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Football Family: The other race - Tyla Hudspeth running in Boston Marathon on Monday

Tim Buckley, Daily Advertiser, April 15, 2012

It's nearing 5 a.m. on a recent weekday, and Tyla Hudspeth has a decision.

Her husband, UL head coach Mark Hudspeth, has earlier-than-usual offseason football duties to tend to.

But every Tuesday and Thursday morning around that time Tyla and a training partner head to Red's for some cardio work. And there is this little matter of the Boston Marathon.

Then there is their young son, Major, and, well, someone has to keep an eye on the little guy.

Tyla couldn't just blow off her regularly scheduled workout, now could she?

"It's just understood," she said of the who-watches-him-when rotation.

"He (Mark) messed us up, because the guys (UL's Ragin' Cajuns) have had weights in the morning "» or some kind of football-related thing going on.

"And I'm like, 'This football is really getting in the way of our running time.' And he's like, 'Baby, what do you want — a bowl game, or to get your miles in early in the morning?' "

The truth, at least that particular morning?

"Toss up," she says quietly enough that perhaps no one would hear.

UL did make it to last season's New Orleans Bowl, where it beat San Diego State, and perhaps nothing would be better to Cajun loyalists than a second straight postseason appearance for a program whose last one prior to last year was the 1970 Grantland Rice Bowl.

The fact of the matter, though, is that Tyla Hudspeth is running in the 116th Boston Marathon.

On Monday, wearing bib No. 16491.

And qualifying for it was no small feat to someone who grew up with heart-felt contempt for the whole running thing.

• • •

She played basketball, volleyball, softball and tennis as a kid.

But track?

Even if her small Alabama high school had fielded a team, there is no way the then-Tyla McConnell would have considered joining it.

"I hated running," she said. "Hated it."

Then, one day, she ran.

It started and continued as a social activity, more than anything, as she and Mark — a former Mississippi State assistant coach and longtime North Alabama head coach — moved from town to town.

"It was a way for me to fit in and make close friends," she said.

Then Tyla Hudspeth took part her first half-marathon around eight years ago or so, and "»

"I was hooked," she said.

Her first full and formal 26.2-mile run came in December 2010, at the St. Jude Memphis Marathon in Tennessee.

She finished that in four hours, 15 minutes and 32 seconds, and when she did storied Boston — the world's oldest annual marathon — was last on her mind.

"It all transpired for me since we've been here, because I never, ever thought it was possible," said Hudspeth, who moved to Lafayette when the Cajuns hired her husband away from Mississippi State later in December of 2010.

"I remember running, thinking, 'One thing I know I'll never be is a Boston qualifier, because those people are running fast. That will never be me.' "

• • •

Fate, however, intervened as Tyla, with little Major in tow, waited for a return flight home from the Nashville airport following a race she ran in there.

Nearby in the terminal waiting area was someone else headed back to Lafayette, with a similar-aged young one of her own and a shared interest in running.

She was accomplished local triathlete Jess Russo, and — after one toddler stole a sip out of the other's juice cup — the two quickly bonded.

But it wasn't the sort of friendship typically nurtured while talking at a coffee shop, or going on a play-date with the kids.

The tie between two running partners frequently can be more intense than that.

"In a four-hour-long run at 4:30 in the morning, you really get to know people," Hudspeth said. "In moments of pain like that, you learn who you are, and you tell the truth."

Their match really was ideal.

After all, Russo said, "Not everybody wants to wake up that early to go running with you."

Their first time out together, however, was almost the last.

"She's the one who pushes me," said Hudspeth, who also does mixed martial arts training at Gladiators Academy and body-building training too, much of it under the watchful eye of her trusted adviser, UL strength and conditioning coach Rusty Whitt.

"The first time I ran with (Russo) I didn't make it five miles, and I'm like, 'This is it. I've got to go home. I can't keep up,' she added. "It was humbling for me, and I was like,' She'll never call me again to run with her.' "

But she did.

• • •

Russo was there as well last December in Las Vegas, where both were running in the Rock 'n' Roll Marathon, billed as the world's largest nighttime running event.

They were among a pack of 44,000 runners from all 50 states and 54 countries.

About halfway through the evening race, Hudspeth came to learn it was a Boston-qualifier. But the cutoff for her 18-to-34 age group was three hours and 40 minutes.

The 29-year-old missed, to her own shock, by only 62 seconds.

"But that wasn't my goal," she said. "My goal was to run under four hours, and I (did)."

She was so close, though, that Boston was now instantly on her bucket list.

Hudspeth, however, would have only one more chance to qualify for this year's race.

It meant having to go to Baton Rouge, which was a good thing. But it also meant running in January, at the inaugural Louisiana Marathon barely more than a month after the Vegas night run.

That's not exactly a by-the-book schedule for even an experienced marathoner.

Then again, Hudspeth doesn't exactly do things the conventional way.

Like so many loyal head football coach's wives, she sits by her man on flights to road games and hangs with fellow Cajun fans after arriving at an opponent's locale.

But she also runs so-called "Protect The House" stadium steps at Cajun Field, sometimes with weights strapped to her back just like Cajun football players.

To help with her body building, she's on a high-protein diet that calls for her to eat six specially prepared meals a day. That's not necessarily runner-friendly, though it does present something of a challenge to her football-coaching husband.

"I'm just trying to make sure," Mark Hudspeth said, "that the head coach's wife does not have bigger biceps than the head coach."

Or take the time Russo — who runs her own local pilates studio, Hello Balance — asked some friends to tag along on a drive to an ultra marathon.

Russo figured the others might run a half-marathon that was part of the same event.

One did.

Hudspeth, however, wound up going the full 50K, all on a whim — 31-plus miles, even though, as Russo sees it, the coach's wife hadn't properly trained for that distance.

"I think she just has this sense of, 'Well, we can do this,' " said Russo, who appreciates the spontaneity but just laughs at the craziness of it.

• • •

Whose idea it was to go for it in Baton Rouge depends on whom you ask.

Tyla Hudspeth: "She (Russo) was like, 'You've got to do it. You've got to try it one more time.' "

Russo: "Once you realize you're that close, she was like, 'Let's do it.' "

In any event, Hudspeth wanted to go.

Ready, or not.

"Will and determination," Russo said. "Where there's a will there's a way."

So off they went, Hudspeth to hopefully get a Boston time, the faster Russo, who ran Boston in 2009, to help pace her.

Things in Baton Rouge, though, didn't exactly go well early on.

The race was on a Sunday, and Hudspeth had gotten sick — just wasn't feeling right — the prior Friday.

Hudspeth and Russo went anyway.

But the two had trouble locating the start line, wound up parking more than a mile away and had to run just so they wouldn't late.

Nothing like adding one very stressful extra mile to 26.2.

"That was like a bad dream," Russo said. "It seemed like forever. It's a runner's worst nightmare."

As Russo recalls, the two had three or four minutes to spare in the start corral until the race get under way.

But all Hudspeth remembers is that "we turned the corner around the start line and took off."

The plan was for Hudspeth and Russo to run together for 20 miles, with Russo offering moral support along the way, then see what happened from there.

"We had a fun time," Russo said, "until it didn't become fun."

Russo wound up finishing in a Boston-qualifying three hours and 33 minutes. She never did have any intention to run Boston again, though, and was chiefly there to help Hudspeth.

"I owe a lot of it to her," Hudspeth said of her friend.

While Russo was present to keep her spirits up at the beginning, a certain someone else was there at the end.

"They say you're an average of the two people you hang around most," Tyla Hudspeth said, "and I'm constantly with Mark Hudspeth, the biggest motivator in the world, and my girlfriend who I met here, Jess Russo."

• • •

If those two couldn't spur her to Boston, perhaps no one could.

Yet as Hudspeth battled through in last mile in Baton Rouge, there still was doubt. Then she caught sight of who was waiting to push her — go figure — the last 100 yards.

"It was now or never," Tyla Hudspeth said. "With Mark going, 'Go, go,' watching the clock, coming around the corner, I was literally sprinting."

Hudspeth finished in three hours and 38 minutes, two under a qualifying standard that for her age group will dip to three hours and 35 minutes after this year.

"At the moment, it was 'thank God' I had crossed the line and survived," Hudspeth said. "It didn't really sink in that I was a Boston qualifier."

"I was probably more excited for her, because she "» didn't know how close she was," Mark Hudspeth added. "I took off sprinting when I saw and was yelling for her to 'kick it.' "

Tyla Hudspeth did, and as a result the runner who used to abhor running will be running at Boston, starting in Hopkinton, staring at Heartbreak Hill and, if all goes as hoped, heading down Boyleston Street.

She's a qualifier, and both her friend and husband have a hunch as to how she trimmed enough time to become one.

"I think she didn't know her ability," Russo said.

"It's hard to comprehend," Mark Hudspeth added. "I know my hours during the season start awfully early, but she beats me by an hour or two. I've never seen anyone work as hard as she has."

Except, maybe, this certain bowl team.


WHAT: World's oldest annual marathon, a 26.2-mile road race through eight Massachusetts cities and town.
WHERE: Starting in Hopkinton, Mass., and ending in Boston's Copley Square.
WHEN: Monday.
2011 CHAMPIONS: Men "“ Geoffrey Mutai of Kenya in 2:03:02; Women "“ Caroline Kilel of Kenya in 2:22:36.
2011 PARTICIPANTS: 26,907 total, including 15,445 men and 11,462 women.
LOCAL PARTICIPANTS: Acadiana-area runners entered a qualifying time and a bib number for Monday's marathon include Lafayette's Frederic Bonvillain, Shane Hinds, Tyla Hudspeth, Julie Pilgrim and Randal Pilgrim (total of 76 from Louisiana).
FUN FACT: Women were not allowed to officially run the Boston Marathon until 1972.