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Atlanta or Bust: Chasing an Olympic Trials Marathon Qualifier

Follow regular runners on their quest to stand on the start line at the Olympic Trials Marathon in February. Part One: Summer miles and early workouts.

Pulling up to the farmhouse, cars are forming two diagonal lines in the rough grass next to the driveway. The dusty dirt road had been tampered down by a bit of rain the evening before, but by 7:30 the next morning, the ground is already parched, and the sun is casting warm-toned rays against the foothills to the west. Silhouettes of small groups of runners can be seen along the road in one direction or the other.

The task for this Saturday morning, on the last weekend in September, is 9 by two miles: One mile at goal marathon pace alternating with one mile at goal-pace-plus-one-minute. Some faces are missing; the first few weeks of marathon-specific workouts and amassed weekly mileage has already taken its toll.

Boulder Track Club Preparing for Olympic Qualifying Time Training
Boulder Track Club

The group’s powerful undercurrent is the quest for an Olympic Trials qualifying time. For many, the day of reckoning will come at the California International Marathon (CIM) or the Indianapolis Marathon this fall. Today’s workout is key in the buildup to both. Mixed in are runners training for everything from cross country to triathlon to 50k trail races.

After a few chatty warm-up miles, drink bottles are cached in a steel bucket by the road and gels and chews are perched along various portions of the wooden split rail fence. Runners gather around Coach Clint Wells to get the final details of the workout. He is also chasing the time standard, in an attempt to run in his 4th Olympic Trials race (including a 5th place finish at the steeplechase qualifier in 2000).

Clint describes the workout plan and rattles off the road names and turns to make, with some help from those who know both the surrounding area and Clint’s knack for fudging directions well. The route is an 8-mile loop that the crew will do twice, with a pitstop here at Ali’s farmhouse for refueling.

Big Goals, Blue-Collar Ethic

With the running joke being that Clint’s group is the “Medium Performance Team” within the Boulder Track Club (BTC)—in contrast to the club’s elite high performance team—everyone here chasing big goals has a blue-collar work ethic and comes ready to grind out the tough miles during today’s session. These athletes are used to squeezing in the high-level training required to have sights set on a lofty goal like the “OTQ” while all holding full-time jobs.

There are no doubt a few hundred individuals across the US that embody this class of runner, who rarely receive recognition but are training just as tirelessly as those with sponsorships and household recognition. To the average joe by the office water cooler, two-hours and nineteen minutes for a man and two-hours and forty-five minutes for a woman may seem like an ungodly fast amount of time to cover 26.2 miles, fast enough to make you “elite,” even “professional.” But the dozens of harriers just sneaking under these standards will not be competing for a shot at Olympic glory or the starring shot on magazine covers; rather, their goal is simply to make it to the starting line. To say, “I was there.” To run with the country’s best within an exclusive field.

Men's pack in Olympic Trials Marathon LA 2016
Back in the men’s pack at the Olympic Trials Marathon LA 2016 / photo: 101 Degrees West

A time standard is by nature somewhat arbitrary. Is 2:19:01 really that different from 2:18:59? Regardless, a line in the sand must be drawn somewhere, and, like those with ambitions of qualifying for Boston, the clock will not budge a single second for anyone, no matter what obstacles they must overcome to try to reach this milestone. In order to chase these goals, it requires unwavering dedication and a little bit of madness.

Two men from Clint’s group have already achieved the elusive qualifying time (Jonathan Aziz and Jason Simpson), and know the satisfaction from running thousands of miles and having all the pieces click together on the right day. But this is a story of the striving; a series following some ruthless souls on their quest for a slot at the 2020 US Olympic Trials marathon.

With awareness of the vexing miles ahead, the group dawdles in front of the farmhouse with stalled momentum. After a large collective inhalation—as if to top off every last red blood cell with precious oxygen—and a slow forward lean, the runners set off in a small cloud of dust.

The Dreamers:

Simone Domingue training for her Olympic Trials qualifying time
photo: courtesy Simone Domingue

Simone Domingue is a Ph.D. candidate in sociology working at the University of Colorado Boulder. She is 4-foot-eleven, tougher than rawhide, quick-witted, and reserved but resilient. Her juxtaposing docile nature and extreme grit might be best captured in a moment on the track one Tuesday morning between 400 repeats: When jokingly asked how she could possibly let the tag stick out the back of her sports bra, again, her unruffled response was “I dunno, probably because I don’t give a f**k.”

Clint Wells Bahamas Marathon Training for his Olympic Trials qualifying time
Clint Wells winning the Bahamas Marathon / photo: 101 Degrees West

Clint Wells, somewhat of a Boulder-Colorado legend, has run in 3 Olympic Trials races, beginning in 1996, and is hoping to extend this count to four in 2020. As a dual coach and athlete, Clint writes and executes the training plans, then suffers through his lung-burning workouts right next to everyone else. Working full time at NuAge Experts in Boulder, Clint grinds through the standard 9–5 work week on top of leading this BTC crew for twice-a-week workouts. Some club members affectionately refer to still-youthful Clint as “Yoda” for his infinite running wisdom, while he himself cites “old man strength” for getting him through tough sessions with the younger gents on the team. A big fan of gummy bears and red-hot Jolly Ranchers.

Dan Feeney BOA Lab
Dan Feeney at BOA Lab / photo: 101 Degrees West

Dan Feeney is a biomechanics research engineer at Boa Technology (those dial-and-cord systems instead of laces on snowboard boots, cycling shoes and an increasing number of trail shoes) who ran cross country and track at the University of Delaware until the men’s teams were cut in 2015, citing title IX. Rather than transferring to another school, Dan began competing as a professional triathlete and continued while obtaining a Ph.D. in Integrative Physiology at the University of Colorado Boulder. After a few years, instead of growing his chiseled calves to an even larger size via more pedal pushing and dolphin kicking, he decided to turn his focus back towards running.

Summer Miles

Summer in Colorado means snowmelt in the high country and new miles of wildflower-banked trails becoming open for foot traffic. The marathoners take advantage of the long summer days by logging miles on trails to build the “I-can-run-for-hours” strength needed before transitioning to faster marathon-specific training.

For the 16 weeks before a full marathon, these athletes will follow what most of the competitive running community would view as a typical weekly recipe:

  • Easy maintenance runs on Monday and Thursday
  • Short to medium length repeats (200s to 2 miles) on Tuesday
  • Medium-long run (70-90 mins) on Wednesday
  • Tempo-based sessions on Friday or Saturday (like a 10-mile tempo or alternating miles at goal pace/1 minute slower)
  • Morning service at the “church of the Sunday long run.”
Running in Colorado training for the Olympic Trials qualifying time
photo: Bryan Kob

To be able to handle this workload, each runner had to have a base beyond what most locally-competitive runners typically work up to.

Clint’s Climb to Marathon Mileage

Sage Coach Clint knows that “you have got to get fit to get more fit,” but also knows that sometimes injuries condense the ideal period of race prep down to “get fit or nada.” Clint has been trying to recover from a high-hamstring injury, accrued during his 2018 progression to CIM. Summer for Clint meant patience and slowly building back endurance, with the focus being on getting in healthy hundred-mile weeks during the marathon-focused months.

This means holding back the reins and increasing mileage by only ~5 miles per week while knowing that to get from a scanty 40-50 miles to the hefty 90 or 100 miles per week will take months. Many runners know how easy it is to get greedy with fitness; With big goals looming, a mountain of early-season “hay in the barn” often seems to promise a great harvest, but instead frequently leads to a shortage of hay.  The key is in a gradual progression, consistency and making it to the starting line healthy.

Dan’s Singletrack Summer

Dan seems to have finally shaken a stubborn case of overuse injury. After what seems like millions of eccentric calf raises and ankle mobility stretches, an Achilles injury that popped up during last year’s CIM build is finally subsiding and running fast feels “normal.” He cruised through a solid weekly volume of singletrack in July and August, focusing on minutes rather than miles. 9–12 hours of running per week on ribbons of dirt and rock allowed for a gradual shift to more road and track surface and a natural uptick in mileage in September. Now running for the same amount of time per week earns a hearty extra 20-30 miles of pavement or track rubber.

Dan Feeney Colorado Trails
Dan Feeney on the trails / photo: 101 Degrees West

But with the hope of averaging 90-100 road miles per week for the months of October and November, the true test of resilience is yet to come. Dan swears by heavy strength training twice per week to stay healthy, and often tacks it on in the afternoons following the BTC workouts (following the mantra “hard days hard, easy days easy”).

Dan capitalized on summer trail fitness and kicked off the fall marathon build by jumping into two trail races: The Pikes Peak Ascent and the Imogene Pass Run (both of which are 2+ hour races with over 5k feet of climbing). While his first race at Pikes Peak went south just over halfway up the mountain, he summarized:

“I walked the last three miles after realizing that there really isn’t any way to DNF besides taking a mountain-rescue helicopter ride. It ended up being great mental training and I’ll for sure be keeping that in the bank for this marathon build.”

In contrast (and perhaps due to the wisdom learned during Pikes Peak), Dan went on to finish 4th on the run over Imogene Pass from Ouray to Telluride.

Both Clint and Dan will be donning their Colorado-flag inspired BTC singlets at the semi-local Rock ’n Roll Denver half marathon in late October. The goal is to size up the fabric of their fitness thus far and, of course, practice suffering.

Simone’s Strong Volume

Simone spent the late summer building mileage while doing field work for her PhD program. She started out just running for time for a few weeks, and gradually added ~10% each week to get up to a healthy 70+ miles per week and continues the strong weekly volume while doing everything possible to avoid the injury “plague” that always seems contagious around September. This season is no different, as two of her close training partners looking to run the standard have already caught “the injury bug” this season and are in various stages of cross-training and searching for diagnoses.

Simone is charging forward, looking to get redemption after a subpar race (by her standards) at Grandma’s Marathon last June. Following a summer of intense field work for her graduate program, an accumulation of solid early-season mileage brought about the decision to race the Indianapolis Marathon on November 9 in lieu of the December 8 CIM. Within Clint’s group, this choice almost makes her the odd-woman out.

As the weeks tick on and autumn rolls through, Simone notes that, “the decision to run Indy instead of CIM seems a bit risky at this point” due to some lingering hamstring and shin soreness and onset of the mental and physical slog of the early marathon build up.

Solo Struggle

In early September, Simone did a solo rendition of the workout done on the 8-mile loop from Ali’s farmhouse (alternating one mile at goal marathon pace and one mile at a goal-pace-plus-one-minute.). Capturing the true tumultuous roller-coaster of a long marathon-specific session, Simone recounts the workout:

I felt great for first 9 miles or so, but second set was sub-par. I slowed up. It just felt harder and harder to maintain those paces and didn’t help that I was by myself. And it started to get hot.

I also may have stopped and walked in frustration one or 2 times… so…. not my best.

But still got 20 miles in and I’m feeling pretty recovered, so not a total loss? In truth, that performance put a lot of doubt in my mind. But after coming back and doing a decent workout the Tuesday after, I’m feeling ever so slightly reassured.

Some of the ‘magic’ behind group training is evident when you realize the difficulty of completing these almost-2-hour workouts alone, let alone successfully accomplishing multiple within a few-month marathon buildup. In this way, the appeal of training with a dozen or so other BTC runners to race CIM carries the allure of an exclusive clique, but one where initiation is 2 by 5-miles fast, and admittance gains you sweaty company on nearly three-hour-long runs.

Dan Feeney running Colorado dirt roads
Dan Feeney on Ali’s Farmhouse route / photo: Melissa Mazzo

Stoked About Strong Workout

Back at Ali’s farmhouse on September 28th, Simone leans into the workout and sets off with three other teammates in a small cloud of dust. Doing the same arduous workout, Simone crushes her goal paces and finishes her last few miles faster than she started.

Dan, too, faired well, averaging 5:18 per mile for the goal-pace repeatsthe exact pace needed to run the OTQ standard. While usually joined by several others running the same pace, injuries and setbacks left Dan to run the workout solo from mile two onward.

“I am stoked on this workout,” Dan said afterwards, “Because in previous years, when I had ongoing Achilles tendonitis, I just couldn’t maintain form in the later stages of this workout. I would be breathing fine but could not turn my legs over anymore. While I was bummed to not have the other guys around me during today’s session, I just tried my best to stay focused at the end and lock in on the right paces.”

Clint had a solid day on the roads and finished the 18 miles of grinding work just a few minutes behind Dan. Hands on knees after rounding out the last mile, he was satisfied with his goal-pace reps being just a handful of seconds off the OTQ pace. This is just the first benchmark workout on the long road to Atlanta.

With the summer base behind them, each runner plunges into the relentless, solid work at the heart of marathon training—those weeks that all who have entered know are simultaneously exhausting and exhilarating, heady with potential and fraught with fear. The best of times and the worst of times.