You may recognize Mary Creel's byline from Cooking Light's "Best of" and special all-recipe editions. Mary has worked with the magazine since its inception in 1986. Yet some colleagues are barely aware (so modest is she) that Mary is an athlete of extraordinary dedication—the self-effacing, next-door-neighbor kind of athlete who rises at 4 a.m. most days to make time for the thing she loves. At 56, she's logged countless miles, endured hundreds of training sessions, and crossed the finish line of an astounding 49 marathons. On November 7, she'll lace up her sneakers for her 50th race—her first New York City Marathon. It seemed like the perfect occasion to sit down with Mary and get the goods.
BR: Have you always been a runner?
MC: No. When I was growing up, it wasn't cool for a girl to be athletic. P.E. class was about the only physical fitness I remember. I didn't start running until I was 23 years old. I was working as a hospital dietitian when a coworker mentioned she was going to run a lap around a track after work. I decided to tag along. We started running just one or two laps after work each day, eventually working up to 3 miles. Soon, I had dropped a few pounds, and I started looking forward to it.
BR: Tell me about the first marathon you ever ran.
MC: In 1982, I joined a group in Minneapolis that trained first-time marathoners. It was the perfect opportunity to learn from experts, but I got injured halfway through the program. Instead of running, I swam before work and rode a bike every night to keep my fitness level up. When I finally started running again, I worked up to a 15-mile run (most training plans suggest at least 22 miles before a marathon). The team coaches told me to do the race by running for 10 minutes and walking for one. I thought people would laugh at me, but I stuck with it until mile 22, then ran the last 4 miles to the finish line. It took me about 5 hours. Next thing I knew, the group was running another marathon, and I decided to try again, this time running the entire race.
BR: What's the worst injury you've had?
MC: I tripped on a tree root while training for the Chicago Marathon and pulled my hamstring muscle. Lesson learned: Pick up my feet, especially on trail runs!
BR: Did you run the race anyway?
MC: Yes, after three months of no running and physical therapy. I kept up my fitness with swimming and cycling so I was ready for Chicago.
BR: How important is cross-training?
MC: I'd be broken if I didn't cross-train. It's essential to condition your whole body no matter what your sport. I started doing triathlons [swim, bike, run events] about eight years ago. They help diversify my training and get me off my feet and knees a couple days a week.
BR: How do you balance all the training with a full-time job?
MC: Scheduling. I've found that the best time for me to train is before work, so I get up at 4 a.m., and I'm working out by 5:15. It's ideal for summer (especially in the South, where the afternoon heat index can reach 110°).
BR: Wait: How in the world do you manage to get up at 4 a.m.?
MC: One of the things I enjoy most about working out is the social aspect. Most of my friends work out early, and they are my support group.
BR: Can we assume you are a competitive person?
MC: I'm only competitive with myself. Sure, it's great when you place in your age group, but I try to judge myself against my own performance.
BR: You must have superhuman determination then.
MC: I work hard to achieve my goals, which means making personal sacrifices (like not sleeping later!).
BR: Do you set a goal for each race?
MC: My main goal is to be injury-free. When I'm racing for time, I like to incorporate more speed work. Other races, my goal is to enjoy the event. I've "toured" many cities this way—running along the Pacific Coast Highway at Big Sur, Stanley Park in Vancouver, Heartbreak Hill in Boston, and the most memorable, Washington, D.C., six weeks after the 9/11 attacks.
BR: Do you ever get lonely or bored on long solo runs?
MC: I do a lot of my training and racing with friends, but I also enjoy running alone. I don't even listen to music. It's my time to be away from all the noise in the world.
BR: What are your favorite exercise tools? (No iPod, I guess.)
MC: Other than my shoes (Inspire by Mizuno), I wear compression knee socks the day before and after a race to help with circulation. I also use a foam roller to massage my muscles.
BR: You're a registered dietitian. What's your advice about carbo-loading, hydrating, and other nutrition concerns that come with multiple-hour exercise?
MC: You can't train well if you don't fuel well. It's important to take in enough calories and liquid pre- and post-race, and I practice this with each workout. You can't just go out to a 26-mile race and see what happens. I try to be rational and up my carbohydrates in general during the week of an event—instead of downing pasta the night before. I also cut back on alcohol and increase my fluid intake.
BR: Have you ever "bonked" on a run—completely run out of gas?
MC: Boston one year was a killer; the temperature was already in the 80s when we started. At mile 6, I thought, "I've never felt this depleted so early in a run—I don't know if I can do this for another 20 miles." Had a little talk with myself: "Mary, endurance is your strongest asset. You're not a quitter." And I crossed the finish line!
BR: Is there such a thing as a runner's high?
MC: I guess I feel a high after I've crossed the finish line knowing that I didn't leave anything out on the course. I also get a high after an easy run with a friend when the enjoyment was simply catching up on his or her life.
BR: Are you addicted to running?
MC: No. I guess I'm more addicted to what it feels like to be in shape. That's something you don't forget. Being active is a part of my lifestyle, just like brushing my teeth or taking a shower.
BR: How do you get over prerace jitters?
MC: I dedicate a race to someone. It could be a friend who is struggling with a crisis, someone who has been inspirational during my training, or someone who encouraged me to do the race. I look for a piece of memorabilia to give that person so they know they made a difference to me. Sometimes it's my finisher's medal.
BR: What can an "ordinary" person—who exercises a bit but would like to do more—learn from your love of long-distance running?
MC: The key is to discover what you enjoy—you're more likely to stick with it. Then look for ways to challenge yourself. The rewards are worth the effort, and you'll see that you can do more than you thought.
BR: So how long will you keep running marathons?
MC: I want to be doing this when I'm 70. I see people in races who are 15 years older than I am. There is no rule that says you have to stop running at age 56.
WHAT'S YOUR SUCCESS STORY? We want to hear how you blasted past challenges on the road to fitness. E-mail us at letters@CookingLight.com