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Atlanta or Bust: Chasing an Olympic Trials Marathon Qualifier, The Conclusion

After the months of training, it came down to a last hurrah at the Houston Marathon. Who got the qualifier and will toe the line at the Olympic Trials?

Since September we’ve followed a group runners who train together in Boulder, Colorado, all aiming for the qualifying time for the Olympic trials marathon. After a solid training summer and fall, we saw Simone Domingue miss a qualifier by 3 seconds at the November 9 Monumental Marathon in Indianapolis. At the December 7 California International Marathon, Dan Feeney, after his training had been interrupted by work travel and a flu, fell off the qualifying train and ran a 2:27:57. At the January 19 Houston Marathon, the last-chance qualifier for our dreamers, three team members remain in the hunt Bryn Morales, Nicole Esplin and Simone Domingue.

On the last day to qualify for the 2020 Olympic Trials marathon, the self-imposed pressure was palpable at the starting line. With the trials qualifying standards likely to be lowered substantially in the coming Olympic cycles, this has been a now-or-never year of racing for hundreds of men and women chasing sub-2:45:00 and 2:19:00 marathon times.

Bryn Morales: “It was tense. You could feel how much it meant to every woman. Not knowing how the next 26.2 miles would unfold is exciting but terrifying. Like riding up a rollercoaster and not knowing what is on the other side of the huge first peak… Like a the thrilling leadup in a crime novel, but you’re not sure if you actually want to know how the ending goes.”

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PHOTO SET 2: The Packs This marathon it was beautiful to see how everyone came together to support each other in achieving the goals they’ve set out for themselves. In the first photo you can see the lead pack for the OTQ. At this point of the race there were several miles to go before the dust would settle. I loved the intensity – it was like a game 7. On a related note, I’ve always liked how they call it the “running community”. That’s really what it is. It’s teammates and strangers coming together to push each other to their limits while also lifting through encouragement, advice, and belief. Whether it’s at the front of the race or the back, a marathon is about climbing the same mountain. It means just as much to the person who sets a course record as to the mom who is running 6 months after delivering her child or the person who’s never ran more than a mile in their life but decided that they wanted to try out this running thing. The community accepts everyone. You should try it sometime. #houstonmarathon #runhou #runhouston #houstonrunners #runnersofinstagram #runlife #marathonrunning #otq2020 #atlanta2020 #berlinmarathon #nycmarathon #fredisb

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Bryn Morales, Nicole Esplin and Simone Domingue from Boulder Track Club set lofty expectations for themselves in the attempt to qualify at this last-chance race, along with about 80 other women. The feeling that resonated between the three teammates, however, was that they simply felt lucky to have made it to the start line healthy and have the opportunity to chase the dream one more time.

Bryn: “My sister gave me a wooden charm engraved with “grateful, determined, resilient.” It hangs from the rearview mirror in my car. Before one of my last runs, I realized this was my mantra for the race. I was grateful to have the opportunity to line up feeling 100% healthy. I felt determined because after thinking I had lost my chance, there was nothing to lose. I felt resilient because the comeback from 4 weeks without running made me a stronger runner than ever. It was the most dedicated time I have spent in the gym.”

For all three women, the road to Houston is a story of resilience and comeback. While Bryn and Nicole battled injuries earlier in the fall, Simone fought to recover and get back to marathon fitness after narrowly missing the OTQ at the November Indianapolis Marathon.

Simone: “The day before the race I told my husband Taylor that I was unusually calm about the race. I was in Houston with my husband, my parents, sister, and little nephew. I thought it would make me nervous having a crew, but I was just feeling happy to spend time with them. The truth was, I didn’t think the marathon would go well. After missing the OTQ by a few seconds in Indy I was determined, but I felt like my body hadn’t recovered quickly enough to get my through this marathon in under 2:45. I had struggled with some nagging tendonitis and anemia after Indy, and I wasn’t able to keep up with teammates in workouts. My legs felt like they had no “go” left.  As Houston approached, things seemed to get incrementally better with every run, but I still doubted that my fitness and mental fortitude was there.” 

Simone Domingue Monumental Marathon
photo: courtesy Simone Domingue

With marathon workouts peaking during the holiday season and dead of winter, Nicole, Simone and Bryn whizzed through shortened buildups—7 weeks vs. the usual 12—during potentially the most difficult time of year to nail big mileage weeks and hard workouts. Five days before Christmas, Nicole and Simone put in a 2 x 5-mile long-run workout, nailing the goal marathon pace of 6:17, averaging 6:18 and 6:14 pace for the 5-mile reps.

Bryn had planned a beach vacation well before the late-January marathon seemed feasible, and now had to get hard training in for Houston while they were there. So she made the most of it as a heat training camp, practicing getting dehydrated while running, to prepare for potentially warm weather at Houston. Marathon training through the holidays, peak germ season, and a supposed-to-be-relaxing vacation was not a solo effort:

Bryn: “I wouldn’t have made it without my boyfriend Nick. He never stopped believing in me, even when I was only running on the Alter G three times per week. He rode a beach cruiser for 2.5 hours when I did a long run on vacation in Costa Rica on a dusty, rocky, dirt road. He paced me for 5 x 1 mile on the track on Christmas Day. When he got norovirus about a week after that he accepted me quarantining him to his parents’ house with grace and understanding… and a face mask. I was also paranoid about getting sick and Clorox wiped my phone every day and compulsively washed my hands.”

About one week later (and three weeks before Houston), the crew did their final marathon-prep workouts at altitude, and Bryn completed the 2 x 5 miles at goal marathon pace during a 24-mile long run. She averaged 6:13 for the first 5-mile rep and 6:09 for the second, with the last mile in a scorching 6:03. Knowing she was ready to take the plunge after that workout, Bryn bought her plane ticket for Houston.

The final week leading up to the marathon, Bryn says she felt like a caged animal… ready to go but just having to wait. There was nothing left to do except show up on race day and get the job done.

Marathon Day

The group’s pacer, Rick, started with bunny ears on. He held a wooden stick with red, white, and blue balloons the entire race. It had a flag that said “2:45 OTQ.” Like at California International Marathon (CIM), there was camaraderie in shared water bottles being passed around, women encouraging other women.

When in doubt, one could always look up at Rick’s flag and remember why the rigorous pace was to be endured, 26 six-something miles to be strung together. There were multiple stumbles and falls, with answering winces in the group. Just before the half, an overpass followed by a long windy straightaway splintered the large group, leaving the remainder bunched around Rick and turns sheltering one another from the wind.

Bryn: “I could tell he was a strategic pacer. He wasn’t changing the effort to hit as many 6:17 miles as possible. He was analyzing wind and terrain to maintain a consistent effort. We had splits ranging from 6:24–6:01. Around mile 23 a gust of wind literally snapped the stick holding the sign. The stick became smaller just like the pace group had dwindled from 50 to about 12.” 

photo: courtesy Simone Domingue

Simone: “During the race I never felt great. Mentally it was rough—I kept thinking about Indy and how I had felt good until the last stretch and it all came crashing down. It was hard to tell myself “I can do this” because of that experience. Because the OTQ pack was so huge, it felt like almost every step I clipped someone’s heel or someone clipped one of my shoes (which was nerve racking!). Overall, I like running in a big pack and feeding off the energy, but I had to keep my focus squarely on pacer and make sure I didn’t step in pot holes.

I can’t quantify how helpful to me it was to have my teammates out there with me. There were times when I felt like the pace got hot and my legs couldn’t keep up, but I would see Bryn and Nicole and tell myself to stay glued on them. I would tell myself to relax and breathe deep and that would help get me back to them. I would tell myself to just focus on taking calm breaths, go a few more steps and reassess.

As the miles passed by it was like a positive feedback cycle, every step closer gave me more determination to not let the OTQ slip out of my fingers. With 6 miles to go I started to think it was possible, but I had to dig really deep. I would think about my family being there, and I fantasized about celebrating with them. With 3 miles to go I was surprised with how strong I felt, like I actually wanted to push and make it a race, but I was also scared that my legs would give out at any second.”

Posted by Fredis Benitez on Monday, January 20, 2020

The three BTC teammates ran together among the sub-2:45 pace group through 30k (18.6 miles), but the race gets exponentially tougher after that. 2 hours of steady racing took its toll and Nicole faded to 6:30s then 6:50s per mile. She battled through the last few miles and still finished as the 54th woman in 2:48:20 (6:26 per mile). Those who train with Nicole have no doubt that she has a faster marathon in her legs, and that a sub-2:45 is well within her reach.

Nicole: “I’m so happy for all of the men and women who made the cut for 2020, and I feel lucky to have been a part of the push to qualify. I think, for so many people (whether or not they made it), the standard pushed us to run faster in the last 18 months than we ever dreamed we could.” 

Bryn: It was bittersweet to not have Nicole there in the last few miles. Especially after she, Simone and I spent so many miles training together.”

Simone: “We were bummed that it wasn’t the day for our teammate Nicole. We all worked so hard to get to Houston, which for all of us was “plan B.” There is no way I would have lined up if it weren’t for those two, my other BTC teammates that encourage me, and our coach Clint.”

But Bryn and Simone were able to churn through those late miles and stay on pace. At mile 25, Bryn looked over at Simone and said, “One more Apache loop”—referencing one of the group’s frequently-used mile-repeats road routes. And for these two gladiators, January 18th turned out to be a be a day where everything fell into place.

Simone: “It wasn’t until ½ mile to go that it started to sink in, and I remember telling myself to take it in and enjoy it. Even the last stretch when I saw the finish clock I started to feel nervous… like maybe I had been delirious and I was really behind… so I kicked it in, and didn’t fully process what had happened until I crossed the line and heard the announcer say we had hit the OTQ with some time to spare. Overall the experience was pretty incredible. It was special to have my family there, and to share the moment with my teammate Bryn.”

Posted by Fredis Benitez on Monday, January 20, 2020

Bryn: “The weeks leading up, I visualized myself becoming emotional at the finish, hands to my face, maybe some tears. Instead, I crossed the line and violently projectile vomited mango orange fluid.”

Simone and Bryn finished 32nd and 33rd out of the 2,606 women in the marathon that day. Cruising past the standard in 2:44:16 and 2:44:17; they were among the last two dozen or so women who qualified for the 2020 Olympic Trials marathon. In all, a total of 511 women have qualified, more than double the number of qualifiers during the last 4-year Olympic cycle. The two victors reflect on chasing a goal that felt bigger than just a personal best, and perhaps more relevant than just a fast time or top finish:

Bryn: “I’ve struggled with self-doubt a lot in the past both in running and in life. Every mile marker I took one conscious breath where I would inhale belief and exhale confidence. I was able to maintain this the entire race. I think this was transformative for me. A huge part of the marathon is mental. My take away is to never settle. I thought my time in competitive sport was over after I finished collegiate triathlon in 2014. In June 2018 my marathon PR was 3:24. I told Coach Clint Wells I wanted to break 3:15 at CIM that year and had a lifetime goal of breaking 3. I thought that would take 7–8 years. He told me to dream bigger.”

Simone: “This experience has taught me a lot about what is possible from my body and mind, and I am excited to keep pushing those limits in the coming years. My next steps are to get back to training, stay healthy and optimistic through the brief build to the Trials, and then run my heart out in Atlanta.”

Posted by Fredis Benitez on Monday, January 20, 2020

Coach Clint was perhaps more nervous than the runners on race day. But he prepared them well to run even faster than the standard on a perfect day, and advised them well to run a smart race in the windy conditions at Houston. After deciding he wasn’t up to the 100% necessary to make a run for the qualifier himself in Houston, he ran over 12 miles spectating the race that Sunday.

Clint: “I am so proud of these ladies—for all hard work they have put in the last 1.5 to 2 years I have been coaching them, and especially for dealing with the setsbacks they each had this fall. From Simone just missing in Indianapolis by 3 seconds and being able to rebound emotionally and physically to make another attempt, to Bryn and Nicole getting hurt in September and missing their chance at CIM. I’m so impressed by their guts, dedication, and determination to make another attempt on a short buildup.

Then the mixed emotion of Houston! The heartbreak for Nicole seeing her come up just a bit short. But, the excitement and joy of seeing Simone and Bryn running together and watching them turn a corner at 40k stride for stride, ahead of pace, knowing they were going to get their qualifier!  I am so happy for them and can’t wait to see them run in Atlanta!”

Celebrating the Quest

While the chase for the standard eluded 3 hard-working Boulder Track Club athletes (Nicole, Clint and Dan Feeney), Simone and Bryn, along with a few others who qualified previously, will be representing BTC at the Trials marathon on February 29th at the Olympic Park in Atlanta. They’ll be among the 463 women and 238 men registered to run (out of 260 qualifiers) at the brazenly large 2020 Olympic-qualifying event.

Posted by Fredis Benitez on Monday, January 20, 2020

The media build up to the Olympic marathon trials will undoubtably—and rightfully—be dominated by those at the top of the sport, dreaming of a berth on the Olympic team. Household names in the running community like Hassay, Rupp, Ward and Linden will surely be the main characters of the event, with a few dark-horse runners likely in the mix.

But when watching the race and following coverage of the event, don’t forget about these hundreds of working-class athletes, like those of the Boulder Track Club, who have achieved one of the most prominent goals in their running career by earning a spot on the starting line in Atlanta. This surge of competitive sub-elite runners has come like a fresh breath of air onto the cool scene of American distance running.

While chasing a time barrier is by nature somewhat arbitrary—whether it be the OTQ standard, a 4-minute mile, sub-20:00 5k or 4-hour marathon, runners will always be chasing faster PRs and temporal milestones that leave them feeling accomplished, and perhaps earn them the next badge of recognition or honored status. Earning the title of “Olympic Trials Qualifier” is an exclusive achievement to be worn like an invisible Boston Marathon jacket for the rest of one’s life.

The 2020 Olympic Trials standards have helped breed a hard-working group of athletes that the United States will likely see benefits from developing: Athletes who will keep training diligently, logging miles, and improving at various distances while maintaining their day jobs… athletes who advocate for the sport without sponsorships nor social media influencer status, yet who inspire those around them with busy schedules to get out and put in the work to chase down a tough goal… athletes who may have a breakthrough at any moment and become an underdog in the elite field.

For now, the Boulder Track Club athletes will be among this troop; quietly and humbly churning through early mornings miles on the dirt roads and fitting in evening doubles in the shadow of the flatirons. And, of course, dreaming of what revered goal they’ll be chasing down next.