When Aileen Barry was a lacrosse player for Watkins Mills High School in Gaithersburg, she knew she was quick on her feet.
If she got the ball, “no one could catch me,” Barry remembered.
It was the first sign that the Montgomery Village native, now 37, had a hidden talent for running. But it wasn’t something she paid much attention to back then, instead concentrating on ballet and field hockey in addition to lacrosse.
Fast forward to 2018, when Barry punched her ticket to the 2020 Olympic Trials at Grandma’s Marathon in Duluth, Minn. She finished in 2:44:49, 11 seconds under the 2:45 standard for women (her gun time was 2:44:51, which is what U.S.A. Track and Field accepts for its qualifying standards.)
“It was close,” said Barry, who now lives in Manhasset, N.Y. on Long Island. “Grandma’s was an amazing experience. I honestly didn’t know what to expect. At mile 24, would I totally blow up?”
Instead, she passed two other women in the last mile.
Barry’s OTQ came as little surprise to her coach, Devon Martin, who has been working with Barry since she joined the Central Park Track Club in 2006.
“Six weeks before the marathon, I knew she was ready,” Martin said.
Though Grandma’s was Barry’s first attempt at the OTQ, it wasn’t her first marathon. That was actually back in 2003, when she was in college. She ran the Marine Corps Marathon with her father, Chuck, and a group of friends, finishing in around five hours and 20 minutes.
She didn’t start to realize her full potential until after she graduated from Fordham University and was living in New York. Barry traveled to Nashville in 2006 for the Country Music Half Marathon, and won it in 1:25.
The friends she ran with encouraged her to look into competitive running, and she found CPTC. But at first, she wasn’t necessarily interested in getting faster.
“I joined the team really for the social outlet,” she said.
Martin, though, said she knew Barry was “a diamond in the rough.”
“From the start, she was just very committed,” Martin said. “Some of it is talent, but a big part of it is hard work and passion.”
Kate Pfeffer, Barry’s friend and fellow CPTC runner, said Barry was quickly placing among the top five runners in the track club’s races.
“And over the next two years, she improved dramatically,” Pfeffer said. “The thing about Aileen is she didn’t run in high school or college, so she kind of had to learn all about track and pacing, not going out too fast and how to run efficiently on the track. There was a little bit of a learning curve there.”
When Barry joined CPTC, she was running 10Ks in the 39-minute range, Martin said. She eventually decreased her time to 33 minutes, and within a few years, had qualified for the USATF Indoor National Championships in the 3K and for the USATF Outdoor National Championships in the 10K.
Even though she was competing against athletes who had been running competitively for years, Barry was always unafraid of taking risks, Pfeffer said.
“She’s a pretty fearless person.”
Though it had been years since she’d run a marathon, Barry’s times on the track indicated that an OTQ was within her reach. After the birth of her third son in 2017, she told Martin she wanted to go for it.
She ran her first 5K after her pregnancy at 6:02/mile pace. She needed to run at a 6:18/mile pace in the marathon to OTQ, Martin said.
“She had a long way to go,” Martin said. “But she just trusted the process and everything just started to fall into place.”
Barry, who’s now a mom of four — Jack, 7, Charlie, 5, Brendan, 2, and Declan, three months — joked that her first order of business was getting to the start line in one piece. She continued to work out with CPTC, logging around 65 to 70 miles a week. She also leaned on her husband, Jay, a former collegiate runner whom she met through CPTC, to pace her through her long runs every weekend.
Her close friend and running partner, Theresa McCabe, praised Barry’s tenacity when it comes to her training.
“She’ll be like, I’m hurting a little, and then she just picks it up,” McCabe said. “She just has that mindset. I’ve never seen her quit a workout, ever.”
The two met shortly after they both moved to Manhasset. Barry had moved to the town about eight months before McCabe, who mentioned to her real estate agent that she was excited about running the Long Island Half Marathon.
“She said, oh, I just sold a house to Aileen and Jay Barry. They’re runners. You should meet them,” McCabe recalled.
The names were familiar to her, as she’d recently run a race that the couple had won.
When she later met them at a gathering that the real estate agent hosted, McCabe was admittedly nervous when Barry wanted to run with her. Now, the friends run together daily and McCabe credits Barry with helping her shave nearly an hour off her marathon PR. She ran a 2:49 at the California International Marathon last year.
“She paces me a lot,” McCabe said. “We run for different teams, but we always try to make it work.”
They traveled to Grandma’s together and on that day, celebrated two major running milestones: Barry’s OTQ and McCabe’s first sub-three hour finish.
“I started crying. It was just …. All the feels,” McCabe said. “I’m very excited to see what she can do [in the Trials.]”
McCabe added Barry has helped spread her passion for running throughout their town.
“She’s a big inspiration to a lot of women,” McCabe said.
Pfeffer, who was also supposed to be at Grandma’s that day but had to bow out due to an injury, said she was on the edge of her seat as she tracked her friend.
“As we all know, marathons are tricky, but I was sure she would do it,” Pfeffer said.
Barry’s primary goal for Atlanta remains the same as her goal for Grandma’s.
“Just get to the start line healthy,” she said.
Martin said she’d love to see Barry break 2:40.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that she can,” she said.
With four young boys, Barry says she does a lot of juggling, but cherishes running because it’s her time to herself.
“I try to do everything in moderation,” said Barry, adding it’s sometimes easier to prioritize and be more productive when you have less time. “Be flexible, and don’t stress about the small stuff.”