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Runners at NAIA Schools Can Race in a 26.2-mile Championship

April 13, 2011
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April 13, 2011

Story courtesy of Troy Holland, RunningTimes.com

 
On a cool May morning in Marion, Ind., about 50 college runners will shake out their limbs at the starting line of the national championship marathon. Collegiate running is well-known, as are marathons, but “collegiate marathoners” sounds like a contradiction because the NCAA doesn’t sanction the distance in any of its three divisions. Nonetheless, for the past 39 years the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) has held a championship for the marathon as part of its national outdoor track championships in May — often with a 6 a.m. start on the final day of the three-day meet.

While all collegiate runners must find a balance between training, schoolwork, relationships and adequate sleep, those who run the marathon are typically logging more miles, and they’re also often being counted on to run the 5,000m or 10,000, to score for their team during the season, so their marathon training is in addition to training for the shorter distances.

“Practices were often longer for me, meaning less time was available to study,” says Jared Bird, a 2:45 marathoner who ran for Biola University in La Mirada, Calif. “After working out, stretching, doing core, weights, spending time in the ice bath and eating, I only had a few hours left to do the work for 15 units’ worth of classes. I had to basically skim the reading, taking in the major points.”

Runners can qualify for the national championship at any open marathon (men: 2:44 A/2:50 B; women: 3:34/ 3:40) or half marathon (men: 1:14/1:16:40; women: 1:33/1:36) between November and May. Those standards are considerably easier than the standards for the U.S. Olympic trials (at 2:19/1:05 for men, 2:47/1:15 for women). They’re also relatively easier than qualifying standards in other distances for the NAIA national championships, where, for example, men have to run a 10,000m in 32:20.40 and women in 39:25.
 
“They made the standard a minute faster my senior year, but it was still the easiest to qualify for,” says Bird, who qualified for the NAIA marathon in 2008 and 2009. “The marathon is also the only event you can qualify for out of season. With the 5K, you have to qualify during indoor season for indoor nationals then qualify again during the outdoor season for outdoor nationals.”

Running the championship marathon is a unique experience. The field is less than 50 runners each year, with an average finishing time last year of 2:48 for men, 3:30 for women. The men’s record is 2:21:08 set by Jim Cairns of Puget Sound University in 1985, women’s 2:49:14 set in 1992 by Midland Lutheran’s Amber Anderson, though in most years the men’s race goes in the high 2:20s and the women’s right around 3:00. Last year, when the championship was also held in Marion, Ind., Jeff Jackson, a senior at The Master’s College, won the men’s race in 2:31:44, while Wendy O'Lexey, a senior at Black Hills State, was the women’s repeat winner in 2:57:59. These winners not only brought home 10 points for their team but garnered All-American status (given to the top six finishers).

For a young runner not gifted enough in speed to qualify in the 5,000m or 10,000m but willing to put in the miles to run a strong  marathon as well as balance the demands of training for the season and the marathon, the NAIA national championship is a unique opportunity to compete in a national championship and develop as a marathoner.

This year's NAIA marathon will be held during the 2011 NAIA Track and Field Championships May 26-28 at Indiana Wesleyan University in Marion, Ind.