May 15, 2000
The secret lives of UCSC's marathon runners and triathletes
By Jennifer McNulty
With her success, McGough joined an elite group of high-level athletes among UCSC faculty and staff who get their kicks by running marathons and competing in triathlons, which add distance bicycling and open-water swimming to the running component of the race.
These dedicated individuals orient their work days, families, social lives, and in some cases, even their waking hours, around their training schedules.
McGough had rarely run longer than about seven miles until she began training in December for the marathon. Her friend Barb Lee, who lives in South Lake Tahoe and runs the Wharf-to-Wharf and Bay to Breakers with McGough, signed on for the big birthday celebration and steered McGough toward the Web to find a training program. McGough posted copies of the 18-week schedule at home and at work--and she never once wavered.
"I did every step of it myself," said McGough, joking that her pace is so slow she couldn't find a partner. The hardest part was getting up at 5 a.m. to get the miles in before work, especially in the rain. But she and Lee, another first-time marathoner who also completed the race, cheered each other on via e-mail and telephone calls. Now they plan to celebrate Lee's 50th birthday next year by running the Anchorage marathon in June 2001.
Martin Wollesen, public events manager, began running marathons and competing in triathlons 15 years ago when a fellow swimmer suggested that he'd be good at it.
"I loved it," said Wollesen, now 38. "I realized I could do it and wanted to do more and more of it." Over the years, Wollesen has completed too many triathlons to count, typically finishing in the top 15-20 percent.
"I'm hugely competitive, and at the same time, I have a great need for variety in my life, so I couldn't be just a marathon runner or just a swimmer," he said. "That would be too boring!"
The time commitment is formidable, requiring three to five hours a day from January through October, said Wollesen, who competes in half-Ironman triathlons that include a two-mile open-water swim, a 56-mile bike ride, and a 13-mile run. Fellow triathlete Dan Wirls, associate professor of politics, swims year-round at noon with the master's swim team on campus. The father of two young children, Wirls said finding time for running and bicycling is harder.
"I try to squeeze it in on weekends before the kids get up," he said.
For Wirls, turning 40 this year was good news because it puts him in a new age group. "Being at the top of your age category is no fun," said Wirls, who placed 25th overall in the 1998 Sentinel triathlon, which combines a one-kilometer ocean swim with a 40k bike ride and a 10k run.
Wirls enjoys the competition and finds triathlons uniquely fulfilling.
"You're dying the whole way through it, but when you finish, the feeling is just about as good as it gets," he said. "That lasts for a while."
Wollesen described experiencing a similar thrill after a race. "Before my first triathlon, I was convinced I'd drown in the ocean or crash on my bike," recalled Wollesen. "After I finished, I was elated for weeks."
Ann Lindsey, apprenticeship coordinator at the Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems, has always been athletic, but she only discovered triathlons last year. Since then, she has completed two.
"I love to run, I love to bike, and I like swimming, which I know I should do more of because it's easier on your body than a lot of sports," said Lindsey, 36, who suffered a major knee injury while playing soccer in 1997.
Completing the Sentinel triathlon last year signaled the true end of her recovery from reconstructive knee surgery.
"I'm deathly afraid of the ocean, so it was a big psychological challenge to get out there and swim around that wharf," recalled Lindsey. "Then, a couple of miles from the end of the bike race, I got a flat tire. My spare tube was defective, so it went flat, too. By then, I'd let go of any expectation I had about my time and just wanted to finish. I couldn't believe it when a woman stopped and gave me her spare tube."
Running is a natural fit for Steve Gliessman, professor of environmental studies, too. A sports buff in high school, Gliessman said he wanted to go out for football but was too small. "I would've been squashed," said Gliessman, who turned to track and cross-country running, developing a lifelong love of the sport.
Gliessman, 53, has completed lots of 10k races over the years and ran his first marathon in 1998, easily qualifying for the big Boston race. "I was pretty happy with my finish," he said, then surprised himself by being unable to recall his time precisely. "Out of 16,000 runners, I was around 4,000, I think."
Like McGough, Gliessman said his 50th birthday prompted him to look for a new challenge, but the greatest benefit of his daily hour-long run along West Cliff and into Wilder State Park is that it gives him an opportunity to clear his mind.
"Sometimes I get great ideas, solving a problem or getting ideas for a grant," said Gliessman. "But it really is an important time to just let go of stuff and get centered. It buffers me from the rest of the stressed-out life we're all forced to live these days."
Jennifer Peters, a development assistant in University Relations, has made running a family affair, recently completing her second marathon with her 19-year-old daughter. "She finished six minutes ahead of me, at three hours and 40 minutes, so we both qualified for Boston, but we're not going," said Peters, who was training for Boston after her first marathon but was hit by a car one week before the race and was forced to sit it out.
Endurance racing pushes participants to go beyond what they think they can do, and many athletes find that challenge becomes hard to resist.
Celena Allison, a manager in Staff Human Resources, had been a runner "for ages" before tackling her first marathon in 1998. "It was a dream for a long time, but it never seemed attainable," said Allison.
Inspired in part by running partners and longtime marathoners Pat Wightman Johnson, a travel assistant for the Natural Sciences Business Office, and former Santa Cruz mayor Katherine Beiers, Allison took the plunge and is about to start training for her fourth marathon.
"It makes me feel free," Allison said of running, which she does on her lunch hour and on weekends. "It's a time when I can just be running, like a kid, and it nourishes my soul."
Marathons, she said, are almost a metaphor for life.
"When I accomplished that first goal, I didn't know if I would ever do another marathon," said Allison. "Later that week, though, I was already thinking about my next race. It's a metaphor for other things in my life. I say to myself, 'Wow, I can do this--I've run a marathon!'"
And like so much in life, Allison said, there are lessons to be learned from running marathons.
"It's a discipline, and you really need to train and prepare. It's at least two-thirds mental," said Allison, who has cut back to 80 percent time at work and is now a full-time graduate student in counseling psychology. "Training helps me look at things and break them down into doable pieces. If you go one step at a time, one mile at a time, you reach your goal."
On Allison's current list of goals: cut five minutes off her time, which is now
four hours, so she'll qualify for the Boston marathon in 2002, when the race will
be held on her 46th birthday.