Among the redwoods of Sonoma County, Ryan Neely on bended knee and Kimberly O’Donnell in a state of frozen bliss, the lives of this marathon power couple came to a brief and joyous standstill.
Three months later, the newly engaged 25-year-old Harvard grads are back at full speed and eager to make their return to the San Luis Obispo Marathon — a race both won with record-setting performances a year ago.
“It’s such a unique race,” O’Donnell said, “because it’s run so well like a big marathon, but it still has that smaller feel that we love. They really take care of the athletes, and it’s not so big that it’s all a mess. Plus, the course itself is gorgeous.”
Neely and O’Donnell met on campus in 2010 and were dating in 2014, when they made their first trip to San Luis Obispo a memorable one.
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Neely, a distance runner at Harvard now working toward a doctorate in neuroengineering at UC Berkeley, won the men’s 26.2-mile race in a current course record of 2 hours, 34 minutes, 47 seconds.
O’Donnell crossed the finish line 30 minutes later to win the women’s in 3:04:34.
“Of course I’d love to come back and defend my title,” said Neely, whose personal best is a 2:29:40 at the 2013 OC Marathon. “I’m a competitive guy and I like the race, so I’ll go out and make sure I do everything to do that.”
It’s true opposites attract, because for O’Donnell, winning is far from her mind when she hits the course.
“I took up distance running purely for the love of it,” the UC Davis Veterinary Medical School enrollee said. “I’m going to run a marathon because I love running, and I need that stress relief.”
Both competed in the Oakland Running Festival marathon this past March, with Neely taking third in 2:30:12 and O’Donnell second in 3:01:14.
It was O’Donnell first race since a pair of leg injuries kept her sidelined, or at least tried to.
She broke the top of her right shin bone — the tibial head — in October on an early morning run with Neely when the flash of a car’s high beams caused her to fall in a trench on the side of the road. Another fall in February required 15 stitches on her left knee just as she neared 100 percent health.
“I’m very stubborn,” she said. “There was only one week in the entire healing process where I didn’t run.”
Those 4:30 a.m. runs are a staple in their schedule, with both still taking on heavy course loads in intense subjects.
“The neuroengineering Ph.D. program is notorious for not having a lot of spare time,” Neely said. “But I always tell people that nothing else happens between 5 and 8 in the morning.
“(Running) is just such a nice balance to everything I do. It’s almost a stress reliever being able to take trips like this to beautiful parts of the country and break up that monotony.”
Neely and O’Donnell aren’t the only running couple competing in the elite field of Sunday’s race, which starts at 6 a.m. at San Luis Obispo High followed by the half-marathon start at 6:45.
The Arroyo Grande duo of Joe and Kara Thorne won the men’s and women’s 13.1-mile races last year in record times, and Joe — the 2013 marathon winner — will be back on the full, 26.2-mile course.
Elite running couple Ben and Stephanie Bruce will also be a part of the festivities, event director Heather Hellman said.
The elite field includes Kenyan Peter Kemboi (2:19:26 personal best), Juan Richardo Jaquez (2:28) of Mexico, and 2012 SLO Marathon champion Van McCarty, who took second behind Neely last year at 2:38:44.
The half-marathon field features 2010 USA Marathon champion Sergio Reyes.
“I’m a competitive guy, but it’s not disappointing if I don’t win,” Neely said. “That would just mean that there were guys pushing me. It’s a great thing to hear that you’re not going to be out by yourself, but you’ll have others pushing you to be your best.”