VALPARAISO | Training for a marathon, with long weekend runs of 20 or more miles, seemed a bit intimidating to Lauren Hardesty.
And Hardesty isn't just an average, every-day runner.
A 2007 Valparaiso High School graduate, Hardesty completed a successful college career at the University of Iowa in 2011. She excelled in cross country and track, wrapping up her career with a 20th-place finish in the 1,500-meter run at the NCAA Championships.
After working for a year and taking some time off from running for the first time since her sixth-grade year at Ben Franklin Middle School, Hardesty was ready for a challenge.
"I always told myself, even in high school, that I wanted to run a marathon someday - at least once," said Hardesty, 23. "I figured the sooner I did it after college running, the easier it would be.
"Being out a year, I wanted to train for something so I thought it would be a perfect time to run it."
After college graduation, Hardesty returned home and worked at a local pediatric rehabilitation center before deciding she wanted to become a teacher. She's currently taking online classes to earn a teaching degree, and this summer became the assistant girls cross country coach at VHS under Boomer Nellessen after long-time coach Karen DeVries retired.
As part of her job, she runs and trains with the Viking girls.
"I probably wouldn't have even thought to apply for it if Boomer hadn't called me," Hardesty said. "It wasn't on my radar. It all worked out well and it's an awesome opportunity. I obviously have a passion for running and it's working out."
Hardesty took a break from running in the summer of 2011 due to plantar fasciitis in both feet.
"I had been battling it in one foot for two years and in another for one year," she said. "I took a good six months off so they could heal all the way ... but I also wanted to give my mind a break because I was competing at a high level for so long."
This year, she decided to join the Opportunity Enterprises Marathon Team in Valparaiso. The team has been in existence since 1999, and has weekend group long runs to prepare for the Chicago Marathon. Hardesty and the 400 OE team members will be part of a crowd of 45,000 running Sunday's big race through the streets of the Windy City.
"I wanted to get back to running where it wasn't so competitive, where I could enjoy it for what it was," Hardesty said. "In college there was more pressure, so I wanted to free my mind from that."
Hardesty trained about 50 miles per week in college, but at a fast pace. Running with the high school girls and OE runners, she has been able to dial it down a bit and enjoy the long runs with new friends.
She completed a 22-mile run three weeks ago, and feels prepared for the race.
"It ended up being a lot more enjoyable than I thought it would be because we are running at a slower pace," Hardesty said. "The 22-miler wasn't as bad as I thought it would be."
Hardesty will be running the race with her twin sister, Amanda, who also ran for the Hawkeyes and remained in Iowa City after graduation.
"This last year was our first year apart," Hardesty said. "It's definitely been a transition, for sure. We've lived together our whole lives, never been apart. But we've both been super busy with work, which has made it easier."
During their high school years, the Hardesty twins were part of two state champion cross country teams (2003, 2004) and teams that finished state runners-up in 2005 and 2006.
Lauren was the state 1,600-meter champion in track as a junior, and her best individual state cross country finish was seventh in 2005.
She's been able to share that experience with the girls on this year's team, and after Sunday will have even more to talk about.
"It's been a blessing to run with them," Hardesty said. "I think they enjoy it. I've been able to share my wisdom and experience from college with them. I've been through the program, and I know what it's like."