Usually, training for a marathon is a piece of cake--you run a few million miles while blisters eat through your feet. Ruth Vomund, however, likes to add an element of intrigue to her workout: She runs alone.
Vomund, 34, runs on Ventura city streets and beach paths and park trails. She runs in the light of day and the darkness of night--watching for the unexpected. But neither rain nor sleet nor flashers keep her from her appointed rounds. "Except for a couple of flashers and some whistles," says Vomund, a social worker, "I've had no major hassles. I run too fast."
Headstrong and confident--"my husband says I have a macho attitude"--Vomund is not in the dark when it comes to running a marathon. Vomund, the best female marathoner in the area, finished 20th in the 1992 U.S. Olympic trials with a personal best of 2 hours 41 minutes 30 seconds. "She's become an exceptional marathon runner," says Tuck Mason, longtime Ventura College track and cross-country coach. "Mentally and physically, she's one of the toughest people I've ever coached."
Vomund was not always full of bravado. When she went out for track at Ventura College in the fall of 1978, Mason remembers her as "somewhat of a shy individual who did not possess a lot of self-confidence." She was a high-jumper at St. Bonaventure High, and after graduating in 1976, she went to Ventura College to continue her career in that event. (She was good enough to wind up sixth on the school's all-time list with a jump of 5 feet 2 inches.)
Vomund had no intention of running anywhere except to class, but "I got rooked into cross-country," she says archly. "Coach Mason saw a live body and I couldn't say no."
Although Vomund found she enjoyed running, there was no epiphany that marathons would be her life. When she went to San Diego State to pursue her sociology degree, her athletic insecurity followed her and she didn't compete in college athletics because "I guess I thought I wasn't good enough."
Vomund ran 10Ks during college but didn't enter her first marathon until 1983. She had "heard that so-and-so did a marathon in such-and-such-a-time and I said to myself, 'If she can, then so can I,' " Vomund recalls.
To Vomund, marathons "are the Mt. Everest of distance running." She made her first attempt in the 1983 Santa Monica Marathon and quickly was humbled. It wasn't her time of 3:37 that upset her as much as the realization that she didn't really know what she was doing. "It was the worst experience," she says. "I went about training all wrong. I didn't do carbo-loading right. I was lucky I didn't hurt myself."
But she learned to respect the marathon. "It's such a mystery race," she says. "There are so many variables in each race. The course. The time of year. The weather. The training. If you have a bad day, it's sheer hell."
Vomund became more of a student of running after her Santa Monica awakening and trained diligently. But her motivation and inspiration also came from another source. She fell in love with Gary Tuttle, owner of a popular Ventura running store, a former national record-holder in three distance events and one of the area's leading authorities on distance running.
In 1985, she and Tuttle ran in the Boston Marathon--he finished second overall and she was 71st among the women--but she still didn't dedicate herself totally to marathon running and wasn't able to make the leap from good local runner to national class. That all changed in 1987.
"I had one year of (cross-country) eligibility left (at Ventura College)," she says. "Coach Mason said, 'Do you want to come back? I need you.' My life had never revolved around running before then, but I got very, very serious."
She even persuaded Tuttle to coach her.
Vomund helped Ventura win the Western State Conference cross-country championship, finishing third in the race. Then she ran a 10K and clipped 90 seconds off her personal record. "When I did that, I knew things were going to happen," she says.
She set her sights on qualifying for the 1988 Olympic trials. She won the Napa Marathon in 2:51 and was rewarded with a trip to France for the Bordeaux Marathon, which she also won. But she missed the Olympic qualifying standard by one minute. Would she make the "all-consuming" commitment to mount a campaign in 1992?
Do marathon runners get thirsty?
"I knew I had some improvement left in me," she says, "and, by God, I was going to qualify in '92."
But her confidence level took a momentary dip when she learned the qualifying time had been lowered by five minutes--it would take a time of 2:45 to make the trials. "I said, 'Geez, no way.' But Gary said, 'I think you can.' "
Vomund trained hard for the 1991 Portland Marathon and qualified for the trials by clocking 2:44.30, "one of the biggest surprises of my life."
Her success in the trials in January also surprised her. She broke her personal record by three minutes and was 90 seconds shy of breaking 2:40, which would have put her in the world-class category. "I was really happy," she says. "And I could have run faster but I went out too conservative."
Recent arthroscopic surgery on her right knee has set her back, but there is a lot of time before the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. Vomund will be 38 by then, considered prime age for a female marathoner. Whether she makes the commitment to qualify will depend on her knee, but she is optimistic.
Vomund, who married Tuttle in 1990, has structured her hours at work to allow her to take three-day weekends in order to train. But she also runs during the week after getting off work at 5:30 p.m., and, when daylight-saving time ends, this means running after dark.
"I don't like that," Tuttle says. Considering his wife's independence, however, "There's not much I can do."
Tuttle, 45, is more in command when he coaches Vomund. "It was strictly a coach-pupil relationship," Vomund says. "He's the coach and knows best." But Vomund was not always an easy pupil. "I'd get frustrated out on the track and yell," she says, although Tuttle points out that "she didn't take it home with her."
Tuttle, a Ventura city councilman, and Vomund seldom run together because their training schedules don't coincide. But on New Year's Eve, for seven of the last nine years, the couple have ridden their bikes 25 miles up the coast to Santa Barbara and competed in a 5K or 10K Resolution Run the next day before riding home.
"It's a treat when we can work out together," Vomund says. And a lot less lonely.