Leslie Stallings traveled to California last weekend just hoping to finish the grueling Tahoe Triple, three marathons in three days at elevations of more than a mile.
So the 47-year-old single mother of two teenage boys from Oldsmar said she was as surprised as anyone to hear that, after more than 78 miles, she was the overall women's winner.
"I set out just hoping to feel good at the end of each day," Stallings said. "I've got to admit, I was a little shocked."
Stallings, the wellness director for the North Pinellas branch of the YMCA of the Suncoast in Palm Harbor, began running in 1996. She started with 5-kilometer runs, graduated to the 10K and by 1999 had worked her way up to the marathon distance of 26.2 miles.
Stallings doesn't look like your typical runner with long, lean limbs. "I'm 5 feet tall and weigh 98 pounds," she said. "My legs are short, so I have to have a quicker turnover. But because I am so light, there is less impact, so it all balances out."
The Tahoe Triple, three marathons around the lake that separates Nevada from California, typically draws about 100 competitors.
"You run the first race on Friday and then pick up where you left off on Saturday," Stallings said. "You finish up on Sunday and then they combine your three times."
To get ready for this grueling event, Stallings worked her way up to 85 miles a week.
"Most of my runs were early in the morning," she said. "I would always have at least one run a week for midday, when it was hot and humid, to compensate for the altitude at Lake Tahoe."
Like most Florida runners who travel to race, Stallings was most concerned about her no-altitude training program.
"There are some pretty big climbs," she said. "So the only thing I could do to get ready was run 5 miles on the treadmill at a 6 percent grade."
At Mile 17 on the first day, Stallings heard someone yell "third place" as she ran by.
"I had no idea what he was talking about," she said. "Then I caught up to and passed two other women, and I realized he was referring to me."
Stallings hoped to finish in 4½-5 hours. With no mile splits to guide her, she paced herself using a heart rate monitor.
"I tried to keep my heart rate at 150 beats per minute," she said. "I didn't worry about how fast I was going. I figured my pace would be a lot slower because of the altitude."
She was wrong. At the end of the first day, Stallings was the fastest woman, crossing the finish in 3 hours, 53 minutes, 59 seconds. On Day 2 she delivered an even better performance, winning in 3:47:33.
Cruising to top
After two marathons in as many days, Stallings still felt great.
"After each race we would go soak our legs in the 50-degree lake water," she said. "It is a tradition."
The temperature was in the upper 30s in the morning and would climb to the low 70s by midday. "It was a little warm for some people," Stallings said. "But coming from Florida, I thought it was great."
The last day was the toughest. The course was relatively easy until Mile 15, Inspiration Point at Emerald Bay.
"You have to climb 800 feet over about a mile and a half, 2 miles. They call it Hell Hill," she said. "Halfway up you pass a sign that says, 'You are in Purgatory.' "
Stallings had the leader in her sights, but she didn't push it because she knew she still had a time advantage thanks to her first two races. Her second-place time of 3:54:18 in the final event secured her overall top spot for the weekend in a field of 40 women (11:35:50).
Stallings has trained hundreds of runners at the YMCA.
"I always tell people the same thing: find something you are passionate about, then focus and work hard," she said. "It doesn't matter if you are training for a marathon or doing your first 5K, it is all the same."
"I am gearing up for another marathon," she said. "This time I want to do something flat and fast."