As an assistant professor of accounting at Virginia Tech, Michelle Lowry knows numbers. So, let’s start with two statistics to put her running accomplishments into context.
- Less than one percent of women runners have ever finished a marathon faster than three hours.
- Michelle has done it eight times, including three finishes below 2:50.
Michelle was no stranger to competitive running when she decided to run her first marathon at age 30, a few years after the birth of her third child.
She was an alternate on a national championship cross-country team at Brigham Young University, where she also ran a personal record 35:48 10K.
“I wanted a fourth child and my husband wasn’t ready, so I decided I would run a marathon in the fall of 2007,” she recalled.
She didn’t realize it would jumpstart the most intense training and competitive period of her running career – leading her to compete on an international level and chase an Olympic Marathon Trials dream – but only after overcoming a rare autoimmune disease that eventually sent her to a wheelchair.
For her first marathon, Michelle picked Utah’s St. George Marathon which offered a fast and friendly course and gave her nine months to train. She set an initial finish goal of 3:20.
“I lost 20-25 pounds training,” she said. “By the time I toed the line, I knew I was in shape for 3:04 for this downhill course – so I just went for it, trying to break 3 hours.
She finished in 3:00:41, “in a very painful race born of trying to race just a bit faster than your level.”
Her husband, Paul, and her kids, ages 3, 5 and 7, met her at the finish line to celebrate.
“My husband was like, ‘So you can cross the marathon off your list right?’ And I was like, ‘Are you crazy, I need to break 3:00,’” she said.
She ran 2:50 on the same course, a year later, in 2008.
“I did some soul searching after that, and decided to chase 2:46,” the qualifying time needed to compete in the women’s Olympic marathon trials, she said.
The next year she suffered a huge setback – an injury she first believed to be a stress fracture around the SI joint in her spine.
First, she tried to rest the joint by using crutches. “But it hurt even worse, so I went to a wheelchair,” she said.
She tried to keep her fitness with pool running. When that still hurt, she swam with just her arms.
“During these dark months, it would hurt to just turn over in bed, so when sleeping, if I forgot I was injured, I would be painfully reminded. I remember the pain of trying to walk across the room, the ricocheting consequence of a sneeze.”
Doctors eventually determined she was suffering from Ankylosing spondylitis, a rare autoimmune disease.
“Once I was diagnosed, I was able to properly treat my injury. I was on Enbrel, then Humira, expensive injection drugs, for years,” she said.
She slowly returned to training in the fall of 2009, and soon returned to the same elite form.
In 2010, at age 33, she finished second and ran 2:47:08 in the Hartford, CT, marathon – missing her Olympic Trials goal by just 68 seconds.
Over the next three years – a span that included moving the entire family to Hong Kong in 2011 – Michelle ran 2:48, 2:49 and a handful of other sub-3 hour marathons but never faster than her time in Hartford.
She began to cut back on her training and racing in 2013-14 when she returned to school in Hong Kong for her Ph.D.
Now, as a 41-year-old new faculty member in the Pamplin College of Business where her husband is also a professor, Michelle is getting to know the Blacksburg running community.
Last fall, while training for a half-marathon in Richmond, Michelle led several Blacksburg Striders training runs on the Huckleberry Trail and she’s also a regular at the early-morning Blacksburg RunFit workouts at the Virginia Tech Track. She won the women’s masters division at the Blacksburg Classic this month.
While work takes priority over running for Michelle now, she offers this tip for balancing career, fitness and family.
“Run early in the morning and just get it done. Rest when you can and try to spend as much time with your kids as possible because they grow up too fast.”
Hometown: Born in the Bay area, California, now lives in Blacksburg
Family: Husband, Paul; an 18-year-old son at University of Washington; a 16-year-old daughter and 14-year-old son who attend Blacksburg High
Occupation: Assistant professor of accounting at Virginia Tech
What led you to Blacksburg? I graduated with a Ph.D. and I needed a job. Virginia Tech recruited Paul and me.
When and why did you start running? I started running in sixth grade because the most popular girl in school was a runner, and I wanted to be just like her.
Tell us about your time in Hong Kong? I moved to Hong Kong to follow my husband in the summer of 2011. Paul took at position at City University of Hong Kong, which is in Kowloon Tong. At the time we moved, I was chasing the Olympic marathon time trial cut off. I was also one level away from partner at my CPA firm in Utah. It was a huge sacrifice to move, and my first couple of runs there, in the middle of a humid heat wave, were filled with tears as I tried to comprehend how I could possibly train for my final Olympic trial attempt. In the end, I did not make the Olympic trial time, but I gained many precious experiences in Hong Kong. We lived there for seven years and by the end I was the family member who did not want to move back.
What do you miss about Hong Kong? My friends! I was part of an amazing expat running club called the Italia Running Club, wherein I had a strong support network as I navigated the very different running scene there and adapted to expat life. Also I very much miss the food: all types of Asian food from Vietnamese to Nepalese, everything so close. I also miss my kids being able to use the public transport systems; the parental shuttling duties are a bit of a millstone around the neck when you are not used to it.
What do you not miss about Hong Kong? I don’t miss the punishing heat and humidity, the misunderstandings that are inevitable when cultures and expectations clash, and of course I do not miss being a Ph.D. student!
Did you run competitively in college? Yes, I ran at Brigham Young University. I tried out three times before Coach Shane let me on the team, so it was January of my sophomore year. Unfortunately, I graduated in three years so I only was able to run two track seasons and one cross country season. I was never a starter, per se, but I rose to about the top third of the team. I was all dedication with not so much talent. Coach chose me as the alternate at WAC during cross country 1997, that was the first year we got the national championships, and that alternate slot meant I got the championship ring! Very cool souvenir. In my second and final track season, I won the WAC 10K in a humid race in Houston (this was when WAC was 16 teams), but that was partially because the 10K runners who had already qualified for nationals were not racing. Still, out of the next tier of runners, I came in first, which was an awesome way to finish my collegiate experience. I relished running with fast girls and am so grateful that Coach Shane fought for a large, developmental team.
As a masters runner now, how do you balance fitness/family and work? I don’t do this very well! When I was truly competitive, I had to work flex-time. I would do core workouts and stretching during soccer games, stretching in the shower, every opportunity to stretch out. I remember working on a tax return on the treadmill once (I don’t suggest this). I also read academic articles on the elliptical.
Now my work takes priority over my running, I let go of chasing PRs, high mileage (isn’t going to happen), massage, and obsessing about what I could do if I invested more in running. Yet, I can still run early in the morning and I do core workouts in the evening after my brain is fried. I also am lucky to have teens who like to run (and one who is faster than me!) so I can spend time with them and workout at the same time. I think running has helped to keep me “young”, enabling me to keep up with my kids, whether it is playing basketball, jumping on the trampoline or skiing.
Most satisfying running accomplishment? Being ranked No. 1 female athlete in the 5K, 10K, half marathon and marathon (2012-2014 timeframe), training at the Hong Kong Sports Institute with the track team, and representing Hong Kong at the Macau Marathon and at a track race. My Hong Kong running period brought some of my fastest times and some wicked workouts.
Proudest race moment? I think my 1:17:50 half marathon in December 2012 was really awesome, because it came on the heels of a Hong Kong 10K road race wherein I got second to a Kenyan runner (besting my college track time), and then two weeks later I was in Taiwan and this same Kenyan lady was there. I raced bravely, running so fast in the first 10K, then passing her at 12K. She then kicked into gear, and after trading off a couple times, she eventually broke free. Still I ran strong to the end and I was proud of my bravery in racing her.
Who inspires and/or motivates you? I have had several inspiring running buddies and coaches during my years of running. Shout outs to Coaches Patrick Shane and Paul Wright.
Advice for new runners? Clearly separate easy days from hard days and know the purpose of each day’s work out. Read running books. Discuss what you are learning with other runners. Try to learn from those around you who have more experience, ask them questions and try to learn from their mistakes and foibles.
Favorite race? I was sponsored twice to run a 25K race in Italy along lake Iseo called the Sarnico-Lovere race. I really love that region and that race. Almost all of the road race money is in the marathon, but I think races between half marathon and 30K are a real sweet spot for me.
Trails or roads? The analytical road racer in me has to say roads all the way. It allows for control in your workout, more realistic conditions for preparing for race conditions (unless you are a trail racer, granted, but I am not).
Fact few know about you? I have six siblings, none of which are runners. My parents are also not runners. I am an odd duck.