Living the Dream: Merely Qualifying for the U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon is a Huge Feat
The backgrounds of many Olympic Trials qualifiers tell amazing stories about realizing a dream.
At the 2016 U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon in Los Angeles on Feb. 13, America’s top professional runners will attract the most acclaim—Kara Goucher, Meb Keflezighi, Desiree Linden, Shalane Flanagan and Dathan Ritzenhein, to name a few—but the less-appreciated paths of the dreamers represent the true heart and soul of this event.
For those outside of the spotlight, the ultimate goal of making it to the starting line will be their Holy Grail. They are parents, teachers, your neighbors, or work full-time. Others represent the future—young, developing runners with sharp coaches who are in the process of gaining valuable experience, often while lacking sponsorship. Still others might be grinding away, perhaps sensing the twilight of their running career, putting off a full-time job or starting a family for just a little while longer.
From top to bottom, all of these competitors are galvanized by their purely intrinsic love for the sport, the spirit of which is being captured for posterity by a dedicated film artist.
“There is no life-changing financial incentive,” says Wendy Shulik of Wendy City Productions, whose is composing and producing a film about the 2012 and 2016 U.S. Olympic Trials Marathons. “They are making huge life sacrifices every day because of their unwavering love for the sport.”
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Take for example Olivia Mickle, an effervescent, 24-year-old Sacramento, Calif., native and recent Brown University graduate who competes for the Bowerman Track Club and lives in Beaverton, Ore., where she works full-time as a footwear developer at Nike. Prior to 2016, she had fallen seconds short in two attempts at netting the women’s half-marathon Olympic Trials qualifying standard of 1 hour, 15 minutes flat.
Mickle, who burns with an irrepressible passion, is one of those runners you can already sense will still be brimming with excitement to continue running when she’s 80. She also shares this zeal with her still-fast father, Iain Mickle, a standout masters runner who ran a 2:38 marathon five years ago at age 50.
“He is the perfect training partner for me when I’m in town,” says Olivia. “We develop this deeper sense of connection when we’re out on a run. We don’t have to say anything. It’s something really special that we share and I doubt too many daughters get that experience.”
After a pair of near-misses, Mickle took her final qualifying shot on Jan. 3 at the JAX Bank Half Marathon. This event was organized by the resourceful, Florida-based race director Richard Clark Fannin, who, to his credit, took on a maestro’s role and seized the moment. In two short months, he transcended a small local race known for its fast course into a real barn-burner of an event with national implications, successfully assembling a deep field for the Jacksonville race replete with pacers in an event dubbed the U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon Project.
The fickle weather held out and Mickle made it, reaching the qualifying standard with an official 1:14:15 mark. She was part of a qualifying vortex of sorts. A grand total of 14 women qualified in an event featuring a fast course and pacers. “I really wanted to do this,” Mickle says. “When we all finished together as a big group under 1:15 it was like one giant cluster of happiness. I was so beyond excited. We didn’t really even know each other before the race, but we were all yelling and hugging. It was really great and something I will never be able to forget.”
The men’s field aimed to share in the magic in Jacksonville—as dozens eyed the magical 1:05 barrier with a steely pre-race focus. Roughly an hour later an exuberant wave of accomplishment permeated the men’s field as 27 men in all dipped under the qualifying mark. For most, the act of making the trials is where most of these dreams take place. A massive group celebration like this will not be replicated at the U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon, since only the top three men and women will be selected for the U.S. Olympic team.
Among all U.S. Olympic Trials qualifiers for the 2016 cycle, perhaps the most astounding breakthrough was an electrifying, four-minute half-marathon PR notched by The Woodlands, Texas-based Ryan Miller, 24, who shattered his 1:08 PR and qualified by running 1:04:35 in Jacksonville.
“There were some definite long shots in the race,” Clark-Fannin admits, “but taking four minutes off of his time to qualify really stunned everyone.”
The unassuming but quietly confident Miller has always been an underdog. He ran an unremarkable 9:40 3,200 in high school, and was not recruited to run at any college, though he ended up walking on at and competing for Texas A&M CC. He now runs for Team Green, founded and coached by Dan Green, and works 50 hours per week as a supply chain analyst for Anadarko Petroleum in Houston.
“Richard Clark-Fannin told me the equivalent 10K for the half was 29:05 or 29:10, so it was intimidating at first but it (qualifying) happened,” Miller says. “I did run 29:50 on the track once. I wanted to go out in the top third of the group because that’s where the good stuff happens. When it was over I was … we were just ecstatic. The fourth-place guy was 1:04:25 and I was 19th in 1:04.35. I knew I had it at mile 11 but I couldn’t believe it. Most of us had only said hello before the race but everyone was smiling and yelling and hugging each other afterward. My dad flew out too and hugged me so tightly I couldn’t breathe,” Miller adds.
Miller summed up the appreciation of many on social media two days later: “I want to give a big shout out to Richard Clark-Fannin. In the span of only a couple months, he put together an event for elite and sub-elite runners in the U.S. to chase their Olympic Marathon Trials dreams. From the airport shuttling, to the hotel accommodations, to the elite athlete dinner the night before, (he) and his team went above and beyond to make the JAX Bank Half Marathon an event to remember for all involved. From all the elite athletes that you worked so tirelessly to assist, thank you for all that you do.”
Still, talent, resolve and hard work also require an element of luck, and good fortune had yet to shine on recent University of California graduate JP Slater, who runs for Skechers, is looking at grad schools, and is coached by Cal’s associate head coach Shayla Houlihan. Slater finished within a hair’s breadth of the 1:05:00 qualifying standard at the Rock ‘n’ Roll San Jose Half Marathon in Oct. 2015, but to many observers it was a little more than a narrow miss.
The finishing clock at San Jose clearly read 1:04:58 when Slater crossed the line, but in the end he was given a mark of 1:05:02 as the electronic clock’s digital reading was slightly off from the correct mean time.
“I knew it was close but with about 15-20 meters to go. I saw 1:04:53 and was sure I had it. Meb (Keflezighi) even came over and congratulated me and told me I had made it. For that moment in time I was so happy,” Slater recalls. “Then I found out it was 1:05:02 and I thought, man that was really rough.” Just like that it became a nightmare for Slater.
There was an understandable ripple effect from his supporters on social media, but Slater was undeterred, putting this disappointment behind him. He flew out to Jacksonville from his home in Los Angeles, Calif., determined and very well-prepared. During the race everything seemed to be going perfectly for Slater, who was all business and had no problem rolling along with the sub-1:05 pack in Jacksonville, until disaster struck and he turned his ankle.
“I never felt labored by the pace,” he admits. “I knew I was going to be way under 1:05 but then I jammed my ankle at the eight-mile mark which caused me to have to change my stride.”
That was the beginning of the end for Slater, who tried to gut it out but was now running in pain. He struggled to the finish and recorded another heartbreaking near miss—1:05:05. So while others celebrated wildly around him, he was left to cope with another brutal letdown in the midst of the wild melee of joy. “Today I am on crutches to recover my ankle. I’m also super sick today … and pretty upset about it all,” he said the following day. Slater displayed exemplary class about the fiasco, but the bottom line is he’ll likely have to take his shot in four more years.
Still, personal victories were numerous among the trials qualifiers at Jacksonville and elsewhere. Keely Maguire, a 25-year-old single mother with a 5-year-old son, works in the loan department of a mortgage bank and lives in Newmarket, N.H. The University of New Hampshire graduate competes with New Balance Boston and completes many of her training runs on the treadmill in order to be close to her son. Unsure of how she would fare in the strong field, she easily qualified for the Olympic Trials Marathon at the Jacksonville event. She ended up pulling away from the goal-pace pack a bit, and her speedy time of 1:13:47 in her debut at the distance with relatively moderate training served notice that she could be an emerging star.
More than anything, Maguire feels that running kept her grounded.
“I took a year off after college and my running was struggling because I didn’t have any clear goals or competitive focus,” she says. “I really missed it and need it in my life right now. So I met with my coach (Robert Hoppler) in August and we agreed that I should try to make the half-marathon standard in order to qualify for the Olympic Trials. I’m really excited to do this because I’ve only been training seriously for four months. This is telling me that I am only beginning to scratch the surface of what I might be able to do in the future,” she adds.
There were other inspired stories emerging from Jacksonville, such as Kevin Castille, who at 44 became the oldest men’s qualifier in the field. Juan Paredes qualified officially after it was ruled his Rock ‘n’ Roll San Diego time was not ratified by USATF well after he’d received a congratulatory letter from them. Paredes had to brush off his disappointment and re-qualify to earn a spot at the Olympic Trials and did so in Jacksonville.
While many flocked to the half marathon, other athletes took a more traditional route and met the qualifying standard in the full marathon. One was Malcolm Richards, a gritty, 33-year-old elementary school teacher for San Francisco Charter School in San Francisco, Calif., who ran for tiny St. Olaf University in Minnesota. He is the grinder of the field, who barely broke 15:00 for the 5,000 in college but never gave up on himself and remained a consistent runner and racer for all these years. He qualified for the 2012 U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon with a 2:17, and re-qualified for the 2016 version of the trials with a pair of 2:15 performances.
Richards, a native of Annapolis, Md., also sports a 1:03:26 half-marathon PR and competes for the West Valley Track Club. He is primarily self-coached with a little input from WVTC’s club coach Jack Youngren. “I’ve been putting in 110-115 miles per week and this is the longest uninterrupted, injury-free stretch of training I’ve ever had (18 months). I’ve done the most miles in my life this year.” Though Richards has been on a tear in the local Pacific Association of USATF’s competitive racing circuit, finishing 26th at the USATF Club Cross Country Nationals in December, his name has yet to resonate on a national basis.
“Everything is really coming together and I feel like I am in the best shape of my life,” Richards says. “I’m hoping for a top-20 finish but I’m fitter than I’ve ever been, and I am going to hang on for as long as I can.” He seems to fall into that nebulous category, possessing just enough fitness, veteran savvy, and talent to stay in the mix for a long time.
Jesse Davis of Indianapolis, Ind., a 34-year-old marathoner who manages a Runners Forum store in Indianapolis, was recently named Indiana-USATF’s athlete of the year in 2015. He formerly ran the 800-meter event and steeplechase in college at the University of Southern Indiana but made the jump to the longer distances shortly thereafter and never looked back. Davis has run 19 marathons in his life and also qualified for the 2012 Olympic Marathon trials, but ran these while injured. “I wanted to run the trials when I was healthy,” Davis says.
He required seven attempts to qualify for the then-established 2016 USATF qualifying standard of 2:18:00, with all of his times ranging between 2:18 and 2:23, including marks of 2:18:47, 2:18:26 and 2:18:13. The epitome of determination, he finally nailed a 2:17:59 chip time at the 2015 Monumental Marathon in Indianapolis, but the gun time indicated 2:18:02. This resulted in an appeal to USATF which was eventually granted. “It was one of those sprint finishes,” Davis recalls. “I kept asking myself, did I make it or not? There was two days of deliberation on the iteration of the rules by USATF but I won the appeal and got in.”
It was moot in principle as Davis would have automatically qualified when USATF recently revised the standard to 2:19 in response to IAAF’s softening of the Olympic Games entry standard.
“That didn’t matter, it was a very dramatic build-up and then they opened up the time to 2:19, but I wanted to break 2:18,” Davis explains. “(Going forward) this is probably it for me, I ran in the 50K world championships in Qatar and took 5th, so I might concentrate on ultra-marathon events after this.”
The stories are widely varied but similarly compelling. Regardless, all Olympic Trials Marathon qualifiers will be forged by a common shared tie from earning a place among the stars on the hallowed starting line. When they square off in Los Angeles next month, the odds are long that the dreamers will have a lasting impact on the race or qualify for an Olympic team, but for all of the dreamers the stakes are high.
For some, it’s their last shot, for others, it’s a jump-off point to an amazing future. It matters not. In this tangible way, these athletes make the event more relevant to the world around them. Their humanity will touch a wider audience, tuning in the families, friends, loved ones, co-workers, former coaches and current mentors. These athletes embrace what is the best and brightest about the Olympic Trials and help grow the sport for the fans. This crystallization of years of hard work and sacrifice, such as long runs in the heat, wind or snow, have all been devoted to the act of belonging on the proving ground of the U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon. This fleeting moment in the sun reflects their achievement, manifesting in a members-only, hours-long race that will represent one of the greatest memories in a runner’s career.