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Runner Ishibe Quietly Racks Up Victories

By Rich McManus

Photos by Rich McManus and George Banker

On the Front Page...

Mention the word "runner" in Washington and you are likely to conjure political images, particularly in an election year. But one of the very best runners in the city has a deliberately low profile, letting her feet do all the talking. Though she is gradually gaining a reputation as a winner — she was named Washington Runner of the Year in 1999 and last month was the first female finisher in the Army 10-Miler — Dr. Naoko Ishibe is probably better known around NIH as the compact woman on the seventh floor of Executive Plaza South whose cubicle across from the kitchenette provides an almost constant invitation to snack.


"Being next to a kitchen is not a good thing," she laughs. "People bring food all the time and it's a free for all."

Epidemiologist Dr. Naoko Ishibe is also an elite runner.

Besides the running shoes on her feet and a polo shirt advertising Clif Bar, an energy food, it would be hard to tell that Ishibe, a third-year fellow in NCI's Division of Epidemiology and Genetics, is an elite runner. Sure, she has a distance runner's build, but there are no trophies in the office, no copies of running magazines, or hampers full of towels spent on noon-hour runs. There is no indication that, but for a strained piriformas — a muscle near where the hamstring joins the gluteus — Ishibe might well have spent her September in Sydney, competing in the Olympic Games.

"I would have competed in the Olympic trials if I hadn't been injured," she said. "I had a pretty good year this year, but that was pretty disappointing."

The "pretty good year" includes winning the Army Ten-Miler in 56:39, a personal best (by 86 seconds) that the Washington Post called evidence that Ishibe "has evolved into a top-level road racer." She also placed third in the Grand Prix of Cycling and Running in Alexandria in September, and earlier that month finished second in the Avon 10K in Baltimore. A year ago, she won the NASDAQ Veteran's Day 10K in D.C., and for Thanksgiving roasted the field in the Alexandria Turkey Trot 5-miler, finishing first in course-record time.

"I do believe that I could be quite a bit more competitive," she says, "but it's hard to do when you're putting in time at your job."

That she is just a few steps behind women who make a career of running, much less pursue major-league science, is even more remarkable when you consider that Ishibe only took up the sport as a senior in college to fulfill a physical education requirement.

Born in Kyoto, Japan, she came to the United States at age 5. She grew up an hour south of Houston, in Lake Jackson, Tex. Her father, a chemist, worked for Dow Chemical, which runs a massive plant in nearby Freeport. She played some tennis in high school, but her main extracurricular activity was music; she learned both clarinet and piano. Ironically, both Ishibe and her brother were chemistry majors in college, despite no particular prompting from their dad.

Ishibe en route to winning a 5K in 16:54 on June 19, 1999, in Fredericksburg, Va.

To fulfill the p.e. requirement at the University of Chicago, Ishibe took up running, in part because it offered a break from sitting around waiting for experiments to finish in the lab. Because the school is in Division III, she joined the cross-country team, figuring "it shouldn't be too intense. Division III is not that much different than intramural sports. I wouldn't have tried it at a Division I school." She was good enough to make the all-conference team her first time out.

Then came graduate school at Harvard. "In Boston, running is such a big deal. I started competing at the club level, but people kept trying to steer me toward the Boston Marathon," a race she has never entered. She won the Cape Cod Marathon in 1995, however, and finished third the following year in the Bermuda International Marathon. Also in 1996, she competed in the U.S. Olympic marathon trials, placing 71st. Her most recent marathon was the LaSalles Bank Chicago Marathon in 1997, where she finished 14th in 2:43:38. That same year, she earned her doctor of science degree in environmental health and epidemiology.

Besides opportunities for running and education, Boston also offered social life: While working as a translator for two elite Japanese marathon runners at the 1993 Boston Marathon, Ishibe met her husband, Ed Sheehan, who twice finished in the top 15 in the race, and who at the time was working for the Boston Athletic Association, which organizes the annual event. Though he is no longer a competitive runner himself, Sheehan is now his wife's coach.

Ishibe's workouts these days are solitary routines. "I don't socialize a lot with the running community. I like to train by myself. Besides, most of the groups train in the evening, which is inconvenient."

She runs virtually every morning around her neighborhood before work — longer on weekends — averaging perhaps 60-70 miles per week. "Compared to the big girls, that's not enough," she admits. "I'm a morning person, so it doesn't bother me to get up at 6 a.m." Once or twice a week she visits a track to work on her speed.

As she has matured as a runner, Ishibe has found that 10,000 meters is an ideal distance. "I hate cross country now, because you can't get into a rhythm," she says. Lately she favors the track over the road. Where some find endless laps insufferable, Ishibe explains with a laugh, "I like knowing where I am — it's the scientific, uptight side of me."

Ishibe runs for the finish line in the Avon 10K held in Baltimore Sept. 10; she placed second.

On rare occasions, when her rhythm in a race is just right, Ishibe says she experiences "a heightened sense of awareness. I can tell when someone is going to make a move. My intuition is sharper." Though it only happens a few times a year, the sensation is something for which she constantly strives.

After racing hard since mid-August, Ishibe is now taking a break in anticipation of the winter indoor season. She hasn't targeted any major races in 2001 yet, but intends to return to the track and improve her times in both the 5K and 10K. "I'll use the indoor season — a couple of races in the Boston area — to prepare for the outdoor season," she said.

Ishibe's talent has attracted the financial support of sponsors; Moving Comfort, a women's sports clothing company based in Chantilly, Va., makes the goods in its catalog free to her, and Clif Bar provides incentives that help pay her travel expenses. She has entered events as far afield as Yokohama and Seoul, competing as a member of the U.S. national team in an event called Ekiden, which is a road relay race that adds up to a marathon. "The distances vary from 5K to 10K, with six women to a team," she explains.

Despite appearing in the local sports pages more and more often, Ishibe prefers a low profile. "I try to keep my running low-key, but all my colleagues know that I do it."

There was a time when she was afraid that her peers at NIH would not approve of her extracurricular pursuits. "I had to prove that I could balance the two spheres when I first arrived here," she notes. "Now people are not so concerned."

She is considering the possibility of a brief sabbatical to concentrate on running, but says she hasn't quite figured it out. "NIH has been very understanding and accommodating so far," she said. "I don't want to have any regrets 10 years down the road, wondering, 'What if?...'"

At the moment, her studies of Von Hippel-Lindau disease consume her working hours at NCI. "We're anticipating data from a field study that will explore the role of genetic polymorphisms and environmental exposures," she explains.

Perhaps the answer as to whether she will give running the major shot her talent seems to be eliciting can be inferred from a more casual topic: Asked if she can resist the goodies available just across the hall in the kitchenette, she declares, "I don't believe in depriving yourself — at some point you're going to break down!" And she laughs like someone both happy and certain.

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