Nhu Y Stessman started running to relieve the stress of teaching organic chemistry at Stanislaus State and lose weight she’d gained while pregnant with the last of her three children.
Her husband and fellow organic chemistry professor, Chad Stessman, hit the road a few years later at the invitation of colleague Elvin Alemán, who’d decided they should get together and run a couple of nights a week, after their children had gone to bed, just to get back in shape.
That running morphed into something bigger. The trio has completed four marathons together the most recent in Detroit in October – and want to run a marathon in each of the 50 states. Additionally, Nhu Y, who began with the California International Marathon in Sacramento in 2011, wants to duplicate her feat of running the six majors – Boston, Chicago, New York, Tokyo, Berlin and London – with Chad and Alemán. They may even end their odyssey running the Athens Marathon, where the 26.2-mile race originated.
“Chad and Elvin have a spreadsheet of what marathon we’re running next, and I just follow them.” Nhu Y said.
Next up is in Honolulu in December followed by Charleston, South Carolina in January. Both races will occur during winter break. The educators schedule races around their classes.
Nhu Y and Chad qualified for the Boston Marathon last April and will run the Big Sur Marathon a week later. Alemán is not qualified for Boston and is waiting to see if he is invited to run at Big Sur.
Running marathons a week apart is not typical.
“You need a lot more time than that, but when you get in these things, you get kind of crazy,” Nhu Y said. “You get swag when you run in these races. You get something that says you ran Boston and Big Sur in one week.”
There will be plenty of swag, shirts, medals, entry numbers and the like by the time the trio meets its goal, but that’s not what really matters.
They’ve created memories and a bond.
Nhu Y, a native of Vietnam, who met her husband when both were Ph.D. students at the University of Arizona, never intended to run a marathon.
“My sister-in-law asked me to run the California International Marathon in Sacramento and I said, ‘Are you crazy?’” she said.
The running guide described training by completing short distances on work days and longer ones on weekends, and she figured she could do it.
“Afterward I thought I was going to die,” Nhu Y said. “I felt like I had the flu; my body ached all over. Then, you feel really good about yourself.
“There’s this correlation to the same kind of accomplishments in grad school. There’s a lot of failure each day. But once you finish and an experiment, or an idea works, the consistency pays off. I don’t know how to explain how one feels after finishing a marathon. Maybe, my time is really bad, but that accomplishment was there. Maybe that’s why I like it.”
Alemán and Chad have seen that same connection since their first marathon, the April 2019 Mt. Charleston Marathon in Las Vegas, which starts at 7,633 feet and drops 5,000 feet in elevation.
“We thought it would be fast because it dropped downhill 5,000 feet,” said Chad, the only one of the three with previous running experience, having been on his high school track team in North Dakota. “You start thinking, why did I decide to do this? I don’t want to do this. I want to stop. Once I finished the race, I could hardly walk.”
Alemán could barely walk, either, after nearly five hours of running.
“I went to sit in a corner, and I was sitting on this wooden pallet and saw this table of bananas,” Alemán said. “I wanted a banana, but I didn’t want to stand up and walk to get it. I look back and say it was a horrible experience.”
Yet, he kept running, coached by Nhu Y.
He’s in better shape, lost weight he gained when an injury forced him to stop for a couple years before resuming in 2018. He likes the example he’s setting for his wife, Enid, who runs occasionally, after never having run in her life, and 11-year-old daughter, Sofia.
“I hope my daughter can see that she can do this at my age to meet friends, stay in shape if she has to, exercise if she has to,” Alemán said.
Nhu Y and Chad feel the same way about their children: Lilyane, who is completing her first year at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo; Alice, a high school junior, and Anthony, an eighth grader.
Friendship, along with travel, seeing new places, and experiencing new cultures and food, are the best rewards.
“We’ve gotten to meet a lot of new people and expand our friend group and people we interact with,” Chad said.
It’s not just the friends they’ve met on their runs that have similar goals, train and travel with them. They’ve realized the depth of their friendships with chemistry department colleagues, and appreciate that they have proctored exams to allow the trio to get away for races, to continue pursuit of their dream.
“I’m so glad the three of us met. I value the friendship,” Nhu Y said. “With the pandemic, we had that outlet of continued training, but we didn’t know what we were training for. Then races began and it allowed us to have some relief from all this craziness around us.”
Alemán feels the same way.
“For me it helps me out with the stress of work,” Alemán said. “These guys are great. My wife and daughter are here, but all my family is in Puerto Rico, so I’ve adopted this group of people in my department as my extended family here. We run together, have lunch and dinner together. Our kids play together. Running is just another excuse to get together.”
The trio would love to expand their running group among Stan State colleagues. They won’t even make others join their 50-state quest.
“What we’re doing is kind of crazy, to be honest,” Nhu Y said.