Marathon training brings Joe Divel’s family together

Sarah and Joe Divel and Laura Schlax pose with their Marine Corps Marathon weekend bibs in 2017. Photo: Courtesy of Joe Divel

Taking up marathon training often means taking time away from the family to get in the miles, the long runs, the workouts. For Joe Divel, it turned into a way to create new bonds with his daughters.

Divel, 59, of Rockville, is in his fourth year with the Montgomery County Road Runners Club First Time Marathoners program and in his second year as a coach.

FTM prepares people to run a marathon — it doesn’t have to be their first — over a six-month period. And it’s more than just running buddies or training plans — Divel referred to the group as a family numerous times.  

Divel said running has made him healthier, has made him a better person and has brought his family closer together. He and his two daughters will be running the Bank of America Chicago Marathon this October.   

“I can’t stress enough how much running has changed my life,” Divel said. “I can’t imagine where I’d be right now without having the FTM family and running.”

The Chicago Marathon will be the first for Joe Divel’s younger daughter, Sarah Divel, 26, and she has been training with the FTM group as part of the next pace group up from the one her dad coaches.

Sarah said she didn’t think she’d ever run a marathon.

“I only started running like two years ago, and that was after seeing my dad and sister running and how great of an impact it had on them,” Sarah said.   

Sarah is a graduate student at Stanford University, but she’s been able to train with the FTM group while home for the summer. Another member of the FTM group just moved to California — only about five miles away from where she’ll be — so they hope to finish the training program together, Sarah said.

“It’s a nice thing to have something in common with him and it’s something that we can bond over,” Sarah said of her dad.  

Laura Schlax, 28, Joe’s older daughter, ran the Marine Corps Marathon last year as her first marathon. Joe also ran, along with Schlax’s husband and Schlax’s brother-in-law and his wife, Schlax said. Sarah was there to watch them.

But like her sister, Schlax, who lives in Houston, didn’t always have marathon aspirations.

“I saw my dad training for the marathon in 2015 and I had just moved to Houston and so I decided, ‘You know what? If my dad can run a marathon, I can run a 5K,'” Schlax said.

Schlax ended up increasing her race distances and decided in 2017 that she wanted to run the Marine Corps Marathon that year. Joe has traveled to Texas to run half marathons with her, and she mentioned how running has been a bonding experience for them.

“I think running has a lot of positive influences on his life, on my life, pretty much on anyone it touches,” Schlax said.

For Joe, the changes have been particularly drastic. After going to the doctor on Jan. 24, 2014, he made a choice to become healthier. He wanted to avoid having to take medication for high blood pressure.

And adopting a healthier lifestyle, his health problems have gone away. He’s lost weight, and his blood pressure and heart rate have decreased, he said. He sleeps well. And alcohol, which he said had become a too-common part of his life, is no longer part of it at all. In January, Joe said, he’ll hit the milestone of five years without a drink. He isn’t on any medicines, either.

“That’s what the gift of running has done for me is it’s given me the knowledge and the willpower and the drive to go ahead and take care of myself and my health,” Joe said. “And by taking care of my health, I’ve become a better person.”

Running also helped him get through a few tough years. His mother died, and then he cared for his older brother with autism and cancer, who died a year and a half later, Joe said. His father-in-law was diagnosed with cancer, as well.  

“Running was a place that helped me deal with all that was going on,” Joe said.

He’d run before when he was younger, but now it’s really a lifestyle for him. In addition to the Chicago Marathon this year, which will be his third marathon, he’s also training for this year’s Marine Corps Marathon, and he said he’s thinking about a couple others, too.

Joe is one of three pace group coaches for FTM’s 12:00/mile pace group. The group meets for Sunday long runs and Wednesday evening track runs. While runners do other weekday runs on their own, FTM members get encouraging emails from FTM director Conroy Zien, Joe said.

Joe enjoys seeing people’s growth and progress both through his job at a large remodeling company, where he’s worked for two decades, and as a running coach.

“Helping them achieve their goal of finishing that marathon gives me more satisfaction than myself completing a marathon,” Joe said.

Glenda Garcia coached Joe and now coaches with him in the FTM group. She and Zien, her husband, both had positive things to say about Joe as a coach, including that he cares about the runners in his group.

Among the other things Garcia said about him is that he’s strong, consistent and a good pacer.  

“We’re just very lucky to have him as a pace group coach and I feel especially fortunate that he’s my co-coach,” Garcia said. “Like I said, he’s really great to work with and so supportive and committed.”

Zien said the program includes about 250 to 300 runners each year, and Garcia said the pace groups range from 9:00 to 13:00 miles.

“The thing about Joe also is he takes the training seriously, but he’s not like a serious person,” Zien said. “He kids around, which I think makes him appealing to other runners.”

That can be a helpful attribute to have for the less-fun parts of training, he said.

While not everyone in the group is training for his or her first marathon, Joe described the newbies as a bit timid.

“It’s just making them feel comfortable the way that the group made me feel comfortable,” Joe said. “When I went to that first meeting I was like, ‘What the heck am I getting myself into?’ And I’ll never forget Conroy standing up there at the orientation meeting and doing his presentation and just putting everybody at ease, that you can do this.”

As a coach and as a dad, Joe is impacting lives through running beyond his own.

Schlax, who’d had it on her bucket list to run a 5K, is now nearing the start line of her second marathon.

“It’s been very nice to have running in my life, and I really credit my dad to making me believe that I could do that,” she said.

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