It’s bright and early on a crisp weekday morning in Glen Ellyn, and Tammy Lifka is lacing up her running shoes. Layered in insulating fabrics to wick away the cold, she heads out for what has become her own personal ritual. She runs to drive her passion. She runs to feel strong. She runs, because she can.
Lifka is a marathoner. In the last year she has run in races on two continents, taking in the Osaka Marathon in Japan in October. That opportunity was the result of her outstanding finish at the 2012 Chicago Marathon, where she was the second woman from Illinois to cross the finish line, 21st overall.
She placed second at Napa Valley in 2012. Won the Kiawah Island Marathon in South Carolina a year ago. Competed in half-marathons and 10Ks all across the country. But just a half-dozen years ago, she didn’t run at all.
Lifka grew up playing tennis. Off the court in high school and college, she’d participate in track to stay active, but never really focused on the competition. “I showed up,” she says. “But that’s about it.”
Three kids and more than a decade later and Lifka was looking for another outlet for her energy. “I couldn’t go out and play tennis with three little ones, and I was burned out, anyhow. I needed something different.”
So she did what lots of women do after having kids: she got a jogger stroller and headed out the door. She bought a treadmill. She got herself back in shape. “The kids liked it,” she says.
But this is where the commonplace ends in Lifka’s story, and the passion begins. Running just a few miles in a stretch, at a nine minute pace, a friend invited her to take part in a 20-miler in Staughton, Wisconsin.
“I thought she was crazy,” Lifka recalls. “Twenty miles? I had only run about four at a time before that. But she said it would be fun that we could run-walk it, and enjoy ourselves along the way.”
So Lifka ran, and when taking breaks to walk and chat seemed more trouble than it was worth, Lifka kept running. She finished that 20 mile race and surprised even herself.
“I started thinking, if I could run 20 miles, could I run 26? That’s when the idea of a marathon seemed like a reality,” she says. The 2007 Chicago Marathon loomed on the horizon.
She did a Chicago half marathon. She cross trained and went to spin classes, but says she had no plan, no regimen.
“I didn’t know how to train, I had never tracked my miles,” she says. “I just went out and ran.” Three weeks before the 2007 Chicago Marathon she joined the Glen Ellyn Runners Club. She was pacing at under four hours and her fellow runners said she should try to qualify for the elite Boston Marathon. Entry required a 3:45 finish time.
“They said ‘Try for Boston’ and I was like, ‘What’s Boston?’ I had no concept of what that meant,” she laughs.
But try she did, and on the hottest Chicago marathon day of recent record, Lifka posted a 3:43, getting her coveted Boston spot at the line.
“It was my first marathon, I didn’t know what to expect, or how to feel,” she says. “It was hot, sure, but I finished before they called the race. I thought, if I can finish this strong in my first, and it’s this hot…maybe there’s something to this running thing.” She’d capture a 3:20 in Boston in 2008.
After that, the races came, and the minutes fell. 3:16 in Boston 2009. A 3:03 that autumn in Chicago. Napa Valley 2011 at 2:56:33. A 2012 win at Kiawah Island at 2:50.
By the 2013 Boston Marathon, she’d hit 2:48.30.
And with that personal record comes another goal – the Olympic Trials. Opened in August, runners have two years to compete in qualifying races for the opportunity. Anyone under 2:43 gets in.
Injuries make it a long shot. Lifka is battling shin splints right now, and repair has taken precedence, but she’s battling back, and has faith she’ll make it.
“It’s a vicious cycle. You get injured, you feel better, you keep training,” she says. “But you have to take a step back and focus. You can’t add both strength and marathon training at the same time. My body will tell me when I am ready.”
So she trains. She eats a gluten-free diet because it makes her feel better. She checks her blood to see what nutrients she lacks.
“I think of my body like a car,” she says, "and I really think it takes all those components. Anyone can do it. I truly believe that. But it takes attention to all of it. It takes commitment.”
Today, that commitment transcends from track to career, as Lifka embarks on a new focus, and a return to college to study physical therapy. The commitment she’s developed as a runner, the personal satisfaction she gets as a running coach at Lifetime Fitness in Bloomingdale and her passion for health and fitness drive her return to the classroom. She’s just as sure of her success there.
“I’ve always felt pretty average,” she says. “I was average at tennis. It was fun but I didn’t see the successes. And had I started running earlier, I don’t think I’d be at this level. I would have burned out, gotten hurt.
“But I am more focused now that I ever have been in my life. I honestly don’t think I have peaked yet,” she says smiling. “It’s really motivating.”
Tammy Lifka lives in Glen Ellyn with her husband and three children. She’s studying physical therapy at College of DuPage and watches nervously from the sidelines as her oldest daughter competes on the cross country team.