They reigned supreme that Thanksgiving Day in 1994. No one in the field of 1,157 runners on the streets of east Sacramento could touch Paul Thomas or Theresa McCourt, male and female winners of the inaugural Run to Feed the Hungry.
What the smattering of spectators saw that crisp November morning was two runners in their primes and at the height of their powers. Their performances in the 10K were things to behold. He won the men's race in 32 minutes and 32 seconds. She took the women's in 38:17.
Thomas, a former state champion from Jesuit High School who also ran at the University of Arkansas, was 25 and on the cusp of becoming the national duathlon (bike-run) champion.
McCourt, who had clocked a 2-hour, 50-minute marathon time a few years prior, was 35 and still among the top female racers in the Sacramento area.
In the years since, these two elite runners, who have never met, have chosen divergent life and athletic paths. Both, however, remain committed to a healthy lifestyle, to exercising regularly, to making running a lifelong activity, even if they no longer regularly collect the spoils of victory.
"Many of the guys from high school, even college, are (couch potatoes)," said Thomas, who now lives in Tucson, Ariz. "They say people who start running at (age) 30 do it for a lifetime. If you start at 10, get really competitive, you may burn out, get out of shape and come to hate running. It happens to a lot of people."
But not to these two runners who bear the distinction of winning the first Run to Feed the Hungry, which expects to draw 30,000 participants this morning for its 19th running.
Thomas, 43, has turned to competitive cycling, where he is a top Category 1 rider who has gone spoke-to-spoke with the likes of Lance Armstrong and Levi Leipheimer in stage races. Running is just cross-training for him now, though he'll still grind out sub-6- minute miles on the track.
McCourt, 53, went on to have a child, Ian, now 11, and no longer has the ultra-competitive urge to enter races. But she's still out there every morning, as early as 5 o'clock, putting in the miles with a gabby group of friends. She logs a long run each weekend, not out of training obligation, just enjoyment.
Their paths illustrate the options facing fast runners post-racing-prime to doggedly maintain near-peak fitness as long as possible in hopes of staying competitive, or to throttle back and run for the sheer joy of it.
There is, of course, a third option: not to run at all.
Neither would ever consider that.
McCourt, who still lives in Sacramento, had an almost stricken look when asked if she ever felt like stopping.
"Only for injuries," she said. "I remember once I went to see a doctor. She was about 30; I was 37. She said, 'You know you're getting older. It may be time to stop.' I was so annoyed. Then I was like, 'I'm going to get what I need to get back running not from this doctor and come back.' And I did. I saw that doctor later in a race. I gave her the big look."
Did McCourt beat her?
"Of course," she said, laughing. "I guess that's my ego, the competitiveness. But I was shocked: 37 was old? Look at me now."
There came a time, though, when her times started dipping. She finished her last California International Marathon in 2006, at 47, in 3 hours, 27 minutes and 48 seconds easily fast enough to qualify for the Boston Marathon in her age group, but a far cry from her 2:50:10 best as a 31-year-old.
That's when McCourt said she had to shed her ego and remember the noncompetitive joys of running.
"I really believe that it's about 10 years that you're really at your peak," she said. "Then you go into another mindset. My 10th year of running was really great. I think my best race was up at Humboldt, the half (marathon). I felt like I was flying. I thought, 'I've run all these years just to feel like this.' It was really magical. I thought, 'This must be the top now.' And it sort of was."
Life intervened. Marriage, then a pregnancy at age 42. Then learning that her son, Ian, at age 2, had Type 1 diabetes. She kept running, though, if only for the sake of reducing her stress level with physical activity.
These days, she is out the door before 6 a.m. and back before Ian heads off for school.
"I'm in this group with friends and it's more, 'Let's discuss our lives when we run or walk,' " she said. It's great fun. I do go back to my old club (the Buffalo Chips) sometimes, and I love that feeling of running fast, too. I would like, I think, to race again, maybe. But there's no sense of pressure."
For Thomas, the competitive fires still burn brightly. He counts that as a victory in itself, given that he's seen how those who take up competitive running in grade school burn out and end up shunning the sport they once loved.
"I made it through high school, which is unusual for the top age-group young guys," Thomas said. " Then I made it through college and into post- collegiate running, which is even more unusual. I've never burned out."
He was that young phenom, having run a 4:55 mile as an 11-year-old. At Jesuit, he was one of the few high school runners to break 9 minutes for the two-mile. He ran for collegiate track and cross country powerhouse Arkansas and had a 5K best of 13:58.
When he reached a plateau among elite runners, Thomas turned to the duathlon, finishing fourth in the world in 1994. He won some pro triathlons as well and turned to competitive cycling in 2008, while holding down jobs in the endurance sports industry (Thomas now works for active.com.) Last year, at 42, he won the Valley of the Sun stage race in Phoenix, against many younger competitors.
"One of the reasons I'm still out there is that, back in Sacramento, my dad was strict," he said. "He always let me run, but I was restricted from (doing) most everything else. My dad didn't know what he was doing, but it actually was a favor, because I've never looked at running as a punishment. It was a treat.
"The worst thing someone could do to a kid is to say, 'You did something wrong, go run two laps.' If you're taught that running is good, like I did, you embrace it."
Thomas, who is married but has no children, is justifiably proud that he's been able to maintain peak fitness when many others his age start to sag.
"What I've done on the bike the last two years is comparatively like a 29:20 10K," he said. "I've defied the odds over the years, compared to other guys who've slowed down.
"Becoming multisport in your life is important. Because, when you can't do one (because of injury) there are other sports to do. If a runner like Alan Webb (an oft-injured elite distance runner) gets hurt, he just can't jump on a bike and ride 300 miles, because it's so foreign to him."
Asked if there will come a day when he no longer yearns to compete, Thomas was unequivocal.
"I still race with the eye of the tiger," he said. "The way I see it is, I train to feel good. I race because I train. That's it. The training, to me, is more therapeutic than the racing. But there's a certain energy at an event. I feel bad for some of my former teammates. They can't experience that feeling anymore, because they're out of shape."
Both Thomas and McCourt say the one way to stay in it for the long run is never to get out of shape in the first place. But they hasten to add that it's never too late to get in shape, and they point to active 80-year-olds they know as inspirations.
"I'd love to keep running when I'm 80," McCourt said, "if my body says OK."
THANKSGIVING DAY RUN TO FEED THE HUNGRY
Start times:10K 8:35 a.m.; timed 5K 9 a.m.; untimed 5K and walkers immediately after the 5K run
Where: The J Street entrance to California State University, Sacramento
How far: 5K (3.1 mile) run/walk and 10K (6.2 mile) run
Other ways to contribute: Go online at www.sacramentofoodbank.org.