At 22 years old, Theresa Nealon is the embodiment of dedication and versatility, traits that manifest themselves in her running. Professionally, she is a commercial real estate broker’s assistant, yet even with this demanding work life, she still finds time to maintain her connection to competitive running by serving as the assistant cross country coach for San Marcos High School in Santa Barbara, California. Her personal running resume points to excellence in both sprint races and cross country.
“In high school, I was one of those fast kids in P.E.,” says Nealon. “The track coach convinced me to come out and race the 200 and 400 meters, and that started my career in sprinting. It was definitely a long cry from anything that required distance training, but after I was recruited to Westmont College to train as an 800-meter runner, everything changed. I was thrust into the foreign concept of “cross country” or what I thought of as the slow death of having to run more than one mile at a time. And yet my college experience was the spark that inspired me to unearth new definitions of what it meant to be a runner, and to never limit myself in what I think I can run, or who I think I can be as a runner. I never became an amazing 5k competitor, my season best was 19:30, but I would say at the end of my time at Westmont I could run 3.1 miles and run it well. And while at the time distance running was not my forte, it opened the door for me to become the fastest 800 meter runner at Westmont, and gave me an appreciation for those longer runs after my collegiate racing days were over.”
The ability to shift gears and run a myriad of distances opened up a new world of running for Nealon. Beyond her talents as a competitor, she has nurtured a sophisticated view on the value of the sport.
“One of the amazing things about running to me is how versatile and adaptable it is as a sport,” she explains. “You can be sweating on a dirt trail going [at a] ten minute pace, or kicking up concrete in a road race clocking in at 5 minute miles. You can be sprinting hill repeats barefoot in wet grass or trudging through mud and endless canyons in an ultra marathon. You can be 13-years old toeing the line of your first race or 80 and crossing the finish line -- and knowing it won’t be your last. It can be something you do alone with headphones, or with your teammates laughing and sharing stories. Young, old, fast, slow, long or short, on the track or on a trail, wherever you go to run, and however you do it, you are a runner.”
The 800 meter sprint is one of the most challenging distances to compete in; it is equal parts fitness, fortitude and strategy. It takes a special athlete to succeed in such a demanding event, yet it remains Nealon’s favorite distance to this day.
“My favorite event will always be the 800 meters,” says Nealon. “For me, it was a perfect combination of my natural speed, in harmony with the newfound strength and endurance of distance training. I felt the strongest and most in control of my body when I would run the 800. But now that I am no longer a full time racing machine, I have found that I truly enjoy going on a run just because I want to and not necessarily because I have to. I am able to be flexible with my training, because I am only accountable to myself and how I am feeling. At the end of the day going on a run is never something that I regret.”
It is no surprise that her perspective on running post-competitively is thoughtful and balanced. She is equally comfortable running with a group as she is opening up her gait on her own.
“I think that there is extreme merit in both running with a group or going on a solo run. The energy of the run with a group is so different than on your own. Running with a group is invigorating, the synchronized slapping of feet, the warm greetings and excited chatter can make 5 miles seem to whisk away in mere minutes. On the other hand, when you get that itch to go pound out the day or want some quality alone time, going on a run with just nature and your two feet can be the best therapy in the world.”
And in case you were wondering what it’s like to get outrun by one of Santa’s elves--or perhaps a mobile Christmas tree--one of the events that Theresa hopes to run in the future is more about holiday cheer than blazing footspeed.
“Every December just outside of Santa Barbara in Port Hueneme there is The Santa to the Sea Half Marathon and 5k,” says Nealon. “It is a great flat, fast course that many of my former teammates have competed in, or just run for fun to dress up in Christmas regalia -- yes, it is a costume run with Santas, Christmas trees and elves in abundance-- I plan on putting together a festive costume, and running in the 5k race with maybe some family and friends to round out the year.”
If you happen to be in the Santa Barbara area, it might be worth signing up for the event, even if your personal time isn’t quite as speedy as the Grinch, Rudolph or Frosty.
Finally, when asked what keeps her motivated in the running community, Nealon explains the inspirations that keep her moving.
“As an assistant coach for the cross country team at San Marcos High School, it has been so inspiring for me to watch the boys and girls as they discover the joy of running and racing. They remind me daily of where I started as a runner, and of the amazing opportunities and experiences that running has provided me. They show me how running is a gift that keeps on giving. Surrounded by such a large community of runners, both in friends and family, creates a culture that is contagiously motivating. My brother, a current Westmont runner, and my boyfriend, a former Westmont runner, really like to keep me on my toes, both literally and metaphorically. Their excitement about running stimulates me, their goals make me want to set my own running goals, and their accomplishments give me hope that I still have much that I can accomplish in the running world.”