Correction: In an earlier version of this article, the occupation of Alex Piquero was misstated. The Mercury regrets this error.
One Saturday afternoon, after conquering her sixth mile on the treadmill, criminology professor Nicole Piquero considered going home. But she was at the gym watching a college football game, and if she left then, she’d miss the ending.
She couldn’t risk it. Her fingers confidently landed on the start button, and her body adjusted to the pace.
Before Piquero knew it, she had run 10 miles.
“My trainer said, ‘We’re going to sign you up for a half marathon,’ and I thought she was crazy,” Piquero said.
As someone who had been going to the gym for most of her life and working with a trainer since 2011, Piquero was accustomed to running six miles at a time.
She said long-distance running wasn’t something she necessarily hated; it was just something she never considered.
Since that time, Piquero has completed seven marathons. Her best finish came in San Diego last year with a time of 3 hours and 43 minutes.
“I had signed up to do San Diego last year and I couldn’t because I was injured, so I had to go back and redeem myself this year,” Piquero said. “Not only did I redeem myself, but I had my best time.”
When she’s preparing for a marathon, Piquero said she normally runs four times a week, gradually increasing the number of miles as the big day approaches. Because of the Texas heat, Piquero tries to get most of her workouts in early — sometimes leaving the house at 5:30 a.m.
“I have a very understanding spouse who indulges me and understands when I say, ‘No, I can’t go to dinner tonight with our friends because I have to go to bed, since I have to be up really early,’” she said.
For Piquero’s husband, Alex, his wife’s training does not cause challenges for him. He and his wife simply make decisions with her training in mind, he said.
Alex, whose wife is an associate provost and professor of criminology, understands the responsibilities that come along with the career choice.
“When schedules conflict, we find a way around them,” Alex said.
Fortunately, Piquero manages to balance time commitments, waking up early during the week to get in her training before coming into her office to work.
For Piquero, training is the best part. The rigor, planning and setting of goals keep her hooked, she explained. The marathon runner said she appreciates the structure of the training; it contains a degree of malleability while maintaining its level of flow.
“I like to know where I’m going,” Piquero said. “That’s very consistent across the professional and running part of who I am.”
Her dedication to her career and her running feed off one another, Alex explained.
Her husband said watching Piquero train is really inspiring because not everyone gets the chance to witness the sacrifice, dedication and preparation athletes put in before the race. It consists of weeks of training, hydrating, eating well and taking care of one’s body.
“It is much like a star athlete, where some make it look so easy when you see them on TV,” Alex said. “But it is the hours in the gym and weight room that really make the athlete.”
On race day, Piquero wakes up about two hours before the event begins — sometimes even earlier depending on how long it takes to reach the site.
Once there, she familiarizes herself with the area she will be running in and makes sure to carry at least two drinks during the marathon, whether it is Gatorade, water or Powerade. Still, no matter how prepared she is, she said it’s always difficult to begin a race.
“The hardest thing at first was getting out the front door, and even today I’d say the first mile — getting started — is always hardest,” Piquero said.
Marathon running is one of the few athletic activities that possesses a degree of solitude, according to Piquero, who calls it her quiet time.
Before the race begins, the runners use the waiting time to get to know one another. Sometimes, it is a challenge to not get caught up in the anxiety of the race and mentally compete against the other runners, Piquero said.
“It’s hard to say, ‘I’m not racing the person next to me. I’m racing myself,’” Piquero said. “Then it’s just a matter of enjoying the race and being in that moment.”
Once the race has started, Piquero tries her best to listen to her body so she can avoid injuries.
Piquero will allow herself to take walk breaks to change her pace and help her rest up, if necessary. She tries to keep them to a minimum, though, since they affect her time.
“The way I look at it is I’m still moving, I’m still progressing and I’m not going backwards,” she said.
To avoid slipping into a negative mindset, Piquero plays mental games during the marathon. She said she tries to focus on her surroundings, like the beauty of the scenery.
Once she reaches the halfway point of a race, she’ll start counting down, reminding herself that she’s nearly done.
Upon finishing, she always finds the familiar face of her husband, who is standing at the finish line of Piquero’s full marathon races.
After running 26.2 miles during the marathon, Piquero’s usually drained. Before she leaves for her competitions, Piquero sets up an appointment with her chiropractor for the following Monday to undo everything she’s just done and put her body at ease again.
Despite the toll it takes on her, Piquero still revels in the thrill of the races.
“There’s something fun about being completely exhausted at the end,” Piquero said. “It’s giving everything out of the tank and saying, ‘You know what? I did this.’”
For Piquero, reaching one goal pushes her to achieve another — in this case, the next level of the Marathon Maniacs, a group that challenges marathon runners.
She is currently part of the bronze level, which holds the criteria of completing two marathons within a 16-day time frame and three marathons within a 90-day time frame. The next level, silver, requires completing eight marathons in 365 days.
Piquero hopes to earn entry into the Boston Marathon of 2016, which she has qualified for. For the Boston Marathon, qualifying does not guarantee entry, but only allows one the chance to submit for registration, according to the B.A.A website.
She and her husband have high hopes. After all, success breeds success, Alex said.
“There are no ends in sight for her,” Alex said. “I see her getting better, staying healthy, and enjoying the mental and physical rewards that come from her running.”
As of now, Piquero has four more marathons coming up this year. She had planned on completing the Revel Rockies Marathon on July 19, but it ended up getting canceled due to logistical issues.
As a result, Piquero is now trying to fit in another marathon to replace the one she missed. She is looking into three marathons as a possible replacement: the Rock N Roll Denver Marathon, the Portland Marathon or the Kansas City Marathon.
Her long-term goal is to keep running for as long as her body allows her to.
“When I’m stressed out, the best thing I can do is go for a run,” Piquero said. “There’s just something about seeing the rabbits, the birds and the people out there. The sun, the clouds, the breeze that comes — it’s very therapeutic. It’s running.”