Last summer, while hiking in central Wyoming with a group of U.S. Naval Academy midshipmen as part of her wilderness training, Amie Nardini, a runner since the age of 15, took one step she regrets.
Trying to cross a gap on a descending trail that June day, she slipped and fell into a 30-foot tumble and a 20-foot free-fall down a cliff that broke her sternum and two vertebrae and cracked her pelvis in two spots. She was taken by helicopter to a hospital, where two screws were inserted into her hip.
Wheelchair-bound for four months, the 20-year old midshipman second-class from Nebraska and member of the Academy’s Marathon Team still found a way to participate in last October’s Marine Corps Marathon. Originally planning to run it, she switched her registration to the wheelchair race and raised money for wounded soldiers at the same time. She finished in 2 hours and 48 minutes, nearly 50 minutes better than her best time as a runner.
“It’s faster in a wheelchair,” she said laughing. “Oh yeah, you can fly down those hills.”
On Saturday, Nardini will be among the 40 members of her marathon team who will help pace some of the 15,000 runners in the National Marathon and Half-Marathon. With her strength restored, she will help lead runners in the 13.1 mile race, her first at that distance since her crippling summer accident.
It is a display of resolve, a trait she shares with many of her teammates. Many began distance running before they reached the Naval Academy and in between their classes and training, have joined the Marathon Team to keep it up.
The team started as an informal group in 2003, with 15 runners during the midshipmen’s required daily afternoon fitness period. The group has grown to 25 and sometimes hosts nearly 75 on training runs during the week. Nathan Nudelman, a 35-year old federal government employee, is their coach.
Though they aren’t a varsity sport, the runners are a club team that seriously trains for their annual competition at April’s Boston Marathon against the Army and Air Force academies. Until last year, when the Army topped them in the race, the Naval Academy’s team had long dominated the competition.
For runners such as Paul Hill, a 21-year-old midshipman second-class from Tennessee, Saturday’s race is another chance to train for his childhood goal: qualifying for the U.S. Olympic trials with a time of 2:19. In consecutive marathons this season, he shaved five minutes off his personal best time, finishing the California International Marathon in a team-record 2:35.56. Hill, who was on the Naval Academy’s varsity track and cross country teams for most of his first two years there, squeezes nearly 80 miles a week into his already full Naval Academy schedule.
So after helping others finish their lengthy treks on Saturday, Hill plans to head off to complete his own. The Boston Marathon is on April 18. “I’m gonna do the half-marathon and do a little extra afterwards to get some more miles in,” he said grinning.
When asked about the chance to run a long-distance race again, Nardini lowered her voice to a whisper. “I didn’t know I was pacing. I wanted to run it,” she said with a grin.
To Nudelman, Nardini’s eagerness and dedication is a common trait among the future Navy officers he’s coached at the Academy.
“It’s that personality,” he said. “They don’t let stuff get them down. Even though she broke those parts of her body, here she is running while others might not.”