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Jill Gaitenby Jill Gaitenby has come a long way as a runner, starting as an occasional jogger while at BC. (Globe File Photo)

Gaitenby is proving to be natural resource

By Jackie MacMullan, Globe Staff, 4/12/2002

There was a time when Jill Gaitenby was no different from the rest of us. When she was a Boston College undergraduate, and the school shut down for Patriots Day, she grabbed a beverage, hung with friends, and watched the Boston Marathon from various points along Commonwealth Avenue.

"I remember saying, `I'd love to do that some day,"' said Gaitenby.

The thought usually passed. Gaitenby had not competed in track and field at Hopkins Academy in Hadley and wasn't doing so at BC. An occasional jogger, she considered running around the Chestnut Hill Reservoir a major accomplishment.

"I was always so happy if I could make it around without stopping," Gaitenby admitted. "And we're talking about 2 miles, tops."

That was in 1985. Gaitenby has since transformed herself into an elite marathoner, the top American female last year in Boston's traditional 26-mile, 385-yard jaunt. Call her a late bloomer if you must, but the 35-year-old Gaitenby will counter that she has not accumulated the wear and tear so many other long-distance runners have by their 30s. The Northampton native, as it turns out, is the marathon version of The Natural.

"From the first time I saw her, I was intrigued by her gait, by her efficiency, and her consistency," said Fernando Braz, head coach of the Merrimack Valley Striders, who helped Gaitenby tap into her long-distance potential. "And that was when she had very little experience running."

Gaitenby took her time deciding to fully embrace the sport. She took up jogging after graduating from BC, but had little time to devote to it, since her job as a kitchen designer for a European cabinet manufacturer absorbed so much of her day. In between debating cherry or oak for such celebrity clients as former Celtics guard Dana Barros, movie producer Mitchell Robbins, and architect Graham Gund, Gaitenby would run 3 miles or so to unwind.

She ran with her good friend Doug Jones, who noted almost immediately how effortless running appeared to be for her. It was 1992, and Jones had an idea: Let's run the Falmouth Road Race.

"My first reaction was, `There's no way I can run 7 miles,"' Gaitenby said. "But we trained a little, and it felt good. I went in figuring I'd finish last, but I did the race in under 50 minutes, and I was among the top 75 women."

Her performance boosted her confidence, and caused her to reminisce about her BC days, when she stood on Commonwealth Avenue and cheered on the world's finest runners. This time Gaitenby had an idea for Jones: Let's run the Boston Marathon.

Jones, Gaitenby, and a couple other friends agreed to train as a team. In between kitchen appointments, Gaitenby carved out about 40 miles of preparation per week.

Gaitenby finished the 1993 Boston Marathon, in tandem with Jones, in 3 hours and 55 minutes. She was shocked to discover she really wasn't all that tired.

"I thought it was the best thing I had done in my whole life," Gaitenby said. "Even better than graduating from college."

Although she loved running with her friends, she suspected if she ran alone, she could shave her time. That fall, she ran solo in the Marine Corps Marathon in Washington and posted a 3:19.

Although running was intoxicating to Gaitenby, she was not prepared to give up her day job. She joined the Boston Running Club, and under the tutelage of Fred Treseler learned about interval training, cross-country running, and 10K races. The marathon -- for the moment -- was put on the back burner.

"Fred was a great mentor," Gaitenby said. "He taught me how to train. He taught me about intervals. He gave me a solid background I draw from all the time."

By the spring of '98, Gaitenby was yearning for longer distances again. She and her friend Molly Tabor hooked up with Braz and the Merrimack Valley Striders. Braz knew immediately he had something special.

"The biggest thing about Jill was she was able to run comfortably during the most uncomfortable stages of competition," Braz said. "She has the trained aerobic system that marathoners need, but she also has the mental aspect of understanding her body and being able to do what's required to be her best."

Under Braz's watchful eye, Gaitenby trained with her eye on the Bay State Marathon, a measuring stick she hoped would put into perspective just how good she was -- or wasn't.

"A couple of days before, Fernando asked me, `What do you think you can run?"' Gaitenby said. "I wasn't sure. He said, `How about targeting 2:50?' I figured out that was about a 6:28-per-mile pace, so I went out and tried it. I couldn't believe how good I felt. I finished at 2:49."

By December 2000, Braz felt Gaitenby was ready to train with elite runners, so he encouraged her to try out for the Discovery USA program. That meant quitting her job, putting her furniture in storage, and moving to San Diego. It also meant running was no longer a lark.

If Gaitenby had any concerns about her complete commitment to running, they were surely eradicated by last year's 14th-place finish in Boston.

"I feel as though I'm a couple minutes faster this year," Gaitenby said. "I want to finish in the top 10. I really believe that's a feasible goal."

Braz said Boston is difficult to handicap because the course is so grueling, but he is certain Gaitenby has not yet reached her pinnacle.

"You have to respect her mental approach," he said.

"She's a big threat. I would fear her -- she's that disciplined."

Who would have guessed the BC coed hanging out on Comm. Ave. would become one of America's top marathon prospects? Forget what we said before. Jill Gaitenby is nothing like us. We only stand on Comm. Ave. and dream of running the Boston Marathon.

Jill Gaitenby is on her way to dreaming about winning it.

This story ran on page F5 of the Boston Globe on 4/12/2002. Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.

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