LONE GROVE — At dusk, a thick shock of black hair whips through the wind, following Mihaela Popa as she bounds around the asphalt track surrounding the Lone Grove football field.
Following her shift at the Best Buy distribution center and picking up her kids from school at Plainview, Popa, 40, races against the sun, eating up lap after lap with her short, relentless stride.
She’s just trying to break a sweat before dinner time. Something that’s grown more and more challenging along Popa’s journey from the cobbled streets of Romania to the rolling countryside of southern Oklahoma and eventually, the pinnacle of long-distance running.
In November 2017, Popa ran her first marathon, the Route 66 marathon in Oklahoma City. Six days later, with her body still hemorrhaging from being pushed further than it's ever gone before, she decided to run another.
"I don't know, It’s a runner thing I guess," Popa said. "You don’t want to stop, ever, you want to push yourself and push push push until your body can’t go anymore. You go to the extremity and then, you do it again."
Finishing 52.4 miles back-to-back within a span of six days is a feat in it of itself. But in her second-ever marathon, Popa crossed the finish line with a time of 3:27:58, qualifying for the Boston Marathon with 18 minutes to spare.
"it's a dream," she said. "When you start running marathons, the goal is Boston. I really didn't think it would happen this fast."
At 38, Popa ran her first race in 2016 on a whim, entering local 5Ks and Fun Runs. To her surprise, she kept winning.
After outpacing runners closer to her children’s age than her own in 3.1 mile races, with times hovering around 18 minutes, Popa was hooked. And like any addict, she wanted more.
Now, the entryway of her home in Lone Grove has been overtaken by a cluttered tower of gold, with Popa stacking two-years worth of medals and trophies three shelves high.
After winning 5Ks, Popa entered 10Ks and half-marathons. Last March, she ran the 20.6 mile leg of the 2017 A2A: Arbuckles to Ardmore Race for Mercy, and took first place with only three male runners finishing ahead of her.
Less than five months ago, Popa faced the next challenge, pushing through 26.2 miles of asphalt, driving rain, and anguish to finish her first marathon in 3:49:00. Then she did it again and again and again.
While most runners see 26.2 miles as a life goal, requiring months of preparation and planning, Popa sees marathons as a chance to train.
"It's hard to find time to train with a job and family," she said. "I do so many because I've found it's a good way to train, to keep pushing myself and stay at a high level. Each marathon prepares me for the next."
Popa has ran five marathons in the past four months, finishing the last four with a Boston-qualifying pace.
Physically, it doesn’t make sense.
After having two kids, she took up the sport at 38.Her choppy cadence labors to match the long-legged stride of other elite runners. And unlike other runners who competed in cross country and track in high school, Popa’s background in running stems from occasionally hitting the treadmill at the gym.
But Popa’s strength lies between her ears.
When runners hit the wall, whether it be in mile two or 22, they enter a battle between mind and body, as nerve endings from muscles, joints and lungs scream at their brain, begging them to stop.
But Popa has a secret, she loves the pain.
“I fell in love with the pain,” Popa said. “Once you’re in the race and you hit the final miles, to finish you have to stay in the pain and live in the pain. It sounds strange, but I fell in love with it, the suffering. It's joyful to me.”
The mother of two, standing well under five-feet-tall said what sets her apart and allows her to complete and outpace athletes half her age is her toughness.
“It’s a powerful mind, that’s the main thing,” Popa said. “You have to be tough physically, but for me, it's more mental strength. Running is hard and though I talk to God a lot during the race, and that helps, it’s just you out there. When I hit the final miles, I'm not thinking of the hurt. I'm thinking of the finish line.”
But while her mental strength was sharpened by countless miles and hours spent pushing her body to the brink, Popa said she discovered her toughness growing up on the bustling streets of Al Baiulia, Romania.
“Growing up in Romania, I was always a tough kid,” she said. “Never really been a crying baby at all. That’s how I’ve always been. When I got hurt, I would never cry or ask for a pill. I’d just get over it.”
Though she lived during the reign and fall of Nicolae Ceauescu, the communist leader of Romania that stayed in power from 1965 until the Romanian Revolution of 1989 — a reign that saw the country flourish, before cratering economically with foreign debt, leading to turbulent years of strict control, propaganda and media suppression — Popa said life wasn’t bad in her home country.
She said she enjoyed a normal childhood growing up in the city with a population of around 60,000. She went to school, spent time with family and friends and eventually went to work, like anyone else.
But in Romania, she said there were some stark differences, both economic and social, between where she grew up and Oklahoma, a place she now calls home.
She said neighborhood kids played on the street instead of on playgrounds and indoors on play dates. Unlike her current home in the countryside, Popa lived in a massive apartment complex, where neighbors and friends were always steps away.
The tightly knit city and becoming accustomed to constantly seeing and interacting with people in town is something she misses about her home to this day.
"I walked everywhere, from school and to work and to do shopping, and you would always see people," Popa said. "It was so lonely when we first came here because you don’t see people. In Romania, all your life, you know everybody. Whether it be neighbors or other kids from school. Kids played on the streets. Here, at least now, you don’t see and talk to people every day. You drive."
But from an early age Popa heard stories of the West, and it's bountiful riches, seeing neighbors leave for the economic opportunity and quality of life in the United States.
And after marrying her husband, and saving enough money for a one-way flight, the two applied for visas.
She said they went through a rigorous series of medical screenings, background checks and questionnaires, and months later, Popa and her husband received lottery visas to the United States.
In 1999, they flew towards their new life in a foreign country, landing at DFW airport before finding an apartment in North Dallas.
The young couple quickly went to work on finding a job and establishing their new lives.
Soon they learned living the American Dream they'd heard so much about came with harsh realities.
“We heard all about the wealth of America for years, everyone dreamed of it, but you have to earn every penny here,” Popa said. “We started from nothing, in a tiny apartment in and learned nothing comes easy and nothing is free ”
With the help of a family that made a living off of transitioning Romanians to life in America, the two began picking up the language. And after working here and there for a few years, the two found jobs at Best Buy, bringing them to Ardmore where they started a family in 2001.
They’ve stayed in Southern Oklahoma and worked at the distribution center ever since. Now their two children, who speak with unmistakable Oklahoma accents, can be seen throwing discus and playing basketball at Plainvew High School and Middle School.
“We love Ardmore,” Popa said. “In some ways, it’s the same and others it’s different, but we love our home.”
On March 25, Popa will get a chance to represent her home country, while also defending her title and home turf at the A2A: Arbuckles to Ardmore Race for Mercy, running in the 20.6 mile event after a nagging injury in the Cowtown Marathon in Fort Worth left her ramping down the mileage to a less taxing number.
But Popa said even if she could barely walk, she wouldn't miss the A2A, especially since it will be her second to last chance, with the race coming to a close in 2019.
“This is my home race,” she said of the race slated to end after being held for 10 years. “I take pride in running it and going up against people from across the state. It makes me feel sad, seeing it go.”
After her 20.6 mile breeze from the Arbuckles to Noble Stadium, Popa will return to her normal mileage, competing at the OKC Memorial Marathon in April, followed by many more races before eventually joining the best of the best at the 2019 Boston Marathon.
"When I get to Boston, I just want to go out and enjoy it," she said. "I hope to go many times, but you never know. I don't want to put too much pressure or anything, or be disappointed if I don't hit another personal record or something. It's going to be fun, it will be something I never forget."