The speed these women and men throw down is inconceivable to me. Intellectually, I understand the numerics behind a 4:55 or 5:33 pace, but I have absolutely no physical way to ever know what that feels like: how fast my legs would have to switch places, how brief a period my feet would touch the ground, how the wind would ruffle my hair, how hard my heart would beat.
For most of the competitors in the field at the Olympic marathon trials, getting to the trials will be the peak of their running career—no small feat, with “A” qualifying standards at 2:19 for men and 2:39 for women, times most humans take to run half the distance. Consider the fact that probably 95% of the qualifiers hold down full-time jobs while training for the trials, and it’s no wonder I saw so many runners on Memorial Drive (who clearly had no chance of winning) wearing some sort of smile on their faces, even up until Mile 23. Just getting to the game is the fulfillment of the dream. The equivalent for a runner like me is qualifying for the Boston Marathon enough under the required time that I actually came away with a bib during registration.
But there’s that top 5% of runners, the professional elite, who might even take it for granted that they are going to the trials. Men like Ryan, Meb, Dathan, Jason and Brett; women like Kara, Shalane, Desi, Deena, Tera and Magda—the prize in their eyes isn’t a bib for the trials, but a spot on the United States’ Olympic marathon team. That’s not to say the other 95% doesn’t hope for and train for a daring and stunning performance that will earn them a spot on the team as well. No doubt, many of them made tremendous sacrifices on the slight chance that January 14, 2012 would be their miracle day.
When we watch the Olympic trials, we are observing a rarified talent unleashed across a range of ambitions, and that is what makes the race so emotional, so thrilling, and so unforgettable.
The beauty of the circuit course is that as fans, the athletes could pass us as often as eight times. We not only get to monitor the progression of the battle between the elites with enough frequency to really feel the drama, but we also get to know the pack runners. Normally I give chicks who race in skirts a hard time, but at the trials, I gave the woman in the hot pink skirt with ruffles and a matching hair ribbon props—she dressed up for her debut on the national stage, and damn if I didn’t cheer for her each time she zipped by me. Then there were the Storage twins, and the woman whose last name was Sunshine—you know I cheered my guts out for her, even though I was a little covetous of her name. And the men? Well, I admit that I was admiring their gorgeousness right along with their speed. Fernando Cabada? Hel-lo! And how awesome was it to see my old favorite Andrew Carlson up there in the mix of the top 10? It was very awesome. My heart gave a twinge each time Stephan Shay, who was racing the trials in his brother Ryan’s memory, sped by.
I knew who I wanted to come in first: Ryan Hall and Desiree Davila. Even though they both had the top qualifying times in their divisions, I still felt like they each had something to prove to the world—Ryan because he is self-coached, and Desi because she has toiled away in the shadows of Kara and Shalane for so long. (It was a terrible flashback to the natural laws that goverened my high school when the gorgeous blonde won the day over the girl-next-door brunette in this marathon). Ultimately, the men’s and the women’s races were very similar, in that the runner who led for the majority of the race came in second because they were overtaken in the last mile or so by the eventual champion. Even as I was watching these pros fiercely compete with each other, I knew that they have a deep respect for each other, and that many of them are friends and teammates. This is a beautiful thing, and is a way of relating with other humans that I greatly admire.
Later, after @tejasrunnergirl and I had cheered and tweeted from just past Miles 5/13/21 and Miles 7/15/23, we watched the televised coverage of the race. Even though I knew the outcome, I could not help myself from shouting out loud for Dathan to reel in Abdi and earn back the third place on the team, and for Desi to crank it up and overtake Shalane in the final half mile to win instead of place. I got all choked up when I saw the men’s leaders begin to overtake the trailing women racers, because these women were cheering Ryan, Meb, Abdi and Dathan. And also: imagine what a twisted pleasure it would be to say, afterwards, “Oh yeah, I was totally lapped by Ryan Hall!” Watching Ritz, the fourth men’s finisher, collapse into tears once he crossed the finish line was nearly too much to bear; I felt squirmy and bereft, his private grief was painfully honest. How does Amy Hastings reconcile the bitter disappointment of fourth place after leading several miles—will she be able to ever stop replaying the vision of Shalane, Desi and Kara hugging triumphantly, draped in American flags right in front of her eyes, as she trundled across the finish line in fourth place?
I’ve explained the Olympic marathon trials to my non-running-fan friends as “the SuperBowl of running.” But I’m not sure that’s adequate. The SuperBowl is every year. Football fans get to see their teams play a gameon TV every week throughout the entire 17-week long season. There are bragging rights, money, and Hall of Fame potential at stake—but nothing as theatrical and grand as representing your country in a field of competition that convenes once every four years.
As fans of the marathon, and as fans of individual distance racers, we get to see our favorite athletes unleash their training at most twice a year in the marathon, more only if they also compete in cross country, track, or shorter distances on the roads. More often than not, those races are not on TV. And the opportunities we have to see the best our nation has to offer compete directly against each other? Rarer still. I’m not complaining, I’m trying to explain to you just how unique, dramatic and inspiring the Olympic marathon trials are. I fear my words are not adequate.
My imagination is sparked by these men and women. I am grateful for the way they so thoroughly exploit their God-given talents. Being a fan of the sport has done nothing but enhance both my enjoyment of and my performances within it.
To Meb, Ryan, Abdi, Shalane, Desi and Kara: congratulations! I cannot wait to watch you take on the best of what the rest of the world has to offer in London this August. I’ve already raced those streets—now it’s your turn!