The seeds were planted early and took root when Jordan O’Dea was a little girl in Harwich.
Playing backyard games of tag with family and friends, she could run faster and longer than everyone else. She also remembers occasionally getting into mischief and sprinting away from her parents.
“They could never catch me,” she said with a wistful smile.
Jordan O’Dea was, it seems now, born to run.
At Dennis-Yarmouth Regional High School, her speed and endurance were an asset in field hockey, but after her freshman year she was coaxed into joining the cross country team. It would prove to be a smart decision, leading to a decorated scholastic career and a college scholarship.
In one of O’Dea’s first races for the Dolphins, with little training, she showed the flashes of a precocious talent that has led her to Hopkinton for Monday’s 122nd Boston Marathon. Her lofty goal: achieve a qualifying time for the U.S. Olympic Trials in 2020.
O’Dea, 24, a graduate student at Northeastern University studying for a master’s degree in education, is among 79 official entrants from the Cape and Islands in the marathon. Barring a breakdown — and over 26.2 miles anything is possible — she likely will be the fastest local woman and perhaps among the top 30 overall in a world-class field.
O’Dea has only once run the marathon distance. At Northeastern she excelled in cross country races (usually three miles) and 3,000-meter steeplechase events on the track. After finishing her collegiate athletic eligibility in 2017, she wanted another challenge. The marathon was the natural progression.
“For a distance runner, it’s the ultimate. Growing up around here, and then going to school in Boston, the marathon is something you always think about,” said O’Dea. “It’s such a cool atmosphere watching it. Once I was finished with my college career, I knew I wanted to be on the other side as a runner.”
Boston’s popularity — the field is capped at 30,000 — requires stringent qualifying standards based on age. To earn an official 2018 entry O’Dea had to finish a sanctioned marathon in under 3 hours, 35 minutes. She easily achieved that last September in Hingham, running 2:59:54 and winning the women’s division.
Her maiden marathon voyage was a resounding success, much like at that early high school cross country meet when she was in 10th grade. It was the Bay State Invitational in Wrentham. The inexperienced O’Dea went out quickly and kept pace with the front runners until it was just her and another runner from Hamilton-Wenham.
“They kept going back and forth,” recalled longtime Dennis-Yarmouth coach Jim Hoar. “Wenham would take a lead, Jordan would come back. With about 300-350 meters left to go, Hamilton-Wenham went ahead, but Jordan surged … Wenham took one more stab and got even. Jordan looked and took off. She won. And the girl from Hamilton-Wenham ended up in the medical tent – exhausted.”
Hoar remembers O’Dea’s reaction after the race: "Jordan said, ‘Well, if I’m going to run that hard, I want to win.’ You can’t teach that.”
Now, as a much more seasoned runner, not much has changed. O’Dea is easygoing, but a fierce flame burns beneath her pleasant demeanor. She thrives on competition and loves the feeling of running hard and fast. She balances school at night with waitressing during the day and marathon training seven days a week.
“I like staying busy and having goals and working toward something. Being a student-athlete has taught me to be well-organized,’ she said.
Matt Lonergan, the distance running coach at Northeastern, prepared O’Dea for the Hingham race and has continued training her for Boston.
“The first step to running a marathon is you have to really want to do it. It’s nothing like cross country or track,” said Lonergan. “Jordan and I had that conversation and she was all in.”
Lonergan’s plan was to gradually build O’Dea’s total weekly mileage from about 55 to 70 and her long runs from 12 to 18 miles.
“Those are the prerequisites for a marathoner with her goals,” said Lonergan. “Jordan’s base in college was moderate. We had to increase the volume and the intensity, but slowly in bits and pieces. You can’t rush it.”
The training has, at times, been tough and relentless, but O’Dea has come to understand it’s part of the process, both physically and mentally.
“Coach Lonergan wants me to be comfortable running tired. Your body and mind are feeling fatigued but you push through and stay on pace,” she said. “He has been great. There’s no way I could do this on my own.”
Lonergan’s coaching helped O’Dea through Hingham when she hit the infamous marathon wall at about 20 miles.
“Now I know what runners talk about when that happens. I thought I had experienced the feeling at the end of races when you’re totally spent, but nothing – nothing – was like this,” said O’Dea. “And I still had six miles to go! But that’s where the training gets you through.
“When I finished,” she added, “it was actually liberating. I made it. I had three goals: finish, qualify for Boston, and break three hours. I did it and it made me want to do another one because I knew I would be better prepared the next time.”
And now Boston awaits. O’Dea will pin race number 4624 to her singlet, lace up her Mizuno Inspire running shoes and embark on an examination of fortitude and fitness. She has the Hingham experience to draw on, but admits she’s a novice, and Boston is like no other marathon.
“I’m in the best shape of my life,” she said. “I’m nervous but confident. I’m prepared for whatever happens. This is still all very new. I’ll be happy if I can improve my time and gain more experience. It’s Boston and I want to enjoy it.”
Lonergan said O’Dea’s goal of meeting the Olympic standard is well within her reach. Based on last year's results, a 2:45 finish would put her in the top 30 women overall.
“Jordan runs how she feels and I think she’s feeling good about herself,” said Lonergan.
O’Dea has done workouts on the course and is well aware the energy-sapping hills, including Heartbreak around 20 miles, will be a challenge. But the first half from Hopkinton to Wellesley, much of it downhill, is also a test of patience and planning.
“Coach Lonergan has talked a lot about about being smart and not going too fast too early,” she said. “I have to control myself and not use up all that energy because you can never get it back when you need it.
“The nerves will be there. They always are, but I’m better now and can embrace that feeling and use them in a positive way.”
O’Dea has a year of graduate school to go and wants to teach elementary school and perhaps coach. However, she remains very much an athlete and is excited to see how far she can go as a runner.
She draws inspiration and support from her mother, Yvette Gomes, her grandparents, Donna and Manny Gomes, and Hoar, her old high school coach with whom she talks to at least once a week.
“We used to call coach Hoar the Wise Old Man,” she giggled. “Now I understand why. His guidance has been so helpful. I like checking in with him and talking, not really about running, but anything. If I have something going on, he’s always there for me.
“I’ve had so much support from my family and friends.”
On the eve of Boston, O’Dea admits her focus on the marathon has felt all-consuming, but running is her passion and an outlet to clear away clutter. She enjoys reading (“A Man Called Ove" and “The Art of Racing in the Rain” are recent favorites). However, when she needs to relax, there’s nothing she enjoys more than a workout and sweet sweat.
“Running helps me let go of everything else. If I have a lot going on, it calms me down.”
Jordan O’Dea will have a lot going on Monday and she’s ready. It turns out, she has been preparing for this since those days of backyard tag. So long ago, but so far, so fast, so good. She was born to run.
— Retired Cape Cod Times sports editor Bill Higgins can be contacted at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter: @BillHigginsCCT.