Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Race Report: 2020 Olympic Trials

Before I get into any of my usual rambles, I need to say thanks to Atlanta Track Club for doing an absolutely phenomenal job putting on the Trials. Every detail was planned out with the athletes in mind. They made it easy to get in touch leading up to the race and on race weekend provided all our meals, hotel rooms, and a super special commemorative poster. The volunteers' enthusiastic, eager-to-help spirits made me feel like the entire weekend had been staffed by Trader Joe’s employees. The personal fluid stops—with 3000-plus individualized bottles—got a lot of press, but on top of that they also had tables with small water or Powerade bottles and, I kid you not, volunteers cracked the seal on every single one so it’d be easier for exhausted racers to open them. Before the race I was asked if I would care if there weren’t t-shirts again and said no, because they were so generous with everything else. Turns out there weren’t t-shirts and I was a little upset, but glad I had so many Oiselle Trials items as wearable mementos. (And after the race, my uncle’s friend literally gave me the volunteer shirt off his back! Told you the volunteers were beyond generous.)


Elite races often come with more to-dos than just picking up a bib and running the race: there are specific time slots to drop off bottles and a mandatory technical meeting (an hour-long presentation of rules and logistics, most of which you’ve already read in your email, but always concludes with at least a few inane questions. There’s sometimes helpful Q&A too, but the real draw—besides it being, you know, required—is spotting all your running idols. I sat a row or two in front of Molly Huddle and Emily Sisson, although they were not actually sitting together, weird since they are joined at the hip in my mind.) The Trials also requires uniform and shoe checks: USATF has ridiculous rules about the size of sponsor logos on Trials’ uniforms; it’s why you sometimes see duct tape on people’s clothes. The shoe thing was new this year, thanks to recent controversy, and involved an official using a small camera to measure the sole's thickness. They also warned us that the top three athletes might have to send their shoes for further testing.

Speaking of shoe controversy, Nike offered free Alphaflys (the newest and most controversial shoe) to every Trials participant. Despite breaking the cardinal rule of marathoning (nothing new on race day!), the marketing ploy worked as nearly a quarter of the field wore them. (I didn’t wear them but did take a pair, which just shows I’m good at following rules but really bad at resisting free stuff. I’m ashamed of my Vaporfly purchases in the past and am hereby switching to similar shoes other companies are releasing. If you’ve tried any, let me know!)

On Thursday, after snagging my most expensive pair of free shoes ever, I went to a party hosted by CIM for everyone who ran a Olympic Trials qualifier there. (I still give credit to Pittsburgh for my OTQ, since it came first, but I ran faster at CIM seven months later.) We each got a photo tile of our finish and the opportunity to hang out with Meb. My daughter’s initials are actually M.E.B. (not intentional but an added bonus once we realized it), so when he walked in, I immediately—and in the most awkward way possible—ambushed him with, “My daughter’s initials are MEB!” Of course, he brushed off my awkwardness like the pro he is.

Meb and MEB and me. (Credit: Husband.)

After that, all athletes were treated to dinner at World of Coca Cola. Mostly everyone was focused on carbo-loading, but I did snag an Olympic pin from 2004, which I loved since I’m such an Olympics nerd.

Friday (after free breakfast and Normatec boots in the athlete hospitality suite) I got to do a photoshoot with Oiselle. I caught up with Haute Volée friends, Sally, and Dr. Lesko while Kara told us we all looked fierce as hell. (Is there a better pep talk than Kara freaking Goucher telling you that you’re amazing??)

Chatting with Oiselle's CEO, Sally Bergesen (Credit: Julie Lowry)

Squad (Credit: Julie Lowry)

Then I did a shake out with old GRC teammates (Kerry, Catherine, and Kristin, all characters on this blog who qualified), the technical meeting, more carbo loading and finally sleep.

Like the 2016 LA Trials, race morning was strange. I ate breakfast (bagel) when I woke up and lay around reading and watching TV before eating another breakfast (oatmeal) two hours before the gun. (Breakfast for both meals because those are foods I’ve eaten before races in the past.) I was strangely mostly calm about the race that morning and all weekend. Paradoxically, this feeling (which I’ve been experiencing more lately) makes me worried that I’m unprepared, like I haven’t fully accepted the race is happening. Physically I was certainly ready, but mentally I wondered. I’d done what I normally did, coming up with three reasons why I would succeed. (I came up with six!) But the lack of crushing nerves made me wonder if something else was missing. My mom guessed it’s because I’m a veteran (this is my 18th marathon; I started losing count at 15), which may be true but I still felt unsettled.

Moments of anxiety did pop up of course; there’s nothing like being in a hotel with 700 of the fittest runners in the country to make you doubt your own ability. Like LA, being around all these skinny runners I recognized from the internet left me feeling inadequate. (I did really treasure the moments someone recognized me from the internet. To all the blog followers who reached out, thanks so much! Meeting you was a highlight of the weekend.) I tried to brush it off and remind myself: I deserve to be here, too! I qualified just like everyone else.

I also told myself this was a race I could shine at. I get intimidated by people’s times at other distances but had to remind myself we weren’t running a fast half (or 10K or 5K, thank God). The hills and distance catered to my strengths. And I was ready: I had trained on the hilliest routes I could find. I planned to run the first lap conservatively, to feel out the hills and the course. I’d get passed by possibly everyone, but that was okay. I’ll catch them later. I tried not to get my hopes up, but I suspected the hills I trained on were worse than the ones on the course. After a lap I’d know if that was true and if so, I’d pick it up for the second lap. I hoped to pick it up again on the last lap but more than anything focus on catching as many people as possible. I wanted to beat my seed (95) and hopefully also finish higher than I did in LA (72). In LA, I beat my seed by 45 spots, despite my oft repeated assessment that I am not a good heat runner. I AM a good hill runner, so surely I can do better here. The doubts did elbow their way in: everyone is so much faster than in 2016! But I tried to remember that not only was I faster too, this was my kind of race.

LAP 1: MILES 0-8

It started like every other race, a mass of fit bodies crossing the line, some trying to surge ahead. But most races don’t have 450 elite women, the vast majority of them with PRs only five minutes apart. (Has any race ever??) That surge of bodies had nowhere to go. The leaders set the pace, the rest of us stuck jogging in a giant mass behind. My watch read 7-minute pace. Nothing to do except continue in the mass and try not to fall. People fell. I watched as women jumped aside a few rows ahead and saw Kaitlin Goodman on the ground. She hopped up, grabbed her sunglasses and ran on. Her sunglasses got knocked off? Jeez, that must have been a hard fall. (It was.

I hit the first mile in 6:22, pretty close to my target. When I dared to look up from my own two feet (don’t trip!), I saw the leaders still weren’t far ahead. (They came through the first mile in 6:13.) As the road opened up a bit, women streamed by me and I had to remind myself to let them go. Relax, even the leaders are taking this easy. Reminding myself to be conservative led to overthinking: Is this easy enough?? My watch read low 5 minutes, confirming my Garmin’s inaccuracy in the downtown miles. Ignore it. My second mile was 5:58. Downhill, but too fast. Relax and let everyone go.

Mile 2 mass. I'm in the gold sunglasses
over Fulton's right shoulder. (Credit: Dad)
Alongside our crowded mass slowly moving forward, the crowded mass on the sidelines emitted the most deafening roar I’ve ever heard. I wanted to look for family and friends cheering but I. Could. Not. Make. Out. Anything. But. NOISE. It was incredible. Is this what Taylor Swift feels like walking onto a stage? (If the stage was somehow miles long...) My brother and his family were the first I distinguished and, in my memory, this was at mile 4. After looking at photos and the darn course map (which I supposedly had memorized beforehand), though, it was actually just after mile 2. (Something about the loops of this course really threw me throughout the race, in a way that LA didn’t. I had to consciously think through what mile I was on the whole way.)

I hit the turnaround (mile ~3.5) and headed back downtown, the more uphill direction. So far, the hills weren’t bad but the wind blew at us relentlessly. At times I felt pushed sideways. Somehow my left foot kept getting blown into my right ankle, leaving scars afterwards. I’ve never been good at drafting and was embarrassed it appeared I wasn’t trying to tuck in at all, but my attempts didn’t provide much relief.

Mile 5. Finally able to recognize my parents in the crowd.
(Credit: Dad)
I went back through Cowbell Corner, Oiselle’s cheering section and the loudest part of the course. It was a wall of sound and I was Taylor Swift again every time I ran through it (six glorious times). Or maybe Lizzo, because those moments made me want to belt “Good as Hell” at the top of my lungs.

Just before I turned off Peachtree, I saw the men starting their way up the out and back. This confused the heck out of me. The organizers had said that they didn’t expect the men to catch the women until around mile 21. If the out and back is about four miles long, they are only four miles behind me. Aren’t they going to catch me way sooner??? How embarrassing! I freaked out without bothering to think it through or do the math. I can already see them, surely they’ll catch me! (Like I said, I was immediately super confused by this course. But spoiler alert: four miles is actually a long way to make up, even when they run much faster than you.)

Around mile 6 I saw my sister cheering with a large sign that said “RVA loves Keira and Teal.” How the heck did she get that?? (She found a sign and made friends last time, too.) There seemed to be people cheering for me every block. Sure enough, a few hundred meters later my husband and daughter popped up, a pleasant surprise since I hadn’t been sure where they’d stand. Just after that I grabbed my first water bottle: a purple one with Frozen characters on the side, an homage to my daughter. Apparently a little girl helping her mom volunteer noticed my bottles and tracked them down after the race. (Pro tip: if you want your bottles recycled, go with Elsa.)

At mile 6, I was in 286th place. The stream of people going by me had dwindled to a trickle and I started to catch a few people. I caught up to my teammate Carrie Mack, a badass runner who absolutely crushed her last marathon. We ran together for a few miles and I was so glad to be side by side with her. Early on I told her to be patient — “A lot of these women will come back to us” — a reminder to myself more than her.

With Carrie. (Credit: Cheer Everywhere)
We headed back towards the start and I told myself I was right on pace (though I was possibly overthinking it all too much). Best of all, the hills were not as bad as the ones I trained on. The worst were just after the water stop in mile 7 and a long, gentle uphill towards the start of the loop (mile 8). I am ready for worse. I can do this. I averaged 6:16 for the first lap and was in 273rd place. Start conservatively: check.

LAP 2: MILES 8-16

Helping my goal to drop the pace was the fact that the lap’s first few miles were downhill, so picking it up didn’t feel as drastic. Side by side with Carrie, we hit some splits around 6:05-6:10, the fast end of my goal. This is great, I’m doing it!

Mile 10. (Credit: Brother.)
Back through the roar of Cowbell Corner, past my family stationed on both sides of the road, to the turn around and back towards downtown. I told myself not to worry the splits were fractionally slower on the uphill way back. We had been fast on the downhills, we're averaging 6:10 this lap, it’s all going according to plan! Around the halfway mark, Carrie got a few steps ahead. I should have gotten back next to her, but we had been going back and forth a bit so I didn’t consider it a big deal. But then the gap grew. Regroup, get back with Carrie. I didn’t. It’s my biggest regret of the race.

I hit the half in 1:21:41 (on pace for 2:43:22). Before the race, 2:42 seemed doable if the hills proved reasonable. I was a hair slow, but with a plan to negative split that’s perfect. Yet despite logic (which was lacking for me this entire race) and everything I told myself before the race, the half split stressed me out. A seed of doubt planted itself: what if I can’t do this? I’m not doing it! I tried to ignore it and move forward. I’m doing fine. This lap is faster. I’ve got lots left to give.

The fourth time going through Cowbell Corner’s insanity, I finally spotted my friend Megan. Dressed in head-to-toe Team Teal/BB Blue with a teal feather boa to top it off, she was impossible to miss. And yet it took me four tries (two out and backs) to see her. That is how crazy the crowds were. 

Cowbell Corner. Can you spot Megan? (Credit: Julie Lowry)

Even after Carrie dropped me, I felt like I was catching people and maintaining momentum. I caught a small pack after we made the turn onto Edgewood (around mile 15). I led a bit, taking the wind but not minding because it gave me purpose and a dose of motivation. It didn’t last long and we broke up a bit as we headed to the turnaround at the end of the lap.

I averaged about 6:12 pace for lap 2; I had picked it up. I was in 194th.

The end of lap 2. (Credit: Jake Tuber)

LAP 3: MILES 16-26.2

Trouble hit at the start of the last lap. My mile 16 split (marking the end of lap 2) read 6:26 and I resolved to stop looking at splits from then on. (Mile 8 on the same stretch was similarly slow. I wish I had realized that then and not been so hard on myself.) As we rounded the turns at the start of the lap, which I couldn’t really remember even though I had made the same turns less than an hour before, a couple of the people I had recently passed went by. What’s happening? I trained on harder hills; I am ready for this. I started conservatively; this last lap is my moment to shine. Why aren’t I shining, dang it?? The wind and hills and doubts took their toll and my mentality fell from hanging on to my dream to settling for just finishing it. Another major regret. At one point I did realize with relief, Hey, at least the men didn’t catch me!

I was ignoring my watch so I needed something else tangible to mark progress, to keep me in the game as much as possible. My last lap plan was to catch as many people as I could, so I decided to count. (Don’t worry. Like that old Adidas ad suggested, I didn’t count them out loud.)

At times counting proved surprisingly difficult. As I approached a group, I’d try to remember what number I was on but then I’d be running side by side with someone for a bit and wonder: did I count them yet or not? And obviously I had to subtract when someone passed me. Before the race I told my brother to count my place on the last lap. (I knew the number would be too high before then.) I assigned him the task since he had counted in LA, when I was in about 100th. I figured it’d be a similar number this time. As I ran by around mile 18, he shouted “184” which made me both extremely embarrassed that I was so far back (You thought you’d be top 100, ha!) and feeling terrible that I made him count that high. (He had two first grade helpers, one who later told me she counted all 600 competitors.) I started counting before I saw Brother and so opted to just keep my tally instead of think about my overall (depressing) place.

13…14…15… nope, got passed, back to 14… 15

Even though I didn’t look at my watch, I knew I was catching people not because I was picking it up, but because I was slowing slightly less than them. Catching people had been my biggest goal on the last lap, so ostensibly it was going according to the plan. But also, it wasn’t. I wanted to be fighting. Instead I was just surviving.


Near mile 21. Megan (and her boa) are in this photo, too.
(Credit: Julie Lowry)

Before the race, I told my coach to yell “There’s more there” on the last lap. That had been my mantra all season: to dig a little deeper and find more strength, more fight. Here was the moment to use it… and I couldn’t. I kept pressing forward but couldn’t find the fight to press harder. The place and time I had hoped for seemed too far gone.

I tried to remind myself this was the last time through, the last time up and over these hills. Except for the mile 7/15/23 hill, the hills didn’t seem that brutal. Still, they (and the wind) broke me in a sneaky, slow way by their pure relentlessness. I felt prepared, but here I was basically crawling.

Just after mile 21. (Credit: Dad)
45… 46…

Finally, just after 23 miles we turned off the main loop and onto the final section: an out and back under the Olympic rings and then the last mile back to Olympic Centennial Park. My sister shouted I was 138th, revealing my tally to be pretty accurate, but from there it petered out. Counting became too hard; I think I counted 50 like six times. The out and back seemed too long, I could barely see the women making the turn. I did see Jordan Hasay going the other direction and was surprised to be only about a mile behind her.

Heading to the finish. (Credit: Cheryl Treworgy, 
aka former WR holder and Shalane's mom)

The course map showed the last two miles contained the worst three hills, but I couldn’t remember where exactly. Is this hill one of them?? As I headed up MLK Jr. Drive, a volunteer (who turned out to be my uncle’s T-shirt-giving friend) told me just two more hills. Thank God, only two more. Finally, I crested the final hill and saw a sign for 800 meters to go. An 800! I can do that. Then 600, 400, 200 came pretty quickly. I found a sprint in the final meters and edged out two more women. Later I almost wished I hadn’t found a sprint, because it proved there was more there. Why couldn’t I find that earlier, dang it?! (Science reveals why.)

I finished in 130th place in 2:45:27, about 80 spots and three minutes slower than I’d hoped.


"Everything hurts and I'm dying." (Credit: Dad)
Every muscle had been fully pulverized and screamed in pain. Standing with my family at the finish line, I ached to lie down on the road but there was a real possibility I’d never get up again. Later in the hotel room, I realized there was nothing I could do, laying down hurt as much as standing up, so I might as well… go out and dance?? My family met for a big celebratory dinner and then Husband and I headed to the Oiselle party, where we stayed out later and danced harder than we have since we became parents. It was the most fun I’ve had in a while and it didn’t matter how badly my legs and pride hurt.

Team Teal, 2020 version. (Credit: Ben, another member)
With Husband at the Oiselle party (Credit: Julie Lowry)

Until the next day.

I woke up to the realization the Trials are over. And they didn’t go how I wanted. I truly thought I’d finish much higher than I did. Why couldn’t I at least run my seed?? I regretted not staying with Carrie. I regretted not pushing more that last lap. I regretted settling, as my C goal was basically to do anything but that. I regretted not starting my finishing kick earlier. But it’s over now, and as much as I want to, I can’t go back and rerun it. When I saw friends and teammates at the finish upset by their race, I tried to comfort them and tell them what an accomplishment it was just to be here. The next morning I realized I needed to hear those things myself.

Husband, Daughter, and I flew straight from Atlanta to Mexico. (Well, with a layover in Orlando, where my bag got lost and I rode a plane with too many drunk spring breakers, but I digress.) The three of us haven’t been on a vacation together before and Husband and Daughter deserved a heck of a celebration for supporting me so much over the years. Mexico was amazing of course (beautiful weather, beautiful views, beautiful endless margaritas and chips and salsa…), and I tried to stay in the moment, suppressing thoughts of the Trials that kept popping up. If I thought about it, I knew I’d start crying (It’s over! I can’t redo it!) and I couldn’t waste vacation time wallowing.

If I search for positives, Atlanta unexpectedly made me realize maybe I did better in LA than I thought. Ever since 2016, I’ve been bummed at my place and blamed the weather. Turns out I may have handled it better than I thought. Maybe in a few years I’ll look at Atlanta and realize I did better than I feel now. This time I finished 130th out of 390, in the top third of the deepest field in Trials history. In LA, I was 72nd of 149 finishers, only the top half.

The sadness isn’t only that I didn’t race how I hoped: it’s also that the experience is over. The star treatment, the parties, the hype: it’ll be four more years before it comes around again. That’s tough to think about. But if it’s anywhere close to as special a weekend as this one was, it’ll be worth the wait.

Dream big,