Monday, January 16, 2012

The Olympic Marathon Trials

Kathy and I woke early on Olympic Marathon Trials morning. She was slated to work as a Medic for the race and had to report for her shift at 6:30 a.m., and I wanted to get out early to scope out the action. I was hoping my press pass would get me into the finish area, but in the end Kathy got a much better front-row seat than I did (read about it on her blog! incredible close-up shots from the finish line!).

I got to meet some bloggers--two of whom I already followed (Amanda and Laura) and three of whom were new to me (Corey, Kellie and Holly). All of us were running either the full marathon or the half-marathon the next day and were excited for this rare chance at professional-runner inspiration.
Laura, Kellie, me, Holly, Corey and Amanda
It was chilly out there--perfect running weather, but definitely coat and sweater conditions for spectating. We all stood near the 26-mile mark. Since the course consisted of several loops we actually got to see the contenders go by four times. And since the men and the women were running the Trials on the same course at the same time, we got EIGHT sightings of Olympic-quality running.The men's race started at 8 a.m. and the women's 15 minutes later.

That's Desi Davila, who went on to finish second, in front of the women's race on the first loop.

The women's pack--even the slowest was FAST!
After the runners made their third pass, I left the group to try to get into the finish area, but by the time I arrived security had closed it off to everyone but medical and race officials. I stood by the gate area for a while, thinking they'd open it up. But soon I heard the roar of the crowd as Meb Keflezighi, Ryan Hall and Abdi Abdirahman came in to claim spots on the Olympic team. I watched the podium photo op through the fence.

It was during that time that I witnessed the most poignant moment (for me) of the Trials. A woman with a stroller carrying a little girl and a toddler boy pushed past. The security officials stopped her just as they had stopped me.

"No one but race offiicals, ma'am," one of them said.

"But my husband's in there," she said.

"Sorry," he said.

She stood back next to me on the curb, pushing the stroller back and forth. The men who had finished behind the winners were trailing out, meeting family who led them into the convention center to get warm. Most of the runners were elated, just happy to have been out there with such a group. But when this woman's husband came out and I realized who he was, I understood why she was so frustrated at being unable to get to him.

It was Dathan Ritzenhein, who had finished fourth--the most difficult finishing place for an athlete with a shot at the Olympics (remember, Dathan was the top American finisher in Beijing four years ago). He gave his wife a hug--it was obvious from his face that he had been crying. And then (and this is what clenched my heart) he swept his little girl out of her stroller seat and walked toward the convention center benches just holding her, just the two of them alone despite the swell of people all over the place. And she, as if knowing that her daddy just needed a hug, twined her little arms around his neck. As he walked with her toward the convention center, I saw her sober little face, chin resting on his shoulder, eyes looking around, just glad to see her dad again.

It certainly wasn't the time for a photo or a quote, but I was glad I got to witness that very human moment of love shining out from disappointment.

Dathan and his family went inside, and I turned my attention back to the action. Another person wearing a press pass introduced herself to me as Amanda McCracken, also from Boulder. She told me Mike Sandrock had said she should look out for me. She was doing a piece for Running Times and had also been shut out of the finish area. We found our way to a spot near the bleachers and had a great view of the finish of the women's race. Shalane Flanagan rounded the corner first, a periodic grin coming over her face. Then came Desiree Davila and then Kara Goucher. The fourth place finisher in this race, Amy Hastings, also had tears on her face. So hard to finish fourth.

Though I was off the hook for the local paper since no one from Colorado came in among the winners (though Kara Goucher did go to the University of Colorado), I was feeling lame for not taking better advantage of my press pass and felt I needed to redeem that. So I went up into the convention center and secured myself a second row seat for the press conference with the winners. The place soon filled up with TV cameras and reporters. (I was also starving, so I had loaded up a plate in the press lounge--I had to remind myself that I had a race the next day myself and shouldn't get too hungry! Fortunately I wasn't the only person in there eating.)

Soon the men filed in: Meb, then Ryan, then Abdi! Limping, just like we do! Easing themselves into their chairs!

The Trials press officials had microphones and called on the reporters with questions. In the crowd was Amby Burfoot from Runners' World (he was right in front of me!), as well as folks from the New York Times, ESPN, the Washington Post and NBC.

The mood was ebullient. There had been a mention of the fact that on average this is the oldest Olympic men's team for the marathon we've ever sent (average age 33; Meb is 36!). To which Ryan pointed out to the other two, "I watched you guys make the Olympic team in the 10k when I was in high school." (Ryan has a really laid-back California dude way of talking.)

It was during this men's conference that I got to ask a question (they seemed to be allowing each person in the audience one question), so I asked Meb what he does differently to train now that he's on the older side for an Olympic qualifier. I told him he's a big inspiration to all runners who think they are on the wrong side of the age factor. And I also asked him (because this was what my husband Dan wanted to know): Does he still take ice baths in mountain streams? (Does anyone else remember the picture of Meb recovering in a cold mountain stream that was in Runners' World a few years back?)

Meb answered the second question first: No, he doesn't really do that any more because the tap water where he lives is already so cold that when his wife fills an ice bath for him he actually has to ask her to mix some hot water into it because it's TOO cold. Everyone laughed.

On the first question, about running as you age, here's what he said:

"I want to thank Skechers for taking me on. I had no shoe contract until last August until they came to me.....For older runners and all runners, I would say that age is number that you put in your head. If you work hard and believe in what you want to accomplish, beating a five-hour marathon or a four-hour marathon, go out there and put the work in and you will achieve it.

"When the cameras not watching...we work very hard at what we do. There are so many obstacles as a distance runner that we face. Who would have thought I'd be sitting here after having a pelvis fracture?"

I love that guy.

The women filed in soon after the guys left. Kara and Shalane are both tall. Desi and Amy Hastings (who also came; how hard would that have been?) are tiny.

Shalane described the finish stretch as "a cross between savoring the moment and just being grateful I was almost done." Desi said the finish for her was "this internal conflict where I really wanted to make a big push, but my calves were just cramping up and tight." Kara said, "The last mile I was just trying to get to the finish line. The last mile I was really just hanging in there basically." Amy said, "I just didn't have quite enough left. It was an emotional last mile."

It made me realize how different it must be to compete against others rather than yourself and the clock alone as most of us do.

At one point, a question came up about Kara's come-back and how she felt going into this race. I love how human she is. She said, "Honestly, I've been a wreck. I was not confident. I can't remember the last time I've been this nervous, but I also can't remember the last time I've wanted something this badly."

And then she said it again: "I was not confident. I've been a wreck. I'm going to sleep really well tonight."

I found this very comforting. It's OK to not be confident all the time. You can still succeed.

I returned to the hotel tired, a little worried about having been on my feet so much, but feeling very inspired. That afternoon, our feet propped up on pillows on our respective beds, Kathy and I watched the races again on TV.

And the reality of our own looming race started to set in......