For Godwin high school junior, Nicole Hays, long-distance running is more than a sport, it is a passion in her life. On March 22, Hays and athletes from across the United States competed in a virtual marathon in spite of the pandemic preventing conventional events.
Three hours, 58 minutes, and 14 seconds after eight o’clock in the morning, Hays crossed the finish line. “I was the only one who did the entire 26.2 miles, but [Godwin senior] Abbe Casey’s mom, Kelly Casey, did a half marathon, and my Godwin cross country friends, [senior] Abbe Casey, [sophomore] Molly Jamison, [junior] Caroline Hedrick, [senior] Megan Ward, [junior] Caroline Killius, and [junior] Tatum Vogt each did parts of it with me in a tag-team like way,” said Hays.
Hays’s interest in running had only sparked in her final year of middle school. According to Hays, she initially did not enjoy running, however, made plans to incorporate running into her life after joining the Pocahontas middle school track team.
“For most of my childhood, I refused to run, but in eighth grade, I did track for the first time and started to love the sport,” said Hays.
The next year Hays was excited to continue running in high school. However, Hays’s debut as a high school track athlete was delayed due to an injury. Hays played basketball for West End Warriors and damaged her ankle during a game.
“I planned to do cross country as a freshman in highschool, but I tore all the ligaments in my ankle during an AAU [Amateur Athletic Union] basketball game during the spring of my eighth-grade year, so I was still recovering by the time the XC season started in fall,” said Hays.
By spring, Hays had recovered enough to join the track team. While running during spring track of her freshman year her interest in running grew, and she “became absolutely obsessed and continued to run each season until [she] took this indoor season off to train for the marathon.”
Hays had planned on competing in the Shamrock Beach Marathon in order to reach her goal of completing a marathon before her 18th birthday in November. When news of Shamrock Beach Marathon’s cancelation reached Hays, she was devastated and said “[she] cried for hours.”
“I hadn’t trained just to not run,” said Hays. Determination to run a marathon before her 18th birthday compelled Hays to seek an alternative method.
When the opportunity came to register for the virtual marathon by J&A Racing, the organizer for the Shamrock Marathon, Hays was eager to enter. Hays’s father’s expectation was for her to run a half-marathon to which she exceeded.
When Hays sets her mind on something, her resolve is steadfast. Her parents understand this and show faith in their daughter.
“They know to just go with it and support me,” said Hays.
According to J&A Racing, runners could choose any method of running such as a treadmill or trail as long as they took photos, or videos. One could track their run through an app and the results could be uploaded to J&A Racing’s leaderboard.
Hays had decided on running a trail. With the help of Hays’ mother and Kelly Casey, her route was created.
It would begin at Hays’ home and after 26.2 miles she would end at the same spot. The route was broken into five different sections where her friends would alternate running alongside Hays.
“It was so amazing and perfectly planned. I was actually so fortunate in that Abbe’s mom and my mom orchestrated the whole event, so I didn’t really do any of the planning,” said Hays.
In preparation for the initial marathon, Hays had begun conditioning her body in December by running five days a week and accumulated 455 total miles by race day. She did this by alternating between five, ten, and 20 mile runs throughout the week.
Running a marathon is no easy task and requires ample time and effort. This was a matter of time management for Hays.
On Saturday Hays’ day began at 5:15 in the morning to get ready and drive down to meet the other runners from the Richmond Road Runners Club training team at Lucky Road Run Shop then run around downtown Richmond by 7:30 in the morning after stretching.” During weekdays, Hays would simply run immediately after school right on campus or before school.
On Wednesday her time was further limited by preparation for church meetings.
Hays also had to work through a “slight bout of pneumonia, which cut down [her] milage,” in the early month of her training as well as soreness.
With the support of her parents and her determination, Hays successfully surpassed through the hardships.
“They were there for me every single day within the three months that I was training, and supported me in any way that I needed,” said Hays.
For example, Hay’s mother, a physical therapist, would help alleviate pain from Hays’s legs and feet when in pain.
As the morning of the race quickly approached, Hays grew more and more anxious. Should problems arise, Hays would lose her last chance at achieving her goal.
“I was excited for it, but when it got closer I started to get really nervous. I knew that I had it in me, after doing 455 miles of training, but I was so anxious that I wouldn’t be able to finish or that something would go wrong,” said Hays.
Although Hays would not be running among other runners while thousands cheered, she had all the support she needed. Hays is very humbled and gratified for the encouragement she received on this special occasion.
“I can’t thank everyone enough for everything they did and all of the time that they put into this day, just for me. My parents, brother, grandparents, uncle, cousin, youth minister, and my best friends and their parents were there cheering for me, some of them for hours,” said Hays.
Godwin freshman Grant Hays, contributed in supporting his sister by showing his commitment to her goal and creating inspiration during her long run.
“My brother woke up early for this, so it was extra special to me, and he even went around the neighborhood and wrote encouraging messages in chalk,” said Hays.
Besides the difference in community atmosphere, the terrain would also affect the ability of runners to complete a marathon. For Hays, the alleviation changes of the road was the main difference between Shamrock’s course and her own.
“The Shamrock Marathon would have been easier because it is an extremely flat course, and Short Pump is pretty hilly, but I think mentally it would’ve been harder because I would’ve been running by myself without the support of my cross country teammates,” said Hays.
The conductor behind Hays’ virtual marathon was Abbe Casey’s mother. Casey’s mother personally undertook the responsibility to create Hay’s team, design the course, and supply additional helpers.
“Without Ms. Casey, this whole thing wouldn’t’ve been possible because she organized the entire run, helped gather my cross country friends, and just in general spent so much of her time to make sure everything ran smoothly. She even had her brother take some amazing pictures of us running,” said Hays.
In the final 2.4 miles of the marathon, Hays’s friends joined together alongside her. This helped encourage Hays when she had fatigued the most and needed encouragement.
“Afterwards, at first I couldn’t really believe that I had finished it, and it took a little bit to register with me. Then, I just felt happy, and relieved, and TIRED,” Hays said.
A few surprises occurred during Hays’s virtual marathon. Unknown to Hays, her marathon had caught the attention of The Richmond Times Dispatch who had come to the event to document her run.
“I didn’t even know that the newspaper people were going to be there, so it was a huge surprise, but the guy who interviewed me was really nice,” Hays said. According to Hays, she was astounded by the enormous picture they displayed in the article as well the oddity of seeing herself in the news.
The article also reached some of Hays’s teachers at Godwin who showed their enthusiasm by reaching out to Hays. “Two of my teachers literally emailed me Sunday night right after it came out, when it wasn’t even in print yet,” said Hays.
In addition to a race medal being mailed from J&A Racing, Abbey Casey’s mother had created a special medal to present to Hays at the finish of her race.
Godwin history teacher and retired cross country coach, Jonathan Lauder, “randomly showed up on Copperas and ran with Hays.” Hays said, “it was such a fun surprise because he is one of the teachers and coaches that I look up to the most.”
While it is the goal of some athletes to compete professionally, this is not the case with Hays. Hays is passionate about running simply because she loves running and it brings her joy.
“I’m certainly not fast enough to run in college, or beyond college, but I just run because I love it,” said Hays.
Well aware of her capabilities, Hays already has her next big goal in mind, “to run a marathon in each of the 50 states.”
“I always like to have a goal to work towards,” Hays said.
And with her current goal achieved, she can focus all her energy on the next. Hays understands the necessary resources, yet, is prepared and has already created a rough plan for the future.
“I’ve been obsessed with the idea of running one in each state. I’ve been doing research on some of the best races in each state, and even though it is a big time and financial commitment, I am determined to complete it eventually. Once I go to college, I plan on doing a road trip with some friends and doing a race series in which I would run four to five marathons, each in a different state, in a row.” said Hays.
Hays has also considered training for an Ironman, a triathlon that involves, running, swimming, and biking. However, because of the equipment required, costs, and the fact that swimming does not float her boat, Hays has been deterred from training for this particular race. Hays does plan to, “keep doing races for fun,” and run 5k’s, full marathons, and everything in between. As for the ultramarathon, distances that surpass 26.2 miles, Hays has doubts whether she plans to attempt one.
Plans to finish her high school running career as a senior next year is on her agenda. However, safety concerns due to COVID-19 may prevent athletes from competing.
“All of the races that were supposed to be happening right now were canceled, so currently, a lot of races are being run virtually or being rescheduled,” said Hays.
Although this would be unfortunate for Hays, this leaves the door open for more virtual events to further unite Hays’s community.
“It was so special to see all of the most important people in my life come together to help me complete this goal,” said Hays.
Amidst the issues caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, Hays has found a silver lining and shows that others can too.
“It felt inspiring to know that I was part of something bigger. When all of my friends and family and neighborhood came together, I think it ended up being better and more special to me than the actual race would’ve,” said Hays.