Jackie Pirtle-Hall has been running between 70 and 85 miles a week for about a year now. That's an impressive feat for anyone, but Pirtle-Hall, 29, of St. Charles, is also a mother and full-time teacher at McCluer North High School. She's got her sights set on winning the GO! St. Louis Marathon April 15 and setting a course record.
"I've never won a full-marathon, and that's cool," she said. "But this time, I'm really going to do it."
Sheldon Webster, head coach for the girls track team at McCluer North and Pirtle-Hall's mentor, thinks she has a good shot at it. Three weeks ago, Pirtle-Hall ran the Anthem Half-Marathon in Virginia Beach, Va., in 1:15:20, taking third place behind two women from Kenya. In January, she competed in the women's U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials in Houston, finishing in 2:44:22. The GO! St. Louis course record is 2:51:20.
"People are going to have to run very well to beat her," Webster said. "If she could go back and run the trials course (in Houston) right now, she'd run it four minutes faster. The problem with GO! St. Louis is that it's a rolling course and the weather can be a crapshoot. But if you're going to beat her, you better be in sub-2:40 shape."
RUNNING 'PART OF MY IDENTITY'
Pirtle-Hall was a cross-country star at Francis Howell North from 1998 to 2001, and competed at the University of Missouri for two years. But she missed home and was wracked with injuries. In short, she was burned out. So she transferred to the St. Louis campus and stopped running.
Six years ago, Pirtle-Hall, an ACT-prep and grammar teacher at McCluer North High School, decided it was time to run again.
"I came to the conclusion that it's part of my identity," she said. "I wasn't focused, and I needed running to get stuff done and to feel like a confident woman."
In December 2007, she ran a marathon on a lark. She had trained for the St. Jude Memphis Half-Marathon but signed up for the 26.2-mile race the day before, instead.
She finished in 3:16, placing ninth. She felt so good that she signed up for the Mardi Gras Marathon in New Orleans three months later. She finished it in 3:06 and placed third, but hit the wall at mile 18 because she started too fast.
"I really didn't know a lot about marathoning. I was just out having fun," she said. "But that was the first time where I felt like this is no joke. I was really hurting."
Meanwhile, Webster let Pirtle-Hall know that he thought she had what it takes to qualify for the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials, which meant finishing a qualifying race in 2:45:59 or faster.
"I thought, 'Yeah, OK,' " Pirtle-Hall said. "That sounded insane. I'd have to take 20 minutes off my best time."
By mid-2009, Pirtle-Hall had run four marathons, all in 3:20 or less. She ran one of them while she was pregnant and one three months after giving birth to her daughter, Samantha.
Around that time, she approached Webster and told him she was ready — ready to get focused, get faster and take a stab at qualifying for the Olympic trials.
She was running 40 miles a week, some of it with her mother who was a lot slower, but she enjoyed their time together and didn't want to give it up. Webster bumped her up over 50 miles a week, to allow for those runs while adding more fast-paced miles.
Pirtle-Hall also began running with Serena Burla, another new mother and elite runner, who has since moved to Virginia.
"Serena really helped me with hard speed, but I realized I couldn't drop those long grinding miles," Pirtle-Hall said.
She combines what she learned from Webster with what she learned from Burla with what she learned from the dozens of books on marathon running.
She goes to bed at 7:45 p.m. on weekdays and wakes up at 4 a.m. so she can run 12 to 14 miles on an inclined treadmill before Samantha wakes. It also enables her to spend evenings with her family. On weekends she does runs that are over 20 miles and usually outdoors. During tempo runs, she sprints as fast as 5:40 a mile for brief bursts.
Webster is amazed at her stamina.
"You go run 12 or 14 miles every morning then spend eight hours with teenagers," he said. "You have to deal with 125 people and treat each one like they're the only one who matters. It says a lot about who she is."
Pirtle-Hall also works with her brother, a personal trainer, to build core strength and stability, which helps her maintain proper form when fatigue sets in. She drinks post-recovery drinks after every run and eats a balanced diet with whole grains for carbohydrates. She takes ice baths and gets regular massages and chiropractic adjustments.
"The student has surpassed the teacher," Webster said. "There's nothing new or revolutionary I can give her. I just get her through rough spots. I nod and smile and say everything is right on track."
HELP FROM HUSBAND
Pirtle-Hall knows not all working mothers could do what she does, because they aren't lucky enough to have such a great support network.
Husband Jonathan Hall, also a full-time teacher at McCluer North, takes over parenting when she is training on weekends and traveling for races. He massages her legs every night. The only thing he won't do is run with her.
"Oh, God no," Hall said. "She wants to talk the entire time and she's jumping over things, and I'm like, 'Dude, I've got to concentrate.' "
Webster believes that Hall's lack of ego and easygoing attitude are key to their success as a couple and hers as a competitor.
"He's a large part of why she's been successful," Webster said. "Anyone who is more selfish would make it hard for her to do what she's done. I've never seen him upset or agitated about anything."
In October, Pirtle-Hall felt she was ready to qualify for the trials, so she registered for the Chicago Marathon, because the course is famously flat. She finished the race one minute too late to qualify.
A few weeks went by, and her parents came to her with an offer. If she wanted to try to qualify again, they'd pay her way to the California International Marathon in Sacramento. She took them up on it and finished in 2:44:32, qualifying with more than a minute to spare.
She recalls seeing her mother at mile 26 and yelling, "I did it, Mom! I did it!" then crying like a baby at the finish line.
"That was a lifetime moment," she said. "It was even better than running the actual trials."
Sometimes people ask Webster if he thinks Pirtle-Hall could win major marathons like Boston or New York, if she quit work and focused on running full time. He's not so sure.
"Jackie is someone who functions best when her life is in balance," he said. "When it's too much of one thing, other things start suffering, and it's hard on her psychologically. Her family, her husband, her daughter, her parents are very important to her. If she didn't have those other things in her life, things could get very out of balance. She runs because it makes her happy. And if it becomes more work than play, she won't do it as well."
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