Fitness: Elite runner Jen Gallant is quick to the finish line, and quick to think beyond it

FOR THE BELLINGHAM HERALDAugust 26, 2013 

8 13 mag Gallant

YMCA Girls on the Run coordinator Jenn Gallant plays a game with Girls on the Run kids at Columbia Elementary Wednesday, May 15, 2013, in Bellingham. There are approximately 175 girls in the program in Whatcom County.

PHILIP A. DWYER — THE BELLINGHAM HERALD Buy Photo

Before running a distant marathon, Bellingham's Jen Gallant might study city travel guides as keenly as she analyzes the 26-mile race course.

Her focus shares the race with the place. Unlike some athletes whose passion borders on single-minded obsession, Gallant's measured view extends far beyond the finish line.

"The highlight of running any marathon for me is the opportunity to see a new city," says the 43-year-old who has become one of Whatcom County's elite runners. "I don't like to put all my energy into the run. I want to experience the city itself."

Even when recalling her participation in the 2008 Boston Marathon, she talks less about the race spectacle than the joy of having her father, Bob, and youngest daughter, Karina, there to see the event and, of course, play tourist with her.

Such big-picture perspective steers Gallant in other parts of her life, perhaps leading to her abundance of positive energy. The California native enthusiastically ties her love of running to children on several fronts, most prominently as coordinator of the local Girls on the Run program.

"She lives out everything just the way she models for the girls," says Tammy Bennett, her friend and boss at Whatcom Family YMCA, which administers the program. "She can see the positive in anyone and any situation."

The Girls of the Run curriculum, geared for third- through sixth-graders, promotes good fitness habits through running. It also helps to build self-esteem while preparing pre-teens for life's social, mental and emotional challenges.

Gallant easily relates to the participants because she knows firsthand some of their obstacles.

"I remember growing up in Southern California where status and looks were so important," she says. "It affected me strongly in middle school, fighting very low self-esteem and poor body image. I wish I would have had something like this to help with that."

The program's director since 2009, Gallant became involved two years earlier as a volunteer coach, an experience that she says rewarded her as much as the girls.

"They're so open to the female role models," she says. "It gave me a great feeling being a part of it. I'm a fairly nurturing person, and that fed a need for me."

Gallant finds time for youth recreational activities beyond Girls on the Run, her major priority at the Y. Gallant was race director for this year's inaugural Bellingham Kids Traverse, has assisted with the Run Like a Girl Half-Marathon, and helped coach the Sehome High School girls cross-country team last fall.

Her family - husband Dave and daughters Rose, 18, and Karina, 15 - has provided support by helping at races.

Gallant also leads the Y's Trailblazers summer camp, where boys and girls run on five county trails.

"I wanted to work with boys, too," she says.

After moving to Bellingham in 2002 from California, Gallant discovered trail running. She won the master's division and finished second overall among female runners in last year's Bellingham Trail Running Series - a half-dozen monthly races - and earlier this year quickly moved into position to win the 2013 series.

Trails clearly have become her running delight.

"It's the beauty of the trails and the feeling I get," she says. "It's feeling almost like a child again, getting dirty and muddy."

Gallant met her husband at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, where she earned a degree in psychology. Dave, who grew up in the San Juan Islands, used to be an active mountain biker but now enjoys Bikram Yoga.

"Running's not his passion," Jen says.

SLOW TO RUN

Running wasn't a big early priority for her, either, although the genes, perhaps, were there. She remembers cheering on her father at the Los Angeles Marathon during her childhood, and was influenced enough by him to join her high school cross-country team.

Gallant, though, didn't take running seriously then, participating in part because she had friends on the team. In practices, she says, "I'd run to McDonald's for ice cream in the middle."

A stress fracture her senior year put an end to running races, until she came to Bellingham, where it became a fundamental part of her life.

"It was a way to cope with the rain," she says, "and I met some of my best friends when I started long-distance running."

Gallant, who has succeeded in both short- and long-distance races in the region, remembers being "very sore" after her first race here, a 5-kilometer run about eight years ago. She eventually joined Bellingham Fit, a six-month training program for prospective marathon runners, and qualified for Boston at the 2007 Bellingham Bay Marathon.

She finished the Boston run in 3 hours 36 minutes, in the top 20 percent among women. The next year, 2009, she ran the Nike Women's Marathon in San Francisco six minutes faster.

Despite her rise, Gallant says she never grasped the extent of her talent until qualifying for Boston.

"Then I started pushing myself more," she recalls. "Girls on the Run taught me a lot, too, about setting a goal and taking small steps to reach it - working to get there, accomplishing it and knowing how special that is."

While Girls on the Run may provide Gallant with dual teach-and-learn benefits, the YMCA's Bennett knows who the big winners are with Gallant around.

"The big thing is that she's sincere," Bennett says. "Kids are on to adults who talk down to them. She's relevant and truly interested in the girls, and the girls know that."

Some of them, Bennett indicates, return later to volunteer in the program, obviously impacted by Gallant's work and, like their role model, bringing a wider perspective to help others.

JEN GALLANT'S FAVORITE RACE: CHUCKANUT 50K

Bellingham's Jen Gallant has run six marathons, including the famed Boston Marathon, and would have had a seventh if Hurricane Sandy hadn't cancelled the 2012 New York Marathon.

Her running highlight, though, was the local Chuckanut 50K in 2009, a race she did only once.

Why that one?

"It keeps coming back to me. It started with the training with a lot of people, and having funny moments along the way," she says. "My daughters both ran a little with me that day. And they were at the finish line with my husband. It's my favorite race."

Bob Carter is a freelance writer in White Rock, B.C.

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