With more than 700 runners heading to Atlanta this weekend to take a shot at the U.S. Olympic Marathon team, it’s hard to deny that Trials Fever is in the air.
Runners who spend all day standing up teaching, others who fit in their training around work and grad school, some who are also raising children, they’re all going to be on the starting line with the professionals. With apologies to another sporting venue in Georgia, this is the tradition truly unlike any other.
In all likelihood, we won’t see a repeat of the first Olympic Trials I saw, in 2000, when a man with the Olympic B standard outlasted the more heralded athletes in the men’s field. But still, in good humor, when I caught up with some of the 30 runners with local ties heading to Atlanta and asked what they planned to do after the race, I led with, “assuming you aren’t making plans for Japan this summer.”
Andrew Bumbalough has a chance to finish in the top three. The Georgetown alumnus who is the single professional runner among our local heroes has a 2:10:56 marathon PR, which makes him the seventh fastest man coming into the race. Others are well positioned to finish highly. Fairfax’s Bethany Sachtleben has the 23rd best marathon time among women racing and Georgetown alumna Kate Landau has the 28th, both in 2:31. Oakton and American alumna Keira D’Amato ran 1:09:59 for the half marathon in Houston last month, putting her in a competitive position. Though still rounding into shape, Reston’s Susanna Sullivan was 20th in 2016. Arlington’s Kieran O’Connor finished 24th in 2016.
But for all of our runners, it’s a reward for their performances, their years of training, their chance to show what they can do in a deep, competitive field. It’s the culmination of talent, perseverance, family support and sometimes, just plain luck.
For more than a year, RunWashington has been featuring 34 different runners with local ties and their stories of how they got here, though four won’t be racing Saturday. Of those 30 who are racing, 17 live and race in the D.C. area. We started with them, then we looked for runners who starred on local college teams or began their careers on the local cross country courses and tracks.
I like to say that documenting Trials Fever has been a lot like making a birthday party banner by hand. You start off with a great big H, then an A, then a P… and then you realize you have a lot more letters and a lot less space to fit them – PYBIRTHDAY. We started with one story a month, and that was a nice pace until people started qualifying in droves, and by the winter, we were publishing two a week. We still have two more to come this week: Woodbridge native Alex Taylor and Georgetown alumna Kate Landau.
This all adds up to some large race fields. After the 2020 qualifying standards were announced, thousands of runners took aim. Men had to run under 2:19 for the marathon or 1:04 in the half marathon. Women targeted 2:45 and 1:13. The men’s race will sport 238 starters and the women’s race will have a whopping 510, will be more than twice the size of the NCAA Cross Country Championships, and almost twice as many as the next-largest women’s Trials field. It represents a culmination of fearless pursuits of a goal, community support and tenacity. The Atlanta Track Club is funding the flights and hotel rooms for all of the athletes.
“I think it’s great,” Lake Braddock alumna Kathy Newberry said of the field size in December, when qualifiers were still rolling in. It’s her fourth Olympic Trials, after qualifying for much smaller fields for the 10,000 meters and 5,000 meters in 2004 and 2008 before moving to the marathon in 2012. “It gives people something to shoot for, something that will keep them in the sport. If the opportunity is there, a lot of people will think ‘why not? I can try.'”
That women’s field size will take some strategy for many of the amateurs. Springfield’s Rachel Viger was part of a huge pack, dozens of women shooting for 2:45, at the California International Marathon, and she’ll take some of that experience to Atlanta.
“I tried to stick to the outside of the pack,” Viger said. “It was warm and humid in Sacramento, so it got a little too hot in the middle of all of those people. It’s supposed to be cooler in Atlanta, and windy, so I might end up tucking in more.
“I’ll definitely start carrying a water bottle, because I can’t be sure I’ll get to the first hydration station.”
Her strategy will be to surrender to the pack and conserve as much energy as she can as late into the race as possible.
“It could backfire, though, if the pack goes out too fast,” she said.
Columbia’s Caroline Bauer will also do whatever the pack does.
“If Des (Linden) wants to go out in 6:30, we’ll go out in 6:30,” she said.
Bauer also expects chaos early on, but hopes for things to settle down in the second half of the race, when she’ll start moving up. Her Howard County Striders teammate Hannah Cocchiaro, who never ran cross country or started in a lead pack of a major marathon, is going to be in foreign territory.
“I don’t even know how much I’ll be able to move around,” she said 13 days before the race. “It’s going to be pretty stressful for a while.”
How to train?
With 30 different runners, you can have 30 different approaches for how to prepare for the race. For some, getting out of town was ideal.
D.C.’s Kerry Allen went to Tallahassee. She started the heaviest part of the training for the 2018 Twin Cities Marathon while on vacation in Bar Harbor, Maine, and she liked the way that training cycle turned out.
“It was really nice to have one of my peak weeks of training coincide with my time away from work and in a place I could just focus on running and relaxing,” she said. “I wanted to replicate that.”
She chose Tallahassee for its climate, topography and its reputation as a training destination for pro runners. She wasn’t disappointed.
“It put me in a good place going into the last six weeks of training. It’s a lot easier to run 90 miles in a week when you’re not doing anything else,” she said. “The week went really well and I came out confident going into the next two weeks that I could hang on (at 90 miles) while balancing other life things.”
Arlington’s Sarah Anyan had a wedding in Flagstaff, Ariz. that became an ad hoc training trip and took her out of the D.C. area during the constant rain two weeks ago.
Georgetown alumnus Nick Golebiowski qualified at November’s Monumental Marathon, and a few weeks later he started working with a new coach, James McKirdy. That was a big change from his week-to-week training plan that had gotten him this far.
“It’s been a big relief not to have to worry about planning training,” he said. “Before I started working with James, a lot of times I didn’t decide what I was going to do for quality sessions until the night before.”
Sachtleben knew what was happening every two weeks – a long run with a tempo, usually alone, on the W&OD Trail starting in Herndon, the hilly portion.
“I ran alone so much that I can’t wait to just race other people,”she said.
Sullivan, who qualified at the Richmond Marathon, had Viger and their Capital Area Runners teammate Jillian Pollack to train with, and they simulated Atlanta’s hills with a 3.5-mile loop in Rock Creek Park. They’d head north on Beach Drive, turn left and climb Ross Drive before coming back down Ridge Road. Then repeating.
“We did that loop about a billion and a half times,” Sullivan said. “Doing effort-based work on hills helped, because I wasn’t consumed by times.”
Sullivan ran 1:13 at the Houston Half Marathon, which was a shock to her at the time.
“I didn’t know what to expect speed-wise because I was just running up and down hills,” she said.
Caitlyn Tateishi and Allen both took advantage of the rolling hills and sparse traffic in the National Arboretum to simulate Atlanta’s hills. Tateishi ran there from her home in D.C. four miles for marathon pace workouts. Somehow, running there at the same time twice, I never crossed paths with her mid-run.
On the other side, Columbia native Brian Harvey’s toughest workout was on the flatter side – 13 miles at his marathon pace with Woodbridge High School alumnus Alex Taylor…done in 20 laps around Taylor’s office parking lot.
“It was about 35 degrees and raining,” he said. “We all finished the workout shivering but it was a great mental exercise.”
They’ve also been training their bodies to get used to starting a race around noon, which is a change for runners who are typically fitting in their runs before or after work. Pollack thinks she has a fueling formula down.
“They don’t have Bullfrog Bagels down there, so I’ll have to go with Whole Foods or Publix,” she said. “I’ll have a plain bagel at 8 a.m, another at 10 a.m., some UCAN at 11, and I’ll have a baguette if I need a little more.”
Matters of mileage
Mileage isn’t everything in running, but at this point in a high-level marathoner’s career, it forms the foundation for the endurance a runner relies on.
University of Maryland alumnus Patrick Reaves viewed his weekly mileage as the cornerstone to his preparation for the Trials since he qualified at the 2018 California International Marathon.
“It was by far the longest block of high mileage that I’ve ever done — 100 miles most weeks since the fall,” he said. “At this point, I’m feelin pretty callused, I’m not quite sure what my ceiling is, but I feel like I’ve done the best I can to raise my floor.”
The length of his buildup helped mitigate any tough weeks when he had to move things around.
“I didn’t feel as pressured to hit every run, every workout, out of the park,” he said. “I just focused on consistency.”
Poolesville alumnus Chase Weaverling is the sole local runner who has never run a marathon, having qualified at the Houston Half Marathon in 2019.
He peaked at 105 miles while training with the Reebok Boston Track Club (located in Charlottesville), and kicked off his training block in Hagerstown, Md., where his coach, Chris Fox, trained as a professional. He has absorbed enough from his teammates, including Fredericksburg’s Tim Young.
“My longest single run was 21 miles, and that’s where I hear that’s where the race really starts,” he said. “I’m hoping the adrenaline will make the first few miles go by pretty fast, then I’ll face the race as it happens. I don’t have any pressure, so this should be fun.”
O’Connor and D’Amato reported the highest peak weeks – 130.
D’Amato spent the training block focusing on her speed, despite that high mileage. It paid off in January, when she ran 1:09:59 for the Houston Half Marathon.
It’s impossible to stress the nuance that goes into how these training plans come together, besides emphasizing that several runners supplement their mileage with cross training. Pollack, for instance, spends about nine hours a week running in the pool. But, for your gawking pleasure, here’s a look at what our qualifiers report as their peak mileage weeks:
Training hasn’t gone great for everyone. Kensington’s Zach Hine ran a PR at the California International Marathon in December, but hurt one of his calves in the process. After rehabbing for a few weeks, he tried to hit the track for a workout and promptly injured his other calf. Less than a week before the race, he decided he would give it a try and see how it goes.
Anyan also suffered an injury during CIM. Somewhere along the way, she hurt her hip, and that’s left her unable to do long runs or tempos. She’s still going, though.
“I’m going to treat it like a celebration,” she said. “I did a lot of work to get here, and this is the cherry on top.”
Anyan will race conservatively, planning to open in between 6:30-6:40, far slower than the 6:15s she ran to qualify.
“I don’t want to be the person to take it out hard and have to drop out,” she said. “No matter what, I want to cross the finish line.”
Fredericksburg’s Lindsay Carrick is easing her way back into running after doctors diagnosed a Grade 2 stress reaction in her right foot a month before the race. She spent the intervening few weeks on the bike and elliptical and in the pool, and ran 45 minutes a week out.
Vienna’s Perry Shoemaker suffered a hamstring and lower back injury in January and spent a month in the pool. She has kept her running to flat surfaces to avoid aggravating the injury, and had a successful track workout a week before.
“My husband pointed out that it was the same injury I had before Marine Corps in 2016,” she said. Shoemaker went on to win that race without reinjuring herself.
And Watkins Mill alumna Aileen Barry just wants to make sure she finishes her buildup safely and gets to the start in one piece.
“That’s been my number-one goal since having children (numbers) three and four,” she said.
The threat of cold and flu season has been eased by warmer temperatures that have allowed more people to avoid being cooped up over the winter in proximity with sick people, but runners are still dodging germs.
Sullivan, who teaches in an elementary school, has made use of personal days to limit her exposure to her vectors… I mean students. D’Amato has two children, and when their school has a medical alert, she follows the kids with Lysol wipes. Maura Linde, who spends her days coaching runners at Johns Hopkins University, won’t let anyone with a cold into her car.
“I keep hand wipes in there, just in case,” she said.
McLean’s Kelly Calway, a West Potomac alumna, got sick two weeks before the race, with what she suspected at the time was the flu. After taking the weekend to rest, she felt back to normal by Monday.
“That flu shot works,” she said. “I’m glad I got it.”
The shoe issue
If any subject has brought the Olympic Marathon Trials to a mainstream audience, it has been the profile of Nike’s marathon shoe the Vaporfly and its successors the Next% and Alphafly. There are writers who know far more about it than I do, plus we’re here to talk about our local runners, so feel free to read more here. Among our runners, there is one sponsored Nike athlete, one Nike employee who runs on a Nike club, and 16 runners without a shoe sponsor who have indicated their plans to wear either the Vaporfly Next% or the Alphafly. Five runners on two different New Balance teams (Pacers Running//GRC New Balance and the Central Park Track Club) will wear the FuelCell EC, two Brooks-sponsored athletes will wear the Hyperion Elite and two Adidas-sponsored athletes will wear the Adizero Adios.
Though he runs for the Reebok Boston Track Club, Weaverling said because Reebok doesn’t have a marathon specific shoe, the company is allowing its runners to wear whatever they want. George Washington alumna Megan Hogan was thinking about wearing the Reebok shoe she wore at the Boston Marathon until New Zealand marathon record holder Kim Smith came into the wine shop where she has been working part-time.
“She told me I’d be crazy to not wear the Next% since I’m unsponsored,” she said. “So I have a pair on hold I might pick up this week.”
The big day
For months, even for years for some, training and hopes have been building to this. Runners have been playing the race in their minds well ahead of time.
“I don’t want to go out too fast again,” said Robinson alumna Bonnie Keating. “The second half of the 2016 Trials was miserable.”
Pollack knows she’s going to start with a water bottle, rather than risk not being able to reach hers on the first fluid station.
Not all of the qualifiers will be racing. Shauneen Welinger knew more than a year ago her focus would be on having another child, and her son Matthew was born six weeks before the race. Kyle Stanton also knew a while ago he didn’t want to race again. Julia Roman-Duval is trying her luck in making the Olympic team for France, where she has dual citizenship. Jessica McGuire, who qualified at the 2017 California International Marathon, just doesn’t have it in her to race.
For all the runners who made it, there are dozens more who tried and came close. After dealing with an injury leading up to the California International Marathon, 2018 Marine Corps Marathon winner Jeff Stein “felt like a different runner” as he cruised below 2:19 pace at the Houston Marathon, the last day to qualify.
“Someone tripped me from behind around mile 11,” he said. “I went airborne, landed on my hip, which got continuously tighter throughout the race, but more devestatingly, exploded all my gels.”
My mile 21, he fell off pace and finished 34 seconds short of the qualfying time.
“What a brutal sport!”
RunWashington contributor Jenny Paul was nearly at the finish line of the 2018 California International Marathon when her quads gave out in the last stretch. Arlington’s Clint McKelvey was on pace through 35k of the 2019 CIM before falling off. Alexandria’s Julie Hartenbach ran a little more than a minute over the qualifying time at Monumental in 2019, less than 18 months after she broke three hours for the first time. Alexandria’s Christine Taranto hadn’t finished a marathon in four years and had her hip rebuilt in that time, but she still gave it a try at CIM in 2019. Gaithersburg’s Chris Sloane kept hacking, in the end running far faster than he had expected 10 years ago.
Those who are racing on Saturday, those who made the attempts, those who supported them, shared sacrifices, allowed flexible work hours, took the early turn with the kids, even the coworkers who think they already qualified for the Olympics, they all believe that time spent running is not time wasted. The sport has value, even if it’s just understood by this group.
“When I get nervous, my husband just reminds me that if I run terribly, it won’t change my life at all,” D’Amato said. “I got an extra life with running. I’m in my 30s, I have two kids, I have a job, and I get to run in the Olympic Trials. That’s pretty cool.”