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Early Bird: Natalie Morales

It’s 11 a.m., and Natalie Morales has been awake for seven hours and counting. The Women’s Running cover shoot crew members are still finishing their morning coffee when the gorgeous news anchor strides through the studio doors, fresh off a full stint at work.

Her duties as a co-host for the Today show may have wrapped, but Morales’ day is hardly over. Sitting down in the makeup chair, she explains that her flight from California to New York was delayed last night. Due to her 4:15 a.m. wakeup call, she’s running on just two hours of sleep. “What are you doing after the shoot?” someone asks, expecting “nap” to be the answer. Morales smiles. “Going to the gym!”

There’s an old Nike ad that reads, “Someone busier than you is running right now.” That someone is Natalie Morales. Aside from spending every weekday morning entertaining nearly 5 million viewers on Today, Morales contributes to NBC’s Rock Center with Brian Williams, Dateline and NBC Nightly News. Commuting from her home in New Jersey to New York City, she balances duties as a wife and mother of two sons under the age of 10. Oh, and she’s a 3:31 marathoner.

So how can she drag herself to the gym following a sleepless redeye flight and a day at the office? “Prioritizing and scheduling,” says Morales, who plans out her weeks in advance and then sticks to her schedule despite last-minute hurdles. “Whatever you do, you can’t let your head hit the pillow,” she advises, “Because then you’re not going anywhere.

Like many who have been bitten by the running bug, Morales makes fitness a part of her daily routine. “I’ve been running for half my  life,” she says. “For me, running helps maintain my sanity. It keeps everything feeling ‘regular.’”

As the daughter of a Puerto Rican air force lieutenant, Morales spent much of her childhood overseas. While attending a high school in Madrid, Spain, that had no track team, Morales played volleyball, softball and soccer. The self-described “jock” always had an inkling she was a strong runner, but the absence of a track team meant there was little opportunity to test her talent.

Her dormant interest in running began to come to life as an undergrad at Rutgers University, where she jogged to keep in shape; and it blossomed after she moved to New York City to pursue a career in television journalism. When Morales met her now husband, her love for running (and for him) became a lifelong passion. “He was my boyfriend at the time,” remembers Morales, “and our dates were runs in Central Park.” The couple decided to run the New York City Marathon together that year—they crossed the finish line holding hands.

Seventeen years later, running is still at the forefront of Morales’ marriage. “After that first marathon, we were hooked,” she says. Morales and her husband, Joe, have now completed five marathons together. Of the pair’s most recent 26.2-miler in 2005, Morales recalls, “I think if he could have gone ahead of me, he would have. But I was like, ‘How are you going to hold my hand to cross the finish? You’ve got to stay with me.’” He wisely listened and they both clocked a blazing 3 hours and 31 minutes. (Morales is perhaps the fastest woman on television when the Olympics aren’t airing).

Today, Morales and her husband try to compete in at least one half marathon and one triathlon every year, motivating each other through a “competitive in a good way” spirit.

“I’m going to tell my husband that I’m going to bed at 8:00 tonight,” Morales jokes when the photo shoot wraps. “He can put the kids to bed.” On days like this, a supportive partner is key to survival. Although she tries never to miss one of her sons’ Little League games or soccer matches, travel responsibilities prevent her from being available 24/7. “When I’m away, having that support system allows me the luxury of knowing that I have another person I can rely on.”

A husband who shares Morales’ love of running makes it easy for both to make time for fitness. While they seldom train together these days, one parent can pick up the slack at home while the  other hits the streets, gym or pool. “We make sure to get an hour of exercise at least five or six days a week,” explains Morales. Those 60 minutes might be a run along the water near her home in Hoboken, N.J., a spin class at the NBC gym or a soccer session with her sons. “We really place a lot of value and importance on being healthy.”

Finding time for fitness is a challenge, but in the past few years, Morales’ body has waged a battle all its own, with the familiar runner foes of plantar fasciitis, hip pain and bursitis. “I’ve been running since I was 18,” she says. “I’m now 40, so I think it’s taken a toll.”

Instead of hanging up her Asics, however, Morales adjusted her routine, paying closer attention to her body to nip injuries in the bud and mixing up the pavement-pounding with triathlon training. “I think running really is the best workout there is,” she explains, “but I’ve had to find other ways to get the same exercise without having to put so much pressure on my joints.”

When Morales was challenged to complete a sprint triathlon with co-anchor Hoda Kotb, she accepted. Despite reservations about the bike and the swim, the race was successful and Morales relished how the sport pushed her boundaries. “Every triathlon I learn something new,” she says, explaining that the multi-sport event has helped her overcome fears.

At her first Olympic-distance event (.93-mile swim, 24.8-mile bike, 6.2-mile run), Morales caught a glimpse of the ocean leg and almost backed out. “I looked at the six buoys lined up and thought, ‘Oh my goodness!’” After a friend reminded her that there are no “stroke police” and that she could do the breaststroke or float on her back if fatigue set in, Morales rallied. She set a goal to simply get from one buoy to the next. “Reaching the first one, I was like, ‘Okay this is crazy.’ I was so close to putting my hand up and saying, ‘Help! Save me!’” But Morales kept her hands and head down, and powered through to the end. “I think that that’s one of the most difficult and scary things I’ve ever done in my life,” she says. “I feel like if I could get through that, I can get through anything.”

This feeling of empowerment continues to serve Morales well, as she’s the busiest she’s ever been—both at the of face and at home. “It’s getting harder and harder because I’m traveling a lot these days,” she says. And her 3-year-old and 8-year-old are “at a very demanding age right now.”

When on the road, Morales makes an effort to schedule exercise: “Even if it’s just 30 minutes on the hotel treadmill, if that’s all the time I have, then that’s what I do.” With no gym access, Morales will download a yoga app on her phone or complete a 15-minute full-body workout in her hotel room. “I can’t always go out for that five-mile run, but if I just do something, I feel much better.”

At home, Morales follows a set routine: wake up at 4:15 a.m., be at the studio by 5:00, hair and makeup until 6:00, shoot newscasts and cross talks until 7:00, appear on the Today show from 7:00 to 10:00, work on stories and interviews until 1:30, work out before picking the kids up from school, hit the fields for any sports games, cook dinner, homework with her sons and complete additional work for NBC, bedtime at 9:00. . .repeat.

With an Olympic and election year in full swing, Morales’ schedule won’t relax anytime soon—but she has no plans to slow down, either. “As I get older, and as my kids get older, I’m hoping actually to be even more competitive in my age group,” she says with a smile. While she had plans to complete her first half ironman-distance triathlon by 40, after passing the four decade milestone in the spring, that window closed. “I’ll just have to do my half ironman at 50!” she laughs. One way or another, Morales will find the time—she always does.