Joe Divel’s long road

In the months leading up to 2015’s Fall marathons, RunWashington will follow several local runners as they prepare for their races. We’ll chart their progress as they train their legs, lungs and minds for the challenges they’ll race on race day. Each week, we’ll catch up with our runners and see how they’re doing. This week, it’s Joe Divel of Rockville, Md., who is taking his second shot at the Marine Corps Marathon. Read the first article about Joe Divel here.

Joe Divel. Photo: Dustin Whitlow
Joe Divel. Photo: Dustin Whitlow

Not a lot of people wake up one day and think, for no reason other than they can’t find anything on T.V. that they’re going to spend hundreds of dollars and sacrifice countless weekend morning lie-ins to train for a race that ends about six miles after the average, reasonable human would cry uncle.  There’s usually a reason for a marathon.  Sometimes it’s a new athletic challenge, or a way to mark a milestone.  A celebration or a commemoration.  Many start training with an enthusiasm that quickly wanes, or a fervor that lays them up with burnout or injury.

Joe Divel should be alright.  He’s familiar with the slow payoff, with gradual change.   It’s generally recommended to do a long build-up to a first marathon.  The First Time Marathoners (FTM) program that Divel is an enthusiastic member of just does that – training runs for six months, plenty of time for new and “like-new” runners to ease into the challenge and pursue their goals injury free.

Joe Divel’s journey, however, started a little earlier than that.  Eighteen months ago, to be exact.  October’s Marine Corps Marathon will be the culmination of a goal nearly two years in the making.

When RunWashington caught up with Divel in Rock Creek Park a few weeks ago, he had just completed a 14-mile run.  His coaches say he has been looking forward to this major milestone:  it’s the farthest that he has ever run before.  In fact, he was celebrating the feat at 12 miles until he remembered he had already run a half marathon.

On hilly route on a fairly hot day, Joe comes off the course is sweaty but feeling good. “Fourteen miles was easy,” he said, “the group paces you so you don’t go over.”  He’s a cheerleader for the team approach to marathon training, and continues to absorb the energy of the coaches and his fellow runners, as well as the information conveyed in group meetings and emails.

Divel is hitting his stride, feeling the fruits of his consistent mileage pay off. “It’s been fantastic so far'” he said, “I ran eight miles earlier this week and had my phone with me but didn’t check it until after – ended up at an 11:45 pace the whole time.”

Pace coach Glenda Garcia said Joe has a natural affinity for distance, “he has very good running form – a very relaxed stride…he’s fit to run a long distance”  Originally worried that at 55, be might be too old to do a marathon training program, FTM coaches insisted he was the ideal age.  Garcia enforces this, saying she enjoys coaching people like Divel because “older runners like Joe are a lot more patient.”

Joe Divel has kept meticulous track of his miles.  He’s run 220 miles since he started his training with FTM. But his journey started long before that.  Back in 2014, Divel said “I made a resolution to change and to run a marathon.”

Joe Divel, pounds ago. Submitted.

“I didn’t want to be a slob and waste my life anymore,” Divel said of his New Year’s resolution to lose weight and run a marathon.  At 235 pounds, he didn’t feel ready to get out and run 26.2 miles right then, but he did start making changes.  He doesn’t tout any kind of miracle, instant weight loss program.  He started watching his diet, traded, as he says, “the beer bottle for a water bottle,” got a new elliptical, and started doing small runs.  Just like he does in marathon training, he made slow, steady progress.  18 months later, he’s at 174 pounds.   The 55 year old smiles “I feel a whole lot better.  I feel like I’m 40 years old again.”

Divel doesn’t talk about the dramatic weight loss much – none of his coaches or people in his pace group knew about it until the day he was interviewed, about two months into training.  Like a shy kid eager to share his most recent drawing, he elicits a promise not to laugh before revealing the “before” picture stored on his phone.  The open, warm smile and bright, slightly mischievous eyes are the same, but the lanky, almost angular frame that will emerge a short year and some change later is nonexistent.

Joe recognizes the commitment that his change in lifestyle has taken, and talks about it with excitement, but, like his running, levels it with humility.  He gives the process more credit than his own efforts.  Faith in the plan.

Running at any level rarely gives you instant rewards.  It metes out accomplishments sparingly, it makes you place blind trust in the idea that eventually, the gradual build-up, the slower-than-natural runs, the early mornings and the rigid schedules will add up to something.  Long-term, significant weight loss is a similar challenge.  A few pounds here, a plateau.  Frustration, craving, the knowledge that you will feel better, right now, if you return to the habits you’ve vowed to change is an ongoing challenge.

But Joe Divel has kept up with both – he is described by his coaches and teammates as steady, unflagging, constant. Fellow pace group member Sri Ramachandran “he’s an awesome guy, he’s very regular.  He does his homework, he’s consistent, he doesn’t flag, he doesn’t struggle.” The tortoise whose patience and persistence wins the race.

Divel will say almost nothing about himself without prompting, attributing all his running achievements to the group, but he’s definitely giving them as much as he takes from the training guidance and camaraderie.  The collective energy of the team continues to inspire him “I can’t tell you how much fun it is to run with the group,” Divel said.  He want anyone thinking of taking up marathon running to know, “you can do it on your own but I urge you to do it with a group.”

Perhaps because he’s been preparing for this for so long, he’s not worried about the upcoming marathon. He’s being very careful to follow his coach’s recommendations, from staying hydrated to keeping the pace where it should be.  His plan is to keep showing up and doing what he’s supposed to.  It’s gotten him this far.

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