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She’s an ultrarunning champion, studying the genetics of sports injury

In the Spotlight: Megan Roche runs 50-mile races, coaches and writes about running, and is working on a PhD at Stanford.

Any given morning, Megan Roche, MD, is probably out running -- but we're not talking about a standard 5K. Roche is the 2016 USA Track and Field ultrarunner and sub-ultrarunner of the year, a five-time national ultrarunning champion, a North American Mountain Running Champion and six-time member of the U.S. world ultrarunning team. 

When she's not scaling muddy mountains or competing in races up to 50 miles long, Roche is working on her PhD in epidemiology, after completing a medical degree at Stanford in 2018. Her research enables her to continue running, coaching and writing about running with her husband, a fellow ultramarathon winner, all while delving into the science of athletic performance. 

She slowed down long enough to talk with me about her love of running and science, and how these two passions shape her career path.

How did you become interested in running and taking on longer distances?

I always knew I loved running. I played field hockey in college and then I took a fifth year to run track. From there, it was just a natural progression. I love nature and time out on trails, so running longer distances just means covering more ground in beautiful places. Plus, I enjoy the physiology element of longer-distance running. I think there's a lot of different variables that go into the longer distances, like fueling, the mental mindset and metering out your effort. 

Do you think about what's happening in your body while running longer races?

I do sometimes. But honestly, when it hurts, I try to turn that off and just have a completely blank brain. After the fact, it's fun to go through and think about the different cellular processes that are going on as your body is going through that pain and putting out power. Even though it's unpleasant, it's a really beautiful element of human physiology that we can push the body to its limits.

How do you balance a sport and a profession that are both so time-intensive? 

I get almost all my training done in the early morning. I'm a morning person, which helps. When I run or exercise it actually makes me more time efficient -- I feel like I need that energy release. Getting in the training is a way to prime my brain for the rest of the day. I probably spend about 13 or 14 hours a week training, so in the grand scheme of things, these are just hours that make me more productive down the road.

Does your running impact your research and vice versa?

It definitely does. One of my research focuses is genetic predictors of sports injury in athletes, working with Stuart Kim, PhD. Some of that research involves genetic consulting with athletes and oftentimes training questions come up. 

Another study I'm working on is the Healthy Runner Project with Michael Fredericson, MD; Emily Kraus, MD, and Kristin Sainani, MD, PhD. There, we're looking at stress fracture rates in Stanford track and field athletes, and looking at preventing bone stress injuries, primarily through a nutrition intervention and making sure that athletes have sufficient energy availability. Being able to connect with the research participants as athletes is helpful. I also apply Healthy Runner research in my work as a running coach and in my writing.

Have you tested your own genetics?

I have. Fortunately, they're actually pretty good, in terms of injury markers. I did rupture my high hamstring tendons, recently, so I will be searching for a hamstring marker down the road.

What are you most proud of in your life thus far?

For me, the decision not to go to residency was one that was very difficult. Heading into medical school, I was interested in being an orthopedic surgeon, but I realized that it just wasn't conducive to all the other things I have going on in life. 

I'm proud of being able to step off that path, being okay with taking a "career swerve" and ultimately finding what I love. Every morning I wake up, and I'm so excited to do the science and the running that I do with inspiring mentors and people that I care about. I'm proud of the decisions that got me to that point and grateful for the balance that I've found.

Photo by Daphne Sashin

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