By Ellen Fix

Chastain Park neighborhood resident Stephanie Herbst-Lucke can bolt through Buckhead and sprint around Sandy Springs faster than rush-hour traffic. It’s doubtful you’ll catch up with the 5’7”, 117-pound, five-time NCAA title-winning runner on foot.

On April 20, she joined an elite field of runners, which included only 10 other contenders over age 40, at the U.S. Olympic Team Trials-Women’s Marathon in Boston and finished in 2:45:14.

While impressive, she trailed as the 59th finisher. The 42-year-old mother of three also ran nearly 10 minutes slower than her predicted time.

“It was a disaster. It was only my second marathon and some of the other runners my age had already done 25 of them,” she said. “And they hadn’t taken 20 years off from running. Joan Benoit [1984 Olympic Gold Medalist in the first women’s marathon] who is 50, ran it, too. [Her time was 2:49:08, an event record for her age group.] But I’m old and inexperienced.”

Herbst-Lucke returned to running after a nearly two-decade hiatus. She won four state championships at her Chaska, Minnesota high school, then continued running for two years at University of Wisconsin. On an individual level she earned three titles and her team earned another two. She set collegiate and NCAA records for the 5,000 and 10,000 meter runs.

But the mounting pressures placed on her to continually set new collegiate records, while pursuing a double-major and making speaking engagements, got the better of her. She refocused her energies on her career instead, eventually becoming the acting vice president of Southwestern Bell Communications and opening her own business.

She met her husband Jim Lucke while working in the same building in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. They became running partners, married and now have three children Katie, 12, Madeleine, 10 and Daniel, 6, who attend Pace Academy in Buckhead. They moved to Sandy Springs when Jim, an attorney, became general counsel for Spectrum Brands (formerly Rayovac). He is now general counsel for Mohawk Industries.

Two years ago, Herbst-Lucke was encouraged by a friend to participate in the LaSalle Bank‘s Chicago Marathon. Despite enduring an illness and stopping three times along the route, she finished with a stunning 2:42:53 time that qualified her for the Boston trials. Having returned to the fold of elite runners, Herbst-Lucke knew she couldn’t rely on luck to match her predicted time of two hours, 36 minutes. She began a grueling training schedule reminiscent of a military boot camp.

She starts the day with an “easy” six-mile neighborhood lap before the kids go to school. Then she does her “real workout” at the Westminster School soft-surface track where she says, “The landscapers cheer me on. They’re my little fan club.”

At Westminster, she also performs strength training, followed by her daily ice bath. Grabbing one of the 40-pound ice bags from her freezer, she dumps it in her tub, fills it with water, and soaks for 10 minutes. She admits it’s painful, but it serves a purpose.

“All the elite runners do it. It takes all the lactic acid out of your legs and pulls all the blood to your heart. Lactic acid fatigues you,” she said. “I don’t eat until all that’s done. A lot of times my first meal is at 1:00 p.m. And I eat the rest of day to refuel all the calories I’ve lost.”

By the end of her six-day-a-week regimen, she puts in 100 miles.

Once a week she sees a chiropractor, Dr. Josh Glass, D.C.; and a massage therapist, Robin Rogers of Georgia Sports Massage. Twice a week she visits personal trainer Nate Taylor, owner of Evolution Fitness in Sandy Springs. She relies on Dr. Thomas Myers, an orthopedic surgeon, for advice when something isn’t quite right.

In addition, she trains under the tutelage of Dr. Dave Martin, world-renowned running expert, author and co-director of the Laboratory for Elite Athlete Performance at Georgia State University. A thorough evaluation lead Dr. Martin to discover that Herbst-Lucke had 40 percent excess lung capacity – essential for endurance athletes.

“It’s almost a genetic thing; it’s like I didn’t pick running, it picked me,” explains Herbst-Lucke, whose swift pace was recognized as a child.

But the odds weren’t with her in Boston. She was astonished at the sight of all the “tiny, thin people” wearing gear from various sponsors, chatting on their iPods and hanging on their agents. “I had a weird sense about it,” she said.

An hour into the race, she had used up all her glycogen stores, she says. Plus, she was wearing “these really thin flats and my feet started bleeding. You use 1120 or so grams of carbs an hour while racing. But everyone’s different and some carry more body fat and they don’t drink anything.

“If I was more experienced I would have had more calories when I started the race, or started out slower so I wouldn’t burn that much right away,” she added. “It takes 30 minutes to process the carbs once you take it in, too. Once it goes bad, it goes down hill; you go way down.”

Still, this past March, in the U.S. 15km Championship in Jacksonville, she picked herself up after a fall and finished in 10th place. This makes her one of the fastest female runners in the U.S.; and there is no way is she giving up. She has her eye on a 10k qualifier and other masters’ level races.

“I’m driven to do what I missed,” she said. “I’d like to run a marathon that shows what the testing indicates I’m capable of and I’d like to do better in the Nationals.”

But winning is not the only reason she keeps running. She feels it’s an inspiration for her children and more.

“It improves your health, your outlook, and gives you the ability to say anything is possible because you’re constantly proving to yourself you can do things you didn’t think you could do,” she said.

Besides, her family remains her most enthusiastic fans – especially her husband. “Jim has a very busy job and he’s really had to devote himself to my running,” Herbst-Lucke said. “He’s in it for me.”