Marathons to mountains

Published in Wisconsin Week, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Sept. 12, 2001, written by Jeff Iseminger

When she finds herself in one, she tries hard to climb out of it, “it” being that dog-eared feature of daily life called a rut. Of course, like many of us, she delights in some — these ruts are made for wallowing — and feels daunted by others that seem made for mountaineering.

But others are like Mama Bear’s porridge — just right, in this case for escaping. And when Gwyn Coogan, a lecturer in the Department of Mathematics, ditches a rut and tries something new, surprising things have happened.

For instance, she didn’t compete in track until her sophomore year in college. But she had such a gift that in her first season, she won the NCAA Division III outdoor championship in the women’s 3,000-meter run. Then, as a junior, she won the indoor and outdoor Division III titles in the 3,000.

Next up was the Olympics. She made the U.S. team in the women’s 10,000 meters and was one of three American runners in the event at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona. And it all came from lacing up track shoes at the advanced age of 20 and doing something she’d never done before.

“I do like to try new things,” says Coogan. “I was successful in track, but at Smith College I also tried playing the violin and getting published in the literary magazine, and I failed miserably in both.”

Coogan is a person who somehow can utter the words “failed miserably” with a smile. She has a fresh-faced look with a luminous grin. If you chat with her for an hour, the only time she furrows her brow may be when she worries out loud about lapsing into a love of routine’s ruts.

When she moved to Madison last year, she decided to try another something-new. “In Wisconsin I’ve been cooking for the first time with sausage,” she says. “There’s so much of it here.”

One day she made pizza with what she thought passed for pepperoni. “My daughter’s friend told me, “No, this is summer sausage,’” she says. “I didn’t know the difference.”

Coogan’s husband, Mark, is a professional marathon runner who ran for the United States at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. They met when both of them were running for the Nike Boston running club. They have two girls: Katrina, 7, and Margaret, 2. Mark provides much of the childcare while Gwyn is on campus, and both of them like to run during the week, so their watches are certainly synchronized.

Gwyn Coogan has had her own success in the marathon. She won the 1998 Houston Marathon, and her best time in the 26.2-mile event is 2 hours, 32 minutes.

“I haven’t tapped my full potential in the marathon,” she says, but she’s not sure how much she wants to run competitively now, having had foot surgery last fall. “It takes a lot of time and energy,” she says.

So does mathematics, and Coogan loves to run through the world of numbers, with elliptic curves and l-series blowing through her hair. Like in track, she blossomed late in math.

“I was fine at math in high school,” she says, “but in college, as the courses got harder, I worked harder. I began as a physics major, but found the math more compelling.”

She earned her doctorate in math at the University of Colorado at Boulder in 1999, and last year she was invited by Ken Ono, professor of mathematics at UW-Madison and well-known number theorist, to work with him. Coogan also is teaching calculus and the history of math. “It was a gift to come here and work in the math community,” she says.

At first glance, her passions of running and math look more like fraternal twins, given their differences. But she’s learned some common lessons from the pair.

“I know that there will always be better runners and mathematicians than me,” she says, “but that doesn’t mean I throw my hands up. I have learned to get what I can out of each discipline and enjoy it.”

And, she adds, the only way she discovered her talents — flying on her feet, spinning numbers through her head, cooking with sausage — was simple: just plain old trying.