An Endurance Couple

We all have friends that astonish us with their amazingness.  MB and I have a freakish number of those friends.  Quite often I find myself saying — “My friend that flew around the world with the Vice President” or “Mark’s colleague that’s currently doing research in Iraq” and so on {seriously nearly unending}.  We have been enormously fortunate to know such fantastic, inspiring people.

One of our favorite couples to name drop are Mara and John.  When MB and I are bragging on these two it normally starts out with “My best friend, who writes novels,” and “Right, he works for the State Department.”  But for all of M and J’s really cool things they have going on — like their ridiculously cute kids — they are an endurance couple.  Mara completed the Marine Corps Marathon in October 2009 — not a year after giving birth to her first child.  She’s a sub 2-hour half marathoner who is currently training for the Tower of Terror 10 Miler to run {with me!!} again not a year after bringing baby number 2 to planet Earth. Her husband of 10 years, John is equally as impressive.  As you’ll read, MB and I often get to start stories about John with “Yeah, our friend that just ran a full Ironman.  In Zurich…”

So grab your coffee and get ready for real motivation, real race stories, and some all around real talk — about the love for your partner and love of the sport.  Or sports…


You both are into distance and endurance racing — how did each of you start?

Mara: I wouldn’t exactly say I’m “into” distance and endurance racing. I ran cross country in high school because I got roped into it with a friend and my sister, Sarah. And my dad was a long-distance runner, so he encouraged it. But I’ve never particularly enjoyed it, and I wouldn’t say I’m very good at it! Now I run to stay in shape. It’s great exercise, and it’s free!
John: When I was a kid my buddies and I got around everywhere on our bikes, and naturally, we challenged each other to races on a more or less daily basis.  I always won, and really without too much effort.  By the time I was 12 or so, it occurred to me that I had some talent and decided that I’d become a bike racer.  My parents in their wisdom decided that if they were going to make an investment in what’s a fairly expensive sport, made a deal with me : go to Miami and landscape for your uncle for the summer, earn $1000, and buy your own bike.  I did just that, and won the first race that I entered (as a 13-year-old in a field of mostly 20 and 30-somethings).

Uhhh — I once won a hot dog eating contest when I was 12.  It was against my brother and I cheated, so yeah we all have so much in common.

What is your favorite race to date and why?

Mara: My favorite race was probably the first half-marathon I did. The only race my dad didn’t finish was the San Diego marathon, and it was always his goal to go back and do it. Unfortunately, by the time he got around to it he knew he couldn’t complete the full, so my sister and I agreed to run the half marathon with him. We didn’t exactly run it “with” him (he finished probably an hour after we did), but we all took a photo together with our medals, and it was just a really fun father-daughter moment.
That’s the CUTEST!  I can’t wait to take a Joseph sister sammie after our race in October!!

John: Without a doubt: the Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run.  AKA the granddaddy of mountain trail 100 milers.  This race can only be described as something between the Boston Marathon {which he’s run, don’t worry}, the world championships, Kona {which he almost recently qualified for}, and Burning Man {uhhh — have you done that John?} all combined into a 24 hour celebration of life, nature, and everything that brought each runner to that point.  Only 380 or so are allowed into the race each year via a lottery and qualification process, and it is an immensely well supported point-to-point from one side of the Sierra Nevada near Lake Tahoe to the other (Squaw Valley to Auburn on old gold miners’ donkey trails).
The atmosphere of this race epitomizes all that is great about ultra-running: community with fellow competitors, solitude in and respect for nature, and a true team effort: one can’t reasonably expect to finish without a major lift from a dedicated crew – in my first attempt, Mara and some incredibly selfless friends not only made my finish and 100-mile PR possible, but really, truly special.  Mara and I SPRINTED the last mile and crossed the finish line together.


The most outdoorsy thing I do is go to the outdoor mall.  But I’m sure running 100 miles on donkey trails is like pretty much the same!

What race, finish or finish time means the most to you and why?

Mara: Am I allowed to use one of John’s races in this answer? {DUH!}
As he mentioned, we ran across the finish line together when he did Western States the first time. It was around midnight, and I had to run from the finish area back to the 98 point-something marker to meet up with John. There are footprints painted on the street for that last mile, and I was following them alone in the dark, fairly certain I was going to get lost or eaten by a coyote. I waited at the aid station for John and when he finally came through, he just kept right on running at a pretty good clip. I could barely keep up with him! He was like a machine. But as he said, you can’t really do a 100-miler without a great support crew, and I felt like the finish kind of belonged to me too, in a way. No, I didn’t come anywhere close to his accomplishment, but I got a taste of what that accomplishment must feel like. And it was pretty cool running across that finish line together.


I am like so glad you didn’t get eaten by a coyote.  Seriously.

John: Also Western States.  I’d run two previous 100 milers (Vermont and Angeles Crest), but this one was something else entirely (and a PR by over 2 hours).  For one, it was nearly “textbook” and I was very well prepared and the final 40 miles were the best 40 miles of my life.  Also, from miles 62-80 and from 80-95, I was paced, respectively, by my closest friends, Mike and Nathan, both endurance nuts in their own respect and both the sort of friends that know you so well that words become unnecessary.

Most significantly for me, my father had passed away six weeks before Western States.  So much of my relationship with him was formed around bike racing and running, and he was very sorely missed here at what felt like the culmination of years of preparation and training.  My longest training runs were all in the immediate days and weeks after we lost my dad.  I’d be 20 miles into a 40-miler and just lose it.  I ran a 10 mile tempo the morning of his funeral in an attempt to organize my thoughts for his eulogy.  My crew wore shirts commemorating his memory.  One of his veterinary school classmates and close friends was there waiting for me at the finish.


That is literally the most beautiful thing I’ve ever read about running and the connection to family and friends.

Mara, you trained for and ran your FIRST marathon not long after you had your first very awesome son.  What was that experience like?  Do you think you’ll go back to the marathon?

I had decided I would do a marathon after I had my first baby as a get-back-in-shape goal. Looking back, I didn’t REALLY need to commit myself to a marathon. {Because spoiler alert — she was in awesome shape}.   I was fortunate not to get too out of shape after pregnancy. The best part of the training, for me, was the opportunity to get out and train on the weekends with Sarah. During the week, I either ran outside with Jack in the jogging stroller, or, when it got too hot, on the treadmill in the basement during naps. Neither was particularly enjoyable. But we did our long distance training runs on Saturday or Sunday mornings, and it was the only real “grown-up” time I got every week. So even though it meant getting up super early and having to schedule my runs in between nursing or pumping, and it was hot and kind of miserable, it was fun! And of course it was pretty cool to be out there running a marathon with my ten-month-old son “cheering” me on with my husband. Every time I got tired I reminded myself I had recently given birth. Surely I could run a darn marathon. And I did! For me, a marathon was kind of a bucket list item, not something I ever planned to do regularly. I’ll probably do another one some day, but only after the boys are in school and I can really train well and without constant interruptions.


AKA you and I will do a girl trip to run the WDW marathon!

John, I think a lot of people are inspired by your racing and training. Who inspires you?

In terms of sport, I am in awe of the almost out-of-body discipline, and, well, constant rejection of the “easy road” at every opportunity demonstrated by Olympians and professional athletes.  As amateurs we get a taste of this with the natural procrastination (that we eventually overcome) ahead of a hard workout or long run, and I think about the Ryan Halls and Mebs of the world with their 14+ workouts per-week and pre-dawn sessions every time I briefly consider the snooze button in lieu of a brutal 4k in the pool before heading to work.

Also, there’s the quotable Prefontaine: “A lot of people run a race to see who is the fastest.  I run to see who has the most guts, who can punish himself into exhausting pace, an then at the end, punish himself even more.”


That John thinks of himself as an amateur like the rest of us should make you want to run out and be his BFF.  But his slots are full with me and MB and Mara,etc so sorry, not sorry.  JK only sort of.

Mara, what is the one thing that you want Jack and Will to learn from John’s  training and race?

I think the thing I most admire about John’s racing is his discipline. It’s very easy for me to skip a workout or not work as hard as I know I could. John, even if he feels awful or hasn’t slept or has a lot going on at work, never misses a workout. And his training extends far beyond the sport itself – to his diet, his sleep, everything. I just don’t have that motivation or determination. So I hope our boys see that and aspire to it. And of course, I want my children to be healthy and for sports to be a part of their lives.

John, what was your favorite part of your recent race, the Ironman in Zurich?

Completely different than what you might expect: the very beginning.  When I began Ironman training, I was terrified of the swim.  The melee of sprinting into the water with 2000 other nutjobs, my lack of experience and relative speed in the discipline, etc.  Even the smell of chlorine opening the door to the pool where I normally trained invoked some stress response.  In retrospect, though, conquering this portion of the Ironman and truly enjoying and confidently executing the swim portion was a huge victory for me, and I knew it in the moment.

“Your are an IRONMAN!” was however a very close second.

I’m surprised I haven’t been yelling that at you since you got back.  Remind me to make up for that oversight the next time we hang out.

John and Mara — can you describe what the recent training cycle was like for your family — especially since you’re not the typical we’ve lived in the same place for 7 years type of peeps 🙂

Mara: The most recent training cycle was very difficult on me and on us as a family. John did Ironman three months after Will {the littlest great Rutherford}  was born, so the majority of his training occurred at the very end of my pregnancy/ the first few weeks of Will’s life. We also moved during that period, and John returned to Russia {Yeah they lived in Russia for a year, NBD} for two months when Will was 7-weeks-old. So if anyone is wondering if it’s a good idea to commit to a major race during a similar time in their lives – NO! Not a good idea! I always want to be a supportive race-wife, but sometimes family has to come first.

Real talk.

John: In short, deciding to jump into my first Ironman this year was a mistake that I should have seen coming, but didn’t.  I’ve gotten somewhat used to a major race event every summer (now each of the past five summers), and really just didn’t do a good job anticipating how different this year would be with two kids (let alone one or none).  Also and to be completely honest, my dedication to racing and motivation to train is inversely proportional to my level of professional satisfaction, and let’s just say I was super motivated this year.  This was compounded/enabled by being alone in Russia for all of January-February and most of June-July with quite literally nothing else to do with my free time.  The intervening months of March-May were tough, though, and I’d request a do-over.  It’s not possible to do both well and also have a full-time job.  Everyone suffered a bit, and in the end the experience very much highlighted just how selfish an endeavor endurance sports are for the 99% of us who don’t receive a paycheck after crossing the finish line.

Thank you both for being so open and honest.

John and Mara — what’s next?

Mara: For me, I don’t have any races planned beyond the Tower of Terror 10-Miler with you in October! {Y’all, our costumes are going to be SO CUTE!  You just don’t even know}  Yay! I’m super excited for this race. It’s a very modest training goal for five months post-baby, but it’s more about going to Disney World with my bestie and my family and less about racing. My goal now is to get in shape by other means – I’m hoping to join a gym now that John is home and Jack will be in school soon. I’d like to add some yoga or Pilates into my routine (right now I’m just running on the treadmill when I can, about three times a week). And when we get to Peru next year, I really want to start horse-back riding again (the only sport I can say I truly enjoy).

John: First, some family time and relative normalcy.  In terms of racing, I’m not sure, but I’m very conscious that at 35, I have probably 3, maybe 4 more seasons to go before the permanent decline begins.  Sad but true.  I would like another shot at a “fast” 100 miler {me too}, most probably Angeles Crest where my 2010 finish and experience were highlighted by a 20 mile death march from miles 50-70.
Another go at a marathon PR is also in the cards.  And Kona, of course, is now squarely in my sights, but as an age grouper this can wait until well into my 70s :).  I’m also intrigued by Ultraman (a triple Iron-distance race) {I’m sorry, did I just hallucinate that?}.  Living in South America come next May, I’m very excited to check out the scene down there: a 135 miler in Brazil, a few local Peruvian triathlons, and no matter what comes, some epic training in the Andes.

As we all do, John, as we all do.

So — if you are sitting there with your jaw on the desk, pick up that doughnut and schedule some workout time tonight.  You know that Mara and John sure did.

Huge thanks to M and J for answering my ultra probing questions and for being all around fantastic humans and friends.

Do you have any super inspirational friends?  Any questions for M and J?

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