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Running: Little Falls' Gau running toward big things in Boston

Wanda Gau From: Little Falls What: Running Boston Marathon Goal: Top 10 in her age group Severe shin splints and agonizing pain shooting through her legs weren't enough to keep Wanda Gau away from a remarkable running career. Her experience in th...

Little Falls first-grade teacher Wanda Gau trains Monday for her third Boston Marathon. Her goal is to place in the top 10 in her age division. (Brainerd Dispatch/ Steve Kohls) Video
Little Falls first-grade teacher Wanda Gau trains Monday for her third Boston Marathon. Her goal is to place in the top 10 in her age division. (Brainerd Dispatch/ Steve Kohls) Video

Wanda Gau

From: Little Falls

What: Running Boston Marathon

Goal: Top 10 in her age group

Severe shin splints and agonizing pain shooting through her legs weren't enough to keep Wanda Gau away from a remarkable running career.

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Her experience in the 2005 Grandma's Marathon in Duluth-the first for the 53-year old first-grade teacher in the Little Falls School District-was unforgettable and terrible.

She admits if it wasn't for the people she was running with she wouldn't have finished and may have never run another one.

Eleven years and 27 marathons later, Gau is preparing to run in her third Boston Marathon Monday. Her goal-finish in the top 10 for her age group.

While that may sound crazy, it's not any crazier than the path Gau traveled to become one of Minnesota's premier distance runners. Gau is a two-time Minnesota Runner of the Year for her age group (50-53). She holds seven women's state records in various distances. She didn't start running until her 40s.

"When I was hitting 40, the weight was going up and the metabolism was going down," Gau said. "I needed to do something. I joined the local Fitness Connection here in Little Falls and some people who were members were runners. I was not a runner. I just couldn't do that. But they kept encouraging me. So I said, 'Well, I'll run a little bit.' I'll run one mile or two miles, even though they were running five, six, seven and eight miles.

"Every week it got to be a little longer and then a little longer and I finally managed to do the 3-mile distance. Then there was a local 5K race here in Little Falls and they all encouraged me to sign up and run it.

"I just said, 'Yeah, I can run, but I can't race. You have to race those when you run them.' Then my husband said, 'You're just afraid that I'll beat you.' And I was like 'What?' So just to prove him wrong, I signed up and I beat him-badly, I might say.

"That adrenaline rush that I got when I finished that race was just amazing and I was hooked."

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Five kilometers moved to 10Ks the next year. The next year it was half marathons and then someone from the running group mentioned marathons.

Gau's initial thought: "Why would anybody want to run 26.2 miles? That's just crazy. What do you get out of that? I couldn't even see the reasoning for wanting to do that distance."

So she did it.

"Peer pressure," Gau said. "I'm almost 50 now and I'm still having peer pressure guide my decisions. If it wasn't for the group, I would have never finished it because it was not a great experience. We ran Grandma's Marathon in 2005 as our first marathon and I had severe shin splints. I didn't even know if I would finish. We took a lot of walking breaks.

"And every time we would start up again after walking through a water stop it just killed my legs. I know if I would have been running it on my own I would have just said forget it."

Gau finished her first marathon in 4:56.31. She placed 5,373rd or 240 in her age division.

But Gau continued to run. The running group was free therapy for Gau. She started training better and eating better. She was doing cross training and strength training. Then someone mentioned marathon again.

"Why would you do it again," Gau asked herself. "It was such a horrible experience. I keep asking myself that and I thought it was so bad, but it was fun being with the group and I really enjoyed the now weekend runs with the group because it's therapy when you run with a group. You solve the world's problems. We had teenage kids at home so we had a lot to talk about. It just became more of a social thing to run with the group. But then the group decided to try Chicago."

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Gau finished the Chicago Marathon in 3:39:35 to place 6,171st or 162nd in her 40-44 age division.

This time she didn't run with the group, but set out on her own. The real surprise happened after was asked her time.

"Everybody asked me my time and I told them and they said I had qualified for Boston," Gau said. "I had no clue then what that meant because I was so new to it. When I found out a little bit more what that meant to qualify for Boston, I thought 'Wow.'

"I went out all by myself in 2008 and ran it and enjoyed it. And I thought once and done. I did it once. I'm good.

"But then a couple years later my younger sister ran Grandma's Marathon and qualified for Boston. She said, "Wanda, would you ever do it again?' And I said if I could run the Boston Marathon with my sister how cool would that be? My mom happened to be in this conversation and she said 'If you two want to run it I'll pay for it.' The three of us went out and that was again another wonderful experience in 2012. That was the year before the bombing."

Gau qualified for her third Boston during last May's Lake Wobegon Trail Marathon. This time Gau will be taking her husband Buddy.

The goal for her first Boston was to enjoy the experience. She ran a 3:25.0 to place 125th in her age division and 5,367th overall out of 21,948 runners.

In 2012 she wanted to beat her first time. She ran a 3:24.09 to finish 10th in her age division and 2,279th overall out of 21,616 runners.

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This year she's shooting for top 10 in her age bracket again.

"Now the competitiveness has taken over," said Gau. "Probably a little overboard in that area."

It's a remarkable feat considering Gau never ran in high school or college.

"No, I wanted to be an athlete," said Gau. "I hung out with the athletes. I was the athletic manager for the high school sports at Apollo where I went to in St. Cloud. I tried out for teams, but I got cut because I just didn't have any ability.

"I can't say I was born with this ability. I just think I worked hard at it. I've really done a lot with my nutrition and I've really done a lot with strength training and cross training and the things I do besides running. I think I've just developed into a good runner."

Now Gau wakes up at 4:30 a.m. every Saturday and drives to St. Cloud to get in a 15- or 20-mile run. Again it's therapy.

She believes her late start in the sport is one reason she's still going strong. She has fresh legs and a desire to educate and help others to get started toward a healthy lifestyle.

"I certainly feel that what I'm doing now is good for me and so of course I want to keep doing it," Gau said. "Even more, sharing my success with others and just letting them know, this is what is working for me you might want to consider it for yourself.

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"If I can help others to be better runners because I've enjoyed success, that really makes me feel good. That's where I see myself wanting to go. Especially whenever I get to the point, and I know it will happen, where I will need to be done competing and just run for the love of running, that's really where I hope this running will take me. So I can educate more people on how to be better runners so they can have success, too."

JEREMY MILLSOP may be reached at 855-5856 or jeremy.millsop@brainerddispatch.com . Follow on Twitter at www.twitter.com/jeremymillsop .

Covering the Brainerd lakes area sports scene for the past 23 years.
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