What is it like to run with the best in the nation and qualify for the Olympic Marathon Trials during your first marathon? Below is the story of the most electrifying, team-oriented, and painful experience of my life.
There were over 100 of us trying to qualify on December 4 at the California International Marathon. One hundred women who had come close to running a 2:46:00 marathon (the B standard for qualifying for the Olympic Trials), but had not quite achieved it. The Brooks ID member next to me at the starting line commented how she had run 2:46:20—twice.
The Starting Line
At the starting line there were dozens of women huddling around Will. Will was the pace setter for my group—the man who was supposed to pace us to run exactly 2:46:00. He was carrying all of our dreams. He was responsible for helping us not go out too fast or back off too much on the hills. He was our leader.
I don’t remember much else from the start—I was shaking, from cold or nerves I don’t know. I remember a guy on the PA system announcing that if you were an elite athlete—“You know who you are: you have less than 8% body fat and could hang glide on a Dorito”—to step up to the line. Then the gun.
As the 100 of us stampeded behind Will, I found my way directly to his side and looking at him thought to myself I am going to be your shadow. For the next 26.2 miles I will not drop. This was my first marathon. I had never run further than 25 miles at one time in my life. I had no clue what I was getting into, but I knew that if I were to qualify I had to stay with Will.
Losing My Shoe
My group had yet to establish a rhythm when suddenly, not even three miles into the course, someone stepped on my heel and my beautiful new Racer ST slid off my foot. It was repeatedly kicked forward by the moving wave of runners. I finally grabbed it, forced myself to calm down enough to slide it back onto my foot. My next two miles were run at a 6 minute mile pace in order to catch back up with my group and Will—this was far faster than the 6:20 pace I was planning on running. I knew those two miles would come back to haunt me later in the race. Regardless, I once again became Will’s shadow.
We cruised on, mile after mile. The energy among the group of women was electrifying. Unlike half-marathons I had run we were not there to win. We were not there to beat each other. We were there to qualify, and because of the one unified goal we helped each other. A perky brunette named Jen had introduced herself to every other women within a 30 foot radius of her before the fifth mile and aptly nicknamed Will “Sensei”—she continued to chat away until we hit one of the larger hills around mile 10. As we passed water stops women would grab two mini water bottles, make sure Will had one and then passed the remainders around the group so that everyone had water.
I was lucky enough to be ranked as one of the top 50 women and was thus able to place five custom water bottles along the course. I chose to place mine at roughly every five miles along the course. I missed two bottles and shared one with a women next to me. We were a team. A pack. A group of women determined to run under 2:46 or give everything trying.
Meeting the Wall
You hear about “the wall” in marathons. That dreaded place where your glycogen stores are gone, and you’re left dehydrated with no energy to stagger on. I was told “the wall” usually appears around mile 20. This was not the case for me. At mile 22 I was still running stride for stride with Will along with the other 15 or so remaining women. Suddenly both calves cramped and would not release. I limped a few steps and then realized I physically could not run. With four miles in front of me I had hit the wall.
I staggered to the sidewalk. The other women ran on yelling at me to keep going, to not give up. Will yelled back at me that we were one minute under the pace. I could still recover. I don’t know how long I stood on that sidewalk—I have never had to stop during a race before. But as soon as I could I began to run again. I was exhausted, my calves were cramping off and on and I had to run the remaining four miles on my own. I reminded myself that I had been a minute under the pace. Just keep fighting. I told myself. Just keep fighting.
Miles have never gone by slower. Mile 23, 24, then 25. Just when I thought there was no way I was going to make it Will appeared. Since he had been one minute under the needed pace he had dropped back to pick up the stragglers who were on the cusp of qualifying. Will ran beside me for half a mile, talking to me, telling me I was going to make it, that I had less than one mile left. After a final word of encouragement he dropped even further back to help the women behind me.
Finally, I rounded the corner and saw the finish line and the clock above the finish that told me I had 35 seconds to cross that line. I have raced in collegiate national championships, raced half-marathons against America’s elite, but until that first marathon I had never truly given everything. I finished in 2:45:47—13 seconds under the qualifying time for the Olympic Trials.
As I limped away from the finish line in shock a women came towards me, she was crying as she opened her arms up for a hug and stated, “We qualified! We qualified!” That day 30 women ran under the Olympic Trials qualifying time; including the chatty Jen. I would like to thank Will—without his words of encouragement I would not have made it. After me, he pulled in four more women behind me. Two of which finished a mere 4 seconds under the standard.
My first marathon will never be forgotten. I have never experienced such teamwork from complete strangers. To the women who valiantly endured the pain beside me, encouraged me, and fought to run under 2:46:00, thank you. You are all heroines! And to those who ran under that magical number—I will see you in Houston, Texas at the Olympic Marathon Trials!