From her early days at the U.S. Naval Academy, Christine Taranto knew she wanted to be a Marine. Marines were tough and disciplined, the best of the best. The ones she met immediately impressed her. She worked to meet the Corps’ high standards for physical fitness and academic achievement. When she struggled, she doubled down to prove that she wouldn’t hesitate to put in the work. She remembers wanting the Marine evaluators to know, “Look, I’m not gonna give up. I want to do this… I’m not going to give up unless you tell me to.”
Two years earlier, as a sophomore, the two-time Pennsylvania state champion (in cross country and the 3,000) left the Academy’s Division I cross country team. “I just wasn’t really happy running at that level and I realized that the end state is, I’m going to lead Marines and Sailors regardless of what my commissioning source is, so instead of focusing on athletics, let’s focus on passing school, becoming a good officer, and really moving toward the future,” she said.
In her time off, she used her savings to buy a bicycle. “I picked up cycling in the meantime because you’ve got to do something,” she said with a laugh.
She was commissioned as a Marine in 2007 and deployed soon after. Any running she did was, as she put it, “for the enjoyment and a little bit of sanity and to maintain my Marine Corps physical fitness standards.”
She focused on succeeding as a Marine first. Time passed. By 2011, now stationed in North Carolina, she was running every day.
“The running just kind of all came back to me,” she said. “I wasn’t deploying, it wasn’t just 30 minutes in because you wanted to. It was, I’m going to run. I’m going to do this.”
In 2012 she and her roommate decided to run the Marine Corps Marathon in 2012 together.” And though self-trained, her 3:16, in only her second race at that distance, caught the attention of the All-Marine Running Team.
Her coach, Joe Puleo, the author of Running Anatomy and the All-Marine Running Team’s coach until February 2016, saw profound talent when they met. He also recognized her fragility.
“I really just enjoyed running and I wasn’t sure if I wanted to run competitively again,” she said. “At the same time, I also saw it as a unique opportunity and I had a lot of friends on the team.”
Puleo introduced her to his style of “creative coaching,” a program that meets the physical and emotional needs of athletes.
“At the highest levels, running isn’t what it looks like to most people,” he said.
He strives for smarter, holistic training of his athletes, which helped Taranto settle in. She was immediately honest about her fitness outpacing her confidence, which allowed them to communicate openly throughout their time together and begin addressing her mental blocks.
Taranto and Puleo brighten to talk about one another, their mutual admiration readily apparent. “He has been one of the greater gifts of my life,” Taranto said. “He is absolutely a phenomenal coach, knows his athletes, treats us well. He understands that we’re Marines first even though he has no association with the military. At the same time, he’s become a great mentor and friend. I think that if you can find all those things in a coach, you don’t let them go. He’s been absolutely astounding. It’s been phenomenal.”
Building their relationship took time; Taranto did not break through in her training until the Big Sur Marathon in 2015, where she ran 2:59 and placed second. She attributes her success to trusting the process, trusting her training, and trusting her coach.
“I think if you can do all three, then you can expect great outcomes,” she said.
Her outcomes have indeed been great.
“I’m 31 years old and I’m almost as fast as I was at 17,” she said. “I am achieving things I never thought possible.”
With the support of Puleo, the Corps and her teammates, she “found joy in racing that I hadn’t had since high school.”
Later in 2015, her breakthrough year culminated in a PR of 2:53:30 and second-place finish at the Marine Corps Marathon. At that race, her team also won the Armed Forces Marathon Championship, allowing Taranto to celebrate her victory with her entire team. Marine Corps is, of course, near and dear to Taranto’s heart, but the race is also, as she put it, “electrifying.” With lots of spectators, including her fellow Marines, and views of the major monuments, Taranto feels great pride to be representing her country and the Marine Corps.
Her victories mean a lot. It’s hard work to be a Marine and a competitive athlete. Each man and woman has to perform their job duties, to be a Marine first. She had to become hyper-efficient to balance these demands, which she sees as an extension of the Marines’ warrior ethos.
“The support of all the commands I’ve been a part of and the Marine Corps as an institution is something I am truly grateful for,” she said. “We are an intense, focused, and passionate group of people and I truly believe Marines work harder for something they believe in and an institution that supports them as an entire person.”
The Corps enthusiastically supports Taranto; they have twice named her Woman Athlete of the Year, first in 2013 and again in 2015. Each time has been a surprise. She didn’t even know the award existed until her first win. She is honored to be recognized for her efforts and hopes she inspires other runners, women, and Marines. At all times, she aspires to lead by example and represent herself, her team, and the Marine Corps in the best possible light.
“Not only am I a role model as a Marine, I’m a role model as a Marine athlete,” she said. “That’s a really unique opportunity and that’s what I embrace the most. If that’s what people are going to know me for, I’m going to embrace it wholeheartedly and use it as setting the example for other people to aspire and achieve.”
It seems the more she succeeds, the harder she works.
Puleo cannot hide his esteem for her as a leader or a teammate. He is most excited at her athletic potential and plans to spend the next few years making sure her 31-year-old musculoskeletal system keeps up with her incredible cardiovascular abilities.
“She’s like a lung,” he said with a laugh. “She doesn’t really have a ceiling that way. She’s ridiculously capable of aerobic fitness.” She also continues to improve her marathon times on a “vanilla” training plan. “I think in a couple years we’ll break out the big artillery that my advanced athletes use,” he threatens. “I think it would be something pretty special.”
Although Puleo is no longer the team’s coach, he continues to train Taranto and many of her teammates as individuals. Already, he has his eye on Taranto qualifying for the next Olympic Trials. This would require a big push beginning in 2018; yet she is running so well now that he wants to let her ride that out. For her part, Taranto is focused on the People’s Marathon again this fall.
“I’m in it to win it,” she said proudly.
Quickly, her humility and perspective come back.
“At the same time, I realize that I can’t control who shows up and I can’t control anything outside of myself that day. If I can go out and hopefully if the conditions are right, run a PR and run the best race that I can, just hope that it comes out on top. If not, [I’ll] just be really satisfied with the outcome.”
Despite her accomplishments as both, she still hesitates to define herself as only a runner or Marine.
“If I identify as just a Marine, then I’m losing a part of myself, and if I identify as just a runner, I lose another part of myself,” she said. “Both are part of my identity, but they’re not strictly who I am.”
She also competes on the All-Marine Triathlon Team, bakes cupcakes, and reads, all of which keep her grounded. She mentions a book she’s reading about being positively present and practicing radical acceptance, both of which she tries to incorporate into her running and work. Her coach, Joe Puleo, cites her mindset as one of her great strengths, along with her leadership and joyfulness.
“She’s a good woman. She’s a great leader. She’s got really great qualities,” he said.
In the middle of all this, Taranto received her MBA from the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif. Now a captain and logistics analyst, she received orders to Quantico in April of 2016 and moved to Woodbridge. Most people would need to adjust after a cross-country move, but Taranto seems unfazed. Such changes come with the territory. After all, she is a Marine first.
This article originally appeared in the Fall 2016 issue of RunWashington