Becky Wade, a 24-year-old Rice University graduate who'd never raced longer than 10K, pushed past Kenya's Sarah Kiptoo near the 25-mile mark of the California International Marathon in Sacramento on Dec. 8. Wade won in a time of 2:30:41, becoming the fifth-fastest female American marathoner of 2013.
Three of the women ahead of her were 2012 Olympians, but none is under 30. Indeed, only two American women -- two-time Olympian Cathy Schiro O'Brien and Olympic gold medalist Joan Benoit Samuelson -- ran faster marathons before the age of 25 than Wade did that day.
That kind of performance has turned a little-known two-time Conference USA 10,000-meter champion into a rising star. The $12,500 in prize money she won in Sacramento is vital to launching a pro running career for a woman who works four or five hours a day as a legal assistant in Houston, is a volunteer coach at her alma mater, and hasn't signed a shoe contract (although she says she's begun to explore her options).
But the fast marathon debut at a young age isn't the most intriguing thing the 5-foot Dallas native accomplished in 2013.
The fellowship is for college graduates of "unusual promise," the grantors state, for "a year of independent, purposeful exploration and travel ... to enhance their capacity for resourcefulness, imagination, openness, and leadership and to foster their humane and effective participation in the world community."
Besides the quarterly letters, the other specific requirement was attending a Returning Fellows Conference when her year abroad was over.
Wade made running the centerpiece of her fellowship. Her goal was to forge "an informally academic perspective of different runners and different running cultures," she says.
"Everything was totally up to me," she says. "I proposed to go to five countries and I ended up going to 22."
She ran 3,504 miles and wore out 11 pairs of shoes in the 12-month period ending this past July.
"I stayed with runners the whole time, and all sorts of coaches and photographers," she says. "I didn't know any of them." She would send a blizzard of emails and "introduce myself as 'the curious American runner.'"
"A lot of times, I would just Google running groups in, say, Tokyo, and finally I'd get someone who'd be willing to host me or let me train with them. I'd seal the deal and show up," Wade explains.
"My trip just got a little out of control, but in a good way. I would get to one country, make some good friends there, and they would hook me up with their friends in another country."
In 12 months, "I never had to pay for where I was staying, so I was able to spend all my money on tickets and food and necessities."
She ran a 5K through a shopping mall in Sweden. She visited high-altitude training camps at St. Moritz in Switzerland and Falls Creek in Australia. Her route took her through Europe, Ethiopia, Oceania, Japan and back to Europe. "I was chasing summers," says Wade.
Her adventures are chronicled at her Becky Runs Away blog, with ample photography and her own clever artwork.
After meeting triple Olympic gold medalist Peter Snell, now a Texas resident, she hooked up with his old training pals in New Zealand and did the 22-mile Rotorua run that renowned coach Arthur Lydiard used to put his athletes through. She ran Auckland's Queen Street Mile, allegedly the fastest downhill race at that distance in the world, in 4:32, 14 seconds quicker than her track best.
In Ethiopia, Wade found herself at a party at two-time Olympic gold medalist Haile Gebrselassie's house. "I have a few video clips of him dancing," Wade says.
The running culture there was different than what she was used to.
"They run in single-file lines through the forests," she says. "There are walking paths for carts and horses, but we'd never run on them. We'd run on undulating terrain and around trees. There are roots and rocks everywhere, and we're constantly changing pace and changing direction.
"You just have to follow the leader," she continues. "They didn't run with watches. They didn't calculate miles or pace. I learned pretty quickly that however long they said we were going to be running was definitely not accurate. I would ask, 'How long are we going to run today?' And they'd say 30 minutes. An hour and a half later, we'd roll back in."
There were those brushes with greatness, Wade says, "but I did a lot of easy running with recreational runners and got so much out of it. That's when the real conversations about ordinary people and why they're running happened."
In mid-July, "I came home more inspired and more fired up about running than when I left," she says. "And I was so ready to light the world on fire when I got back."
It helped that Wade -- whose litany of college injuries included a torn labrum that was operated on by the same Colorado doctor who fixed Olympic medalist Nick Willis -- had been able to make her own decisions about intensity, tapering and racing. The latter was not frequently emphasized.
"Before that, I had never had one full year of training. Now I've had two and a half," she states. "It was definitely hard not to be racing seriously, without a specific goal on the calendar, but also liberating. It influenced the way that I trained and the way I was able to listen to my body."
Wade began running as a sprinter and hurdler in fifth grade, and continued at Ursuline Academy, an all-girls Catholic high school in Dallas. But when her hurdles coach died, "the other coaches said, 'We have to be honest with you, you're not going to be a great hurdler -- we think you should really try the distances.'"
At Ursuline, her best times were just 11:09 for 3,200 meters and 5:07 for the mile -- good but far from national-class high school times. "I hadn't done very much work on the track. I was just raw and didn't fully understand what it was like to push myself in the distance events," Wade says.
Academic considerations were behind her choice of Rice, as was as her desire to be near her three siblings at the University of Texas. The Wade progeny are two sets of fraternal twins (none of whom look particularly alike) and Wade characterizes the family as "extremely close."
She was a steeplechaser early on at Rice but had her best success later in the 10,000 meters, as she got down to 32:40. Though she hadn't done any steeple races or workouts in 2012, "towards the end of the season, my coach [Jim Bevan] had this idea that the 10K field [for the Olympic trials] was so strong and I didn't have any chance of getting the A-standard or being in the top three. He had this crazy idea that if things go well and you want to do it, you should go for the steeple one time.
"We set up this little home meet at Rice on the very last night of qualifying for the trials," says Wade. "I ran 9:48, so we were like, 'Yeah, let's definitely go for it.'" She ran well in the trials steeplechase semis, but faded to 14th in the final. "I didn't really expect to make the team," she remembers. "I dreamed of making it, but I didn't think I had a good chance."
Back from her fellowship year, still working with Bevan, Wade pondered her first marathon. There were plans for a half-marathon in Houston six weeks before California International, but a storm left the roads slick and Wade talked Bevan "into letting me time trial a half-marathon on the treadmill at 1 percent grade. I ran 1:12:43. That gave me pretty good confidence," she says.
Fortunately, Wade had decided not to make her 26.2-mile debut in her hometown; the Dallas Marathon, scheduled for the same weekend as California International, was canceled due to an ice storm. Wade says she and Bevan "thought the best thing for me would be to be in a new environment where there's no pressure, people don't know who I am or care, and just start a race and have fun."
At Cal International, the favorite was Kiptoo, a 2:26:32 marathoner who had been scheduled to race in Dallas. "I had no idea what she would was going to be doing, but I decided to let her go, just make the race an actual race for me," remembers Wade. After running 15 miles with American Kristen Fryburg-Zaitz, who wound up fifth in 2:37:48, Wade spotted Kiptoo's vulnerability and was able to rein her in.
Wade was not among those surprised by her 2:30:41.
"We thought 2:30 or a little bit faster, depending on how I was able to close in the final bit, was reasonable," Wade says. "Joe Vigil, who was my coach's mentor at Adams State and helped Jim write my workouts, thought that was realistic, if I ran just what I'd done in practice."
Handling the distance proved no problem.
"There was never a moment in the marathon -- like I never hit the wall or approached it at all -- where I thought, 'Oh my gosh, this is brutal, I wish I could stop,'" says Wade. "I'm glad it was a nice effort but not a killer, because now I have good thoughts and good feelings about what the marathon is like, and that will last me to the next one."
She may return in a fall marathon, but Wade's more immediate goals are in the 10,000 on the track.
"I would love to run in the 31s, which is realistic," she believes. "I would have to PR by 40 seconds, but before, I was doing that off of no base. And I think 9:40 or better in the steeplechase. I'll still do marathon-style training, just a little different and with a little bit more speed stuff. It really made me a lot stronger and I enjoyed it so much."
She'll be at Rice, working with Bevan and serving as a volunteer coach.
"My duties are mainly encouragement and moral support," she quips. "I show up to workouts, make them goodie bags when they go to meets, and tell them 'good job' when I see them running."
It's not a major drain on her time; Wade just shows up a little bit before her own workouts and stays a bit later.
She may do easy runs with the Rice team, but "I'm training mainly on my own. My coach bikes alongside me," Wade says.
For once-weekly serious sessions, she's paced by Ted Artz, who ran at the Air Force Academy and is now a Rice graduate student.
"When I graduated from Rice, I was just very unsatisfied because I had had so many interruptions and thought that I was so far away from my potential," Wade says. "To me, it wasn't at all time to stop [running]. I think I have better things in me than I've performed."