“You’re here! You made it! You’re running in the Olympic Marathon Trials! You are my inspiration! Make today count!” shouts the world’s best spectator, who is literally jumping up and down, arms pumping wildly with enthusiasm as she stands on top of a concrete post at the USC campus. It’s the first lap, and she’s no less animated on the second, the third or even the fourth. Come the final, fourth lap, though and I decide to throw some love back her way. Fixing her in the eye, I yell “THANK YOU! Thank you for being out here supporting us. You’re amazing!” Momentarily, she ceases her tireless cheering, flashes me a smile of gratitude, and then proceeds to get right back to the task at hand. By this point in the race the front runners have long since passed, Olympic rings branded on the podium finishers on the sizzling tarmac. Lap four, and the spectator is no longer encouraging the lead pack with her seemingly endless fervor. Instead, she’s doing her very best to rally some of the nation’s fastest marathoners as they suffer through classic marathon apocalypse.
For as tough as my race was, I had plenty of distinguished company. The stats are telling. Two hundred and forty six women ran under 2:45:00 to qualify for the Trials. With a relatively generous two-and-a-half year qualifying window, it’s safe to say these are currently the top marathoners in the country. Fast forward to the Trials, though, and the numbers start to get a little funky. Of the 198 women who started the race, a full 49 of them didn’t finish — 25% of the field. It’s even worse on the men’s side, where there were 166 starters and 61 drops, a 37% attrition rate. Moreover, on the day, only 18 men and 40 women were able to run paces that would have met the bare-minimum qualifying standard to be there in the first place. I started the race ranked #159 and ended #108. If you ignore my slowest-in-two-years finishing time and simply look at finishing place, it appears as though I had a stellar day out there. Professional marathoners far more accomplished than I trailed behind, including two members of the famed Hansons-Brooks Distance Project, as well as several 2:30-something marathoners and sub-1:15 half marathoners.
I only just ‘squeaked’ into the Trials. So why was I in such unexpectedly esteemed company? The course’s 80+ turns didn’t help, but mostly it was the weather. At the athlete technical meeting at 4pm the night before the race, we were told the women’s start would be 77 degrees, with temperatures rapidly climbing to a high of 81. As if that’s not crazy hot enough, it always feels so much worse early-season, especially on radiating, shadeless asphalt. In the end, actual temperatures were somewhat lower. Despite this, I think you’d be hard pressed to find any runner who didn’t think it felt every inch as oppressively, stiflingly hot as forecasted. Even though I had tried to squeeze in some last-minute heat training, it simply wasn’t enough to prepare me. It’s one thing to run in warm weather and quite another to run fast. On the wise advice of my coach, I started conservatively due to the conditions. Still, my overheated body threw on the emergency brake with a long ten miles to go, and thus began my descent into the apocalypse.
Lap 1: I’m at the Olympic Trials! This is freakin’ awesome!!
Lap 2: Slow, but still awesome!
There were many reasons I didn’t give up. My Dad had come to watch me for the very first time and my kids were out there. I couldn’t face letting them down. The painful events of the past few weeks left me comfortable with the suffering, those I’ve lost ever-present in my thoughts. At the same time, I relished the raucous cheering of the plentiful crowds, thrilled to hear people calling me by my first name many times (only my last name was printed on my bib!). Most of all, I continued because when I look back on the experience, I wanted to be able to know I did it. No mental asterisk, no qualification. When I finally made it within sight of the finish line, I took a long few moments to savor it. To soak in the applause and to appreciate that I had run against the country’s fastest. To know that in a lifetime of events, this is surely one of the most special, most magical of them all. It had been a rough day for so many, but the real prize, at least for me, was in being there.
I’ll finish with a few tricks, tips and observations that proved useful on Saturday, as well as some things I learned about the world of professional marathoning:
- When the forecast calls for warm weather, it may sound extreme, but consider investing in an ice vest. I was surprised to see that there were dozens of marathoners pre-cooling with them before the race. Men’s champion Galen Rupp even used some high-tech ice mittens in conjunction with the more ‘traditional’ ice vest.
- I was far too conservatively dressed, being one of about three ladies not wearing race briefs. I imagine it would be quite freeing to run around in my undies, and I’m definitely going to try this at my earliest road-racing opportunity. (I don’t think they’re really the done-thing on the ultra scene). I took inspiration from the fact that just about everyone was doing it, even the ones who, like me, don’t quite have the rockin’ bod of Amy Cragg.
- Heat train. What’s the downside? None. Upside, potentially lots. Unfortunately, I live in a fairly rural area with only one sauna that I know of, and it’s at a hotel. And they won’t let me use it. Boo-hiss.
- If you’re lucky enough to have access to personal fluids during a marathon, put a handle on the top, so you can grab it easily while running. With this approach, out of eight bottles, I only missed one. Between perspiring hands and a relatively fast pace, it’s harder than you might anticipate to pick up and keep hold of your bottle. Also, consider how much fluid you’ll actually drink. Even on a day as hot as Saturday, I struggled to down more than about 4oz from each water bottle, yet I had mixed the VFuel concentration as though I was consuming all 8oz each time. Given that I failed to grab one bottle, this meant I consumed less half the calories I normally would in a marathon, a huge miss. (As a side note, I give enormous credit to the race organization for successfully executing the largest personal fluids operation in race history. It was flawless.)
- Note to race organizers: if you’re kind enough to set out water bottles for hydration or cooling, please consider asking the volunteers to loosen the lids first. It’s a small thing, but without it, the ‘neutral water’ station we passed multiple times on the course became a horrible tease. I’d pick up a bottle and try as I might my sweaty palms could not open the dang thing. I tried hands, I tried teeth, but those Dansani bottle tops are practically glued on. Eventually, I would have to throw it down on the ground, unopened, which was impressively frustrating.
- Always view the big picture. For as hard as parts of the race were, I never lost track of my joy. My gratitude. The fact that participating in the Olympic Marathon Trials is a momentous moment in my life and my finishing place in it largely irrelevant. I took the time to soak in every precious drop of the beauty in the accomplishment. I will never, ever forget.
- To all who organized, supported and sacrificed to make #LA2016 happen, not just for me, but for every runner entering the race, we owe you an unpayable debt of appreciation. Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! We couldn’t do it without you. Truly, this was your moment too.