On Feb. 29, runners competing in the Olympic Marathon Trials will race a rough, hilly course in downtown Atlanta. Caroline Bauer will feel right at home, having started her journey there on similar terrain.
Four years and one day prior, she took off on the RRCA Club Challenge course in her then-hometown of Columbia, Md. It’s one of the tougher courses in Maryland, one that forces runners to scrap relative time goals and focus on the race’s inter-club competition. That didn’t shake Bauer, though, as she ran 1:01:33, finishing less than one minute behind Julia Roman-Duval, her Howard County Striders teammate who had finished 50th at the Marathon Trials two weeks before.
“I thought if I could run 65 (minutes) and change, that would be awesome,” she said. “I was trying to tuck into a pack, but at four miles I felt like it was too slow. I ended up negative splitting every mile on the course. I didn’t know where that came from.”
It ended up taking her 3.5 more years before she could finalize make her plans to race in Atlanta, she did so after clearing a hectic year and putting some obstacles behind her.
Less than three months after that RRCA race, she ran 2:50:56 at the Green Bay Marathon, roughly an hour from her family’s home in Oshkosh. Five months later, she improved her marathon best to 2:47:17 at Chicago, a little more than two minutes away from the 2:45 she would need to qualify for 2020. That didn’t bother her too much, though, because it would be nearly a year until times for 2020 were accepted.
“I didn’t really want to run under 2:45 because the window wasn’t open, but I had a fun time, I knew I was on the right track and it was within reach,” she said. “I’d much rather do a marathon than a 5k, it’s a much more interesting distance to me. There’s more to work on.”
After spending her youth as a swimmer in high school and a “competitive collegiate beer drinker” at the University of Wisconsin, Bauer started running while working as a nurse in Charlottesville. Her team of pediatric intensive care nurses ran the Charlottesville Women’s Four Miler in 2008 and she led the team, running 27:28. She also finished in the top half of her age group, which won her an award, which she said encouraged her to start training with the Ragged Mountain Running training group.
When she and her husband moved to Columbia in 2010, she stuck with her plans for the Richmond Marathon, which she ran in a relaxed 3:29, and found a welcoming training program in the Striders. She improved her marathon time 3:09:37 at the 2013 Boston Marathon, after stops at Eugene and Marine Corps in 2011 and Boston and Chicago in 2012. Then, it was time to have a baby.
“We had been married for a while, it was about time,” she said. “I took some time off and then spent a year just running with a stroller and getting used to being a new mom.
“Then I got the itch again.”
When she came back to Striders workouts in earnest, she was surprised to see the results.
“I was running times in workouts I never could before,” she said.
She saw her big jumps in 2016. She refined her physical and mental training with a stint of coaching from Ben Bruce, and focused on the 2017 California International Marathon.
“It was kind of a one-shot deal,” she said. “We knew we wanted to have another (child).”
She spent several months heading into CIM without taking a day off, and she felt that when the race started.
“I knew early on it wasn’t going to be good,” she said, and she spent the race commiserating with fellow Trials aspirant Kerry Allen.
Bauer still managed a modest PR of 2:47:03, but it was back to family business, which was more complicated than she expected. The few extra months it took for her to get pregnant left the family of three living in a one-bedroom apartment over the summer while building a new house. Then, once running started causing contractions, she had to stay off the roads for the second half of her pregnancy. The last straw was needing a c-section.
“When they were wheeling me in for surgery, I was screaming, asked when I’d be able to run again.”
It was February when she was able to run five miles at 10-minute pace.
“I was crawling, but happy just to be running again,” she said. “I was going to just have to inch my way back.
“I don’t know how I did it in less than nine months.”
She went back to Chicago–her training partner Roman-Duval was racing there and they tried to coax Hannah Cocchiaro to join them. But moving her goal race up by two months was another challenge for Bauer. As was moving to a hillier part of Howard County.
“I was comparing my lead up to Chicago to what I was doing for CIM in 2017,” she said. “No wonder it was hard–my high mileage then was in October and November on a lot of flat road loops, not in the 90s and hilly.”
She got some validation at the Annapolis 10 Mile in August, running 1:01:37, 11 seconds faster than her previous Chicago, and from a 14-mile run at 6:11 pace with Cocchiaro and Roman-Duval on the Northern Central Railroad Trail.
When she reached the race itself, she felt good enough to run faster than the 6:17 pace needed to break 2:45, but not confident enough to slow down and run alone. She hit the halfway mark in 1:21:04, and even when she slowed after 20 miles, she had enough of a cushion to finish in 2:44:07.
“I’ve always been a big fan of the sport, I used to watch the marathon Trials,” she said. “I knew I wanted to run them, I’m just glad it’s worked out,” while managing two pregnancies.
“I felt like I was 90 percent there in Chicago and I’m filling that in now.”
That has included breaking one hour for 10 miles at the Al Lewis 10 Mile on Hains Point, a week after running 26 hilly miles through Columbia, the very hilly miles that got her to this point to begin with.