By Henry Howard
Bill and Debbie Gelber were happy and in love when they committed to each other at their wedding ceremony in 2007.
But when they flipped through their wedding photos, they were both surprised at how much weight they had gained. Debbie was approaching her 40th birthday and Bill would soon turn 50.
Thus began another commitment for the couple: helping each other on the path to good health, which eventually led to more than 100 races for her and plenty of others for him.
A vow to exercise, lose weight
Losing 55 Pounds
“I joined Weight Watchers and he did the program along with me, without becoming an official member,” Debbie recalls. “In nine months, I lost 55 pounds and went from a size 16 to a size 2 and became a lifetime member. Bill lost a total of 80 pounds in around 11 months. It wasn’t until after I became a Weight Watchers leader that he finally joined and became an official lifetime member. He still attends my meetings.”
This was a drastic — but necessary — change for Debbie, a self admitted “band nerd” who never played sports or ran competitively until turning 40. She was partially motivated by her father was morbidly obese and died at age 67.
“I have fought with my weight all through my life,” she says. “Something just clicked this time and I had the determination to get to my goal. I loved the feeling of having more energy and reaching small goals that I set for myself. My husband supported me all along the way. We made each other go to the gym if one of us didn’t have the energy, the other pushed and encouraged. We had each other and still do!”
A ‘real’ runner
Debbie started out slowly, mixing 20- to 30-minute treadmill run-walks in with her weight training sessions. “I began by running 30 seconds, walking a minute, etc.,“ she says. “Basically C25K before I knew there was such a thing. When I could finally run for two miles straight, I signed up for my first 5K. After running that race without stopping and winning my division, I considered myself a ‘real’ runner.”
At the same time, Bill worked out with Debbie, usually on the elliptical since he had arthritis in his knees. He would always be at the finish line of her races, cheering her on. Inside, he had the desire to cross the finish line himself.
“After I started racing, he secretly met with a friend of his who was a physical therapist,” Debbie recalls. “He corrected his gait and gave him some tips and Bill finally felt like he would be able to finish a two-mile race.”
Bill surprised Debbie when he showed up with a bib at the Race of the Arts in their hometown — a special race because she is a musician and he is in theater.
“I was so proud of him and happy that he broke out of his comfort zone,” she says, noting that they crossed the finish line together holding hands. “He also was never an athlete and gets nervous at competitive events. It was wonderful to know that he wanted to share this activity with me. He worked so hard and it paid off. We don’t always run together now, but we go to these races together and share the experience.”
Chipping away at a Boston qualifier
As Debbie progressed in her running journey, she knew she needed some assistance to reach her goal: A Boston Marathon qualifying time. She was close with a PR of 4:02, only needing to trim off seven minutes.
She reached out to Marathon Training Academy coach Angie Spencer a few days after completing the New Year’s Double in 2015 — a marathon on New Year’s Eve and marathon on New Year’s Day.
“I really wanted to BQ and was ever so close,” Debbie says. “I knew that Angie could help me. I was so happy that she had an opening and was so positive that my goal of BQing could definitely happen for me.”
Heart Rate Training
First up was an introduction to heart-rate training, which forces athletes to run at a specific heart rate, rather than a minutes-per-mile-pace. The training theory is that slower runs will prepare the body for strong racing times, though it can be challenging in practice.
“It was very frustrating at first,” Debbie says. “Before this, I thought that every run needed to be faster than the last. I didn’t know what an ‘easy run’ was.”
Boston or Bust!
Debbie ran her 10th marathon a couple of months later in Oklahoma City and finished just short of her BQ time. “I was happy though, because this was the first race that I broke four hours! (3:59:52),” she says. “I tried Chicago and due to going out too fast and the heat, didn’t make it either (4:00:30). After that, I concentrated on training for the Double Double and Angie helped me to finish that strong.”
She again set a PR on her next BQ attempt, but fell 30 seconds short of qualifying at Napa Valley in March 2016. “Again, I wasn’t disappointed because there was nothing left in me at the finish and I was so close I could taste it! I immediately signed up for REVEL Mt. Charleston just determined as all hell to get that BQ. My screensaver said BQ or Bust, my bib said BQ or Bust. I read The Runner’s Brain, I trained hard, cross trained, cut back on my wine and … “
“Marathon Number 15 was the one. I BQ’d by 12 minutes! 3:43:45.”
She unabashedly credits her coach for getting her to the finish line and meeting her Boston goal.
“Signing up to be coached by Angie was one of the best decisions of my life. She has enabled me to reach goals I never thought I could achieve. Her workouts are thoughtfully planned and she provides such wonderful positivity and encouragement. I would recommend her coaching to anyone from beginner to advanced.”
Sources of inspiration
Debbie counts those 15 marathons among the more than 100 races (including 15 half marathons) she has completed since 2009. She paced Bill through his first half marathon and, more recently, a 12-minute PR in his fastest HM.
While Debbie serves as an inspiration to those who want to fulfill their own weight loss goals, she too has her own sources of motivation.
“I am inspired by my husband for his perseverance and his dedication, by the wonderful people in the MTA community who are continuously achieving their dreams, and by the members who attend my Weight Watcher meetings.”
And she is not slowing down whatsoever. Her goals, in fact, are getting more challenging.
“My next goal will be to complete a 50K and then to do a 50-miler by the time I am 50 (2 ½ years from now),” Debbie says. “I also want to continue running strong and injury-free. And most of all, I want to keep enjoying running.”
Hometown: Lubbock, Texas
Number of years running: Seven and a half
How many miles a week do you typically run: 25-30
Point of pride: Two of the events I am most proud of were completing the New Year’s Double Double in Allen, Texas, last year (5k/marathon – New Year’s Eve and 5k/marathon New Year’s Day) and qualifying for the Boston Marathon in May 2016 at Mt. Charleston.
Favorite race distance: Marathon
Favorite pre-race or training food/drink: I always eat an egg white/cheese sandwich before every race. I also fuel with UCAN.
Favorite or inspirational song to run to: I love it when Eye of the Tiger comes on at the bottom of a hill or during a tough stretch of a run.
Favorite or inspirational mantra/phrase: You are strong, you are light, you are fast.
Where can other runners connect or follow you:
debbiegelber on Twitter and Instagram or Debbie Russell Gelber on Facebook