Local runner to go the extra mile in South Africa
To most mortals, the idea of running a race measuring a distance of more than 60 miles is laughable.
But somehow, running continuously for more than seven hours makes perfect sense to Nick Accardo III, the athletic director and biology teacher at Holy Rosary High.
“We go to parades and we stand up all day. I stand up and teach for seven hours,” said Accardo, offering the reasoning process that led him to attempt the super-long distances. “So I thought in my head, if I can do all this for seven hours, then maybe I can run for seven hours.”
New Orleans-born Accardo, 30, recently earned the right to compete in the upcoming World 100K Ultramarathon Championships in Durban, South Africa. A member of Team USA, Accardo is one of only of six American men and six American women who are eligible to run in the 62-mile contest, set for Oct. 26 – the Southern Hemisphere spring.
An “ultramarathon” is any race that exceeds a distance of 26 miles.
“It’s going to be hot and humid, which is good for me,” said Accardo, who is prepping for the area’s hilly terrain by running up and down the Jeff Davis overpass. “Anytime you get to wear your country’s uniform you’re up there. It’s pretty neat.”
Former wrestling champ
Accardo’s achievement is even more impressive given that he’s only been training for ultramarathons for just over a year.
Raised in Franklin, La., Accardo attended Christian Brothers-founded St. John Elementary and Hanson Memorial High, taking up running in middle school to stay fit for wrestling, his main sport at the time.
“It was cross-country in the fall, then wrestling, and right after wrestling (season) was over it was track and field; they naturally ran into each other,” said Accardo who captured state wrestling titles in his 130-pound weight division as a high school junior and senior.
Running became even more of a focus for the teenage athlete when he broke his hand while playing football. Accardo began specializing in the 400- and 800-meter distances in his junior year, helping his team earn state runner-up in the 4-by-400 relay. He also held his own in cross-country, especially, he says, when conditions were “muddy and nasty and gross.”
“When everybody else was having a rough day, I could kind of weasel myself into the top five or so,” said Accardo, who walked on to LSU’s cross-country and track teams and carved his niche running the 1,200 meters and the mile after a red-shirted freshman year.
“I would just kind of sneak a spot in the top 8 guys; I was never the best one, but I was in there,” he said. “At the time it was just nice for me to be on the team, (to be) an athlete at LSU. For me it was special just to wear the LSU jersey, to be part of a group and work hard.”
In a league of his own
As a biology teacher at Catholic High in Baton Rouge and later at Holy Rosary, Accardo held his own in community-sponsored races and marathons, but still found himself craving an event in which he could be “the No. 1 guy.” His answer was to push himself to the next level: the ultramarathon.
“I guess the real reason I wanted to do these ultramarathons was that I could be competitive at it; I wanted to be successful on a larger scale,” said Accardo, who finished an impressive sixth in his first ultramarathon – last October’s 50-mile U.S. National Championship in State College, Pa. Despite the success of this first outing, Accardo recalls hitting a wall toward the race’s end.
“Somewhere around the 41st to 42nd mile – that one mile felt like the whole race,” he said. “(The course) was going up a hill; the whole thing was just rough; my legs – everything – was hurting pretty badly.”
Things went more smoothly in his next ultra – lastApril’s USA Track & Field 100K Road Race Championships in Madison, Wis. Accardo was the nation’s top male runner that day, completing the 62-mile distance in 7 hours, 34 minutes and 50.7 seconds, and breaking through the tape nearly eight minutes before the second-place finisher.
Strategy: Don’t lead pack
That win automatically qualified Accardo for the upcoming ultramarathon in South Africa, open to the crème de la crème of extreme runners. Although the course of the race will not be released until later this summer, Accardo said he will continue to train as he always has: by running on his own every day and with his buddies four days a week. On Sunday mornings, the group does a 14-mile loop around the city that begins and ends at Audubon Park.
“It’s kind of a big tour of the city. I’ll get home and bathe in time for Mass,” said Accardo, a parishioner of St. Pius X who has a 5-year-old son, Joe, with his wife Chelsea. He said his advantages include not suffering any major injuries and having fitness built into his career as coach of Holy Rosary’s cross-country, wrestling and track teams.
“And I’ve always been good at eating – during these things you kind of have to eat,” said Accardo, who during his most recent race survived on turkey sandwiches and energy gels. “I can eat a lot and drink a lot and not get cramps.”
On race day, his strategy will be to wake up three or four hours before start-time, eat a lunch item for breakfast, and hover near the front of the pack – and not be tempted to lead.
“At LSU I was just kind of in the mix, and now, in town, I still lose to some of my buddies in the 5K,” Accardo said, “but at these long, long races I seem to be pretty good.”