After spending a weekend in the Texas Hill Country outside of San Antonio crewing for my pals in the Bandera races, I spent a half a week in Schertz, Texas, with friends of the Thornley’s, the Zimmerhanzels, getting lots of rest and shaking the last remnants of a cold. Craig had agreed to be my Athlete Support for the trials, so he began his duties early, keeping track of my sleep and alcohol consumption. We had a great time with the Zimmerhanzels, with the highlight of the week getting to go horse back riding on their farm.
Craig and I hit the road for Houston on Thursday. Upon our arrival, I checked in, picked up my packet, and Craig’s credential. I had time to get a massage while Craig waited in the hospitality suite.
We checked into our house, then gussied up and headed for the BP sponsored banquet, featuring former distance stars Bill Rodgers, Frank Shorter, and Steve Jones. They each gave some very entertaining words, and we were treated to amazing food. At dinner, I had the good fortune of sitting next to Bob Larson, coach to Meb Keflezighi and Deena Kastor. We had a great discussion on the importance of running form – something he and I firmly believe in. And to top the evening off, Craig, Coach Bob Latham, and I had our picture taken with the super stars.
After the banquet we headed to the airport to pick up my pillar and best friend, Theresa Ridgway. She has been to the Olympic Trials with me in 2004 and 2008, and she always has a positive influence on my experiences at races. Friday morning the three of us went for a short, quick run, and I was feeling pretty peppy. We headed to the race headquarters for the athlete technical meeting, where all athletes were required to be. The rules and directives were delivered for race day. Aside from Michael Wardian’s several questions at the meeting, the most entertaining topic had to do with the staggered start of the men’s and women’s race. Imagine the reaction of the men to the following scenario – The men’s race was to start at 8:00 am. The first portion of the race was a 2.2 mile loop, and it was estimated the men would finish that first loop between 8:11 and 8:12, after which the women would be led to the start line. If in the event any men would take longer than 15 minutes, they would be held back while the women were assembled for the start. That fact elicited quite a murmur of nervous laughter. I believed that any man would hop on one leg if they had to in order to make that first “cut-off” time.
I got my special fluids bottles prepared and marked with some Beaver orange pipe cleaners, studied the fluids tables layout and learned that my bottles would be on table number 35 in position 7 in each of 3 aid stations that we would pass in each 8 mile loop.
We headed back to our house and I hit the hay early. I slept decently, got up and had rice, banana, and coffee for breakfast, then Craig drove me to the race start. We went into the conference center where the athletes and handlers gathered. We had ample fluids and food, and were able to warm up in the long corridors. The men were beckoned to go down to the start/finish area first, and 15 minutes later, the women. We were all warming up outdoors together, and the men were called to the start. I watched them start their race, then continued warming up and doing strides. The men all finished the first loop in due time, and we were escorted to the start line. At 8:15, we were finally off.
We were packed in tightly and the start was slow – we went through the first mile in about 6:35, the second in about 6:20. Jenn Shelton fell in beside me and as we started on the second loop she stuck to me like glue. My pace was increasing, but not by a lot. I was working pretty hard, and waiting for my groove to kick in. My goals were loose – I didn’t wear the heart rate monitor and didn’t take splits on my watch. I just wanted to go by feel and was fully expecting to be running 6:20s. I watched as my overall pace lowered to 6:15, and then started to inch back up. I was in a pack of about 6 women, and most of them were pretty comfortable chatting. I kept quiet, worried about the effort. Off to the right I heard someone shouting my name, and finally recognized Mike Spinnler on his bike, rooting me on. It was much appreciated.
Jenn dropped a gel, and I asked her if she had more at her bottle table. She said she did, but also said she was going to drop at mile 10. Her hamstring was slightly injured and she didn’t want to make it so bad that she wouldn’t be able to run. I was continually amused how if she pulled ahead of me, she would look back and wait until we were running together again. Later when I asked her about it, she said “I didn’t want to get too far away from Mama Duck”.
We reached the west end of the 8 mile loop, ran over the bayou below and began heading east. One little dog leg allowed some vision of the women ahead, but not the leaders. Here is where Theresa and friends Meredith and Paul were stationed, and their boisterous cheers lifted my spirits. Shortly there after, I heard Craig and Todd Braje, and gave them a wave. Jenn was still running comfortably with me. We came to an aid station and as I grabbed my bottle it fell to the ground. The woman overseeing the table reflexively started to grab my bottle, then remember she wasn’t allowed to help and jumped back. I knew I couldn’t afford to skip it, so went back to get it. At that point, Jenn pulled ahead with another runner, and when I finished the loop, she was no where in sight.
It was pretty exciting to go through the start/finish area, as there were grandstands on both sides filled with enthusiastic fans. My pace had slowed to 6:30. Ugh. I was just having a pretty off day. I focused on keeping good form because if that went, I would really suffer. I pulled in a runner ahead of me, Shannon Cody, and passed her with encouraging words. As soon as we were out of the tall downtown buildings again and heading into some wind, I realized we didn’t really need to run apart, since we were both obviously not having a great day. I eased up as she caught back up. We stayed together for the rest of the westward route, and then as we turned to go east, she fell off the pace.
I had consoled myself before the race with the fact that if I did end up having a slow day, then I would at least get to see the lead men come by. Of course, I hadn’t expected it quite so soon, but at their mile 22, the police and then the media trucks went by (my moment on TV) and then like a piece of machinery, Ryan Hall, Meb Keflezighi, and Abdi Abdirahman motored by me. It was so awesome to be on the same course at the same time. They looked incredible. And then there was no one else. “Wow – I just got to see the three men going to London” – and then surging by came Dathan Ritzenheim, fighting hard to close the gap. It was near the dog leg, so I got to see them again, and I wondered if Dathan would be able to catch them.
Back in my own body, I trudged on. It never occurred to me to not finish. I was again cheered on by Theresa, and then by Craig at their various spots. I was being passed by more and more men, all of them just flying, and I was intrigued by the bib numbers – our number reflected our seed in the race based on our qualifying times, so most of the men had low numbers, but occasionally someone with a high number went by, defying their seed substantially. With about a mile to go for the men, Bend runner Max King came muscling by. That man was worked and then some, but he was still full of fight and determination. I cheered him on and got no response, but later he said he did hear me – and had wondered who it was.
Shortly after, my good friend Mike Reneau came gliding by, smooth as gelato, with energy to give me encouraging words. He began to close in on Max, and they both set PRs for the day. As I crossed the start/finish again, I saw Mike recovering, and as a testament to my inability to run fast for the day, I shouted out a congratulations to him and invited him to cool down with me.
Off I went for my final loop. I was running solo, and although not doing well, I hadn’t been passed by anyone since the end of the first 8 mile loop. I was cheered briefly by a shout from someone on the side yelling “Go Aged Ultra Runner!”
I also needed to use a bathroom and since time was not really of essence, I stopped at the porta-john. When I came out, Shannon Cody had caught back up, so we ran together for awhile again. We got to know each other a little bit – it was her first time to the trials, and as usual, I had to toot my horn about being the oldest runner there. We stayed together for awhile but I pulled away again at mile 23, just as I started getting cramps in my abs. Ugh – what next. I passed Theresa, Meredith and Paul again, their enthusiasm as strong as ever. I put my hands on my hips, trying to alleviate the stabbing pain, and finally it subsided. At mile 24 Craig was standing in the road to take my picture as I came by, as there were very few runners left at this point. I could smell the barn now, and began trying to run harder, only to have my hamstrings start to cramp. Oh-for-crying-out-loud-this-was-ridiculous. I just don’t normally cramp. Along with a few training errors, I had failed to keep up on my electrolytes. I suppose there is something about never ceasing to amaze oneself, but when it has to with stupidity it isn’t exactly a point of pride.
With a mile to go, the Marathon Maniac Crew of Tony P!, Chris Warren, and Steve Yee yelled out and high-5-ed me going by. Shannon Cody caught back up and we ran into together, and at the last second she deferred to the aged competitor, and had me cross the finish line in front of her. 2:58 and change – and I was genuinely relieved to be done, and truly disappointed in my day. I came in expecting to run 2:45 – I wasn’t injured, not sick, but in hindsight, my weeks leading up were not real focused, I had been sick a couple of times, had traveled a lot, and those things do not add up to peak performance. This lesson was more acutely felt, given that it was one race that only happens every 4 years, and it is not an easy race to get into to. But on the truly upside, I was surrounded by my best friends and immersed in the culture I thrive in, and I am glad I am not to old to learn a lesson, and not too tired of racing to be full of determination and focus. This event exists to put our finest athletes on the Road to London, and as soon as I could I find out, I learned that Meb, Ryan, and Abdi and finished 1,2 and 3 for the men, and that Shalane, Desi, and Kara brought it home for the women.
Afterward, Craig and I went to the awards banquet. It was a privilege to see the 6 Olympians and hear what each one had to say about their day. They were all humbled and modest and I feel very proud of their sportsmanship and support for one another. The one interview that really stuck in my mind was with Kara, when she was asked how the race unfolded for her, especially in terms staying in the top 3 when there were 4 women battling it out for the bulk of the race – Shalane, Desi, Kara, and Amy Hastings. In order to shake things up, the pace had to be picked up, and Kara remarked that her “comfort zone is 5:30 pace” but she had to pick it up into the 5:20s if anyone was going to drop off – which is her danger zone. So as a group they would pick it up, and Amy would drop back, but as soon as they eased up, she was back. We know the result, but I was stuck on the idea that someone’s comfort zone was 5:30 pace.
This was a fabulous weekend, and I am grateful to my friends Craig and Theresa for their support during the race, and the many, many more out on the course cheering everyone on. And a special thanks to coach Bob Latham for getting me to this race one more time!