On Duriel Hardy’s first day of medical school, a professor cautioned him and his fellow students that they were embarking on a long, difficult journey.
“This is a marathon,” she said. “It’s not a sprint.”
Now nearing the end of that marathon, in the fifth year of a pediatric neurology fellowship at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, Hardy can relate in more ways than one. He recently started competing in the real marathon — at an elite level.
Hardy, 31, is one of fewer than 200 men participating in the Olympic marathon trials in February. And for those who presume he is unique in finding the time for two such demanding pursuits, head back to the starting line. Hardy will be joined in Atlanta by at least half a dozen medical marathoners with ties to the Philadelphia area, home to both a strong running community and a heavy concentration of hospitals.
Among them: Kayla Lampe, an emergency-room nurse at Bryn Mawr Hospital; Meghan Bishop, a sports medicine surgeon at Rothman Orthopaedic Institute’s New York outposts; and Margaret Vido, a 2019 graduate of Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine now doing an emergency-medicine residency in the Lehigh Valley Health Network. Plus a pair of med-school students: Matt Herzig at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine and Martin Hehir at Thomas Jefferson University’s Kimmel Medical College.
Adding a different flavor of medical expertise is Christine Ramsey, who is not a clinician like the rest but a mental-health epidemiologist at the Crescenz VA Medical Center in Philadelphia. Ramsey, also an associate research professor at Yale University, is 37 and competing in her third Olympic marathon trials.
Then there is Samantha Roecker, 28, a nurse specializing in ear, nose, and throat medicine at Penn’s Perelman Center for Advanced Medicine. The fastest woman among the Philly-area medical marathoners to qualify for Atlanta, she is battling a nagging injury and said she may not compete in the Feb. 29 event. But she already has represented her country in the marathon, clocking a fifth-place 2:32:49 finish in the 2019 Pan American Games.
What in the name of Pheidippides (and Hippocrates) is going on?
The medical marathoners, most of them members of the Philadelphia Runner Track Club, have noticed their common background, of course, but they say it does not really surprise them. Distance running, like medicine, requires intense, sustained dedication toward a payoff that is years in the future, Hardy said.
“It’s not something you practice for a week, and then you’re amazing at it,” the neurologist said. “It’s something where you put in the miles for months and years.”
As both pursuits require a similar mindset, it makes sense that they would attract some of the same people, said Rothman’s Bishop, 34, a native of Blue Bell who started running competitively at age 10 for the Ambler Olympic Club.
“People in the medical profession have a lot of grit to be able to withstand many years of training,” she said.
“It’s maybe the personality types,” said Lehigh Valley’s Vido, 29, who competed in the 3K and 5K as an undergraduate at Penn.
There is precedent for elite runners to have a medical background. One is Sarah Sellers, a nurse anesthetist at Banner-University Medical Center in Tucson, Ariz., who finished second in the 2018 Boston Marathon.
While grit and motivation help, efficient use of time is crucial, as well, with training regimens that can top 100 miles a week.
On a recent Saturday, Herzig, 24, a second-year med student at Penn, had an 11 p.m.-to-7 a.m. emergency medicine shift ahead of him at Penn Presbyterian Medical Center. So he woke at 8 a.m. for a 21-mile run along the Schuylkill River Trail. Then came a nap.
“If you structure your day, it’s doable,” he said.
The medical expertise can come in handy. Although runners are famously obsessed with the condition of their muscles and joints, those with real medical know-how say it can help them sort out which aches and pains are truly significant.
“I can calm down the paranoia if something is really wrong,” Penn’s Roecker said. “I can bounce ideas off of people.”
Ditto for Hardy, who felt a sharp pain in his upper leg in early 2019 and was pretty sure the problem was in a bone, not muscle. He took a week off training, to no avail, and sure enough an MRI revealed a stress fracture in his pelvis.
Hardy ran track at West Chester East High School and at Brown University, and later ran half-marathons, but had never competed in a full marathon. As he recovered from the stress fracture, with the 2020 Olympics on the horizon, beginning at the end of July, he figured it was time to make the leap.
He spent eight weeks with low-impact exercise such as aqua-jogging, then began the quest in earnest, tucking in runs before dawn, at night, and sometimes on a treadmill at lunch. Fitting in the training was especially tough when he was on an inpatient rotation, working 80 hours a week.
It paid off in December at the California International Marathon in Sacramento, when Hardy blazed through the 26.2-mile course in 2 hours, 18 minutes and 21 seconds — a 5:17-mile pace in his first attempt at the event.
Hehir, 27, the Jefferson medical student, is even faster, running a 2:13:49 in the same event a year earlier.
To qualify for Atlanta, men must run a certified marathon in 2:19 or less at some point between September 2017 and Jan. 19, 2020. The threshold for women is 2:45; roughly 380 women who have met that benchmark plan to compete in the trials. The top three male and female finishers in the trials get to join the U.S. team in Tokyo.
It will be a stretch for most of the Philly-area medical runners to make the top three, yet Hehir has a shot. (The winning time for the men at the 2016 trials was 2:11:12, though making the Olympics is not about the raw time, but snagging a top-three place. Strategy and pacing are important.)
Several said it was a thrill just to be on the national stage.
Lampe, the Bryn Mawr nurse, who ran on the cross-country and track teams at Bishop Shanahan High School in Downingtown before competing at the University of South Carolina, always had her eye on the marathon.
She ran her first in 2018, at the Philadelphia Marathon, unsure whether she could break three hours. She did. Then came a marathon in Los Angeles, where she missed the Olympic trials cutoff by an agonizing 19 seconds.
She vowed to try again, and in December, she ran in the California International — a race that attracts lots of would-be qualifiers due to its fast course and efficient management. The result: a 2:41:55, beating the cutoff by more than three minutes. On to Atlanta!
“It’s a lifetime goal,” she said.