The 26-year-old marathoner takes multitasking to a new level.
Runners work hard, but chances are most don’t work as hard as Daniel Tapia. The 26-year-old from Prunedale, Calif., finished 27th in the marathon at the IAAF World Track and Field Championships in Moscow in August, but that doesn’t begin to tell his story.
Tapia’s road to Moscow was comprised of running 120 to 140 miles per week, attending law school at night, working six or seven days a week as a waiter at his family’s restaurant and, from 2008 to 2010, taking classes to be eligible to run for the Hartnell community college, where he received valuable coaching advice and became one of the school’s most decorated athletes of all time.
“He’s definitely a big inspiration to all the runners, young and old, in our community,” says Chris Zepeda, head coach of Hartnell’s running program who worked with Tapia from 2008 until February.
But the impressive load of work doesn’t end there. Tapia learned about his berth on the world championship team in mid-July — less than a month before the race — when he was studying for his July 30 bar exam. When another American athlete came up injured, USA Track and Field tabbed Tapia to fill his spot, based on his 2:14:30 PR effort at the Boston Marathon in April.
Two weeks prior to Moscow, Tapia was “knee-deep” in mental fatigue from his studies, and he still managed to squeeze in 133 miles of training the week of the exam.
“I’m just glad it’s over,” Tapia says after taking the test. “It’s everything people say it is. It’s just a nightmare — it’s just a marathon in itself.”
Tapia’s performance at the world championships went swimmingly — it turned into a fantastic experience despite having little time to prepare and not finishing as well as he had hoped. He ran a 2:18:32 marathon, a very respectable effort given that it was his first international race, and the heat and humidity on race day was stifling.
He will find out his bar exam results later this month.
“It was a great experience — from being with Team USA in the hotel every day and running in such a prestigious world-class event with world-class athletes,” Tapia says.
Despite his recent success, Tapia never showed much promise as a young runner; his best 2-mile time was 10:02 in high school.
“In high school I never missed practice, so it’s not like I wasn’t working hard,” says Tapia, who now trains with American Distance Project coach Scott Simmons. “But I think it was a lack of focus.”
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His focus sharpened after high school — he remained consistent by running on his own while studying at UC Santa Cruz. After graduation, he returned to NorCal, where he began working with Zepeda at Hartnell and told him he hoped to compete in the 2012 U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon in Houston. Tapia placed 24th in that race, running a 2:15:28. He won the Cal International Marathon last December in 2:16:29.
“He’s one of the few examples that I have of someone picking an endeavor and sticking with it for 10-plus years,” Zepeda says. “If you’re willing to put in the time, everybody has the ability to improve.”
Holding off on his law career for a while to see what he can do as an elite runner, Tapia says he hopes to make an Olympic marathon team one day. “I figure I can always be an attorney if I want to. I can work until I’m 80. I won’t be able to train at this level forever.”
This piece first appeared in the November 2013 issue of Competitor magazine.