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Marathon victory: Millbrae grad returns to running after giving it up during college
August 06, 2008, 12:00 AM By Emanuel Lee, Daily Journal Staff

Photo courtesy Lauren Gustafson Since re-discovering competitive running, Lauren Gustafson has competed in five marathons -- winning the San Francisco Marathon Sunday.

When Millbrae resident Lauren Gustafson crossed the finish line first in the San Francisco women's full marathon Sunday, she promptly vomited.

Not exactly a picture of grace, but a winner nonetheless. Actually, Gustafson was in fine condition, finishing in a career-best 2 hours, 52 minutes, 33 seconds. Her legs, mind and body felt great. The insides of her stomach didn't. Something had to give.

"I guess my stomach wasn't fine," Gustafson said. "I threw up, but it was quick. I probably ate too much (energy gels during the race). When I crossed the finish line I was surprised with how good I felt. In the past I've been in a lot of pain. I felt fresh this time, and to win this race was pure joy -- there's no other way to describe it."

Gustafson, 25, put on a dominant performance, finishing 15 minutes ahead of second place. Granted, the San Francisco Marathon doesn't hold nearly the same weight or prestige as Boston, New York or Chicago, but Gustafson is the real deal. San Francisco was her fifth full marathon, and she's improved her time with each passing race. Even though she was way ahead of the field, Gustafson didn't take anything for granted. As a marathon runner, she knows better.

"With a marathon you never really know if you're going to win until you hit the tape," she said. "Your legs can cramp up all of a sudden, and in a marathon you have 26 miles for things to go wrong."

Gustafson previously raced in the San Diego, Boston (twice) and New York marathons. In each of those instances she had trouble in the last 10 miles, unable to keep her 6:35-per-mile split. This time she did, a result due to ideal running conditions, and more importantly, the fact that Gustafson is in the best shape of her life.

Gustafson spent the last two and a half years in New York City, where she earned her master's degree from Columbia University's Teachers College and was a member of the Central Park Track Club. She ran competitive meets almost every weekend and under the tutelage of coach Devon Martin became the runner that she is today.

"Devon did a lot for my mental conditioning," said Gustafson, who moved back to Millbrae in May. "She gave me the confidence and opportunity to race and prove my talent. No matter where I finished she would always find a way to point out a positive and set up another opportunity for me to improve."

Stellar prep career abandoned in college

The foundation was always there. Gustafson, a 2000 Mills High graduate, ran varsity cross-country and track all four years. She went to the CIF cross country state meet all four years, finishing second in the Division III meet as a senior. In her junior year she placed seventh in the 1,500-meter run at state track and field championships.

From there she went to Stanford as a non-scholarship athlete and spent a year running for the Cardinal. Unfortunately, injuries and the intensity of the Stanford program was not what the doctor ordered. She quit the program after her freshman year, and graduated in '04.

"I think the program was too intense at the time for my background," she said. "Obviously, they have a great program and I admire every one of those athletes, but my body was not able to take the training. I'm just glad I recognized that before I lost my love for running. At the time though, it was tough, because I didn't know if I was ever going to compete again (at a high level)."

Looking back, the decision to not compete for Stanford turned out to be the best move of her running career. Instead of burning out and having her confidence shot, Gustafson managed to keep running fun, competing in long relay events as part of a running team in the Bay Area. When she got to New York City, she was ready to get back into competitive running, and she's been improving ever since.

Parental inspiration

Gustafson was born to be a runner. When she was in the eighth grade in Hawaii, she set a meet record in the 800 meters -- the first race of her career. Up until that point, dancing was the focal point of her life. But sooner or later, running was going to take over. Gustafson grew up watching her dad, Jim, compete in marathons.

"But I saw the pain in my dad's face when he ran, so at first I thought running wouldn't be a good thing for me to do," she said. "When I got into this I only planned on running one marathon. Somehow I ended up signing for more."

And there's more to come. Long-distance runners usually don't peak until their 30s, and Gustafson is young and determined to improve. Now that she's running in the low 2:50s, running a sub 2:50 time sounds like an enticing goal. The Olympic trial standard is 2:47, and after her victory Sunday Gustafson wonders if that's an attainable goal. One thing is for certain: She's got plenty of prime athletic years to find out.

Gustafson's victory carried plenty of emotion. Three days before the race, her mom, Diana, suffered a heart attack. Diana was rushed to Mills Peninsula Hospital, where her life was saved. At the time Lauren and her fiance, Angelo Matheou, were on the train coming home after spending the day in San Francisco.

"It was a helpless feeling," Gustafson said. "By the time I got to the hospital my mom was already getting an angioplasty. The cardiologist there definitely saved my mom's life. The staff there was great. By Saturday she was doing real well. It definitely made for a roller coaster of a weekend."

Worried about her mom, Gustafson wasn't going to run the race only to be usurped by Diana, who insisted she do so. Throughout the race, when things got tough, Gustafson thought about her mom. As she crossed the finish line, Gustafson experienced every gamut of the emotional spectrum. She was shocked at first, because she had never won a marathon.

Her running career has taken a few detours along the way. Sometimes Gustafson thinks about the day she decided to quit the Stanford program, not knowing if she ever would run competitively again. Gustafson could've quit running altogether. Instead, she worked hard and made sacrifices to set up her victory Sunday, earning her a moment of sweet redemption.

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