On Saturday I ran the Olympic Marathon Trials.
The stakes were higher and the stage was grander, but Saturday’s race was still a marathon. It required the detail and shrewdness of execution that any marathon does. Like every 26.2 mile effort, it demanded all of my emotional and physical strength.
The uniqueness of this race, for me, lied in it’s openness. For the past two and a half years I have chased down the Olympic Trials Qualifying Standard, running marathon after marathon with a concrete, clear goal in mind. My success and failure were simply judged by whether I ran under 2:43. But now I reached my goal. Getting to the starting line of this race was the object of all of my work – thousands of miles, early morning workouts and considerable sacrifice.
As mentioned in my last post, my preparation for the Trials was a bit unconventional. The length, conditions and intensity of my training were modified and as a consequence, I didn’t have a thorough read on my fitness. I trusted that I was in some sort of shape to run well, but I was reluctant to set a specific time goal.
So instead of time, my goals for this race revolved around my attitude and experience of the event. Sure, I wanted to run well. But this was the first marathon in a very long time that I had the opportunity to run without a time goal hanging over my head, without the fear of falling short or not being enough. Saturday’s race presented me with the freedom to focus on the quality of my race – not just it’s quantity – i.e. time.
Prior to the race I established these goals:
I wanted to soak up the experience. This was rare, fantastic opportunity. I wanted to notice and appreciate this chance that I had to compete in the Olympic Trials – the pinnacle of my beloved sport. I wanted to enjoy the festivities and the many family and friends who traveled to L.A. to watch me compete. I wanted to be present and grateful.
I wanted to be positive and proud. I’m a competitor and achiever to my bones –Enneagram Type Three, anyone? When I’m not winning or competing at my best, it’s easy for me to feel inadequate and defeated. I’m my own harshest critic and a cruel and persistent judge of my performance. On Saturday, when I was sized up against the best runners in the nation, it would have been easy for me to feel “less than”. And so, I resolved to be proud of myself and run with joy, knowing that I earned my place on that starting line. As with all things in life, I had the opportunity to choose how I interpreted and responded to the outcome of this race. I wanted to choose to make sense of it with honesty and positivity.
I wanted to be inspired. This past weekend in L.A. was a reunion of the biggest names, and a display of the greatest talent in the elite distance running world. It’s a small world, but an foundational one to those of us who love this sport. I resolved to notice and appreciate the strength, camaraderie and beauty that running produces. I wanted to fall in love with this sport all over again, and be inspired by the talent and dedication of my fellow athletes.
These goals were intangible, but substantive. Their achievement would require presence and focus – not merely sheer physical strength.
The day before the race, my dear friend Jenny gave me a “good luck” card. It was thoughtful and encouraging and contained the following phrases that perfectly summed up my goals for the race:
Be present, here and now. Be strong and proud.
These words became my mantra throughout Saturday’s hot, shade-less, 26.2 mile battle.
The entire weekend was filled with nervous, electric energy. From the uniform check and the special fluids drop-off to the technical meeting and shakeout runs, the atmosphere was celebratory yet focused. Everyone seemed grateful and excited to be there, but subdued and acutely aware of the task that lay ahead.
I was reunited with friends, former teammates and familiar faces from the running community. More than 20 family and friends traveled to L.A. to watch the Trials and cheer me on. Their presence and encouragement kept me calm and positively distracted in the days and hours leading up to the race.
I shared elevators with Galen Rupp and Alberto Salazar, Deena Kastor and Shalane Flanagan. I passed Kara Goucher and Meb Keflezighi on Friday’s shakeout run. These names probably don’t mean anything to most of you, but suffice it to say, I was in running nerd heaven. I was inspired.
The Olympic Trials course was unique and presented some interesting challenges. It was a criterium-style course that consisted of an initial 2.2-mile loop followed by a 6-mile loop that was run four times. You’ll see from the map below that much of the 6-mile loop was run on a single road. The course was contained entirely within downtown Los Angeles, and for spectators, it was a dream.
The sun was high and strong on Saturday when my friend Michelle and I made our way out of the start/finish staging area and onto the course to begin our warm-up. We tried not to notice the heat. But, after a 10 minute jog we returned to staging area and admitted to one another through nervous laughs that it was “so f-ing hot.”
America the Beautiful was sung. The Star Spangled Banner was played.
On the starting line, I resolved to stay calm and savor the large, energetic crowd and festive atmosphere. I poured water down my back to stay cool and shifted my weight from one foot to the other – a nervous tick. Be present, here and now.
From the gun, my legs felt a bit heavy and less lively than I would like. I ran in a large pack of runners, up and around the first 2.2 mile loop. I chose to remain non-judgmental and composed about how I was feeling. I ignored the idea that this race wouldn’t unfold well. Breathe in. Breathe out. Be strong.
Each time we finished a loop of the course we passed back through the start/finish area. It was loud and crowded with spectators. Music blared and an announcer read our names as we ran by. I used this energy and the slight downhill going into and coming out of the start/finish line area, to gain momentum. I reminded myself at the end and beginning of every loop that I had earned my spot in this race, and that I should enjoy it. Be proud.
My main cheering section of 14 family and friends were positioned on Figueroa Street, south of the start/finish area. I passed them twice during each of the four, six-mile loops and came to savor their encouragement and loud cheers. During the first few loops I smiled at and acknowledged familiar faces along the course. On my second 6-mile loop I took a small tangent to the side of the road to high-five my cheering squad. Soak up the experience.
Every three miles we passed a fluid station that contained our personal bottles. With men’s tables on the left side of the road and women’s on the right, I knew which of the numbered tables my bottle would be on. At each station I would grab my electrolyte-filled bottle, transfer it to my left hand, proceed to the “neutral fluids” – i.e. water – table, grab a 16oz bottle of Dasani, open it and pour it on my head to gain some sense of reprieve from the sweltering sun. For the next 400 to 800m I would drink as much of the liquid in my personal fluid bottle as I could. By the second water stop, all the fluids on the course were warm and far from refreshing. Stay calm. Relax. Push forward.
Ideal temperatures in which to run a marathon are 40 or 50 degrees. Saturday’s race pushed into the 80’s. The course – apart from a few small sections on the USC campus – was completely without shade. At the end of the first 6-mile loop I saw my first competitor drop out of the race. From then on, I watched people struggle, collapse, drop out of the race and stop, defeated and crying. The heat was brutal, dangerous and unforgiving.
Be present, here and now. Be strong and proud. – This was my mantra, my running mediation. I rode the waves of pain, tried to remain patient through the more difficult miles, and calmed and regulated my breathing over and over and over again. This race was for me, an exercise in presence, awareness and mental fortitude. I resolved to finish – and to do so with pride and strength.
As monotonous as the Olympic Marathon Trials course was, its many loops helped me visual and break down the race in my mind. I was always aware of where I was on the course and how far I had to go. I knew when I would encounter the next water stop and where I needed to take my next energy gel.
As I finished my 3rd 6-mile loop and prepared to head back out on to Figueroa for the final time, I faced a moment of fear and weariness. I was thirsty and tired. My legs were on the verge of cramping and my stomach wanted so badly to reject its glucose-laden contents. I doubted if it was worth it. This last six miles was going to suck.
I let the achiever in me feel shame at my slowing pace. In one giant, destructive thought I simultaneously felt sorry for myself and criticized myself.
I passed through the start/finish area for the fourth time and almost as if my body was ignoring my mind’s weak and self-pitying protests, I strode out back on to the course – and into the most grueling 6 miles of my life.
It was a sad, slow 6 miles, but 6 miles that affirmed the validity of my pre-race goals. Being present and aware is no small task when your body is shutting down and your mind wants to focus on anything but the pain. Being strong and proud feels like a joke when you are creeping along through a sparsely-populated course, covered in water, salty sweat and Gatorade.
I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t disappointing by the time I saw on the clock when I crossed the finish line. It was slow – slower than I’ve ever run for a marathon. Then again, most everyone ran slow that day – about 10-15 off their goal. I finished, and that was something.
With a medal around my neck and a bag of ice on my head, I found my fan club. They were so happy and proud. I felt loved. When I retrieved my phone and saw the support that had been pouring in from across the country on social media, I felt so affirmed.
I’ve noticed – in the hours and days that have followed – that the task of fulfilling the goals I established for this race continues.
Remembering and interpreting the events of this past weekend requires less struggle and suffering than the race itself – for sure – but it requires work all the same. It requires awareness – and a choice to be proud of my performance and to acknowledge my strength in finishing.
I’ve come to believe that one of the most important and difficult challenges of life is choosing how we interpret meaning from experience.
Actively and constructively deciding to see and understand life – its events, relationships and people – in a productive and non self-centered manner is hard. Choosing to see things in a way that supports relationships, growth, truth and the value of all people is far from our default mode of operation. But it is a choice that makes us better, more human and more connected to one another.
When I reflect upon my Olympic Trials experience, my default mode is one of self-pity and shame. I wanted to run faster and place higher. On the biggest running stage, I didn’t shine. The critical, competitor in me doesn’t want to feel happy about my performance.
But, in my better, more conscious moments, I can view this past weekend through the lens of my initial goals for the race. And I can practice those very goals. With awareness, I can see that in an intangible but very real way, I succeeded. I was strong and proud and I was able to savor the experience. I was given a fantastic opportunity and supported, celebrated and loved through it – far beyond what I deserve.
And so, I’m carrying the mantra of Saturday’s race with me. Beyond a sloppy, excruciatingly hot and never-ending race, it seems like it could be relevant and helpful to most things.
Be present, here and now. Be strong and proud.