The 2020 US Olympic Marathon Trials
I’ve never started a race this far back. With bib #147 (from my 2’17’44 at Vermont City Marathon) of about 250 competitors, I find myself in an unusual spot in the slowest of 4 starting corrals. There are a solid 150 people in front of me, probably 10 rows of extremely fit dudes separating me from the giant banner that reads “Atlanta 2020 U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials”.
The US Olympic Marathon Trials is a race held every 4 (ish) years to select the US team for the upcoming summer Olympic Games. The first three men and women to cross the line on that day make up your two teams. It’s a very simple system, devoid of the politics and subjectivity of other nations, and creates a unique race where, as they say, dreams can become reality. There are myriad examples of underdogs making the team, relatively amateur runners finishing super high up , and the favorites going home devastated after one bad day. As a fan, it’s one of the most exciting races that comes around.
I ran the 2016 Olympic Marathon Trials in Los Angeles. I went into that race coming off my biggest training block ever and thought I had a shot to PR and finish high up in the always-deep field. That race went poorly. I struggled w/ the heat and direct sun and a then-undiagnosed breathing condition which had me running over 7’00/M in the second half of the race to finish in 2’33’50, among the last 25 finishers.
I vowed I’d come back in 2020 and run a race that I could be proud of, that showed how hard I’d worked, how badly I wanted it, etc.
Fast-forward almost exactly four years. I’ve qualified for the USOT Marathon with my win at the 2018 Vermont City Marathon. And while my focus has (somewhat unexpectedly) shifted from the marathon towards ultra-marathons, as of late 2019, I’m training w/ the Trials exclusively in my cross-hairs.
I had a fantastic start to the year. After winning my debut 50 mile race at the 2019 US Championships, I recovered well and had a fantastic January, training in Quito, Ecuador at 9,300 ft above sea level. I was running workouts that were as good if not better than anything I’d ever attempted. I was living with my best friends. I was stretching shirtless on the roof of our building under the bright equatorial sun. Life was good.
I’ve alluded to this already (for those who follow me on social media, strava, etc.), but I had a pretty traumatic and life-altering event in my family life at the end of that month. Suddenly, my momentum was lost. I’d never felt the mind-body connection as drastically as I did in February, 2020. I knew I was fit, but there were days where I literally struggled to get out of bed, where I spent the first 10 minutes of the run battling w/ the voice in my head that told me to turn around and walk home and lie in bed, where I wasn’t even thinking about the Olympic Trials, but was struggling just to literally make it from sunrise to sunset.
I was depressed. I had (and have) struggled with depression on and off since I was a teenager but never as strongly as I felt it in that month. I wanted nothing more than to shake it off, take off that 100 pound weight vest that held me under water, but — despite glimpses, slivers, here and there — I never could.
I remember a moment in the middle of February, driving out of the city w/ my Casa Chaski family, the sun shinning and the snow-capped peaks of the nearby volcanoes glimmering. For the first time in weeks, I felt something like happiness. I said, “The only thing that’s going to impact my performance at the Olympic Trials is where my head’s at.”
And I was right. In those intervening weeks, I still felt the weight of my depression every moment of every day. There were days where I was able to distract myself, to focus on The Task at hand, and there were days when everything seemed impossible, the pain of simply being.
I want to make one thing clear: I’m not writing this for your sympathy. I’m not writing this to explain away what some might call a poor race result. I’m not writing this to make you feel bad. I want to share what I’ve been through, my journey, as I have for years, the good and the bad.
Thus, this was the context with which I flew from Quito to Miami and, after a swelteringly hot and humid tune-up, arrived in Atlanta for the 2020 Olympic Marathon Trials. Unlike 2016, I knew I wasn’t ready for a huge PR. But things had improved enough that I was excited to be there, excited to make it to a starting line which — even a few weeks earlier — I wasn’t sure I’d see.
So there I am. On that starting line, surrounded by 250 (or so) of the country’s best marathoners. I’d had a long conversation, several really, w/ my coach, Jon Waldron, about how to approach this race. Beyond getting to the starting line, he’d urged me to run a conservative race and embrace the uncertainty of the marathon, particularly this marathon.
And so that’s my game plan. As we all bounce nervously, the mid-day sun warming the air and a strong, gusting wind whipping the flags around Centennial Olympic Park, I stand next to my former college team- and house-mate, Matt Rand, who had qualified for the first time w/ his 2h18 PR a few months earlier. We’ve talked before the race about starting out together at a pace of about 5’25/M (3’22/km).
If that sounds slow, it’s important to note that much of the hype surrounding the Trials revolved around how challenging the course would be. Apparently, Atlanta is a hilly city (I certainly didn’t know that) and the course map they’ve released features about 1400 ft of climbing over 26.2 miles. My own experience from running the main 8 mile loop two days earlier had been that i’s was less scary than I thought, but I’m also sure I’ll be eating my words in the last 10 miles or so of the race. Point being, I’m happy to go out slowly, respect the course, and try to set myself up for a race that involved moving up in the field, the opposite of 2016.
The gun goes off and I mostly try not to trip and get trampled. The downtown streets are packed w/ cheering fans and I quickly settle alongside Matt as things begin to string out. We hit the first mile quickly — lost in a sea of adrenaline, pulled forward by the hundreds of bodies in front of us — and before we know it, we’re at the top of a hill at mile 2 in about 10’30. We’re well under the pace that we’d planned but can see the pack strung out what must be 200m in front of us.
Matt and I let a few others go and settle into a comfortable rhythm. At the first turnaround (around 4 miles), I remember having enough energy and air to tell a story about how I’d gone to pee in a gas station across the street where the teller was enclosed in bullet-proof glass.
The hills don’t feel too bad, but the wind is a challenge. Jon had told me to prepare for the unpredictability of the marathon and the wind is following perfect suit. I’m not sure what direction it’s coming from, when we’ll have it in our faces, etc. It seems to just randomly gust up and nearly knock you over.
But in that first 8 mile loop, I start feeling decent. I’m pulling away a tiny bit from Matt and some of the other runners with whom we’d started. The sound is deafening as we come back through the city, the hilliest part of the loop from about 6 to 8 miles, and get smacked around by the wind whipping amongst the tall buildings.
I actively try not to look at my individual km or mile splits, but do split my watch as we pass the 8 mile mark (the end of the first of 3 loops) in 43’06 (5’23 per mile pace). I’m actually feeling great now and already working my way up through the field.
This lap feels the best. The wind is even stronger now, but there are enough packs of runners ahead of me that I’m able to surge as the wind calms or is behind me, and then tuck into each pack I roll up. It’s like hopping from island to island. I’m actually having a pretty good time.
There are a couple runners I’m keeping an eye on, guys who had started near me, or guys with whose PRs I’m familiar, and each one I catch gives me a nice boost of confidence. I pass my family and friends just after the half marathon mark (1’10’04) and am sure that I’ll be able to break 2h20.
I pass back through the city at the end of lap 2 in 1’25’43 (so, about 30 seconds faster for the second lap than the first). The hills on the first part of the loop still don’t bother me too much, but the wind is still strong and the packs are much thinner at this point in the race. I’ve started passing people w/ pretty low bib numbers and I know there are many scalps to be had up ahead. I’m not looking at my splits, but I’m pretty sure I’m still having a great race.
The only part of the race which is different from the first two loops comes when the course splits off around mile 22 and tacks on an extra few miles to the south. This, it turns out, is both the quietest and hilliest section of the course. Veering off of the absolutely packed main loop is a bit of a buzz kill, but I can see the front of the race (at least some of it) coming back in the opposite direction and I can really feel the finish.
I do a bit of (challenging) mental arithmetic in these last 2 miles and realize that I’m running way slower than I thought. In the end, I lose almost 2 minutes in these last 3 miles, but somehow I’m still moving up through the field.
In the entire race, despite positive-splitting, I end up passing almost 100 runners and being passed by 2.
Finally, we crest the last steep climb, a hill I’d run up the previous morning w/ a large and boisterous crew, and I know it’s all flat and downhill to the finish. I see a sign for 800m to go, then 600m, then it’s all blurry until I hit the steep downhill w/ less than 200m to the finish and I’m just trying not stumble.
I cross the line in 2’22’51 for 82nd place overall.
I walk in a fairly standard post-marathon haze. I try to ascertain who made the team, but the volunteers at the finish line can’t tell me (other than Rupp). I end up in the media zone where I run into Jim Walmsley and we watch the end of the women’s race together. I make my way back to the tent where I get my sweats, find my family, hug and am hugged.
As usual, one of the first people I want to talk to after the race is Coach J-Wal. He picks up the phone and the first thing he says is “Congrats on a great race!”
The truth is that — even on the starting line — I wasn’t really sure what a great race would look like in retrospect. Yes, it was a serious personal triumph for me just to get to the starting line. But what would it mean to have a good race?
I was pretty sure what a bad race would feel like, what it would involve. And so, for one of the first times in my memory, I realized that how I felt during the race, how I executed a particular strategy, would have more bearing on my retrospective judgement than the time or place.
2h22 is one of the slowest marathons I’ve run. But Jon was right. This was a great race, because of the context. I ran smart, moved up almost 100 places in the last 20 miles, and more importantly, dealt with a head that, in the majority of the preceding days, tried its best to dissuade me from even competing.
When I look back on this race in the years to come, I hope I don’t jump to judgement at the finish time. I hope I remember what that race felt like, what that month felt like. And I hope that I can still feel proud.
Notes Or something like that. Mark Connover being the obvious example but also Brian Sell in 2007. As a New England native, I’ve got to cite Nate Jenkins’ top 10 finish in ‘07 here. I don’t even have a recap to link because I was so devastated after the fact that I couldn’t even write about it. Exercise induced bronchiospasm — a condition which appeared to be exacerbated by high heat, which I learned after a similar (poor) performance at the 2015 50K World Championships 4 months before the ‘16 Trials. I went on to be tested and diagnosed at the Mass General Hospitals High Performance Sport lab later in spring ‘16.. My time of 2’17’44 was the second fastest ever on the challenging VCM course. Full writeup here: https://strivetrips.org/blog/race-report-vermont-city-marathon/ An ultra marathon is anything longer than a traditional 26.2 mile (42.2km) marathon or, as LetsRun.com forum posters like to note, a “jogging race”. Recap here: https://strivetrips.org/blog/keep-showing-up/ “Casa Chaski” is a mix of Spanish and indigenous Andean Quechua which basically translates to “Runners’ House”, the name we gave to the apartment where somewhere between 1 and 7 of us lived in Jan/Feb, '20. One of the things that I’ve learned in these months is that while the general trajectory of your life can influence or even negate depression, no amount of literal sunshine can get you out of a bad spell. Exact time was 2’18’36 run at the Indianapolis Monumental Marathon. Matt was quite a bit better than me in college; he ran 30’07 in the 10K and was an XC All American, so I was excited to have him there. Running my daily loop around Parque Metropolitano in Quito, an 8 mile loop with the same amount of climbing at almost 10,000 ft, probably had something to do w/ it. See my 2016 Trials race.
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