Oak Park’s Alona Banai is one of the Chicago area’s top female runners. Unfortunately, Banai missed most of last year with a stress fracture. By year-end she had healed, and has been working through the winter to be in shape for this year’s racing season.

Banai said she’s “still feeling rather unfit,” but is running 70-80 miles a week to build a strong mileage base. Very few winter weather conditions keep her indoors, but she admits that snow storms, winds over 30 mph and wind chills below minus-20 make her retreat to indoor treadmill workouts. Her coach, 1996 Olympic marathoner Jenny Spangler, is a fan of treadmill workouts, and Banai said she’s gotten in some great workouts on the machine (but long treadmill miles take lots of mental discipline).

Classic training for distance runners is to build up a strong fitness base of long, slower runs before shifting to speed training in preparation for race competition. It’s a careful process to reach peak performance without injury. Banai is aiming for the first two Chicago Area Runners Association circuit races, the Shamrock Shuffle five-miler in late March, and The Race That’s Good for Life 5K here in Oak Park on April 11, both events at shorter distances.

Other goals for the coming year are longer races, including the Palos Half Marathon in early May, the Chicago Half Marathon in September and the Chicago Marathon in October. Banai is aiming to crack 1:21 in the half marathons and finish under three hours for the marathon. And if things go really well, she’d love to qualify for the U.S. Olympic Marathon trials in 2012. This year she aims to “stay healthy and strong, and push my body harder than I have in the past.”

I asked if there were any lessons learned from last year’s injury.

“I’ve learned that it’s important to be patient with injuries, it’s better to let them heal completely than to just go halfway and have chronic pain forever,” she said. “I learned to listen to my body when it hurts; injury pain is very different than training pain. I’ve also learned how much I love running and how much I never want to do anything that would keep me from being able to run in the future.”

Unlike most of the top runners, Banai did not run track or cross country in high school (OPRF) or college (Washington University, St. Louis). She began running recreationally in college and only started competing seriously during graduate school, discovering she had a real talent for distance running.

After completing her master’s degree in plant biology and conservation at Northwestern in 2008, Banai is now on the staff of Loyola University’s Center for Urban Environmental Research and Policy where she works on solutions to environmental problems and teaches a course in ecology. She’s also writing grant applications and putting together an environmental film series.

Between the great new job and her new training program, Banai is anticipating a rewarding year. Look for her name among the top women finishers in local road races.

Paul Oppenheim is a member of the Oak Park Runners Club.

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