NATICK, Mass. -- According to the old saying, life is a marathon, not a sprint. For Maria Urso, Ph.D, that's literally and figuratively true.
The 36-year-old Urso is a presidential-award-winning scientist, Army Reservist, triathlete and, yes, marathon runner. To squeeze anything else into her schedule, she just might need days with more hours.
In the pre-dawn darkness of most mornings, Urso fits in training runs before reporting to her job as a research physiologist at the U.S. Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine at Natick Soldier Systems Center.
"I think it's about planning," Urso said. "I'm probably finishing runs when most people are getting up. I love putting on my running clothes. I love feeling the fresh air in the morning. It kind of helps me stay focused. I'm so energized."
That athletic energy transfers well to her work in USARIEM's Military Performance Division. Her efforts there and in the community resulted in a Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers, or PECASE, which she received July 31, in Washington, D.C. Even that prestigious honor failed to slow her down.
"I haven't missed a workout since July 20th," Urso said. "I haven't skipped one at all. I haven't missed anything."
That's because Urso takes quite seriously her role as a member of the All-Army Marathon Team that will compete Oct. 28, in the Marine Corps Marathon in Washington, D.C., also the Armed Forces Championship. It will mark Urso's fourth appearance there for the All-Army team and her 29th marathon since 1998 -- not bad for a woman who once despised running.
"I've always played sports in school, but the running was the part I hated," Urso said. "I didn't enjoy doing it."
Urso finally followed her father, Chuck Urso, into competitive running and came to love the sport.
"I was never a competitive runner," Urso said. "I truly think that's part of the reason why I, all of a sudden, started to peak and enjoy it. I never really had such a rigorous training schedule where it got stale for me or it got old."
Urso owns a marathon personal record of 3 hours, 7 minutes, 21 seconds, set at the 2008 Boston Marathon. Her time of 3:11:22 in the 2009 Marine Corps Marathon was the best among Army women.
Though she has run Boston nine times, the Marine Corps Marathon remains her favorite race.
"There is nothing as inspiring as running a course lined with Marines," Urso said. "The second you feel tired, fatigued or defeated, they are a reminder of what Soldiers endure each and every day in theater -- now and in the past. No other marathon is as emotionally touching as the (Marine Corps Marathon)."
This year, she could shave minutes off her personal record by applying her wealth of professional knowledge.
"The training program I'm doing right now, it's based on physiology," Urso said. "Nobody takes the science and puts it towards the athlete. That's what my research is -- understanding muscle injury and how to help people recover from muscle injury."
Urso's weekly training regimen topped out at 65 miles but included two days of speed workouts. She also has paid strict attention to nutrition, hydration and rest. Gary Brimmer, her personal coach and a former All-Army Marathoner, has told Urso that he believes that she could threaten the three-hour mark.
"In the short time I have been coaching Maria, I have been very impressed by her focus, work ethic and determination," Brimmer said. "It has become very apparent to me that the way she attacks her training and racing mirrors the way she attacks the other aspects in her life. It's pretty obvious why she is successful in all aspects of her life."
Lt. Col. Liam Collins, the Army Marathon Team coach, was equally positive about Urso's chances in the upcoming race.
"She is a great officer and a great person (who) excels at everything she does," Collins said. "She has such a great personality with a positive attitude that it makes any team she is on stronger.
"I always know that I can count on Maria to run a great race for the Army. This year will be no different. She's been putting in great workouts and should have her best time in years."
Urso admitted that she would love to finish in less than three hours.
"I would be so excited," Urso said. "I just don't know if I can, so I'd rather tell myself I want to be around 3:05. That's still a 2-minute (personal record). It's still a respectable time."
Breaking three hours would be a fitting capper to Urso's 2012.
"It's really been a wonderful year," Urso said. "I feel like my science has also reached a peak right now, which I'm also so excited about."
If she falls a bit short, it won't be for lack of effort by Urso, who obviously drives herself athletically and professionally.
"I know what my capability is, and I know what I'm able to produce," Urso said. "Even from my scientific and my work perspective … if I say I'm going to do something, I'm going to do it."