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Race Against Time
John Solomon
March 17, 1997
Neophyte Linda Runyon, a Wall Street star, faces long odds in her Olympic quest
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March 17, 1997

Race Against Time

Neophyte Linda Runyon, a Wall Street star, faces long odds in her Olympic quest

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At 8:15 a.m. Merrill Lynch's daily Morning Call is in progress. Ten thousand stockbrokers and traders at the firm's New York City headquarters and in offices around the world are on the phone listening to industry updates from the company's team of research analysts. Yesterday the Federal Communications Commission finished auctioning off billions of dollars in mobile-phone licenses, and the sales force is interested in the recommendations of Merrill Lynch's top wireless-communications expert, 32-year-old Linda Runyon.

Seven hundred miles from Wall Street, in a ground-floor apartment on Milwaukee's east side, Runyon, dressed in red sweatpants, a faded black turtleneck and white wool socks, is preparing her notes. A computer screen flashes yesterday's stock prices as snow falls steadily in the dark outside. Spread in front of Runyon are financial statements, company reports and a small black stopwatch. Morning Call is running a little late today, and Runyon is hoping to finish her remarks in three minutes.

When it's her turn to start talking, Runyon presses the stopwatch and cheerfully begins, "Hello, everybody!" Her presentation is detailed, smooth and confident, but, at 3:36, a little more than her target. It is her first time trial of the day.

That stopwatch has kept Runyon's life on schedule since the day in 1994 when she asked Merrill Lynch to let her move to Milwaukee so she could pursue her long-odds dream of making the U.S. Olympic speed skating team. Although she was an avid racer on in-line skates and had played collegiate ice hockey, she had only one weekend of experience on speed skates. And she was 30 years old—young for one of Wall Street's top research analysts but old to be vying for an Olympic berth in an endeavor in which most of the elite competitors had been participating since childhood.

"Some people felt I was a little crazy," says Runyon, who a decade ago was a three-sport athlete—field hockey, ice hockey and lacrosse—as well as a Phi Beta Kappa classics major at Harvard. "But it seemed like an incredible challenge, and I thought it was definitely worth trying." Fortunately for Runyon, so did Merrill Lynch.

"If anyone could make this arrangement work," says her boss, global equity research director Andrew Melnick, "Linda could."

Three years later it seems to be working just fine. The move to the Midwest hasn't hurt Runyon's performance at Merrill Lynch: She has maintained her position as Institutional Investor magazine's first-team wireless-telecommunications analyst. More remarkably, the Brookline, Mass., native has moved from a standing start to the upper echelon of U.S. women's speed skating. She finished sixth in the 5,000 meters and 10th in the 3,000 at last December's U.S. Allround Championships, making herself a candidate for the Olympic team at the 1998 Games in Nagano, Japan.

Runyon forwards her two phone lines to voice mail just as the stock markets are starting to heat up in New York. At 9:30 she sets out for the Milwaukee Heart Institute, where Dr. Carl Foster and his stationary bike are waiting.

Foster, the U.S. International Speedskating Association's chair of sports medicine, admits he was skeptical when he heard about "this New Yorker who has come to town to be a speed skater." He changed his mind after he put Runyon through a battery of tests on the wind-load simulator bike, which tests a cyclist's capacity to withstand wind resistance. "Linda's got some motor," says Foster, who has been working with her regularly since last August to help her increase cardiovascular output. "If she had decided to buy a rowing machine instead of in-line skates, she might be going for the Summer Olympics in rowing."

The in-line skates had been an early 30th-birthday present to herself in July 1994, and it wasn't long before Runyon was competing in road races. Two months later, following the lead of several other in-line racers who had begun experimenting on ice, Runyon traveled to Pettit National Ice Center in West Allis, Wis., one weekend to give it a try. "I was lousy, very slow," she recalls. "But I loved the ice." Three months later she moved out of her Greenwich Village apartment and headed for Milwaukee.

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