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Catching up (or Trying to) with Lisa Hughey

August 3, 2014
Lisa and her husband Harris at this year Miwok 100k (Photo credit: Glenn Tachiyama)

Lisa and her husband Harris at this year’s Miwok 100k (Photo credit: Glenn Tachiyama)

Running for 24 consecutive hours around a repetitive one mile loop on little more than a nutrition shake and some soup sounds like a barbarous form of torture, but for Lisa Hughey ’98 it’s love.

Since moving to California five years ago, Hughey has become an accomplished ultra-distance runner, traversing twisting, mountainous trails, sometimes 100 miles in length, along the Golden State’s undulating spine. But while at Stony Brook, Lisa was not even a member of the cross country squad. She instead participated in tennis, fencing, and track, specializing in the two mile. One of her clearest memories of her time as a Bear is sprinting up Chapman Parkway for coach Saundra Diehl, remembering it as, “my first introduction to hill workouts!” Her fondest memories were spent with the fencing team and Coach Jim Zingarelli whom she remembers most for his fun personality and love for the art of the sport.

After graduating from the Brook, Lisa attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and, while her rigorous studies took away any opportunity for formal competition, she began to relish running in its purest form. She would take breaks from her studies by running along the Charles River in Cambridge, an activity that quickly evolved into a morning ritual as she’d run five or six miles even throughout the bitter Massachusetts winters. Then, during her junior year at MIT, she and her father decided to train for and run a marathon, testing themselves along the famed streets of the Boston Marathon’s century old course.

She enjoyed her first marathon and ran a few more in the following years, but it was not until meeting her husband five years ago that distance running became a more prominent part of her life. They met while he was pursuing a PhD at Stony Brook University, married, and moved to California where the hilly terrain and accessibility to trails helped make running a central part of their life together. “I’m married to my running partner!” she says with a laugh. “We take turns pacing each other. He’ll pace me for my race, then I’ll pace him for his race.” They even chose their house based on its proximity to a running trail.

Her first ultra-distance race was the Ohlone Wilderness 50k, a point-to-point course from Fremont, CA to Livermore, CA with an elevation gain of 7,800 feet. In a word Lisa described it as, “brutal,” but added that the beautiful terrain and the experience she had running it with her husband kept her coming back for more and it’s a race they continue to run each year. She most recently ran the course in May, finishing 11th overall and 2nd among female competitors in a time of 5:35.50.

You might wonder what you think about while running for that amount of time. It’s what makes ultra-distance running as much a mental battle as a physical one. Lisa uses different strategies to stay focused during long, grueling stretches on the trail. “You find you have a lot to think about while you’re running: salt, calories, pacing, monitoring yourself–there’s a lot to work through. It keeps your thinking off of the pain.” She also tries to simply enjoy the event itself by taking in the gorgeous sights and talking to other competitors during the hiking portions of the courses. She finds that sometimes her mind can be taken completely off of running.

Lisa never needed these strategies more than when she tackled the San Francisco Summer Solstice this past June, a 24 hour race along a 1.061 mile course. She was admittedly anxious about the event, having done most of her racing along mountain trails, but was surprised with how much she enjoyed it. Her coach told her to speed walk for 2-3 minutes after every three miles, a tactic that allowed her to stay in constant motion for the entire 24 hours. She ran the first 80 miles on nothing but a concentrated caloric nutrition shake. Some soup helped her stay warm during the cool and windy night then, as the early morning sun dimmed with the glowing lights of Alcatraz, a Coke for breakfast gave her the shot of energy she needed to finish in 1st place overall, having pounded out an incredible 131.564 miles, four more than her next closest competitor and 31 more than the 2nd fastest woman.

Since November 2010, Lisa has had twelve top 10 overall finishes and has been among the top 3 women seventeen times with eight victories. She is also currently the highest ranked runner in her age group in the US Track & Field Pacific Association. She attributes her success to great preparation, especially when it comes to the 100 mile races. A game plan is needed as she thinks about stashing food along the course, deciding where and when she will need a boost of nutrition. “It’s like survival skills and it’s a fun aspect you don’t have in road running.” But her success comes from a much more fundamental place. She loves to run. “I can’t imagine not running. It’s something I love doing every day.”

Check out more of Lisa’s running results here.

Check out Lisa’s running blog here.

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