Xiaodong Gao aiming for the six World Marathon Majors

Research scientist aiming for the six World Marathon Majors

When research scientist Xiaodong Gao crossed the finish line at the Berlin Marathon Sept. 24, he reached the halfway mark to his goal of running six of the world’s largest and most-renowned marathons.

Having completed the Chicago Marathon in 2016 and the Boston Marathon this past April, the 40-year-old native of China’s Jiangsu province still needs to run the New York City, Tokyo and London marathons to earn the highly coveted medal awarded to finishers of the six World Marathon Majors.

Xiaodong Gao holds his finisher’s medal from the Berlin Marathon while displaying medals from Houston, Chicago and Boston marathons and the Texas Independence Relay.

That goal wasn’t even remotely on Gao’s radar four years ago when he started running. In October 2013 Gao went for a health checkup and discovered that his cholesterol was “off the charts.”

“I needed to do something to change that,” said Gao, whose weight of 220 pounds was due more to his girth than his height of 6 feet. He began running in his Clear Lake neighborhood early in the morning before going to his lab at Rice, where he studies the chemical signals of biochar.

A year later he was running 50 to 60 miles a week to train for his first 26.2-mile race – the 2015 Houston Marathon, which he finished in 3:25:01. He shaved more than 15 minutes off that time when he ran Houston again in 2016 in 3:09:55 – a time fast enough to qualify for the Boston Marathon.

“Once I qualified for Boston, I thought, ‘Why not try to do all six world marathon majors?’” Gao said. “It would give me the chance to experience different cultures, traditions and food, and you get that nice medal after you finish all six.”

Gao ran Boston in 3:27 and fondly remembers the cheering crowds that lined the race route “like crazy.” He was unable to improve on that time in the Berlin Marathon, which he ran in 3:35, due to rain, heat and 100 percent humidity the day of the race and Houston’s summer temperatures, which are not ideal for marathon training. “But the really excited crowds at the finish line made me very happy,” Gao said. He celebrated by drinking “a lot of beer” in Germany, and he and his wife turned the trip into a mini vacation by visiting several museums in Berlin.

As Gao was upping his mileage to train for marathons, he was having difficulty finding people to run with. So he used social media to co-found the Houston Long Running Club, which now has more than 400 members throughout the Houston area. “Training with a friend makes it easier and more fun,” he said. “We offer our experience to help other people who are learning to run, and we celebrate after a race by drinking and eating together.” One of his favorite post-race foods is mala Sichuan, a spicy and hot Chinese cuisine.

In addition to running marathons, members of the Houston Long Running Club have formed teams to run the Texas Independence Relay, which starts in Gonzales, where the Texas Revolution began, and finishes more than 200 miles away at the San Jacinto Monument, where Texas won its independence, near the Houston Ship Channel. Gao has competed in the two-day relay twice and will be captain of his 12-member team in the 2018 relay.

Gao hopes that 2018 will also be the year his application gets selected in the random drawings for entry in the New York City Marathon. And he plans to run the Houston Marathon again in January with hopes of setting a personal record. “I’d like to break three hours,” he said. “If everything goes right, it will be like winning the lottery.”

Due to the expense and time commitment to travel to London and Tokyo, Gao doesn’t expect to run marathons there until 2019, provided that his name gets picked in the lottery for each race.

Meanwhile, he expects that his total running mileage, which he records daily, will pass 10,000 miles by the end of this year.

“Running is a great way to relieve the pressure from daily life even though it’s difficult to find time to train when you have a full-time job and a family to take care of,” Gao said. “And I want to set a good example for my two kids. You set a goal and work hard for it. If you achieve your goal, that’s great. If not, accept it and work harder next time.”

“Xiaodong is an excellent scientist, and we’re lucky to have him in the department,” said Carrie Masiello, professor of Earth, environmental and planetary sciences, whose research group includes Gao. “He’s a strong analytical chemist and he’s also a thoughtful mentor of students in the lab, transferring his knowledge to others. He’s also especially good at seeing tasks through to completion. He is not deterred by analytical or intellectual challenges, and he likes to close on projects, making sure that his teams’ projects get all the way to publication. I think this drive to finish tasks thoroughly and completely is consistent between his research and marathoning.”

The desire for better health that motivated Gao to start running has paid off: He now weighs 160 pounds. But that presented a problem of its own. When he was visiting his parents in China, he tried to exchange currency at a bank there. The clerk did not think Gao was the person pictured on his Chinese ID because the photo had been taken prior to his dramatic weight loss. “It’s not you,” Gao remembered the clerk saying. “I had to show them some alternate forms of ID to convince them who I am.”

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