A little background
Let’s go back in time for a moment here, back 28 years to be exact. In high school I remember dreaming of going to the Olympics someday. Well this hasn’t ever happened, but if you fast forward 28 years to the present day, my adult version of this dream became a desire to qualify for the Olympic Trials in the marathon. I have learned so much about myself, about running, and about life through the pursuit of this goal, that I really wanted to share it with you. I learned ways of thinking that can be applied to anyone’s life. Let me take you on this journey.
I was always a runner but took time off after running competitively throughout high school and college. After getting married and having children, I decided to get back into running. This started very slowly but soon picked up speed when I met an incredible local running group. I couldn’t believe there were so many people that laced up before the sun rose each morning and ran the streets by the light of their headlamp. I knew right away this was where I belong. I can remember my first 12 mile run with this group. The night before I was so excited that I could hardly sleep. I thought this will be a piece of cake, just like my long runs in college. Ha! That run still stands out in my mind. Yes I was excited for sure, but by golly I am surprised I made it back without pulling every muscle in my body. I wasn’t ready for that. I continued running with this group and increasing mileage and even doing some speed work leading up to my first marathon – Steamtown. I managed to finish in 3:16 in my marathon debut in Scranton. I even placed in my age group and qualified to run the Boston Marathon! This was going exactly as I had hoped. My plan was to qualify for Boston on my first marathon, then run Boston and BOOM – no more marathon running needed after that right? Wrong, oh so wrong. I continued to get faster with each marathon I ran. Naturally it just made sense for me to keep training and keep running marathons. I was winning local half marathons, then I was winning local full marathons. Soon I began placing in the top 3 women overall or top 3 masters at larger races in the region.
The dream taking shape
After I ran a 2:52 at the Wineglass Marathon in 2017 a friend said something that changed my life for the next 3 years and forever really. She said I was close to the qualifying time for the Olympic Marathon Trials. My ears perked when she said this. I feel like it woke a giant who had been sleeping inside my belly for years and I didn’t even know it – she said OLYMPIC! I was not entirely sure what she meant, so I looked into it. I went to the USATF website to review the qualifying standards for the Olympic Marathon Trials. I was 7 minutes off of the 2:45 qualifying time. Sounds like it would be easy to run just 7 minutes faster across 26.2 miles right? That equates to running 10 seconds faster per mile, 26 times.
I knew it would be difficult to continue to make big improvements at this point. I had put in various hard training cycles and was already very fit. On the other hand, I still had a lot to learn about the marathon and I was still getting faster. I began to get excited about the possibility of actually qualifying. It was like my childhood dream of going to the Olympics, that I never took seriously, had resurfaced. Only this would be my adult version of that dream. In other words, I didn’t think I would improve to the point of making the Olympic team, but if I could run in the Olympic Trials with the fastest women in America – well that my friends, would be grand enough for me! In fact it would be epic! Qualifying for the Olympic Trials in the marathon as a woman over 40 would most likely be the epitome of my running career, but only time knows the answer to that.
Educating myself on the process
In researching information about the qualifying criteria, I learned that the qualifying window was open from September 1, 2017-January 19, 2020. This gave me about 2 years to qualify. Realistically, that’s 4 or 5 chances I would have at making the standard if I ran 1 marathon each spring and fall for the next 2 years.
I also read that the race course must be USATF/IAAF/AIMS certified with an elevation loss no greater than 3.25 meters/km. This took many of my favorite local races out of the picture real quick. Then I reviewed the list of women who have already met the standard. I studied what courses they were qualifying on. I even did a little math to see what courses produced the most qualifiers to help increase my chances further. To give me the best chance at success, I was going to have to do some traveling to races that met the USATF criteria and were known to be flat and fast courses. I love to travel but I wasn’t excited about this idea at first. It’s expensive. It will take me away from my family and young children. I’d have to brave it alone.
Another part of the criteria was your time would be based on gun time not chip time. This meant I needed to try to secure elite starts at these races so I could get as close to the start line as possible. This added to the anxiety as getting an elite start I found wasn’t all that easy. Some races had links for who to contact and others did not. Once I did connect with the people I needed to it could be weeks between emails before I got answers to my questions and knew for sure whether I’d be able to start up front or not.
With this information I did my best to map out my plan. Already committed to running Boston in the spring, my first goal race would be the following fall. I felt that Boston’s course was not optimal for this lofty goal and well, I wasn’t ready for my first attempt either. In fact, I was just getting back to running after overcoming an injury. I planned to run Chicago in the fall of 2018, and run CIM 8 weeks after that as my back up. I booked parking, flights, hotels, and airport transportation. I even tried to plan where I would get my meals before the race. This was the beginning of my journey.
Chicago Marathon 2018
First up – Chicago 2018! What a beautiful city! I flew in the day before the race. Did you pick up on my first mistake? Yea, NEVER try to fly in the day before your race. My flight was delayed 5 hours just to fly from Detroit to Chicago. I missed my shakeout run, rushed around for meals, hurried to get my race bib before the expo closed, and so on. I was not relaxing with my feet up as one should do the day before a key race.
I knew that I should just grab food and rest up at the hotel at this point, but I REALLY wanted to see Deena Kastor’s motivational speech. I had met her in Boston the previous spring. We talked at length and before I left I forgot to get my picture with her. So I walked almost another mile to go see her speech and hoped to get a photo opportunity. This did not seem like a good idea at the time. I can tell you in hindsight – it was. The speech she gave that day is one that I carry with me today in all my marathons. So what seemed like a sacrifice in the moment, turned out to be future inspiration. She talked about the length of a marathon and how the way we feel throughout that race often changes from one mile to the next. Some miles feel great and others are terrible. She said “Ride the highs as long as you can and ride out the lows as fast as you can.” I often feel the changes in my body throughout a marathon – just as she eluded to. For this reason this quote resonates with me. In fact, Ryan Hall mentions this same quote from her in his book, “Run the Mile You’re In”. If the men’s American record holder in the marathon (Ryan Hall) mentions this phrase in his book too, that confirms the sense of inspiration it bestows. After her speech and a picture with Deena (yes I got my picture!), it was time to get ready for the next day. I went to bed exhausted in hopes a good nights rest would recharge me and I’d still have a good race.
Race day came. I’ll save you the details and get right to mile 5 of the marathon. I knew I was in trouble early. That’s pretty bad in a race where I had another 21.2 miles to go. I knew that being on my feet and running around the day before my race was not a good idea but much of it was out of my control. I didn’t hit the qualifying time but I still hung on for a 1 minute personal best. It certainly didn’t feel like I was going to get a PR in that race. This was the hardest marathon I had run to date and I feel it was purely due to the stress of the day before. Also, I just wasn’t ready for that magical 6:17 mile pace yet. I ran a gutsy race but I still had some work to do.
I returned home to my hopeful family who asked – “Well Mom, did you do it?!” I felt like I had wasted money on this trip and let everyone down including myself. This race made me question how I was I supposed to run another 6 minutes faster. That was HARD! Not only that, but now another expensive trip to try again in 6 weeks. This meant more time away from the family, and more hard training. I wondered at this point, “Am I wasting my time? I’m 42! My hay days are probably past. What if I put all my time and energy (and money) into something that will never happen? I won’t ever get this time back with my kids.” The demons spoke and I was listening.
California International Marathon 2018
After slowly building back up and getting a few more speed workouts in it was time taper for my second marathon that fall. Let me remind you that 2 marathons a year are ok but 2 in one season is not recommended. The reason I did this was, I knew I had limited opportunities to make my goal a reality. I was also over 40 and thought this was something I’d have to do now or never, so I wanted as many chances at success as I could get.
Six weeks passed before I found myself on a plane again. This time I flew into Sacramento to run the fastest qualifying course in the west at California International Marathon. This course is known to produce more Olympic Qualifiers than any other. I was excited to run the course as I heard it was a lot of rolling hills with a net downhill – only enough to meet the necessary criteria put forth by the USATF.
Race day came. My warm up for this marathon was a race from the bus to the start line. Our bus got lost on the way to the start – don’t ask. I had no idea what to expect. I had just enough time to drop my bag and jog to the start where I had a few moments to quickly stretch. My normal routine normally takes an hour so this made me a little anxious. Whatever though, you gotta roll with it right? The gun went off. I couldn’t believe how many runners passed me in just the first mile! I was blown away by the talent of the field. As the race progressed I saw the hills coming one at a time. These were the strangest hills ever though. They were like a mirage. They look big from a distance but disappear as you get closer. It stumped me throughout the race but either way I felt really good. I knew I wasn’t hitting 6:17 pace which is the magic number that equates to a 2:45 marathon. But I stayed in it, knowing I planned to get faster in the last 6 miles. I came out of the hills and back into Sacramento where the race finishes. I had 6 miles to go and I knew it was time to pick up the pace. I did get faster but again, it wasn’t enough. I came away with another personal best and was now another minute closer to the 2:45 qualifying standard. At this point I was 4 minutes off the standard.
I returned home. Again, “Mom did you do it?! No, but I’m still getting closer.” Again, I felt a little deflated. I took some time off to recover before building back up again. During this time off, I thought about my plan for 2019. At this point there were only a few marathons to select from for my next attempt(s). My friend Tim who was also my coach at the time had really done some great work with me over this last year (2018). Under his coaching I was finally able to find gears! Before working with him I had run everything from a 5k up through the marathon at virtually the same pace – yep. I didn’t think there was one fast twitch muscle in my body and if there was, it was sleeping. I am thankful and gracious for all the work he did for me. Because Tim and I were both coaches, we reviewed the approach to each race together and talked through what training would look like. He obviously had the final say. It must be hard for a coach to coach a coach? But I enjoyed working with him. I feel like my time with Tim was a big contributor to the next stage of my development.
A new approach
I had been qualifying for elite starts for the races I was running, but it was never a clear process as I mentioned. For that reason I was always anxious as to whether I would actually get an elite start or not. Remember this was important for me because the qualifying standard goes on gun time not chip time. Between trying to secure elite starts, planning logistics for all these races, continued hard training and time away from family, I was getting tired – mentally and physically. My intuition spoke to me again – my inner Yoda. I felt like I needed something more but I really wasn’t sure what. So I reached out to friends and other resources for ideas on maybe what Tim and I weren’t thinking of. Was there another way to do this. I was so close to qualifying yet I was still miles away (pun intended).
After picking people’s brains to see if there was something else I could be doing I got one suggestion that resonated with me. It was recommended that I train for a fast half marathon in the spring instead of doing another marathon, and then go for my qualifier in the fall. Initially I thought NO WAY! That would take one of my last few opportunities to qualify off the table. After I settled my initial reaction to this recommendation, it made all the sense in the world, but it was still risky. Speed has always been my opportunity. Training for a fast half marathon was something I never did before. After thinking about this for a while I finally pulled the trigger and asked to be removed from the elite start at Grandma’s Marathon and instead entered into the half marathon. The coordinator reminded me that there was a wait list at that point for the elite start of the marathon. She stated in her email that if I changed my mind, I would most likely not be able to get an elite start in the marathon again. This wrecked my nerves just a little more but I decided it is the right thing to do. The qualifying window was getting smaller and every woman in America who was on this same journey knew it! Elite starts getting harder and more crowded with wait lists? There was a nervous energy at every race start. It was a quiet nervous energy but you could feel it all around you.
The theory was that if I was able to run a fast half marathon, it should translate into my marathon. If you think about it, many of America’s greatest marathoners had held either an American or World Record at shorter distance races before moving up to the marathon distance. This was one fact that helped me feel more confident in pursuing things a little differently. But also, we know that if you keep doing the same thing over and over, you’ll likely get the same result right? So I decided this new approach was worth exploring.
Training began and I found that I was enjoying it! I was running less miles which created more time for other things. My body didn’t feel broken down, and instead I really started to feel strong, fast, and re-energized. Fast forward to the spring of 2019 I found myself on the start line for Grandma’s Half Marathon in Duluth, Minnesota. I was excited again and ready to see what I could do. I previously ran a 10 mile race down Broad Street in Philadelphia at a pace of 6:09. Up to this point, that was the fastest pace I’ve maintained for that long of a race. My thought process was just tack 3 miles onto that and there’s my half marathon. That’s exactly what I did and I finished in 1:19 and change. This was about a 2-3 minute PR. Progress! Now let’s get after that qualifier!
The “last” training cycle
After recovering from my spring half marathon guess what I did. Yes – I started that all too familiar build up into the next cycle. I logged the miles and built a solid base before I started marathon specific training for 8 weeks leading up to my fall marathon. This would be my last attempt at securing my spot on the start line in Atlanta in February 2020.
Training began. I had no problem running high mileage of 85-100 miles per week, in fact that part was easy. Hitting the paces I would need to hit in order to have a real shot at qualifying to run in the Olympic Trials was the hard part. I really wasn’t hitting my paces. I was usually off by 10 -20 seconds. This was tough mentally to keep striving for a particular pace and missing it every time. I can still feel that frustration.
It is REALLY HARD to continue to work at something that doesn’t seem to be moving in the direction you want it to. I knew the mental stress this was creating could very easily impact my physical performance, and it was. If you don’t believe you can do something, it’s much easier to give up, throw in the towel and go home. This was not a mindset that was going to help me and I knew it. But I did have days like that. I remember breaking into tears in the middle of at least two of my workouts. I thought this sucks, what the heck, and then I got in my car and went home. These were some of the lowest points of my training where again I questioned the sacrifices I was making. Was it worth it? I had been working with a new coach leading into the half marathon. She even said that if I didn’t start to hit these paces it would be difficult for me to qualify. At first I may have taken that as added pressure, but honestly she was being realistic and I knew it.
Training hard is not just training the body but also the mind. Running takes as much mental strength as it does physical if not more. I struggled to the point that it brought me to tears. I shut it down and went home. These were dark moments where I got in my own head and let the demons talk. I saw friendships fade as I couldn’t run with friends anymore as I had to keep even my easy runs at a faster clip to keep my fitness up. It was part of a new approach to training that seemed to go against the grain of what we all hear – take your easy runs easy. It was an approach that I fought at first but soon found it was really working for me.
Train the brain
I tried to tell myself to keep at it. Believe in myself and enjoy the process. I love feeling fit and healthy and that is what training does for us. Remove the stress, run with your heart, and everything will be okay. Also at this point I was already in deep. I had been training to qualify for at least a year, the logistics were set, and I only had 8 weeks to go. Suck it up buttercup and get it done.
I have found that I find renewed hope in my training and inspiration by readying books. I love to read about anything that might add an ounce of assistance in me reaching this lofty goal of mine. Since I’ve been doing a lot physically, I had started reading a lot of books more recently that focus on mindset. One book in particular that I really enjoyed and found value in was a book called “Elite Minds” by Stan Beecham. It is very heavy into psychology and how the brain affects our performance in sport and also in the workforce. The biggest nugget of information that I took away from it was the concept of how your beliefs affect your behavior even subconsciously. It describes the relationship between truly believing something and how it impacts everything you do subconsciously, which also leads to a certain outcome based on your belief. So for me it meant working really hard to solidify the belief that I could in fact qualify for the Olympic Trials and that I was going to do it in Chicago in 8 weeks. If I could truly believe this then it would lead to better training as sub-consciously I’d be putting in the little extra in each workout, or getting to the gym even when I’m tired, or saying no tempting foods that won’t help my performance.
For someone who was struggling in workouts and questioning whether it was all really worth it, to then exercise their brain to truly believe, this was not as easy task either – but I knew it was the missing element in my training at this point. I continued to get faster and stronger, there’s no room for doubt now. Now is the time to accelerate and succeed. Don’t get me wrong, I must have believed in myself to get this far. But to get that final goal was tough one. I think many of the men and women who have doing the same as I have over the last two years probably questioned their ability at some point. I had to dig a little deeper to solidify this belief and feel confident in it. I found it even harder to keep my belief strong while I entered into conversations with people that I felt questioned my ability in attaining this goal. To be honest I’ve had friends, family, and even coaches that I felt have questioned my ability. Again, not making this an easy task.
Chicago Marathon 2019
Over those last 8 weeks I trained myself to believe that I could in fact qualify for the Olympic Trials. If I didn’t hit paces in the remaining workouts I wasn’t going to kick myself for it. As long as I put in the effort and show up healthy to practice each day, that is progress towards the end goal. So that is exactly what I did. I didn’t approach my workouts with as much anxiety and as a result they starting to feel a little easier. About 4 weeks out from my goal race, my workouts started showing some hope. I started to gradually hit my paces or at least get closer to them, but still never crushed any of my workouts – except maybe one or two. And I believe I was wearing my Vaporflys for those workouts, so I didn’t feel like they “counted” but I still gained some confidence. It was around this time in training that my coach noted “Looks like your starting to round the corner” – meaning she was seeing my progress. Let’s just hope it wasn’t too late.
Two days out from race day you would find me in my hotel room reading through the notes I took on the various books I had read. I always like to create my own summary of what I read so I can quickly review it for a little motivation. I learned my lesson from last year in Chicago and so I made it a point to stay off my feet except for a few short walks for meals. One walk was around the corner to a delicious pancake house for my race day meal. Other than that I was in my room – foam rolling, stretching, and using this time to stay hydrated and top off my glycogen stores.
Race day came. I woke and began my normal routine on race day. I like to drink my fluids early so I’m not drinking anything within 60 minutes of the race start – for obvious reasons right? I gathered what I needed and walked to the hotel next door where I would get my pre-race coffee from the Starbucks and warm up the pancakes I bought the day before. There was a nice lobby with tables there where I found a seat and took in my caffeine, carbs, and well known beet smoothie (for those who know me). Yes I packed a smoothie!
When I was finished, I stepped outside and made my way to the elite tent by the starting line. I will never take elite starts for granted. It is an amazing experience to be able to start up front in major races like this. You have your own toilets and heated tents to stretch and leave your belongings during the race. The best part is the fenced in warm up area for the elites. It is here that I got to warm up next to America’s best marathoners both in 2018 and 2019. This is where I have seen a few of the more well-known faces in the crowd like Mo Farah, Galen Rupp, Jordan Hassay, Stephanie Bruce, and more. It’s exciting to see them warming up and going to the start line with you.
Things were going smooth and the weather was nice. It was 10 minutes to the race start and so I got myself into the chute for the start line. I wanted to make sure I got a good position right out of the start. In that time the women were talking and trying to find who had similar goals for the day and what their strategy entailed to determine if they could work together or not. I did the same. I found about 2 or 3 women with the same strategy as me and we decided we’d run together. They let us out of the chute and I quickly moved straight to the start line and held my position. If my race came down to the last second I wouldn’t want to say – “If I started on the start line I would have qualified”. So I removed as many possibilities for “if” statements that day.
The National Anthem played. There was silence and everyone held still. All you heard were watches clicking to start up the GPS. Then, the gun went off. Everyone charged forward. Now all the work I had put in over the last year or so was being put to the final test. All the time away from my family, all the money spent, tears fallen – what would be the outcome today? I knew on the start line that I had given training everything I had, I trained my brain, I felt good, I was healthy, I was strong, I was fit, and I got a great pre race meal to fuel my performance! Everything was perfect including the weather.
As everyone settled into their paces you would see large packs of women whom you knew were all gunning for a trials qualifier just as I was. With a little bit of wind in our faces I joined one of those packs and drafted for a bit. There were so many people in the pack that I found it difficult to find a position I was comfortable with where I didn’t feel like I was going to trip on someone. It was also hard to get to water stops which would be critical to my success. Additionally, this particular pack was going 1-2 seconds faster than pace. Now that doesn’t sound like a lot but it can be enough to take you down at mile 20. So after careful thought and weighing the benefits of drafting with the pack or hanging back a little bit, I decided to ease up. I was fighting in my own head as to whether this was the right decision or not. But about 5 minutes later another girl dropped out of the pack and started to run with me. We exchanged a few words and both agreed they were just a little bit too fast. So Moira and I ran together. I showed her my arm as I had someone write all my splits there before the race. I told her long as we were hitting those times on the course and went by elapsed time we would be okay. This was something my coach talked to me about before the race. It doesn’t matter if you hit 6:17 all day, what matters is the elapsed time and that you get through the finish line in 2:45 or less.
Every mile Moira would ask, “Are we good?” I sensed her nervousness. Some of the miles got a little hairy and I wasn’t able to either read my arm or the clock on the course, but between the two of us we were able to figure if we were on pace or not. We worked really well together for most of the race. I told her my strategy, that come mile 20 we just give everything that we got for the last 6 miles. She agreed. I fact come mile 20 she would be my “rabbit” for the rest of the race. She ran ahead from this point on but she was only far enough ahead that I could stay attached and use her to pull me to the finish. We had one mile to go. Have you ever tried to do math in a long and difficult race? It’s not easy. And when you have this much on the line, it’s hard to trust your math even if you know the answer. My math told me I had time as long as nothing crazy happened in the last mile. I did a self-check and I felt like I was okay and had nothing to risk by continuing my current pace, so I pressed on.
The crowds were getting thicker and louder again. I am a pretty emotional person so for me, I had to just keep my emotions in check and stay focused. I looked at my watch and still had about 3-4 minutes to get across the finish line. It was getting close though. I still had to get up and over the bridge and then down the straightaway to the finish line. Again, math and time and numbers were running through my head as I looked at the last clock on the course. Oh my god, I thought, I AM GOING TO DO IT! This gave me a little extra pep in my step. At the same time it almost felt like everything was in slow motion like in a movie. It was now the finishing stretch and I was about to make my dreams a reality. I looked around at the reactions of the other women near me, acknowledged the beauty of this fall day, and soaked up as much as I could in this moment. I could now read the numbers on the finish clock and as I crossed the mat I saw 2:43:59. I can’t even tell you how this felt. It was really kind of weird. I didn’t cry, I couldn’t cry. I just repeated over and over “I can’t believe it”, “I just can’t believe it”. Maybe that’s because really all along I already believed it and knew it was going to happen. This was amazing. It was just purely amazing. Everything was perfect and almost too good to be true.
I do think that God was with me. He knows what running does for me and how much I love it and how it makes me feel. I grew up running. It’s part of me. Maybe this was part of his test for me – to see if I could endure the struggles and continue to love the sport. To finally take my passion to the next level as a 43 year old master’s runner is indescribable. To be honest the race felt so easy, mile for mile. It was only the last six miles that hurt. That tells me I was ready, it was my day and it was amazing.
Just as amazing was how I felt when I returned home. “Hey Mom did you do it?” Yes, I did it!
I wasn’t 100% convinced that I was actually going to the Olympic Trials until I got a confirmation of my registration. Well now what, I thought. What is my goal for the trials race? What does someone strive for after they’ve achieved their ultimate goal? After working so hard for so long and finally achieving your ultimate goal – what is next?
Stay tuned . . . .