Most runners don’t eat anything during a five-mile race. The distance and time spent pushing the body isn’t quite long enough to require mid-race nutrition. But on rare occasions, Rita Beard eats a dozen glazed donuts at the 2.5-mile marker. That’s 2,400 calories of carby, sugary goodness with half of the race still to go. Adding to the agony, here is the uphill terrain of the remainder of the race.
Rita has a strategy when it comes to downing the donuts, though. She eats them as quickly as possible, and shuns the popular method of dunking them in water. She smooshes six together, chews, and swallows, followed by the other six. She can do this in about seven minutes. Then she heads off to finish the remaining 2.5 miles of the race, dodging anything her competitors’ stomachs have rejected. Rita’s method proved impeccable when she won the Krispy Kreme challenge with a finishing time of 37 minutes. She doesn’t even hate donuts now, either. But she attributes her success to her team of elite all-female runners, the Raleigh Distance Project, locally known as “RDP.”
With a 10-spot roster, RDP is based in Raleigh, North Carolina, and consists of an intimate group of women who excel at running. Rita’s personal record (PR) for a marathon is 2:51 (she did not eat any donuts during this PR race). Shari Eberhard qualified for the 2020 USA Olympic Marathon Trials thanks to her finish time of 2:43:13 at the 2019 Chicago Marathon. Kim Maloney ran her first marathon ever in January of 2020 where her 2:43:04 finish time also qualified for the USA Olympic Marathon Trials. Nikki Long’s mile PR is 4:48.
These women can run. But they can only run when they’re not in the office or in the classroom. None of the members of RPD are professional runners. They’re students, lawyers, engineers, and social workers, to name a few.
These women are dedicated professionals who happen to be incredibly talented and dedicated runners. No one is sleeping through an alarm on this team.
The balance between a healthy work life, family, sleep, sanity, and training to post those impressive race times is part of the reason why RDP exists. In 2017, six of the project’s founders raced as a team in a 10-mile race. After this, they decided running was actually anything but an individual sport. Their dedication, motivation, determination, and ultimately their speed, was dependent on much more than themselves—it was the team aspect that unlocked their individual success.
“We continue to notice with all of our athletes, they just perform so much better in that type of setting,” Rita said. “The environment when you have a team practice—whereas if you’re a post-collegiate runner, you’re not really going to have that opportunity to train with like-minded athletes who are really serious about getting the work done and taking the time in their busy lives.”
From a spectator’s perspective, watching an RDP team member crush a race or set a new PR looks like individual success. It’s distinctly their own body pushing harder than ever before to cross that finish line. Cardio fitness, core strength, correct pacing, proper nutrition and hydration, injury prevention, and training smart—those look like individual aspects.
But in the mind of every runner on RDP, their individual success is a team effort. It’s early morning encouragement from coaches and teammates. It’s accountability to show up for every practice.
The RDP is a stunning example of how a team can make individuals, and how those individuals can create a community.
“The Thursday running group is so popular that the number of members in the group chat has maxed out.”
Clocking great times, qualifying for Olympic trials, and supporting each other appear to be the core values of the RDP, but the project goes far deeper than that. The founders of RDP obtained the group’s 501(c)(3), giving the team non-profit status, which was necessary to fulfill one of the team’s main goals—to give back to their community and create enthusiasm for the sport of running.
The team has a board of directors and a team manager, which makes the organization and community impact of RDP just as impressive as their speed. Every Thursday morning they host a community run that is open to anyone, even if you can’t keep up with the ladies. They’re around to chat and hang out post-run for some community engagement and coffee. The Thursday running group is so popular that the number of members in the group chat has maxed out.
In addition to the Thursday morning run, the team holds events to give back to the community they say has supported them with open arms. RDP manager Amy McDowell explained the team recently held a shoe collection event which gained way more attention and donations than expected. The plan was to send off the shoes to a donation site, but the team found locals at the event who were in need.
“There was one woman who is pregnant who got to upgrade her shoes and she was just super thrilled about it,” Amy recalled. “The race results are cool but those are the things that we’ll remember, more so than the times that people lay down a certain event.”
The RDP is living, breathing, and thriving proof that female professionals can be strong in all aspects of life. They can hold down a career, family, and qualify for the Olympic Trials. So long as they have each other – a team and a community to support them.