Jessica McGuire didn’t qualify for the Olympic Marathon Trials on raw talent. It took hard work.
That’s according to her coach, Jerry Alexander, who coaches the Northern Virginia Running Club.
“She has maximized her ability like no other athlete I’ve ever worked with,” he said.
Alexander didn’t initially think that running an Olympic Marathon Trials qualifying time of 2:45 or below was realistic. McGuire was able to bring her personal record, then 3:13, down to 2:55 at the 2016 Chicago Marathon. But even from there, qualifying for the Trials would still mean getting her time down by more than 10 minutes.
But she trained well for Sacramento’s California International Marathon in 2017, he said, not only running a lot, but also working in the gym and on her core.
“I’ve never seen anybody train harder,” he said.
Her workouts for the December race were going well.
“By October she was just killing it out there, and then I actually started to think, ‘yeah, this could happen,'” he said.
Before the race, he told her that she’d have to decide between running with the 2:45 pace group and taking the risk of not being able to keep that pace later on, or taking a safer option of running at 2:47 pace and still getting a personal record, he said. She chose the riskier option and qualified by more than a minute.
McGuire’s time at the California International Marathon was 2:43:55 – coming through the half in 1:21:26 and maintaining 6:13 pace through 20 miles before slowing slightly to average 6:16s. She was one of 54 women to run 2:45:00 or faster that morning.
McGuire said that before CIM, she’d gotten pretty comfortable with the required pace of about 6:17 per mile, and she’d need to make sure to have enough strength to keep that pace at the race.
“I really couldn’t have asked for a better training cycle that fall,” she said.
At the painfully humid Navy-Air Force Half Marathon in September 2017, she ran 1:22:29, one second under what she would need to maintain over a marathon for the Trials cutoff time.
Since CIM in 2017, she hasn’t run another marathon. She is working on recovering completely from soft tissue injuries, and she said she is at about 95 percent. Since September 2019, she said she’s been training regularly, aside from doing less speed work than she’d like.
McGuire, 39, of Arlington, works as a Salesforce.com professional with the Pew Charitable Trusts in Washington, D.C.
“I think injuries are a challenge for any runner, but particularly for runners who attempt to train like professionals while holding down a full-time job,” McGuire wrote in an email. “It can be very difficult to make time for enough sleep, proper nutrition, physical therapy and preventative strength work.”
McGuire grew up in North Huntingdon, Pa., outside of Pittsburgh, and her dad is a runner. When she was younger, she was more interested in gymnastics, but that became too much of a monetary and time commitment, and she joined her school’s track team in about seventh grade, she said.
She ran cross country and track at Norwin High School, finishing 22nd in the state as a senior, but she didn’t run in college. While she would go for a short run on occasion, she didn’t get back into consistent training until she moved to the D.C. area in 2009 and joined the Capital Area Runners.
McGuire ran the 2009 Richmond Marathon in 3:39:59, one second under what was then the Boston qualifying time for her age group.
She liked long runs and learning how to train. Early on, she said, she ran too hard in workouts.
“For the marathon, it’s not so much about how bad can you make things hurt, but how easy can you make it feel when you run fast,” she said.
She built up her weekly mileage over time. When she returned to running in 2009, she was running about 30 miles a week, and by the time she trained for the California International Marathon in 2017, she was up to 80 a week, working up to 100 during the training cycle, she said.
A couple years earlier, McGuire had been training for the 2015 Philadelphia Marathon and wasn’t able to run that race because she was hit by a bike while running and suffered a concussion, she said. But she went for and achieved her sub-3 at the Chicago Marathon in 2016.
McGuire said her weekly mileage is mostly in the 80s at this point in her training for the Trials, but she hopes to get more into the 90s as training continues.
“Of course I’m going to want to compete as well as I can, so I think that’s really the goal more so than time even, is just to really be in the mix,” she said.
McGuire’s friend Robbie Brusso, who she met through the Northern Virginia Running Club, said she puts a lot of effort into her training. When they’d talked about her training for CIM, she was foam rolling, stretching and pool running in addition to her high-mileage weeks, he said.
“If you really want something, you make sacrifices to make it happen, and she definitely was able to make it happen,” he said.
He figures marathon runners generally try to avoid the “dark space” that can come up in the race, but know they’ll have to handle it when they get there, Brusso said. But McGuire just wanted to run toward it, he said.
Evan Fallor, another NOVA runner, trains with McGuire two mornings a week. Her sub-2:45 time impressed him.
“That was certainly the best performance by anybody in NOVA Running Club, male and female of all time, and there’s not even a question about that,” he said.
Another friend, Camille Doom, said she met McGuire in the spring, and McGuire has encouraged Doom to run to her own potential. While Doom has run for a while, she doesn’t race often.
“She cares about her friends and how her friends do personally and in running,” Doom said.
McGuire enjoys the running community that the D.C. area offers.
“I can’t think of a better place to train if you’re a sub-elite runner, to be honest,” she said. “Our weather may not be perfect and the terrain may not be perfect, but just in terms of having a large number of competitive individuals who are really excited about the sport, it’s really a fun community for that.”