By Heidi Toth
Thomas Puzey became a professional athlete because he needed a stable career.
Sure, it sounds crazy. Who looks around for stability and lands on a career that could be over in the amount of time it takes to sprain an ankle or snap a tendon?
The simple answer is: An ultramarathoner who had been working as an anthropologist in Latin America with drug lords, cartels and corrupt governments and was married to a conflict resolutionist who was pregnant with their first child.
It turns out running fast enough to finish in the top three is way less stressful than running across borders late at night to evade bad guys with guns, all with a child in tow.
“It was a wild life,” said Puzey, who goes by his middle name, Rivers. “There’s bad stuff that happens when your peers are drug lords. It’s an exciting life, but it’s not a life that’s incredibly conducive to raising children.”
Eight years later he’s a professional runner, speaker and running coach who in April finished “27th grade” and in May will graduate from Northern Arizona University with a doctorate of physical therapy. On April 17 he crossed the finish line of the Boston Marathon in 16th place, logging the fastest time of his life (so far) and having a marvelous time doing it.
“The Boston Marathon, it’s like a parade and you’re the float,” Puzey said.
Coming to NAU
They didn’t actually have to flee any countries, said Stephanie Catudal, Puzey’s wife. But things got dicey enough during several months in Brazil that they decided to return to the United States, settling in Flagstaff to become part of the elite running community that lives and trains here. With a Boston Marathon qualifying time in his sights, the Olympic qualifying events just beyond that and bills to pay, Puzey pushed forward with racing, ignoring a nagging pain in one leg. His medical team hadn’t given him cause to worry.
Then the undiagnosed stress fracture cracked mid-race.
“When it happened I knew I just broke my leg,” he said.
Unable to run for months, Puzey found himself bereft of his coping mechanism for the first time in his life and without steady income. Stephanie was pregnant with baby No. 2. With bills coming in, both took restaurant jobs.
“We had five academic degrees between the two of us and we were waiting tables,” he said.
Puzey also realized he wouldn’t be running forever and he needed a way to support his family. He enrolled in NAU’s physical therapy program, figuring he was already here and the field would mix well with his experience as an athlete. Not until classes had started did he learn the program was among the best in the country.
Before long he found himself going to school full-time, working full-time and running full-time, with two young children at home. He started combining tasks, foregoing the interstate from his home south of Flagstaff to the NAU campus with an easy, 24-mile round trip daily run, carting books and a laptop in his backpack.
This was the first time Catudal got a glimpse of what Puzey’s career choice meant for their family. When they met he was a collegiate runner but injured, logging only 20 miles or so a week. During the early months in Flagstaff Puzey was running four to five hours a day but not making enough money for them to live.
“I remember him telling me that it’s all going to be worth it one day and I really did trust him,” she said. “That was three years ago. It’s so awesome to see him pursue his dreams.”
It also wasn’t easy for Puzey’s professors, who worked with him to ensure he could get the necessary clinic hours and classes even as he traveled to races and events. As if all of that wasn’t enough to fill his day, he’s also in a massage therapy program, aiming to become a medical provider who understands the big picture biomechanics of the human body with the pressure techniques and know-how to respond to each patient differently.
“My approach in terms of my career goals has been directed by what I would like to receive as an athlete if I were to walk into a clinic, the skill set I would want a practitioner to have,” he said.
His sometimes non-traditional approach had opportunities to shine throughout his program. Karen Mueller, a professor of physical therapy and Puzey’s adviser, said he brought his life experiences into a clinic working with an 85-year-old woman with Parkinson’s disease who wanted to ride a bike but wasn’t steady enough to do so on her own.
Puzey and a classmate came back with a tandem bike from a local shop, then rode with the patient to help build her confidence and balance.
“After several sessions, this patient was able to ride a regular adult bicycle without assistance,” Mueller said. “Rivers filmed her riding the bike, and the patient’s joy was a delight to see.”
Becoming Boston Strong
Puzey has qualified for the Boston Marathon a number of times—so many, in fact, that he wasn’t sure which of his recent top finishes was actually the time that got him the coveted Boston race bib. It could have been the Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon in Phoenix in January (he came in first, with a time of 2:19:57) or the Mesa-Phoenix Marathon in February (second place, with a time of 2:18:25).
It was, however, the first time he’d run the marathon. Not coincidentally, he has two children with mid-April birthdays.
This year he made it to the starting line and, just two hours, 18 minutes and 20 seconds later, the finish line.
“Honestly it was just fun,” he said. “It’s impossible to not run fast if you run smart in Boston. There’s just an incredible energy that exists; the crowd and community is so amazing, you can’t not run fast there.”
He spent the days leading up to the race cruising around Flagstaff, up and down hills, pushing his legs close to the point of exhaustion. He arrived in Boston a few days early to acclimate to the lower elevation and higher humidity, taking in runs along the Charles River and around Harvard.
It was more of a fun run than he frequently does. Puzey wasn’t running for prize money, just the joy of running Boston and the opportunity to provide publicity for some of his sponsors.
Other races, like an upcoming marathon in Calgary, Canada, he does plan to be in the running for the winner’s pot. Knowing paying his bills is at least somewhat dependent on how fast he runs pushes him to achieve personal bests, but it’s not quite as fun.
Still, Puzey said, everyone has something they don’t like about their jobs. On the whole, he’s quite happy with his.
“I’d way prefer that to a 9-5 desk job,” he said. “It’s feast or famine. You can’t complain about stuff that you choose.”
Puzey plans to be a professional runner as long as his body holds out. However, his future and that of his family will be changing. He and Catudal agreed when one was in school the other would do the lion’s share of the household tasks, which he took on while
Catudal was earning her master’s degree in Costa Rica and she took on while he was in his doctoral program. Soon all he’ll have left in terms of school is two hours of massage therapy classes a day, so he’ll pick up more work around the house and she’ll look for more professional opportunities in writing and conflict mediation.
That means more father-daughter time with their three girls, who love cheering for, running and playing with their father. Catudal said she hopes their daughters emulate the ambition with which both of their parents went after their goals.
That’s already looking promising.
“The other day my 2-year-old was running on the trail, and she said, ‘Mom, I’m going to run 100 miles,’” Catudal said. “It’s just funny that in their minds that’s a completely normal thing to do.”
Puzey, while he cares about results, tends to be more process-focused in his advice than his daughter.
“It’s all about slow, gradual, consistent progression,” he said. “People think going out and punishing yourself in a single isolated session is going to provide gains, but your body doesn’t work that way. All that does is break you down and make you tired and makes you not want to do that anymore.
“The way the body improves is by making positive anatomical and physiological adaptations in response to specific stressors you put on it. Stop thinking in terms of days and change your concept of timing in terms of weeks or months or years.”
His Instagram account is also full of words of advice. The piece that pops up the most, accompanying pictures of him in running gear in beautiful vistas throughout the world, is simple: Run all the miles and eat all the food.