Round 2: O’Connor returns to the Trials

A warm day for marathoners can be pleasant for spectators, at least. But the weather in Los Angeles for the last Olympic Marathon Trials wasn’t good for anyone: A combo of high temperatures and noontime sun made it hurt just to be outside. My favorite spot to watch the race was in the shade beneath an overpass.

Which is why I’ll never forget the first time I saw my friend Kieran O’Connor pass by me. 

His top-10 American finish at the brutally hot 2012 Boston Marathon proved he had the ability to thrive in tough conditions. But what I saw still feels almost unreal to me. 

It was early in the race and athletes already looked delirious. Kits were soaked. Sweat was flying off hair. 

And there was O’Connor, cruising along, beard dry — cool, collected and completely in the zone, an athlete seeded 145th on his way to a 24th-place finish in 2:21:37. 

Reading Charlie Ban’s post-race article, the quote from O’Connor that brings me back to that moment is this one:

I knew I just had to keep grinding for six more miles. There’s nothing else I had to do, just keep grinding. With about three miles to go, I thought, ‘I just have to finish up this loop and I can go home and see my daughter.‘”

Yes, that other detail: O’Connor and his wife, Zyra, had welcomed their first child into the world just three days prior to the race. 

So, as the O’Connor family prepares for Kieran’s return to the Trials, this time Zyra will get to make the trip too. Their daughter, Caoimhe, 4, can’t wait for the trip to Atlanta and has been talking about it nonstop at school. And Caoimhe’s little sister, Oonagh, who just recently turned 2, will be there to see her dad run as well.

O’Connor snagged his OTQ at the 2018 California International Marathon, dipping just under the men’s marathon standard in a PR of 2:18:52. His only other 26.2-mile venture since the LA Trials was a weird, disappointing experience at the 2017 Marine Corps Marathon. 

As my three-year-old son Henry and I drove over to the American University track to see O’Connor do a workout recently, I thought about what makes O’Connor’s approach to the marathon unique. 

And here’s what I settled on: When O’Connor is committed to a marathon, he’s all in to a degree few working athletes can match. Yet when there isn’t a marathon on the calendar, I can’t think of anyone else who is less interested in, say, “working on speed,” or “doing something different” or, well, “racing at all.” 

This is not to say O’Connor’s all not in during these periods. He trains enough so that, like a boxer, he can go all in for one big bout when he wants to. 

These are also the times that O’Connor is simply more focused on the dreams of others. For as much as O’Connor hasn’t raced these past four years, I’ve surely lost track of the many workouts he’s slowed down for to help further my goals. His performances have cemented his status as a top athlete on the Georgetown Running Club. Yet he’s also proven himself to be equally passionate about the goals of his teammates, providing a philosophical backbone for a strengthening GRC marathoning corps endeavoring to develop a repeatable system for mastering a maddening event.

I’m learning myself now how training with two kids is a different ballgame compared to training with just one (Henry’s sister, Hope, was born almost two month ago). I know, too, that balancing running with family and work — O’Connor always credits Zyra’s support — contributes to his turn-it-on, turn-it-off approach, as compared to some elite and sub-elite athletes who string together one marathon cycle after another. 

But I also sensed there was more to O’Connor’s boxer-like style. And that’s what I decided to delve into during the 15-or-so minutes I figured I could manage asking him questions while successfully keeping Henry out of lane one.

O’Connor had just completed an extended, customized version of one of GRC Coach Jerry Alexander’s special marathon workouts: seven miles on the track at 5:10 per mile pace; six off the track at roughly 6:00 pace; and five back on at 5:00 pace. An old-school marathoner’s stride, his feet barely coming off the ground, O’Connor was clearly cruising at the faster paces. His teammates segueing in and out of his workout — both pacing him and being paced by him — were training for everything from road races to the Millrose Games.

Mind you, this was days after O’Connor did a 3 by 3-mile workout averaging well under 15:00 per interval. Call it the latest highlight in a string of 115-mile weeks since O’Conner got serious about his Trials prep in October, after the family returned from a trip to Guam to visit Zyra’s family. The structure of his training week has been fairly simple: quality sessions on Wednesday and Saturday, plus a Sunday long run. One weekend, O’Connor came back from a tough Saturday tempo run to do a Sunday double comprised of 26.2- and five-mile runs. An 18-mile pace run at 5:07 pace with teammate Dan Meteer was still to come later in the cycle. 

“I hope that my training is stronger,” O’Connor said, comparing his buildup to four years ago. “I’ve mixed some things up. I’ve tried to do some things differently this time. On any one given workout, I might not feel as good as I did last time. But I’m just so strong. I’m more specific for the marathon.”

Here’s the rest of my conversation with O’Connor, edited some for clarity.

So what have you learned in between the last trials and this one?

The biggest thing with running that I learned was the failure of Marine Corps. I did so many things wrong. Just too much volume. I didn’t hit my workouts. I was too tired, and I kind of ignored all of it. So I think I learned a lot of what not to do. Because I trained so well for the Trials, I was like “Okay, now what’s the next thing to do?”

You tried to ratchet that up.

Yeah, I tried to do more, and I think doing more wasn’t the smart thing to do. 

How soon after the last Trials did you know you wanted to make the upcoming one?

I think pretty much immediately. It’s just such an honor that I figure as long I’m physically capable of doing it and have the support of Zyra, I will probably try to continue doing it.

Other than racing Marine Corps, your goal was pretty much making the next Trials then. Did that have more to do with adjusting to a growing family or the reality that the Trials is simply what matters to you?

It’s both. For me, the Trials are enough of an honor that I’m willing to make the sacrifice that it takes: to get myself into the best shape I can be until I can do it right. [At Marine Corps] I didn’t have that mindset. I was like I can go out and be competitive if I’m in decent shape. For me to train at this point in my life, with a family, it’s got to be for the right thing.

And you’re honest with yourself about what you need to do in training to get the result you want.

I don’t lie to myself. I don’t. I’m a very honest person, both with myself and others and particularly in running. If I’m in shape, I’ll tell you I’m in shape. I’m not in shape then I’ll tell you I’m not in shape.

After the trials will you lay pretty low until the next trials qualifying window opens?

 Right now what I’m really looking forward to is not running and spending more time with family. It’s exhausting being so focused on the Trials. When it’s Saturday workout, Sunday long run, it’s just, like, there goes the weekend. That’s the thing that’s super, super hard. So I’m definitely ready for the next year. I’m going to play tennis and I’m going to run, but I’m not going to train. I’ll play pickup basketball, maybe swim a little bit, spend time with the girls. I’m just looking forward to not training.

Do you feel like you can continue to get faster time wise or is that not necessarily the focus for you?

I can definitely run a faster time. But the clock lies a lot of the time. Because in LA I ran an incredible race; that was the best race of my life and I don’t think I could run a better race than that. There’s so many things that are outside of your control in the marathon. Could I get faster and run a better time? Probably, if I was in the right race. But I really like running my best race and trying to place well.

It also comes down to choices, right? One of the things you discover in the marathon is that you can’t do everything you want to do.

If they set [the standard at 2:25 for 2024], I’d run a 2:24. If my goal is qualifying, then honestly my goal is qualifying.  I’m not particularly chasing a super-fast time. I would love to have a better PR, but it might not happen and that’s okay.

But then you had a really strong performance in your first trials. So is the goal to improve upon that?

The way I think about it — and I think this is a healthy way to think about it — is I could run the best race I have to run and finish way worse in the race. And that’s outside of my control. I ran my best race in LA. Everything went right for me; everything went wrong for a lot of other people. It was like a perfect storm and everything came together. And if I went out and came in 200th and ran my best race in Atlanta, what are you going to do? I can’t control the shape other people are in and how many people are better than me. So I’m definitely not focused on the idea that if I don’t get a better place it’s a failure. I want to go out, stay within myself for the first 15 miles, then finish strong and run my best race. If I do that then I’m going to be happy.

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