Local Talent: Laura Nelson

When 34-year-old Laura Nelson of Bend crossed the finish line of the Christmas Marathon in Olympia, Washington on December 19, she completed one of the most remarkable short-term strings of women's marathoning. Consider these efforts:

Portland Marathon, October 3, 2:52:18

Philadelphia Marathon, November 21, 2:51:05 (her personal best)

California International Marathon, December 5, 2:52:17

Christmas Marathon, 2:52:55

"I was really packing them in," she explains, "because I was trying to qualify for the U.S. Women's Marathon Trials."

Unfortunately, she never ran the sub-2:50 that was necessary to enter the Trials. As a result, these accomplishments dimmed in her mind because she'd failed in that aim.

She did make one more effort, in early January at the Houston Marathon.

Probably worn down by her efforts during the previous three months, she could manage "only" 3:06.

But she was seemingly unaware of a much larger accomplishment: at Olympia, in the last American marathon in the last year of the 20th Century, she became - almost certainly - the first woman to win a mixed marathon outright.

Several longtime observers of the marathon scene cannot recall any other instance of a woman crossing the finish line ahead of all the men.

Her relentless 6:30 pace wore down the race's several dozen male competitors one by one. She passed a pair of high school runners at 12 miles to move into second, took the lead at about 24 miles, and cruised home with a cushion of more than two minutes.

To say nothing of finishing nearly 21 minutes ahead of the second place woman.

"I thought he would come back," she says of the last man she passed. "I was actually surprised that I won. I was just a little off at the half marathon [which she passed in 1:25:30], and I just couldn't run negative splits. That was pretty much my last chance to qualify for the Trials. I guess I had some kind of a mind block. I just couldn't quite get to 2:50. But I liked the course, and the weather was great."

If, indeed, she is the first woman to win a marathon, she couldn't have done it in a more appropriate venue. The course was not far from the site of the 1984 U.S. Women's Marathon Trials, which marked the first time that women werer allowed to run the marathon in the Olympics.

Soon after that first Olympic Marathon, Nelson became involved in running.

Born in Winchester, Virginia, she entered Maryland's Hagerstown J.C. without any athletic background and signed up for a jogging class.

"I figured I'd get one credit for taking the class and also lose a little weight," she laughs.

Almost casually, it appears, she joined the school's cross country team.

"They needed an extra person, and were really desperate," she explains. "And it turned out to be a lot of fun for me."

Part of the reason for the fun was the times she quickly turned in. As a freshman, she routinely ran 5K cross country races in 20-22 minutes, then dropped her times the following year into the 19s.

Her running career was temporarily cut short when she gave birth to her daughter. Shortly afterward, a friend talked her into running a race: the JFK 50-miler in the Washington, D.C. area.

"It sounded interesting," she recalls.

But "interesting" turned into something quite different when she got to the starting line.

"It was torture," she recalls. "I didn't lose enough weight, so I weighed 145 pounds. And I'm only 5-foot-4. I finished in 9:42, but I paid dearly for finishing."

She came back in 1989, the following year and shaved an hour and a half off that time.

"It was a little easier," she notes.

She ran the JFK three more times, notching a personal best for the course of 7:08 in 1992.

In the meantime, she'd begun running marathons. Her first effort came in 1990 at Chambersburg, Pennsylvania's Great Valley Marathon, where she clocked 3:17.

"In 1993, I decided to take marathons seriously," she says. By then she was already routinely doing 100-mile weeks. That hefty total was achieved with the aid of a weekly long run of 25-30 miles.

When she dipped under 3:00 for the first time later that year, the thought of trying to qualify for the 1996 Women's Trials entered her mind.

Unfortunately, the story then was much the same as it was last year: "I had a whole bunch of near misses in the next couple of years."

She had at least half a dozen races in the 2:51-2:56 range, including a 2:56 at Boston in 1994.

Not long after the 1996 Trials, she and her family moved to Bend, attracted by the clean air, the good weather and the scenery. Of particular interest to a serious runner was the network of trails in the surrounding hills.

She brought her running work ethic with her. Currently finishing up her off-season, in which she runs "only" 60 miles, she'll soon ratchet upward to the 80-90 she customarily runs while training for marathons.

Remarkably, she's stayed injury-free during her entire running career. She credits Bend's soft trails as part of the reason, as well as extensive cross training, primarily biking and weight lifting.

This regimen includes a weekly Saturday run of 12-15 miles in the company of fellow members of the Bend-based Central Oregon Running Club. Apart from an occasional easy run with her husband, a recreational runner, the rest of the time she's on her own. She normally follows that Saturday group run with a Sunday solo effort of 23-24 miles.

"The club members don't like to run that far," she observes.

Another key is a 10-mile tempo run, averaging in the high 6:20s per mile, normally on a track.

"It's boring, but it's also accurate," she says.

For speed work when the weather turns warmer, she'll do a 5K tempo run at just over 6:00 pace. The rest of the time, it's easy runs. And the gym or her bike.

All this training, of course, takes time, an average of about four hours a day.

Where does this zeal and this energy come from?

"I'm not sure," she responds. "Maybe I just have a hard head."

With the disappointment of the Trials behind her, she's looking forward to backing down a little from her emphasis on marathoning and setting some PR's at other distances this year. Her existing standards are impressive enough:

17:35 for 5K

36:40 for 10K

1:20 for the half marathon

After an eight year hiatus, she'd like to go back and do JFK again, this time hoping for a time under seven hours. Also on the docket is a June marathon at Newport, on the Oregon coast.

And she hasn't given up on the Olympic Trials. She'll be 38 in 2004, perhaps a little on the high side. But with her ability to remain injury-free, to continually put in the miles, and her obvious determination, it's not too far-fetched to imagine her on the starting line with the other top U.S. female marathoners.

After all the near misses, she deserves to clock that magical 2:49.

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