Finding Strength in Numbers at the 2020 Marathon Olympic Trials

This is not the story of an Olympic hopeful or elite athlete. This is the story of friendship and a ragtag bunch of misfits surprising themselves and urging one another along in the ungrounded goal of qualifying and competing in the U.S. Marathon Olympic Team Trials.

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It all started in 2018 when two of my Portland-based friends, Carissa Galloway and Fionna Fallon ran qualifying times at California International Marathon. I remember excitedly following along and sharing the news with my then fiancé, now husband Tyler, saying “THEY RAN 26.2 MILES UNDER 6:15 PACE!” Tyler was also stoked and responded with a “you know, you could probably do that too if you wanted.” Shortly after this I learned that quite a few friends (including Fionna and Carissa AND Megan Carson and Heather Laptalo) were signed up for Grandma’s marathon in June 2019. 

Having so many wonderful people to train and share the experience with, and being a proud Minnesotan were all I needed to sign up as well. In April 2019 pals Jessie Vickers and Susie Rivard set out to do the same at the London marathon, Jessie qualified and Susie just missed it but had a huge PR (2:48:23). 8 months later she PRed AGAIN at Chicago marathon (2:45:39) and AGAIN two months later at California International Marathon to qualify for the Olympic Trials (2:44:40). To be fully transparent, I do not love road running. In fact, if it weren’t for these women I would have probably gone on a backcountry ski trip to Idaho the weekend of the Olympic trials with my friend Claire Bootsma. But I couldn’t help but be inspired by my friends pouring their hearts and souls into this, and I wanted to be a part of it. Throughout these Olympic trials qualifying attempts various people would hop into workouts (I did mile repeats with Susie before CCC) and help pull one another along, sometimes not running at all but driving or biking around Sauvie island or Hagg Lake offering hydration (#bottleservice) and encouragement for the bigger workouts. There were send-off runs to wish one another good luck before leaving for a race, people turning around and urging each other forward as one of us started to fall off the pack in a hard workout, encouraging text messages the night before the race, post run lattes at Dragonfly Coffee House, post Sunday marathon simulation beers at Great Notion and really, truly an immeasurable amount of goodwill.

Thursday: 27 February 

Tyler dropped me off at the airport with nothing but my personal item sized Osprey backpack and fuzzy blanket. I bumped into Nike Trail line drawer extraordinaire Matt Palmer, and he got real excited to see I was using my new Wildhorse 6’s as grapefruit holders. These bad boys are multifunctional, folks!

The flight was smooth sailing, I watched Frozen II, Abominable and ate lots of free Cheez-Its. When we arrived in Atlanta I did my best to make a dent in some of the marathon check in tasks, which turned out to be much more involved than I’d realized, dare I say even more involved than the UTMB gear check! I picked up my personal fluid stickers, athlete credentials, and first round of 2 x 1 Liter Dasani bottles (“we’ll give you another bag at each meal!”). This was the start of the shameful plastic water bottle massacre of February 2020. I also discovered the FREE SNACK ROOM, made myself a PB&J and pocketed some other snacks. This free snack room was the bees knees and visited frequently throughout the weekend. In a 30-minute period I ran into plenty of pals from different stages of my life. The running world is indeed very small and it was a joy to see so many familiar faces.

Friday: 28 February

On Friday morning, we slept in until 10, missing breakfast (no problem, because snack room!). I bee bopped over to Susie and Sarah Reiter’s room, conveniently across the hall to decorate my personal fluid bottles. Fortunately, Susie brought a nice assortment of pipe cleaners and I had some distinguishing Nike Trail stickers. A big gang of us dropped off our personal fluids together, and then I proceeded to tick more tasks off the check in list. I got my uniform inspected, which turned out to be illegal because Nike Trail is not a USATF sanctioned club. I chuckled and thought that this was ‘very trail’ of us. I also got my boingers laser beamed! They shined a red laser beam on my sneakers to make sure they weren’t too too speedy, and once everything was approved I was awarded my bib!

I also heard rumors that Nike was giving away Alphaflys to the Olympic Trials racers, so I chased after a lady moon walking in some and asked her where to find them. She directed me towards a windowless room, where they checked my name off a list and I came face to face with an entire wall of black shoe boxes in what appeared to be a perfect Gaussian distribution. I tried some on, moon walked around the room and was on my way.

We decided to shake out around race time so we could see how the weather was and get our bodies feeling good running at that time. We had such an awesome shake out crew! Many of my training buddies in Portland plus our extended running families (college teammates). We easy-jogged 3 miles out and back down Peachtree street and did some drills and strides in a grassy patch on the outskirts of Centennial Olympic Park.

After the shakeout, we had lunch courtesy of the Atlanta Track Club and headed back to our hotel rooms to relax. We all regrouped for the technical meeting, which most of us had never been to before. They went over every detail you could imagine, and people asked questions about things I wouldn’t even think to ask questions about. At one point the announcer said, “Some people are just here to have fun, and others are actually trying to make a team.” I turned to my friends and my friend and fellow Trails & Tarmac coach Camelia Mayfield jokingly said, “…and you can’t be both.” This really resonated with me, because while many of the women in that room knew their chances of actually making the Olympic team were slim, I feel like I’m probably not alone in having the tiniest morsel of belief that I might still have a great race even though that might not mean making it to the Olympics. Another note on that: my coach and husband always says “when you run with joy, you can’t lose.” This manifests in two ways:

1) When I run with joy, I usually run faster than when I put pressure on myself to perform.

2) If you’re actually having fun doing what you’re doing, what does it matter how fast you run?

After the technical meeting, we went to the Georgia Aquarium for a delicious pasta dinner with the whale sharks, sea turtles, manta rays and beluga whales. As cool as it was to see these amazing animals up close, I don’t think I was alone in feeling a pang in my heart for their stifling enclosure, especially when you compare it to the vastness of the ocean.

Tyler arrived Friday evening, and we sat on the floor in the hotel for a bit chatting before bed. He gave me all kinds of love and encouragement and for that I’m always grateful.

Saturday: 29 February – RACE DAY!

We woke up around 8 AM, had some complimentary breakfast (again, thanks to Atlanta Track Club) and got ready for the race. 

I felt bolstered walking across the street to the warm up area and warming up with something like TEN FRIENDS! I ate a Spring Energy Koffee gel on the warm up. I usually like to do this to signal to my body that I’ll need to be doing more of this (digesting) in the near future despite what the sympathetic nervous system might be saying. I had a few successful trips to the porta john and eventually the officials said it was time to go, so we marched on over to the warm up area. Despite the sunshine, the breeze was chilly and I wished I had an extra layer to stay warm for these 20 minutes of waiting. There were lots of hugs and smiles while we all did our best to soak it all in. I even got a last minute hug from Billy Yang, for whom I am a very proud sandwich patreon supporter.

Before I knew it, the race was off and I felt so much excitement running down the road with a pack of nearly 500 badass women. I knew there was a pretty sharp left turn so I stayed far to the right, giving myself plenty of space to run free. Right after the turn I heard some commotion and looked back to see a woman falling to the ground and my friend Jessie nearly falling as well. Sarah and I slowed a bit and made sure she was ok, and we grouped up with Jessie and Emma Huston and settled into a nice rhythm. I always introduce Emma to people as Manitou the Turtle’s Mom, because that was the first fun fact I learned about her; she is the mother of a 50 year old turtle named Manitou! I glanced at my watch and it was oscillating between 3 minute pace and 9 minute pace. I decided to not pay attention to it and focus on staying as calm as possible as we made our way through the insanity of the 26 mile scream tunnel (as Molly Seidel so aptly described it). There was really nowhere to hide and no time for pity parties because someone was always watching you out there. As it turns out I think this will be some good training for Zegama, my next goal race at the end of May as I’ve heard there are some major league scream tunnels there.

I ran with Sarah, Emma and Jessie for most of it, and I felt really relaxed and smooth through 16 miles. I had 4 Canaberry Spring Energy gels tucked in my sports bra and ended up eating two of them, I also got some liquid calories from my personal fluid bottles. I was focused on turning my mind off and staying tucked in a pack (it was SO windy), which also meant surging if there was a group of women up ahead. I think all this packing up led to some more contact than usual, one woman in our pack stumbled and I caught her so she didn’t fall, but I think this shook her up and unfortunately she fell off the pack. We turned around and tried to encourage her to get back on but she wasn’t having it.

Here are some notable moments from the race:

  1. Coming around a hairpin turn and seeing my high school and college teammate Katie Moraczewski, we both shrieked as we spotted each other and high-fived.
  2. Spotting my Grandma, Uncle and Aunt on the street corner and waving to them.
  3. Sharing some miles with Liz Berkholtz (another college teammate) and Ashley Brasovan (World Mountain Running teammate).
  4. Hearing Tyler’s uncle Bill cheering along Peachtree Street.
  5. Coming up behind a woman who’d pooped her buns pretty early on, her fans cheering for her and her mouthing to them “I pooped my pants,” and subsequently pointing to her bum.
  6. Seeing my mom with a lime green “Go Rachie” sign (the i had a little heart) – I later learned that after I passed she would roll up the sign and whip it around in a circle to signal to my dad downstream that I was rolling by.
  7. Hearing my college teammate Laura yell, “yeahh let’s get RACHY” as an ode to something our fellow gopher Hassy used to say to us in college.
  8. Hearing Tyler yell, “When it gets harder, you get stronger!” at mile 22.
  9. Having some random dude run up along me with less than a mile to go yelling, “YOU GOTTA GO! YOU’RE ON THE TRACK NOW!” Turned out this wasn’t some random dude, it was Peter Bromka!
  10. I have some serious guilt for the many Dasani waterbottles I wasted out there. As much as we tried to share, I’m likely responsible for the waste of at least 6 of those bottles since all I did was take a couple small sips and toss it. I drank a lot more than I thought I would. I was feeling pretty dry mouthed due to the wind.
  11. It was so cool to be able to see so much of the front of the race play out on all the out and backs, and I even got in a little cheer for our trail running gladiator Jim.
  12. The personal fluids mastery! I’m amazed at how well this worked, there were 5 blocks worth of personal fluids tables, all numbered and perfectly spaced. I didn’t miss a single bottle, so kudos to whoever came up with this and everyone who helped execute. 

Towards the end, we all accordioned a little bit, Emma took off and finished 42nd, AMAZING! Jessie would gap me on the uphills, and I’d catch back up on the descents. At some point in the last couple miles somebody yelled, “66th! You’re 66th!” Surely, they didn’t mean 66th place, we’d fallen so far off our goal pace of 2:37 that I didn’t think we’d be so far up. The last out and back section to the Olympic Torch was brutal, with hills and a headwind, much less of a crowd, and everyone was visibly suffering. It was cool to see so many people really digging deep and giving it their all. Jessie, Sarah and I were still running closely together, suffering in harmony. We all kicked as hard as we could, and it felt like I picked off 5 people in the last quarter mile to end up in 59th(!) The three of us finished within 15 seconds of each other! This was pretty awesome considering I did pretty much all my training with these ladies (and Fionna, who ended up 100th!). Our friend Susie (who ran with a torn adductor) even finished the race! It was just so great to share this experience with such awesome friends. We crossed the finish line, hugged one another and I downed a blue powerade from one of the awesome volunteers. We all said no thank you to the aluminum foil marathoner’s cape (I still don’t understand these). It felt like it was over in the blink of an eye. Tyler and I did a little shuffle cool down around Centennial Olympic Park and later met up with my family in a bar at the top of the Westin. I had a Corona (did you know their sales are down because of Corona virus? jeez.) and some buffalo wings, which really hit the spot. We had a more proper dinner (shrimp and grits of course) across the street at Pittypat’s Porch and slept like rocks that night.

Sunday: 1 March

Tyler and I met up with Ladia Albertson-Junkans and Adam Frye for brunch, and starting hatching some trail plans for the coming months! Chuckanut and Tiger Claw, here we come! It was awesome catching up with these two, Ladia and I reminisced about collegiate running experiences (we both ran for the University of Minnesota) and she was full of encouragement and wisdom as usual.

Lessons learned and areas for improvement: 

  1. Devise a better water bottle system. My bottles were rigid so it was difficult to get liquid out without squeezing with both hands. I saw some people using condiment bottles so that might be something to look into. I did learn from Grandma’s to only fill the bottles half way. 
  2. Incorporating strength into training is very beneficial. I did one day of focused strength training per week in this block and it made a huge difference. I felt structurally sound and stronger than ever. In the last couple weeks, we added in plyometrics and speed ladder work and that helped with decreasing contact time with the ground. 
  3. The best way to recover from a hard workout is chillin’ with friends. Whenever we could, we’d get coffee, pastries, beer or just hang out at our cars eating snacks after the workout. (Thanks to Jessie and Sarah for providing baked goods on multiple occasions!) This was a fun and relaxing way to wind down after big efforts. 
  4. You don’t need to nail every workout to have a good training block. I got seriously dropped on one of our big workouts (5 miles at marathon pace, 4 x 1 mile at sub marathon pace, 5 miles at marathon pace). I had gone backcountry skiing the day before and my legs felt empty the last couple miles. My friends helped me shake it off and kept me believing in myself and I was back at it for the next workout.  
  5. Focus on your own mat. Don’t worry about what other people are doing and compare yourself. Figure out (with the help of a great coach) what’s right for you and find confidence in that. For me, this meant taking at least one day completely off per week and not worrying about weekly mileage. I was running less miles than in my build to Grandma’s marathon and this kept me mentally fresh and prevented burn out. 

Now, for the year of trails! I convinced Jessie to sign up for Tiger Claw. Watch out, world! 

It was a lot of fun working hard with friends and developing some leg speed over these past 8 weeks. I’m excited to translate this to trail running this year. The training for a road marathon involved substantially less trail running, so I’m feeling excited and eager to start focusing on trails. I feel almost mentally fresh, it’s as if the trials training didn’t tire me or make me sick of running but rather ignited a flame of possibilities in the realm of trail running. I’m planning to use Tiger Claw (25 miles with 8,000 feet of climbing) as a process race for Zegama (a marathon with 18,000 feet of climbing) at the end of May. The best part is that I’ll have my ladies to train with, and if I’ve learned anything over the past year, it is to never underestimate the power of a TEAM.