Advocate staff photo by HILARY SCHEINUK -- Kathy Kliebert went from being pain riddled in her 40s to a triathlete in her 50s. Now, she fights through the pain of 4-hour training runs as she prepares for the Louisiana Marathon.

On a 4-hour training run Monday, Department of Health and Hospitals Secretary Kathy Kliebert thought the worst.

“Knees hurt, “ she first thought.

“I think I’m developing a blister, I think my hip is going to give out at any given moment,” awhile later.

“Oh my God, this is never going to end.”

Admittedly, Kliebert finds it difficult to focus. The 20-plus-mile training runs in advance of her first marathon are a far cry from the triathlon training she was accustomed to.

It seemed, then, that Commissioner of Administration Kristy Nichols’ plan worked.

“I know Kathy actually hates to run, although she’s a tremendous athlete,” Nichols said. “We concocted the idea of challenging her to the marathon and in effect, challenging DHH.”

In an effort to get state workers more involved in the Louisiana Marathon running festival and curb some unflattering health statistics, Nichols and Kliebert are challenging one another to form teams of their employees to compete in the running festival.

As of Saturday, Team Kathy had 235 registered participants, while Team Kristy nudged ahead with 255 runners – including two 70-year-olds running the 5K and a 4-year-old and a 5-year-old running the kid’s marathon.

Though she’s 20 participants behind Nichols, Kliebert said she’s still recruiting in her office and has shifted her focus to attaining a new goal.

“My goal now is to try to figure out how to beat Kristy (in the marathon),” Kliebert said. “She’s really a faster runner than I am. I’m probably not going to beat her in terms of numbers of people, but maybe in terms of miles completed. If I get real lucky, maybe I’ll beat her in the marathon.”

Nichols has run two marathons, but her last race was six years ago. She had shifted her focus to training for an Ironman triathlon in November, though a bicycle accident in July derailed her plans.

Now transitioning to marathon training, Nichols said the gap between her races has begun to show, but her friendly rivalry with Kliebert serves as an impetus to her training.

“We’ve experienced growing together as professionals by working out together and getting to know each other in that way,” Nichols said. “The rivalry is fun because it keeps you motivated. Training for anything for four months, you really need something to get you out the door and keep you engaged.”

Keeping Kliebert engaged are her employees, who have formed an after-work running group to train, which has not only increased stamina, but also given the workplace a more cheerful demeanor.

“(Employees) have more energy, their mental attitude is better, and they’re feeling good about things they’re doing,” Kliebert said.

It’s with that renewed energy that Nichols hopes statistics will begin to change. She explained that Louisiana state employees have some of the worst health statistics in the nation, and she is optimistic the Louisiana Marathon challenge can provide some steps in the right direction.

And while Nichols acknowledged she’s more competitive than Kliebert, Kliebert has a quality Nichols can’t claim.

It goes back to that training run last Monday, where pain and mind-racing didn’t stop Kliebert from finishing.

“She is more dedicated.” Nichols said. “When she has a plan, she never misses a day. Never misses a mile. She’ll kill herself doing it, but she’s one of the most dedicated trainees I’ve ever seen. You really need to be careful before you challenge her because she’s relentless.”