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July 2006 Issue

Norah Shire, digestive diseases research associate and PhD candidate.
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One Marathon Down, Olympics Yet to Go

By Jill Hafner
Published July 2006

It was just two months ago that UC research associate and PhD candidate Norah Shire captured Cincinnati’s crown jewel, the 2006 Flying Pig Marathon. And already she has her eyes set on something bigger—qualifying for the Olympic trials.


Shire plans to shave nine minutes off of her Flying Pig time when she competes in the Columbus Marathon this fall. That time of 2:47:00 would place her in the company of other athletes—professional runners who spend countless hours training solely for the ultimate Olympic race.


But Shire is different.


Besides running nine miles to jump-start her day and logging another three miles most evenings to prepare for upcoming races, Shire spends 40-plus hours at her day job in UC’s digestive diseases division. On top of that, she is wrapping up her dissertation in epidemiology and biostatistics.


But this “jack of all trades” thinks nothing of her workload.


“It’s all about mental focus and persistence for me,” says Shire. “I think running almost parallels my research and dissertation work. I can go for runs and focus completely on that, and I can work on my research or dissertation and completely focus on that.


“I solve a lot of problems when I run. If I’m developing complicated models to analyze viral evolution, I will think about that while I’m running,” she says.

“Sometimes I find myself running faster, and sometimes I get really excited if I get a ‘eureka!’ kind of moment—thinking ‘that’s it, that’s the model I need to use!”


Admittedly, Shire says she fell into running just as she did studying epidemiology and landing a job at UC with Ken Sherman, MD, PhD.


The 36-year-old Washington, D.C., native, who graduated from Williams College with double degrees in English literature and pre-medicine, walked onto her college cross country and track teams.


“In college, I tried to keep my options open,” she says. “I liked science and writing, but wasn’t sure what I wanted to do.


“I also wasn’t a very good runner,” she adds. “The college coaches noticed that I had good form and asked if I wanted to walk on the team. I didn’t do well.”


Shire says she was a much better cyclist than she was a runner.


So much so that after graduation she pursued professional cycling—a passion she developed while studying in Scotland during her junior year.


Shire says she competed against the best, including many former and aspiring Olympians. However, after suffering a hard crash in 1999, she decided to call it quits and focus on her other passion—science.


“After I looked down and saw how much skin I actually lost, I knew that it was time to retire,” she says. “I also knew that I wanted to become an epidemiologist.”


Shire enrolled at Johns Hopkins University to earn a master’s degree in public health with a focus in biostatistics and viral epidemiology. To help make ends meet, she worked as a pharmaceutical representative for Procter & Gamble. Although Shire says sales was not her cup of tea, it did put her one step closer to where she is today.


“P&G transferred me to Cincinnati. While I was working, I called on Ken Sherman, and ended up doing my master’s thesis with him,” she says. “Afterwards, he recruited me to work full time for him while I started my doctorate.”


Moving to Cincinnati also inspired Shire to begin running again. What began as “something to do” has escalated into something much more serious.

“I didn’t start running seriously until last October,” says Shire. “I now have a coach who sets a schedule for me. I run about 70 miles a week.”


The Flying Pig was Shire’s third marathon. And although the Olympics might be yet another thing she “falls into,” it certainly won’t be anything she passes up.


“I never considered running in the Olympics until I finished the Flying Pig, and it felt so comfortable,” she says. “Sometimes it takes a really big win to give you the confidence to reach higher. It’s like getting your first grant. Your first grant will always lead to others.


“My goal is to become a research assistant professor at UC and continue to compete as a regional runner. ”However,” she adds, “if I do make the Olympics, a sabbatical may be in order!”

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