Kara Goucher went through some big changes, testified against her former coach for unethical practices and suffered a few setbacks and injuries, but she never lost the desire to run. Now, ahead of the 2016 U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon on Feb. 13 in Los Angeles, the 37-year-old Goucher is fit, focused and running with a huge sense of purpose.

A little more than 15 months ago, Kara Goucher knew she had to ask a hard question and brace herself for an answer that she didn’t want to really hear.

She had just finished 14th in the 2014 New York City Marathon in a disappointing time of 2:37:04, by far the slowest of her career. While there were a lot of factors that went into that unsatisfying effort—relentless wind, some overly aggressive racing tactics and not-quite-optimal fitness compared to the rest of the field—it was an experience so humbling that she knew she had to come to a point where she had to make sure she was being honest with herself.

So, sitting with coach Mark Wetmore in a quiet New York hotel room and talking to her other coach, Heather Burroughs, on speaker phone from Boulder, Colo., Kara spoke bluntly as tears welled up in her eyes.

“I just want you to tell me if I’m fooling myself. Am I done?” she asked. “I’ve had a great career, and I can walk away from it. I don’t want to be that person who thinks they have something more to give and they don’t. I just want you guys to tell me …”

There was a short silence but, at the time, it seemed like an eternity as her entire career flashed before her eyes.

Goucher had been contemplating her future as a runner a lot in the weeks preceding that self-prescribed face-the-music-moment, but in a very optimistic way. She had turned in a credible 1:11:39 effort at the Rock ‘n’ Roll Philadelphia Half Marathon six weeks earlier and was excited to run her first marathon in 18 months. Realistically, she knew she wasn’t prepared to stay with the leaders deep into the race, but she and her coaches thought she could run in the 2:28-2:30 range.

She was actually ahead of that pace early and then backed off slightly, only to find herself running alone amid the howling winds. When things go wrong in a race, no one is immune from self-doubt and loathing—not even Kara Goucher. She’s as human as the rest of us, and, she admits, probably more sensitive than most. She forged ahead, but running alone proved to be a huge challenge.

And so the sting of not living up to expectations—both her own and those of her coaches—hurt deeply that day as a talented field ran away from her midway through the race. Although she had endured a few less-than-stellar races in her career, no moment was as frustrating or poignant as when she hit the wall at mile 22 and had to swallow her pride and struggle with all of her might just to finish the final 4 miles of the race, all amid the clamor of thousands of cheering fans in Central Park.

“Certainly after the 2014 New York City Marathon, nobody would have given Kara much of a chance,” Wetmore said recently.

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After making the bold decision in late 2013 to leave Portland, Ore.,—and part ways with coach Jerry Schumacher, training partner Shalane Flanagan and Nike—to start anew under Wetmore and Burroughs, her former college coaches, in her former home of Boulder, Goucher believed in her heart that she could still make a serious run for the 2016 U.S. Olympic marathon team.

But it was a huge, life-changing move, filled with plenty of risk and unknowns. She was already one of the most accomplished runners in the U.S.—having raced well in both the 2008 and 2012 Olympics, and earning a bronze medal in the 10,000-meter run at the 2007 IAAF World Championships—not to mention one of the most adored. She appeared to have little to gain and everything to lose.

But after those big changes—and after Goucher testified to the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency in 2013 that her former coach, Alberto Salazar, engaged in unethical practices within his Nike Oregon Project team—she was looking for a fresh start. Running should be fun, but it was becoming too much of a grind in Portland.

It’s not that she had anything to prove to the world, her fans or even herself, she says. It was more about having one more opportunity to chase excellence—and a third Olympic team berth—while she still had the chance.

By early 2014, life was good—very good, in fact—with her husband, Adam, and her young son, Colt. She was enjoying life back in Boulder, and had signed new endorsement deals with Skechers, Oiselle, Nuun, Zensah and Soleus. Instead of having one brand that paid her, trained her and more or less controlled her, she sought out relationships with companies willing to partner with her regardless of how competitive she was. Although anonymous message-board haters started to suggest she was living off of her past accomplishments and even reasonable skeptics were suggesting she was too old to be competitive, Goucher was doing everything she could to return to form.

From her coaches’ point of view, that meant adding a bit more speed work and diversity to her training and adjusting her gait a little bit, as well as, of course, logging plenty of long, solitary runs on the dirt roads north of Boulder where she originally honed her talent as a collegiate runner in the late 1990s.

Despite a few setbacks and distractions—a hip injury in 2014 and a minor knee surgery last winter, and, of course, the very public war of words in the media with Salazar last summer—Goucher has been toiling away as if her life depends on it, knowing all along that age is just a number.

And yet, after her 36-year-old body didn’t respond the way she hoped or expected on that cold, windy day in New York, she desperately wanted her coaches to tell her if it was time to hang it up and move on in life. No one can truly sense that answer on their own, which is why she was begging her confidants to let her know.

“I needed to know right there because I didn’t want to go on fooling myself,” she says, tears welling up in her eyes as she recalled that moment. “They both immediately said, ‘We believe in you. We believe that a year from now you can be a totally different athlete.’ I really needed to hear that at that moment.”

Turns out Wetmore and Burroughs, who are nothing if not frank, were absolutely right, even though they knew it would take a lot more work and a lot of hard miles to get there. For the time being, all Goucher could do was let their words beat down her uncertainty, and reframe that frustrating race as another life experience and perhaps a source of future motivation.

“As hard as that day was, I never thought for a moment that she was a 2:37 marathoner,” Burroughs says. “We just had more work to do.”

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Now, 15 months later, Goucher is in prime shape and ready to be a contender in the U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon on Feb. 13 in Los Angeles. Under the careful guidance of her coaches, she’s run slightly fewer miles than in previous marathon build-ups, spent more time doing quality workouts and focused a bit more on recovery.

With the belief that “everything happens for a reason,” Goucher is happy to be back where she started her career and running with the weight of the world off of her shoulders. Even though she has experienced the dark side of the sport and the harsh realities of the business of running, she says she’s still the same fun-loving, “dorky” girl she was when she started running in high school in Minnesota. Running is fun again, and that might just be the missing ingredient she needs in her quest to make the Olympic team.

“Kara always makes everyone laugh and makes it fun,” says Sara Sutherland, a first-year pro runner training under Wetmore and Burroughs. “She is one of those rare people with the talent to be real goal-oriented and extremely tenacious and determined, yet always warm, caring and genuine. 

“That is why she is such a good person to look up to,” Sutherland says. “She has the combination of being an admirable person and an admirable athlete.”

Goucher says she feels as fit as she’s been in years, with her best base of fitness since before Colt was born in 2010. There are indications she’s right. Twice last fall, she turned in solid efforts to win half marathons—at Big Sur in 1:11:13 on Nov. 8, and Rock ’n’ Roll San Antonio in 1:11:10 on Dec. 6—despite training through each of those events.

But to say that the U.S. Olympic Trials race will be competitive is an understatement. In 2012, Goucher raced neck and neck with Amy Cragg (née Hastings) to narrowly earn the third and final spot on the team. Flanagan and Desiree Linden, the top two finishers from 2012, return as the favorites, and Cragg is back too.

Plus, six other American women have posted sub-2:30 efforts since Goucher ran 2:28:11 to place sixth at the Boston Marathon in 2013—and 32 more U.S. runners have run faster than the 2:37:04 she ran in New York. All are younger than Goucher, except, of course, 42-year-old Deena Kastor, who ran an American masters record of 2:27:47 in Chicago last fall. (“The Internet keeps reminding me that I’m old,” Goucher joked after winning in San Antonio. “I look at Deena Kastor and I don’t think she’s old.”)

Those are the black and white facts about the field, and, on paper, Goucher is one of probably 10 women who have a realistic chance of making the Olympic team.  But Goucher might be a bit of an outlier, given that she’s running with a huge sense of purpose. Not only to make the Olympic team again, but also to cap this phase of her career as authentically as possible.

“I’ve never seen the slightest hint that she’s been ready to walk away,” Burroughs says. “Even when she’s ready to be done with marathons and track races, she’ll be doing something else, probably ultramarathons. She is unusual in that she’s been good since she was 15 years old and she’s still totally motivated. Not many people can sustain that and want to get up every day to train so hard for the right reasons.”

For all of Goucher’s hard work and sacrifices, though, there’s no guarantee the Trials race will have a fairytale ending. She knows all she can do is put in the work, race with courage and not worry about the haters, past challenges or any of her competitors.

“I hear it—people tell me I’m too old or my best days are past me,” she says. “That’s too bad they think that, but it doesn’t matter what they think. I’m not running for those people. I’m 100 percent focused on what I need to do, and whether I make the team or not, it’s been worth the journey to try.”

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Brian Metzler is the editor of Competitor.com and Competitor magazine.

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