Feb 21, 2020

Evolution Brought Anthropology Professor Back to Running

By Christine Aucoin

In conquering 26.2 miles, an athlete emulates the endurance of that fabled messenger Pheidippides, running from Marathon to Athens to deliver word of a Greek victory. Pushing oneself to such a physiological achievement also benefits from an understanding of biology rivaling that of another famed Greek of the era, Hippocrates.

Luckily, this need for interdisciplinary prowess plays to the strengths of Gabrielle Russo, who will be competing in the 2020 U.S. Olympic Team Trials – Marathon after qualifying at the 2018 Philadelphia Marathon in 2:44:51. An assistant professor of anthropology at Stony Brook University, the 35-year-old Russo’s athletic and academic successes are a dynamic exercise in symbiosis with a touch of irony.

The balance between her dual careers has evolved over time. After competing mainly as a sprinter and hurdler in high school and college, Russo shifted focus toward her anthropological education for nearly a decade. She pursued her Ph.D. in physical anthropology from the University of Texas at Austin; completed two postdoctoral positions; and, in 2014, joined Stony Brook University’s faculty. After putting down roots in Long Island, she began “trying to re-connect with parts of myself that had been important in the past but sidelined in my academic pursuit.” In 2016, she rekindled her passion for running, this time over longer distance.

As she’s taken on marathons and ultramarathons – she’s the 2018 USATF 50 km Road Champion – Russo has found that her running and academic work have “intertwined and made me a much more whole person than I think either of those would individually.” Studying what she describes as the “biological and evolutionary perspective of being human” enriches her running by lending her “an informed background of anatomy and biomechanics.” How many runners can not only push themselves past their physical limits, but also fully comprehend the evolutionary processes that make such a feat possible?

“My department has been incredibly supportive of my running,” Russo said.

While many elite runners go to Kenya specifically to train, Russo travels there to focus on her academic work. Each summer, she travels to the Turkana Basin with the Napudet Research Project, of which she is a co-director. The project conducts paleontological field work, searching for primate fossils from the Miocene epoch to better understand what happened in a time period preceding the appearance of the human lineage.

While her training may take a backseat during these periods of research, the summers are hardly a break from physical activity. “Maybe I’ll run a handful of times, but the field work – we’re talking 12-, 14-hour days,” she said. “Some days, we’re walking probably the equivalent of what I’d be running.

“At first I was nervous, taking this time away from running. But the more time I spend weaving these pieces of my life together – I see that it’s fine. My running, when I’m back home, is probably better for taking a forced rest.”

After being injured last January, a stress fracture went misdiagnosed for about two months. “I decided about a month into being injured, when I didn’t have any idea about when I’d be able to return to running, I would try to make the most of it. I began cross training with swimming and biking. And so, as with a lot of injured runners, I decided I was a triathlete,” she joked.

Thus, this past September, Russo finished as runner-up in the Atlantic City 70.3 in 4:38, and on November 2 completed Ironman Florida in 11 hours.

With that combination of brains and brawn, it’s unsurprising that she’s yet to meet an obstacle – from any epoch – capable of hindering her Pheidippidian journey from Stony Brook to Atlanta.

Photos: NYRR Staten Island Half Marathon; Courtesy of Gabrielle Russo

Caption for the photo where she’s hold rock: Russo in Turkana Basin, Kenya, holding a fossil vertebra that dates to the Miocene (between 23 and 5 million years old).