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In it for the long run: Lincoln couple's relationship forged on the trail

One Lincoln couple’s relationship, which began in running shoes, will move forward this summer in more formal footwear.

But before exchanging wedding vows next month, Eric Noel and Mary Hillis will be running in Sunday's Lincoln Marathon.

The pair have been running together twice a day to train for the event. Their commitment to running isn't anything new, however. Both Lincoln natives were high school all-class gold medalists in track.

“We have the same lifestyle," said Hillis, who swept the Class A girls distance events running for Lincoln Southwest in 2012. "That's really important. We don’t need to compromise." 

Noel, who won his gold medals competing for Lincoln North Star in 2005 and 2006, had always admired Hillis' accomplishments. But it wasn't until 2013, when Hillis was back in Lincoln on summer break from California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, that the two first met formally.

Noel urged some mutual friends to ask her to join their Sunday group run.

"Our relationship was formed on the Rock Island and Jamaica trail," Hillis said this week.

She arrived that first Sunday morning ready to run, and Noel instantly fell in love.

“There she was, and my heart, like, stopped,” Noel said.

The two continued running with their friends throughout the summer and, eventually, Noel worked up the courage to ask her on a run alone.

From there the next step was a non-trail date.

“Maybe we should get together without running shoes on?” Hillis said, recalling the moment Noel asked her out.

With Hillis returning to California for the fall semester, long-distance dating extended beyond trail runs.

"I told her at the end of the summer that I was really committed to her," Noel said. "And that I was serious."

They dated for a year, miles apart, and as soon as Noel graduated with his master's degree from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, he moved to California, where he could be closer to Hillis and begin to take running more seriously.

“It wasn’t that big of a sell, because where we were living was like paradise," Noel said.

The two were able to run more frequently and train harder because of the consistent warm weather, Noel said.

Eventually, they moved back to Nebraska to pursue advanced degrees from the university, but they haven't stopped training. They run together twice a day, racking up nearly 200 miles between them each week.

“We run all of our workouts together. It’s really unique to have your spouse as a runner, as intense as you are in the sport," Hillis said. "That’s really unique to Eric and I.”

Noel will be running the full marathon Sunday, while Hillis will be competing in the half. The marathon route goes in front of Hillis' childhood home, where she used to set out lawn chairs to watch runners every year.

Last year was Hillis' first time running in the marathon.

“It was a huge feeling, just emotionally, being out there on the course running. Almost every mile you have people cheering.”

Noel won the full marathon in 2016 in 2 hours, 25 minutes, and figures to contend for top honors again this year.

"I've put the work in. This winter has been the toughest training experience ever," he said.

After all the hard work, Noel and Hillis will focus on their marriage in June — a big day that doesn't include running shoes.

“This is my last race with my last name,” Hillis said. “It’s cool to have the Lincoln Marathon as the last opportunity to have the last name Hillis on my bib.”

Hawaii volcano sends more lava, sulfur gas into communities

PAHOA, Hawaii — Kilauea volcano sent more lava into Hawaii communities Friday, a day after forcing more than 1,500 people to flee their rural homes, and authorities detected high levels of sulfur gas that could threaten elderly people and those with breathing problems.

The eruption that began with lava flying into the sky from a crack in a road persisted with reports of molten rock spurting from several volcanic vents. Neighborhoods downhill from the vents were at risk of being covered up. At least two homes were destroyed, officials said.

A huge magnitude-6.9 earthquake rattled an area near the south part of the volcano, but the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center said there was no threat of a tsunami and transportation officials said no damage to roads had been reported. It came after a magnitude-5.4 earthquake struck the same area earlier Friday.

Julie Woolsey lives on a street where a vent opened and channeled lava to within 1,000 yards of her house. When it appeared, she freed her chickens, loaded her dogs into her truck and evacuated with her daughter and grandson.

"We knew we were building on an active volcano," she said, recalling how she purchased the lot on the Big Island for $35,000 more than a decade ago after living on Maui became too expensive. But she thought the danger from lava was a remote possibility.

"You can't really predict what Pele is going to do," she said, referring to the Hawaiian volcano goddess. "It's hard to keep up. We're hoping our house doesn't burn down."

The community of Leilani Estates near the town of Pahoa appeared to be in the greatest danger. Authorities also ordered an evacuation of Lanipuna Gardens, a smaller, more rural subdivision directly to the east. But scientists said new vents could form, and it was impossible to know where.

Civil defense officials cautioned the public about high levels of sulfur dioxide near the volcano and urged vulnerable people to leave immediately. Exposure to the gas can cause irritation or burns, sore throats, runny noses, burning eyes and coughing.

Maija Stenback began to get nervous when she noticed cracks in the streets near her home. Thursday, she shot video of the lava as it bubbled and splattered across a street about six blocks from her house.

"You can feel it all the way into the core of your being," she said. "It's just that roaring and unbelievable power of the lava bubbling up and spitting up into the air."

Stenback, her daughter and grandchildren packed as much as they could into their car. The two kids were each allowed to select three toys to take before the family left for a friend's home about a 30-minute drive away.

"I have lived through a lot of lava flows here, but never this close before," Stenback said.

There were no immediate reports of injuries. At least 100 people were staying in shelters Friday, with many more evacuees believed to be with relatives and friends.

The Hawaii governor activated the National Guard to help with evacuations and provide security for properties that were abandoned when residents fled to safety.

Kilauea has erupted periodically for decades, and scientists said they have no way of predicting how long the eruption will continue.

A key factor will be whether a magma reservoir at the summit starts to drain in response to the eruption, which has not happened yet, said Asta Miklius, a geophysicist with the U.S. Geological Survey's Hawaiian Volcano Observatory.

"There is quite a bit of magma in the system. It won't be just an hours-long eruption probably, but how long it will last will depend on whether the summit magma reservoir gets involved. And so we are watching that very, very closely," Miklius said.

After a week of earthquakes, authorities had warned residents to be prepared to evacuate because an eruption would give little warning.

Henry Calio said the first sign that something might be wrong happened when cracks emerged in the driveway of his home in Leilani Estates. His wife, Stella, then received a call from an official who told them to get out immediately. They feared they might lose the house.

"This is our retirement dream," Henry Calio said.

Kilauea's Puu Oo crater floor began to collapse Monday, triggering the earthquakes and pushing the lava into new underground chambers. The collapse caused magma to push more than 10 miles  downslope toward the populated southeast coastline of the island.

The magma later crossed under Highway 130, which leads to a popular volcano access point. Authorities closed the area to visitors and ordered private tour companies to stop taking people into the region.

Over the decades, most of Kilauea's activity has been nonexplosive, but a 1924 eruption spewed ash and 10-ton rocks into the sky and killed one person.

A 1983 eruption resulted in lava fountains soaring more than 1,500 feet into the sky. Since then, the lava flow has buried dozens of square miles of land and destroyed many homes.

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In speech to NRA, Ricketts says police, mental health care key to school safety

In a high-profile speaking appearance at the National Rifle Association's annual meeting in Dallas, Gov. Pete Ricketts said Friday he is asking law enforcement and mental health care experts to help shape the best means of assuring security and safety in Nebraska schools.

Among suggestions that might be considered would be placing off-duty police officers in the schools, the governor said.

The answer to gun violence in the schools is not to attack Second Amendment gun rights but to focus on law enforcement and improved mental health care, he said.

Ricketts held a coveted speaking spot on an agenda topped by President Donald Trump, Vice President Mike Pence and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, although the governor's appearance came toward the end of a long day. 

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott was the only other governor on the long list of speakers at the big national convention that is one of the largest politically conservative gatherings of the year. 

Outside the convention hall, the NRA event hosted 15 acres of guns and gear.

Ricketts told the NRA members that "the left is energized (and) intent on winning back the legislative bodies they have lost," marking 2018 as a consequential election year for conservatives.

"Our rights are under attack today," he said.  

The convention marked the first NRA national gathering since 17 people were killed during a mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, on Feb. 14.

Gun control reaction to that tragedy is "focusing on the wrong thing," Ricketts said.

Responsible gun owners are "people who love the Constitution," he said, and they recognize that the right to bear arms is "fundamental to who we are as Americans."

"Get involved in this election cycle," the governor said. "We've got to get energized out there."

GWYNETH ROBERTS, Journal Star file photo 

Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts