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Student Marathoner on Academic Pursuits and Olympic Dreams

Alex Tyner
Physics and math double major Alex Tyner '16 took up marathon running as a way to see the world.

It's a corny joke, but totally true in this case–Alex Tyner '16 is in it for the long run.

For the past seven years, the math and physics double major has devoted himself to marathon running. Along the way to steadily improving his times (a current personal best of 2:33), marathon running has been his ticket to see the world, enjoy some extraordinary experiences, and balance physical and academic pursuits.

The stimulating challenges of running and academia go together for Tyner. Physics has taught him that "the more you learn the less you know," and that "the universe is a completely strange place."

And his favorite class of all at Davidson was a math course in graph theory.

"I'd be at the white board for hours working out a problem. I really enjoyed it," he said.

Running has taught him patience and how to come to terms with pain.

"When it gets painful there's an opportunity to reach something more," he said. "Getting through it is getting stronger. I try not to avoid it."

"I don't find complete fulfillment in either running or school work," Tyner said. "I love running, but find myself wanting more. I also found that something is missing if I'm just doing academics, I really like the balance and the contrast of the two. One is seemingly all physical and one is just so mental. I want to feel like I'm pushing myself in both those ways."

Since beginning at age 15, he has run 11 competitive marathons and countless training runs of that distance or greater. He has won a couple of races, finished on the podium at several, and continually lowered his marathon time.

It would be logical to assume Tyner runs track for Davidson. But while his marathon times are outstanding, he is not competitive at the far shorter intercollegiate distances, and trains completely on his own.

Wanderlust Fulfilled

Tyner wanted to study abroad during his junior year. But as a physics and math double major, he feared courses he took overseas wouldn't transfer back to Davidson.

After weighing options, he decided to take the whole year of 2015 off and do some of the things he always wanted to do–like training in a Kenyan running camp for five months, falling in love, solo backpacking for a couple of weeks in the California mountains and technical climbing in the rocky cliffs of the Grand Tetons ("Scariest thing I've ever done!").

During his year away, he ran more and more and more–six days out of every seven for totals of more than 100 miles a week, passing the miles while mulling over a physics or math problem, or working to overcome the pain and get faster.

One of his premier experiences was running this year's Boston Marathon. For a runner who's generally alone, the huge crowds that lined the route energized his every step.

"Boylston Street was packed for days ahead of time," he said. "During the race, there were whole quarter-mile stretches of people reaching out toward us for high fives. My legs were flat during the race, so I just soaked it all in, finished in 2:50, and enjoyed the spectacle."

Back in Davidson, students in his topology class followed his progress as it was broadcast to their screens on a Live Tracker app. The race showed him the hometown support he has.

"I don't tell a lot people what I do, but Dr. Belloni knew I was doing Boston and sent out an email to the whole physics department," he said. "I got a lot of encouraging notes from people, and when I was presenting my research the next day, the first question anyone asked was, ‘How did you do in the marathon?'"

A Mzungu in Kenya

Alex tyner
Tyner trained in a Kenyan running camp for five months in 2015.

Tyner's first stop during his year off was Iten, Kenya, a high altitude rural town of 5,000 that serves as a training camp for up to 3,000 marathoners at a time from all over the world.

He rented a barracks bed and stayed there five months, settling into a routine of three-a-day runs on dusty rural roads with huge packs of runners. Olympic champions and world record holders usually led the way.

They occasionally ran at a relatively slow nine or 10 miles per hour pace, which allowed Tyner to make acquaintance with runners primarily from east Africa.

As one of the few mzungu (white people) in town, he was often surrounded by youngsters asking one of the few English phrases they knew–"How are you?" It was also common for women in town to ask if he was looking for a wife, or had a friend looking for one.

Those encounters demonstrated that the training was more than fun and games for many of the runners. He recalled asking one runner if he loved running, and got the reply, "No running, no food."

"I was lucky to be running because I love it, but many of them were doing it to survive," Tyner recalled.

With the little bit of free time in his training schedule, he offered his services as a teacher at the local high school. The offer was immediately accepted.

"I just showed up one day and said I'd like to teach math," he said. "They handed me a textbook and walked me over to a class of 50 kids and said they'd be back in an hour."

In June 2015 he left Kenya and returned to his home in San Diego, Calif. He spent the next few months training and racing around the country.

He spent six weeks at Lake Tahoe training in the mountains, and then won a half-marathon in Jackson Hole, Wy. His father and sister met him there, and the trio took a course in technical rock climbing that culminated in their ascent of the Grand Teton Mountain.

His next goal was the Chicago Marathon. His preparation proved highly effective. He finished 104th in a huge field with a time of 2:33, which was eight minutes off his previous best.

After travels to Amsterdam and Switzerland, Tyner returned to San Francisco to run the North Face Endurance Challenge Marathon, a trail run at the north end of the Golden Gate Bridge. Despite getting some misdirection from a course monitor that added a couple of miles to his course, he won the event with speedy 5:03 times in his last two miles.

He also continued an internship begun the previous summer at the Scripps Institute. He got the opportunity to shadow some employees there, and ended up involved with a project using new Oculus Rift virtual reality technology to help amputees deal with phantom limb pain.

With the advent of 2016, he returned to Davidson for the spring semester. He has continued his quiet, solo training and racing regimen. This spring he has run a marathon in Charleston (finishing third) and Durham (finishing fourth). On spring break he flew to Switzerland for 10 days to run with training partners there.

Running at Davidson

On a typical day, he's out of the dorm and running down Main Street by 7 a.m. toward the River Run turn-around mark. His training schedule mandates 12 miles every four days out of five, and the 26.2 mile marathon distance on Saturdays and 16 miles on Sunday.

The 12 mile run, cooldown, stretching and a shower take about three hours. Then it's off to class to tackle a course load that would give some students nightmares–a lab in advanced physics, a topology course, a course in electricity and magnetism, and independent research in quantum mechanics with his research mentor, Physics Prof. Mario Belloni.

To graduate, Tyner needs one-plus additional semester of courses, so he'll be back on campus for the fall 2016 semester taking another course load heavy in advanced math and physics. But that will leave him still two math courses short of meeting Davidson's winter graduation requirements.

So, Tyner is planning to earn those credits at a Davidson-approved program for mathematics in Budapest, Hungary. Of course, he'll spend a lot of time running there as well.

"Running has been a great way to see the world and meet people," he said.

He doesn't plan to run any competitive marathons while abroad, but back in Davidson during the fall term he will run a local half-marathon, and a marathon over a familiar and attractive course in Amsterdam where he hopes to lower his personal best again.

An Olympic Dream

After graduation in December, what's next? Tyner's interested in graduate school to study a branch of quantum physics, and is applying for fellowships and scholarships. His other goal is to improve his time to the Olympic trial minimum of 2:19.

Toward that end, he has hired his first professional coach, and has signed a contract with CWX, a company that manufactures compression apparel that he and many runners use to improve blood flow.

At age 22, he's still several years younger than most competitive marathoners, and he hopes that will serve him well in chasing his Olympic dream.

But if that doesn't pan out, he's looking further down the road.

"I want to give the marathon a shot for the next four years, but after that I think I'm interested in moving up in distance," he said. "I think my best success may come in ultra running–50 miles, or even 100."

Now that's a long, long run.