D.C.’s Kerry Allen punched her ticket to the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials in decisive fashion Oct. 7, running 2:41:33 for a seventh place finish at the Twin Cities Marathon in Minneapolis, nearly four minutes faster than the minimum qualifying time of 2 hours, 45 minutes. It makes her the second-fastest full-time female D.C.-area resident to qualify for the 2020 trails, Feb. 29 in Atlanta.
The 30-year-old Senate health policy advisor succeeded after three previous attempts at a qualifying time went sour midway through. Over the two years prior, she was the first (2016) and first-ranked (2017) runner in RunWashington’s rankings, but she hadn’t made it past 16 miles in the New York, Grandma’s or California International marathons without faltering. But Twin Cities was different.
“By the time I was at mile 23, I was thinking, this is going to happen unless I literally die,” Allen said. “So it was just fun. The last 10k I felt good, and I wasn’t worried about time. I was just kind of enjoying it, which is not a place I’ve ever been at in a marathon.”
Allen had a picture perfect race, running the second half of the race more than a minute faster than the first half — the elusive “negative split” that most runners dream of — to achieve a 10-minute PR and a trials qualifying time. But the path to that success wasn’t so smooth.
“Kerry has been ready for this breakthrough for at least two years, but injuries and bad luck have kept that breakthrough just out of her reach,” said Jerry Alexander, who coaches the Georgetown Running Club, for which Allen has served as president for almost two years.
Relentless on the Road to Twin Cities
Allen certainly displayed an early talent for the marathon distance. A high school all-state runner in Florida who also ran collegiately for one year at Duke, Allen was also plagued by injuries and ultimately decided to quit running competitively. She picked it back up a couple of years after college, when her roommate at the time, Allison Hall, was training to run a Boston qualifying time in a marathon. Allen decided to train for a marathon, too, and ran a 3:13 in her debut marathon in 2011 in Philadelphia. Soon after, she joined Georgetown Running Club and began steadily lowering her times, achieving a PR of 2:51:55 at the 2015 California International Marathon.
Beginning in 2016, Allen thought she was in shape to run around 2:45 in a marathon. She put it all on the line at the New York City marathon that year, starting the race around 6:15 (sub-2:45) pace, but had to drop out at mile 16 after she developed a “totally freak” blood blister during the race.
“By mile 16, it was painful every step I was taking,” Allen said. “At 16, you’re basically the closest you are going to be [to the finish line] until you are finishing, so I thought, I’m going to call it here instead of being in the Bronx and not being able to walk and not being able to get back to Manhattan.”
Allen bounced back in the spring of 2017 by focusing on training for 10 mile and half marathon races. She set PRs at both of those distances and decided to race Grandma’s Marathon in June.
“I just wanted to get the bad taste of New York out of my mouth,” she said.
But to get to the start line at Grandma’s Marathon, Allen tacked on three weeks of marathon-specific training to the end of the season she had spent focusing on shorter races. In retrospect, she said, that was a bad plan that left her feeling overtrained but underprepared to run the marathon distance. Race day was unusually hot, Allen felt off, and she started vomiting at mile 15. She dropped out again.
Later that year, Allen resumed marathon training and targeted California International as her goal race. Her build-up was “perfect” — until three weeks prior to the race, when, after logging 16 miles at goal marathon pace, she came down with the flu. Allen said she thought she had recovered by race day, but she started to struggle at mile 16.
“I fell off the pack but gave myself a pep talk and caught back up to them. But then a mile later, I started struggling again and just completely fell apart and started having some dry heaving issues,” she said. “So I walked-jogged the last 10k and stopped multiple times each mile because I thought I was going to throw up. It was a very sad march to the finish.” Allen finished in 3:01:34, nearly 20 minutes slower than she would run at Twin Cities.
By this time, most people would have shied away from the marathon distance, but not Allen. She was ready to train again but was sidelined for several months after California International due to a case of plantar fasciitis. It kept her from running for the first few months of 2018.
“It took a long time to get back anywhere close to normal mileage,” Allen said. As recently as April, she was running just nine miles a week.
All in for Twin Cities
By summer, Allen felt stronger and ready to try her hand at a fall marathon. She ran high mileage, often around 80 miles a week, and completed long training runs, even when she was traveling. Her mom, Sue Allen, biked with her on long runs when they traveled to Pittsburgh and Bar Harbor over the summer.
“She seemed to feel really well and have a lot of energy,” Sue Allen said. “Sometimes she’ll complain about some ache or pain, but this time she seemed to be in good physical condition.”
So Allen toed the line once again in Twin Cities, the fourth time in two years she’d try to run under 2:45. For this race, finally, everything seemed to fall into place.
“It was amazing,” Rob Friedlander, Allen’s boyfriend, said. “It was really great running conditions — overcast, chilly, light wind. It felt like going into it the table was set for her.”
Allen said in the early miles of the race, she felt good and took note of the good omens she saw as she ran the course — lots of labs, a breed of dog she’s “obsessed” with, and the Minneapolis theater where the musical Hamilton was playing, another current obsession. By the halfway point, she was still feeling good and focused on each time she’d get to see her cheering squad during the race — a group that included Friedlander and Hall, the roommate who inspired her to run her first marathon.
Friedlander saw Allen on the course at mile 15, mile 22, and the finish line.
“After she passed [at mile 15], I hopped in an Uber and darted up to mile 22,” he said. “That was a moment I definitely won’t forget. She flashed this epic smile, and I recognized that look right away — the, ‘I’ve got this’ look. And at that point I could tell she was going to get it.”
Allen thought she would too, but she didn’t allow herself to start celebrating until the last tenth of a mile. Then, she crossed the finish line, knowing that she finished the race in well under 2:45, securing her spot in the Trials.
“I started bawling so hard,” Allen said. “The finish line volunteer said, ‘Are you okay? Do you need to go to the medical tent?’ I was just heaving. All I could say was, ‘No, I’m happy.'”