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Atlanta or Bust: Chasing an Olympic Trials Marathon Qualifier, Part IV

The California International Marathon becomes a final tune-up for some, and the end of the journey for one, in in Part IV of our series following regular runners on their quest to stand on the start line at the Olympic Trials Marathon in February.

This fall we’re following runners who train together in Boulder, Colorado, all aiming for the qualifying time for the Olympic trials marathon. Part One described their summer base miles setting them up for hard fall training—and took us on one of their early long, tough workouts. Part Two detailed a week of their training and a key workout in the heart of their marathon buildup. Part Three, reported on the first attempt an oh-so-close miss at the  November 9 Monumental Marathon in Indianapolis. Here, in Part Four, we report on the California International Marathon, where one of our heroes fell short and called it quits—with no regrets—and two tune their race skills for a final attempt in January.  

Start of the 2019 CIM
Start of the 2019 CIM / photo: Luke Webster

“There was a collective held breath praying for it not to pour rain on the start line in Folsom, CA as 300+ athletes lined up for their shot at an OTQ,” recalls Bryn Morales. “By mile 2 the sweat was already accumulating, and we could tell it would instead be a humid muggy day.”

Morales, another member of the Boulder Track Club’s “Medium Performance Group” under the guidance of Coach Clint Wells, had a few weeks of forced down-time in September and October, thus knew racing the full marathon wasn’t in the cards for her at CIM. But, though at first hesitant to go all-in on another winter marathon with her mysterious ankle/calf injury gradually resolving, she made the decision to join her training partners Simone and Nicole for one last shot at the standard in January. With flights already booked for CIM, Bryn used the event as a longer race-pace workout in her training for Houston Marathon.

Us versus the Clock

124 women went through halfway mark under the Olympic trials qualifying pace (6:17 per mile). Fifty-six of those women streamed under the 13.1-mile inflatable archway between 1:22:00 and 1:22:30, right on pace to sneak under the venerated 2:45:00 time standard. The pack travelled like a smooth locomotive, right on schedule, with flouncing pony tails and a chorus of GPS watches beeping with the completion of each mile.

Morales describes the feeling of being in such a group:

The women’s OTQ pace group at CIM was unlike any other running race I had ever been a part of. It wasn’t me vs her. It was us vs the clock. How many 6:17s can we string together? There was no Hunger Games vibe, instead it seemed like everyone wanted to get there together. There was a camaraderie in sharing strangers’ water bottles of sugary Maurten that were being passed around like girls at a sleepover. There was the soothing sound of a wave of hot pink and lime green moon shoes squishing around me.”

We approached mile 15 where my workout was to end, and the 190-pound 6-foot-3 male pacer yelled out ‘alright ladies we have work to do!’

CIM women's OTQ pace group
CIM women’s OTQ pace group / photo: Luke Webster

I know that on this day I stopped where the marathon really begins. Where you must lean in to the pain and fight for a pace that felt casual just 15 minutes ago. I didn’t see the personal triumphs or the loss of dreams that ensued in those last 11 miles, but from what I saw in the first 15 I know that either way there were other strong women to lean on.

In all, 72 of the 124 women ended up running under 2:45 and qualifying for the Olympic Trials, more evidence for CIM’s nickname as the #OTQFactory.

It will be interesting to see how many women hop on this pace group at the January Houston Marathon on the last possible day to run the standard. Will there be enough women at the last-chance race for similarly-huge stampede of churning legs and smoothly gliding torsos? How many more women will cross the finish line with full hearts and become eligible to run with the other nearly-500 other female studs at the trials?

Clint Plays it Safe, Dan Rides the Train Until He Falls Off

Clint Wells opted to run just the first half of the rolling downhill course from Folsom to Sacramento, hoping that a little extra patience and a few extra weeks of consistent training will pay off in a solid run at Houston instead.

Dan Feeney was among the 117 men who went through the halfway mark on OTQ pace. Tramping through the light rain, after some rocky training across the last six weeks, he didn’t have the breakthrough day that he was looking for. But just the thrill of riding the OTQ train, fully boarded and steaming ahead towards Atlanta, leaves even a disappointed runner feeling uplifted.

Dan Feeney CIM
Dan Feeney CIM / photo: Luke Webster

Dan describes the race:

It was incredible to be in a pack of nearly 100 guys specifically running for the trials standard. I was able to turn my brain off for nearly 10 miles as we rolled along just under 5:18 pace, and there was a unique shared camaraderie amongst the group that you just don’t experience in most races. When someone drank part of their handheld bottle, they would share the remainder with those around them. It’s the opposite of a zero-sum game, which is such a beautiful part of long-distance road running, with the goal of beating the clock rather than breaking the tape.

 I felt not-great from the gun; just one of those days where you are a few degrees off normal. I did not feel explicitly bad, but I knew it was going to be a long grind to the finish since each step felt just 1% too hard to maintain for a full marathon. After I fell off goal pace between 25–30 km, I started to get a bit bummed out… but I held on to my excitement for those in the group starting to pull away from me, who were still hammering full-on towards the finish.

Only 37 men ended up finishing in under 2:19:00; the attrition rate in the second half of the race was high, despite a gentle downhill middle section and a flat last 10 km. However, having even the slightest feeling of an off-day in a race this long adds up.

Dan Feeney after CIM
photo: Luke Webster

Looking back, Dan has no regrets, but takes away several lessons:

Hindsight is always 20/20, but I now realize a number of things that went awry prior to racing CIM.

I was set up to qualify six weeks earlier after running 1:08:44, at altitude, in the midst of a 90 mile week. In those critical six weeks after Denver, however, I traveled to Japan, Hong Kong, China, and Austin for work. The travel alone would not have affected me too much, as I ran 70-75 miles each of those weeks. When I got back to Boulder, I intended to get four solid weeks of training and really decent long runs in after my trip to east Asia.

But instead of picking up where I left off in the marathon-specific training, I came back from abroad with a nasty stomach flu. I optimistically tried to race a tune-up half marathon the following weekend in Las Vegas, but the race went poorly and I got even more sick— for about two weeks total— after traveling for that race. Then with only two weeks to go before CIM, I had no choice but to trust in the work I did before Asia, and hope that physiologically I didn’t lose too much. It’s one thing to be off your game mentally—i.e., not used to working through the later, tough miles of a marathon workout—but it’s another to not be truly physically prepared.

Deep in my mind, I was concerned that I lost too much fitness; paces that felt like I was floating before we’re now slightly labored. It could have been my lack of experience at the distance (it was my first true marathon), my lackluster training in the final 6 weeks, or a combination thereof.

My initial reaction to this disappointing race was to take a break, and not to try to cram training in for another marathon in January. I just didn’t have the emotional or physical energy to bounce back immediately. I knew I wasn’t ready to train intensely and race for another shot at sub-2:19 while under so much of a time-crunch.

There’s that unsettling feeling that most competitive runners have experienced, one that comes with the end of a race season in which their main goal remained out of reach. For months, they had a target in the distance, an objective to work towards each day, dictating many of their daily choices and requiring a substantial amount of mental and physical effort. Now the post-season runner now finds a vacancy. While the freedom of down time is refreshing, it requires the right perspective:

While I definitely feel disheartened that I trained so well for so long but didn’t accomplish my goal, making the trials was not at all meant to be the end of my running career. I keep reminding myself that this was just one dream to chase while I continue doing a sport that I genuinely love. I know that if I built back up immediately to try to run Houston, I probably would have lost the enjoyment of the journey itself.

I know I have a sub 2:19 in me, I just need the right circumstances to do so. Meanwhile, I’ll aim to PR at shorter distances in the next build up, run some more trail races on my bucket list, and probably take another crack at a fast marathon next year.

Carrying On to January

While summer and autumn in the Boulder Track Club was full of anticipation for marathon PRs and OTQ celebrations, the end of 2019 brought adjustments to training plans and tweaking of race dates. Rather than months of arduous mileage and workouts culminating on one fine race day in December, the journey continues through wintry months into the new year. After another stint of worship to the marathon gods and perhaps a bit more luck, our protagonists may yet earn their 2:18:XXs and 2:44:XXs.