Melanie Peters can't quite explain it.
Despite being so bogged down with graduate school at USF St. Petersburg and a part-time job that she can't train as is customary — if not required — for an elite-level marathoner, she has qualified for today's U.S. Olympic trials in Boston. The top three finishers earn a spot on the team that heads to China in August.
"I don't know how that happens," she said with a laugh. "It's an unlikely story."
Especially when you take it a step farther.
Peters was almost exclusively a miler at the University of Miami and, in a little more than a year as a 26.2-miler, has surged into a select group with her winning time of 2 hours, 46 minutes, 45 seconds in the Gasparilla Distance Classic on Feb. 10. Astoundingly, it was her third marathon in less than a month.
"Melanie's pretty special," said Susan Harmeling, the executive director of the Gasparilla Distance Classic Association, which is sponsoring Peters at the trials and defraying some of the travel costs, a first for the organization.
"I really don't see myself as being overly talented," shrugged Peters, a 24-year-old native of Michigan who now lives in St. Petersburg.
She's not feigning modesty or playing a running joke. She knows there's more to her success than ability. She possesses a force of will, unabashedly telling you that if she wants to do something, she will do it; "I'm kind of bullheaded like that."
As a junior at Miami in 2005, she set the school record in the indoor mile (4:46:81), the outdoor 1,500 meters (4:24:26) and the outdoor 5,000 meters (16:44:10) in her first collegiate try at that distance. As a senior, she reached the NCAA cross country championship meet, the first Miami athlete, male or female, to do so.
Although friends encouraged her to transition into triathlons, Peters was intrigued by the challenge of the marathon.
She ran a 2:58:08 in early 2007 in Miami.
In January, Peters was the first woman finisher in the Walt Disney World marathon in 2:47:32, just 32 seconds off the Olympic trials qualifying time. She followed two weeks later with a second consecutive year running the Miami marathon.
Harmeling had been encouraging her to race Gasparilla, which was offering prize money for Florida residents. Unbeknownst to Peters, who registered for the 15K in Gasparilla, Harmeling also submitted her name in the marathon. "Just in case," Harmeling said.
A few days before Gasparilla, Peters decided to run her third marathon in 29 days to have a shot at money she could use to pay tuition. So what if the pesky demands of school and her 20-hour-a-week job at the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission and her race schedule had left her virtually no time to prepare?
As the crowd along Tampa's scenic Bayshore Boulevard cheered her on, she not only won the women's race, but she beat the trials qualifying mark by 15 seconds.
"I've been training and running marathons for quite some time," said Joe Burgasser, the longtime president of the Forerunners Track Club in St. Petersburg and local icon who works with Peters when her schedule permits, "and I've never seen anything like it."
So, what does Peters expect of herself today? She's well aware that she's one of the youngest, greenest marathoners in the field of 161 scheduled to start (as of Saturday morning) and that only eight had slower qualifying times.
"I know my place," she said with a wry smile. "My goal is to get in the top 100, get into a pack, have fun and try to have the best race I can. … I keep saying, 'Four years from now, things will be better.' Hopefully, I'll be training properly. If I train like I should, I'm excited to see what I can do because I know my performance (so far) is nowhere near my capability."
Brian Landman can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3347.