefoot African runners bounded past him, he marveled at their grit.
Sandrock’s running partner for the 10 miles before he hit the wall wore only light sandals that cut his ankle. Despite the man’s deficient footwear, the African beat Sandrock by 45 minutes, then stood at the finish line in the withering heat, neither showering nor eating, only waiting.
“He stood and waited because he didn’t want to miss me,” Sandrock recalls. “I was floored, because I was driven by the ego and had to achieve and achieve.”
For the African, “It was about me, not him.”
The African gave a hug to Sandrock, who was so moved that he gave the man his running shoes. When he returned to Boulder, Sandrock—sleeping on a friend’s couch at the time—founded Shoes for Africa, a nonprofit that collected used running shoes, washed them, and shipped them to Africa. In the three decades since, the nonprofit—now called One World Running—has given tens of thousands of shoes to people in developing countries.
Sandrock has made a career as a newspaper journalist, book author and freelance writer. He has also been inducted into the Colorado Running Hall of Fame, alongside such household names as Olympians Frank Shorter and Lorraine Moller.
That background raises obvious questions: Why did he get degrees in biology and business? Answer: He studied what was valuable to others, not himself. How did that training help Sandrock chart his life’s journey? Answer: Mostly, it showed him what he did not want to do.
His real passions were writing, traveling and running. That day in Cameroon cemented his desire to follow his heart. As he notes, the Earth took 4.5 billion years to reach today, and the universe is roughly 14 billion years old.
“So, you’d better take advantage of your time, not spend it doing non-significant things,” he says. “It took me a while to find my path.”
The road to Boulder
Mike Sandrock grew up in Chicago with four siblings and his mother, a single mom who worked as a teacher in Catholic schools. Once a year, she drove the family to Snowmass, Colorado, for vacation.
Sandrock loved Colorado, “and I knew Chicago wasn’t for me.” So, he enrolled in CU Boulder, where he picked a major by asking an advisor to name the hardest course of study on campus. The answer was engineering or molecular, cellular and developmental biology (also known as MCDB).
Sandrock had planned to be a pre-med student, and thought the challenge of the difficult major would please his mom, make her proud. This desire was unconscious, he said, and he’s sure her wish for him to do this was unconscious as well.
Sandrock’s ruminations often return to Joseph Campbell, a literature professor who famously counseled people to “follow your bliss,” which would put them on a path that is "waiting for you and the life you ought to be living.”
Reflecting on this time in his life, Sandrock quotes Carl Jung, who said that until one makes the unconscious conscious, it directs our actions, and we call it fate. Sandrock was about to become conscious.
He graduated from CU Boulder in 1980, earning a bachelor’s in MCDB along with a degree in general studies (humanities) cum laude.
After graduation, he took a job in a laboratory of Marvin Caruthers, the biochemistry professor who co-founded Amgen, the biotech giant.
“It was the most money I ever made, but I didn’t have a passion for it,” Sandrock says.
So he changed course. At the advice of his brother, Sandrock left the lab and began studying for his master’s in business administration, which he earned from CU Boulder in 1984.
Toward the end of his coursework, Sandrock found himself in a class discussion in which fellow business students were each asked what they wanted to do after graduation. His well-dressed cohorts talked about working as financial advisors or in the stock market. Sandrock’s answer: “I want to write and travel.”
Loving learning over the long run
Running became his first ticket to travel, and a CU Boulder humanities professor opened the door to a life in letters.
As a student, Sandrock had competed on the CU track team. Later, he clocked 2 hours and 24 minutes for the marathon, averaging a pace of 5:30 per mile. He hit a personal best of 30:29 (4:55 per mile) for the 10K.
Those times landed him an invitation to run for the United States in Yaounde, Cameroon.
His passion for the humanities flourished under the tutelage of the late Walter Weir, professor of philosophy and director of the CU Honors Program. Sandrock took Weir’s classes for a decade, even after graduation, until Weir’s death in 1991.
“That’s one reason I feel like I need to give back,” Sandrock muses. Besides his nonprofit, he tutors student-athletes at CU Boulder. “I was fortunate enough to be with Wally, a world-class scholar, world-class person with what Boris Pasternak called a ‘talent for life.’”
Sandrock started in journalism as a free-lance sports writer at the Colorado Daily and has spent three decades writing for that paper, the Daily Camera, Runners’ World and other running publications. He has written a book, Running With the Legends, that Booklist described as “among the most fascinating books on runners and running.”
Good writers are avid readers, and that’s long been true of Sandrock. Whether sipping Buddhist mint tea at the Trident Cafe or jogging the Boulder Creek Path, he drops frequent but casual references to a poem from T.S. Eliot, a quote from Joseph Campbell, or line from Shakespeare. He grows especially animated when talk turns to literature.
Sandrock’s ruminations often return to Joseph Campbell, a literature professor who famously counseled people to “follow your bliss,” which would put them on a path that is “waiting for you and the life you ought to be living.”
Sandrock’s bliss led him to a dusty road in Africa, and he says that has made all the difference.
To learn more about One World Running, see its website, or watch the following video, which was created by CU Boulder students and track runners Brianna Schwartz and Ana Holland.