"We Have Lives That Are Not Just Running": Local Amateur Runner Gabrielle Russo Is Headed to the Olympic Trials

Local runner and assistant professor of anthropology at Stony Brook University Gabrielle Russo running the 2018 Staten Island Half
Gabrielle Russo in the 2018 NYRR Staten Island Half

This summer, all eyes will turn to Tokyo for the XXXII Olympic Games. Before that, the Olympic Team Trials for the marathon will take place on February 29 in Atlanta. Runners from all over the country who hit the qualifying standard will compete to represent Team USA in Japan. The Olympic Trials are something most athletes can only ever dream of and are usually reserved for the elite professionals who have dedicated their careers to their sport. For the marathon, however, this is not the case.

Professional runners will make up only a small portion of the competitors who step up to the marathon start line, with amateurs filling in the rest of the field. It is a unique experience in the world of sport and showcases the depth of talent American runners have to offer.

One of the runners who will be competing at the trials is New York local Gabrielle Russo. Now an assistant professor of anthropology at Stony Brook University on Long Island, Russo began running in high school and later competed at Dickinson College in her home state of Pennsylvania. During that time, she was an accomplished sprinter who specialized in the 4 x 400m relay and the 300m hurdles. By the time she had finished college, however, she put all her focus into pursuing a career in biological anthropology.

Local runner and assistant professor of anthropology at Stony Brook University Gabrielle Russo in the field in Africa
Russo at the Turkana Basin Institute in Kenya, Africa, where she spent the summer of 2019 conducting field research. 

A Hidden Talent

After seven years of hard work, Russo graduated in 2008 with an MA in anthropology from CUNY Hunter College and with her PhD from the University of Texas at Austin in 2013, completed two post-doctoral positions overlapping with her time in the doctoral program, and in 2014 landed a tenure-track job at Stony Brook University in their renowned anthropology department. After two years of a grueling two-hour commute from the city, Russo decided to move out to Long Island to be closer to work and get a fresh start. This move helped spark her desire to pick up running again.

“At the end of 2016 I decided to get back in touch with my roots and made a plan to seriously train for a running race. I chose the Long Island Marathon,” Russo says. “I started running again very slowly, but I found a local running group at Sayville Running Company. This part of the running community is still really important to me.”

After fully committing to her training, eight months later in 2017 Russo not only completed the Long Island Marathon, she placed second. It was then she realized that she might have stumbled on a hidden talent.

“It seemed like I might have a knack for endurance events like the marathon, so I got a coach – Tommy Nettuno – and dove into it headfirst to train to see how deep the rabbit hole went,” she says.

It went deeper than Russo could have known at the time. After breaking the formidable three-hour barrier and winning her second serious marathon that fall (Suffolk County Marathon), and winning both the USATF 50K road championship and the Long Island Marathon the following spring in 2018, Russo realized these spectacular performances indicated that the Olympic Trials might be within her grasp. Sure enough, in November 2018 at the Philadelphia Marathon, she got her qualifying time. Suddenly, after only really being a long-distance runner for just over a year, she had earned her spot in one of the sport’s most prestigious events.

More Than a Hobby

This journey has changed Russo’s relationship with running, and now she sees it as more than just a hobby; it is part of who she is.

“It’s such an integral part of my identity now, in the same way that academia is part of my identity, it’s hard to think back to a time when it wasn’t that,” Russo says. “[Running] gives you an incredible sense of self, of discovery, and happiness.”

Long Island’s extensive running community has been there with her every step of the way, providing support, camaraderie, and even coaches. Since last fall, Mike Petrina of the Sayville Running Company has been designing and developing Russo’s workouts as she prepares for the upcoming race in February. His guidance means she just has to fit those workouts into her schedule and complete them.

“It’s not easy,” she laughs, “I get the impression that people think that I have it figured out, but I really don’t! Every day is kind of a struggle to fit the pieces together.”

Every Sunday, Russo sits down to plan her week, putting workouts into her calendar the same way she would a class she is teaching or meetings with students. Each week is a new puzzle, but despite that, she feels her performances at her recent workouts have been the best she has ever had.  

Not Just a Race, But a Celebration

As February 29 inches closer and anticipation builds, Russo is looking forward to competing not only against the pros, but against the field of amateur women who are in similar situations to hers.

“The majority of the qualifiers we have careers, we have families, we have lives that are not just running focused, and [the Olympic Trials] are such a great opportunity to celebrate this part of ourselves...this is our time to show off the powerful and amazing things that we can do in pursuit of a hobby that we love, even if for us it means 4:00 a.m. workouts or shortened weekends,” Russo says. “I think that’s part of what makes the Olympic Trials really special.”

You can follow Russo’s running journey by following her on Instagram @gogogabbygams and learn more about her academic research on her website.

Make sure to join the celebration and support Russo and all our local New York runners at the Olympic Trials on February 29. You can watch the broadcast of the event on NBC starting at 12:00 p.m. ET. 

Can’t get enough of everything Olympic running? Join us for a conversation with more local runners like Russo heading to the Olympic Trials at the NYRR RUNCENTER for Runners of NYC LIVE: Olympic Trials Qualifiers of New York City.

Author: Katie Manzi

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