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Boston Strong

Local DNA expert conquers legendary race

By R.E. Graswich
July 2023

Ryan Nickel works with scientists who fight crime. He’s a crime-busting scientist himself, an expert in DNA analysis. But there’s a difference. Around the office, Nickel is known as the guy who runs marathons.

“We have a great team, but yeah, they don’t see me as a scientist,” he says. “They see me as a distance runner.”

The label carries an ironic touch. Nickel works for the Sacramento County district attorney’s crime lab, where the goal is to nail people after they go running.

Earlier this year, crime lab colleagues figured Nickel was into something special. He scheduled vacation days around a four-month training regimen. The lab soon learned Nickel was preparing for the runner’s ultimate dream, the Boston Marathon.

He qualified for this past April’s 127th Boston Marathon by running fast in the California International Marathon. The local event is popular among Boston hopefuls.

A relatively flat track from Folsom Lake to Downtown makes the challenge not easy but conquerable. A 46-year-old male runner such as Nickel must cover 26.2 miles in 3 hours, 20 minutes or better to meet Boston requirements. Nickel beat the Boston qualifying time in December 2021.

As running careers go, Nickel took his time to reach Boston. He began running in third grade and joined his high school cross country squad as a Placerville teen. At UC Davis, he made the track team five years straight. He competed in the steeplechase.

“I wasn’t fast enough to be a miler, and the 5k was too far and too painful,” he says.

The words sound facetious from a steeplechaser. Most runners hate the event. It’s the most bizarre test in track. It was designed for horses.

A steeplechase course covers 2 miles. Runners must leap 28 barriers and splash through seven water traps. Unlike hurdle races, steeplechase barriers don’t fall when hit. Runners fall. “Yeah, you do get wet,” Nickel says.

He quit running after college. “I was burned out,” he says. “But somehow, running kept sneaking back into my life.”

Nickel ran six marathons before he reached Boston, including races in San Diego and Chicago. Six is not a big number among Boston veterans. Nickel says he doesn’t “chase marathons much.” He runs because he enjoys it.

His enjoyment was tested this year when he trained for Boston. He built a program with long runs from his East Sacramento home. He maintained his running schedule despite the wet winter.

Running dominated his life. It required patience from his wife and son, age 12. He often returned home after dark, wet and cold from running near the American River.

“I’d much rather run in the rain than against the wind, but I saw everything this year,” he says. “I love getting out of the cityscape, but training does take over your life.”

When April arrived, he was ready. The family flew to Boston just before the marathon. On race day, drizzle turned to rain. No problem for a guy who trained on soaked levees.

The Boston Marathon starts deceptively. It moves downhill. Other runners took off fast. Nickel held back. “Around 10 miles, almost the halfway point, I was feeling good,” he says.

Things get tough about mile 16, where four hills devour the field. The final climb is Heartbreak Hill, around mile 21. “I was passing people on Heartbreak Hill,” he says.

Then he went to what he calls “the dark place.” He saved one nutrition packet for the final 5 miles. When he reached for his fuel, the packet was gone. “It must have fallen out,” he says.

He took a nutrition bar from an aid station. His family waited at mile 26. He ran past them, oblivious. “It was pouring rain, cold, miserable rain. You do a hairpin turn, a right and a left, and you can see the finish coming down Boylston Street,” he says. “The noise from the crowd can lift you up and carry you in.”

His time was 2:58, a terrific performance. He finished in 3,544th place, 253rd in his age group. Maybe fastest ever among crime-fighting DNA experts from Sacramento.

R.E. Graswich can be reached at Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram: @insidesacramento.

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