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The Sacred Art of Stoking New Running Dreams

As those who fell short at the Olympic Trials demonstrate, accepting failure and rekindling dreams is the essence of what we do.

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As Olympic dreams are blossoming for American runners bound for Tokyo later this month, similar lofty aspirations died hard in late June for Leah Falland, Eric Jenkins, Kate Grace, Garrett Heath and Ben True, among others, who came up short at the U.S. Olympic Trials despite their best efforts.

As they arrived home after the U.S. Olympic Trials in Eugene, Oregon, each athlete who didn’t make the Olympic team had to take a hard look in the mirror and begin to determine what’s next. Will they use their extraordinary fitness and continue competing this year? Reset athletic dreams and work harder in the pursuit of their goals? Move up in distance and chase a fast marathon time? Take up competitive trail running? Or time to quit the sport and get a full-time job, settle down and start a family?

Falling short of goals we have worked so hard for stings in the immediate aftermath. The rest of us don’t harbor Olympic aspirations as adults, but our goals and dreams, even if decidedly more humble, are just as meaningful to us as making an Olympic team is to an elite runner.

Emotionally, Ben True’s heart-breaking fourth-place finish in the men’s 10,000-meter run and Leah Falland’s unfortunate fall with 600 meters to go in the 3,000-meter steeplechase are on par with a committed age-group masters runner coming up a few seconds short of a 10K PR, missing a Boston Marathon qualifying time or DNF-ing in a 100-mile trail run.

It’s not those failures that define us, but what we do next and how we choose to persevere. 

Fall Down, Get Back Up

Falland dealt with her disappointment, quickly regrouped and ran the best race of her life on July 4 at a Diamond League meet in Oslo. Her fifth-place 9:16.96 effort was not only her first PR in five years, but also the fifth-fastest time in U.S. history. 

Leah Falland blows a kiss after finishing 9th in the Women's 3,000 Meter Steeplechase Final on day seven of the 2020 U.S. Olympic Track & Field Team Trials at Hayward Field on June 24, 2021 in Eugene, Oregon.
Leah Falland blows a kiss after finishing 9th in the Women’s 3,000 Meter Steeplechase Final on day seven of the 2020 U.S. Olympic Track & Field Team Trials at Hayward Field on June 24, 2021 in Eugene, Oregon. Photo: Steph Chambers/Getty Images

Same goes for Kate Grace, who placed eighth in the 800 at the 2016 Olympics, but missed making this year’s U.S. team by 0.38 seconds. In the week following the U.S. Olympic Trials, she trusted her training and fitness and rebounded by lowering her PB twice with a win in Oslo (1:57.59, top photo) and a third-place showing in Stockholm (1:57.36).

“Whatever the reasons, it was jarring to come up short (at the Olympic Trials) — not being in contention the final stretch — especially when I thought the preparation had gone so well,” Grace said. “But then it’s so satisfying to prove that we weren’t crazy. I knew I was on the cusp of that performance. I won’t even call it bittersweet. Just purely sweet.”

The common thread between the elite-level athletes who competed in Eugene and age-group and master runners is a relentless desire to achieve success that’s fueled, in part, by the previous efforts we’ve put in and the satisfaction it brings us. But for the elites, there’s a limited window of opportunity before the natural slowing that comes with age forces them to give way to the next generation’s fleet-footed runners who will take the spotlight.

Keep Showing Up

They do not, however, go gentle. Running inspired, as if to extend his time on the national stage, Garrett Heath, a 35-year-old three-time Olympic Trials qualifier, ran a strong 5,000 semifinal race on June 24 to earn the last automatic-qualifying spot for the final. Heath closed the final 800 in a swift 1:56, the fifth fastest split of the 16 runners who advanced.

Grant Fisher and Garrett Heath compete in the first round of the Men's 5,000 Meter Run on day seven of the 2020 U.S. Olympic Track & Field Team Trials at Hayward Field on June 24, 2021 in Eugene, Oregon.
Garrett Heath ran an inspired race in the 5,000m semi-final to place 5th and claim the last automatic qualifying spot in the heat at the 2020 U.S. Olympic Track & Field Team Trials at Hayward Field on June 24, 2021 in Eugene, Oregon. Photo: Steph Chambers/Getty Images

In the final three days later, he hung in there as long as he could, running 4:24 mile pace, but as 24-year-old BYU runner Conner Mantz pushed the pace with two and a half laps to go, Heath couldn’t summon another late-race surge and wound up 14th.

“I was super happy to have my shot and run as well as I did in the prelims, but I was there to make the team,” Heath said this week. “I can walk away satisfied knowing I had my shot. That’s all my body had that day.” 

Heath isn’t entirely sure what’s next for him yet, though he’s going to use his current fitness to see how fast he can run in a mile race and a 5,000 in mid- to late July. He said he’ll sit down with Brooks Beasts coach Danny Mackey and family later this summer to consider what next year might hold in store. 

“I’m at the point of my career, and probably for the past four years, it’s been a year-by-year thing,” Heath said. “I want to keep going as long as I believe my body can go faster and there is more in the tank. It’s been an incredible journey so far and you can’t take anything for granted. If I can run fast this summer and I think I can come back and try to make the team (next year), I’ll do my best to make that happen.”

Regroup, Refocus

If there is any solace in what the rest of us deem our own failures, it’s that we can always regroup, learn from our disappointment, set new goals. Unlike the black and white of being top three in the country on a given day, our goals are infinitely variable if we’re willing to adjust them. We may just need more time, maybe a different distance or venue, or maybe it’s time to base our goals on age-graded times for masters. 

And, after a break, re-immerse in the hard work required to chase those dreams. Race results are permanent, but failure is temporary. The desire to keep training for those goals is what fuels our fire.