by coach Chris McClung
It is the night of January 14. Earlier today, I watched the Men’s and Women’s Olympic Marathon Trials as over 200 men and women sought out to earn a chance at Olympic glory. I can’t sleep. As I sit here, I am overwhelmed by images from the day and struggling to capture what it means. Inspiration came in so many forms today that my mind is unable to process it. I know there are lessons to be learned and applied to my own running and life, but I can’t quite pin them down within the flood of thoughts, images, and stories. Here is one attempt; it is as much for me as for you.
Today, I saw courage for the sake of courage.
There is the story of Ryan Hall, the prohibitive pre-race favorite on the men’s side. His marathon PR is still over 3 minutes faster than anyone else in the race. As a favorite, he had every reason to sit and wait… to let the race unfold in front of him, and then snatch it late while others did the work to set up the finish. He refused to take the easy way out and jumped to the front, pushing a blistering pace from the opening gun. He would shatter the field by mile 1 and then lead the race for the first 18 miles, doing all the work at the front. His efforts and wasted energy would cost him the win, but would easily secure his Olympic spot while also giving us arguably the fastest men’s Olympic Trials ever run. In 2000, the winner of the Men’s Olympic Trials ran 2:15:30 to earn his Olympic spot. Today, running 2:15:30 would have netted you a distant 25th place.
Today, I saw someone who refused to quit even though he had every reason to.
There is the story of Dan Browne. Dan finished dead last today in a time of 2:42, over 30 minutes off the men’s leaders. Most didn’t know it while cheering for him, but Dan is a double Olympian from 2004, where he made the team in the 10k and the marathon. Dan had a bad day. When I saw him for the first time alone at Mile 9, he was already struggling with noticeably ragged form. Dan has nothing to prove; he is already an Olympian. No one would have blamed him for walking off the course, but he fought anyway. He fought all the way to the finish on a bad day, in front of thousands, perhaps more than a million scrutinizing eyes. He fought because someone like him does not quit.
Today, I saw fearlessness when she had every reason to fear.
There is the story of Amy Hastings. She would break the record for the Women’s Marathon Trials today, but still finish an agonizing 4th place, one spot from earning her trip to London. Amy is a relative unknown at the front within professional ranks. She has had several strong results but never any truly break-out performances. At mile 15-16, she would fall 5 seconds off the lead, only to fight back and regain touch with the 3 leaders (and favorites). By mile 18, she had not only regained contact with the group, but went straight to the front in an attempt to break the group and gain separation from at least one of them. Her attempt failed, leading many to question her tactics post-race. Her answer: “I wouldn’t change anything about how I raced. I knew I had to try to test them and see if anyone was weak. Clearly, it didn’t work, but I had no choice but to try.”
Today, I saw someone take risks without worrying about the outcome.
There is the story of Brian Ollinger. His name doesn’t even appear in the results. He was one of many who did not finish today. Before the race he said: “I am racing for nothing less than a spot on the team. I am going for the podium.” Though he came in strong and with an outside chance at the team, Brian was not one of the favorites. Many would say that he had no business running with the front pack, especially given the fast early pace. Brian didn’t seem to care. He boldly went with the leaders and was holding his own there through mile 9. By mile 11, he was off the back of the front group and clearly struggling from the fast early pace. He would go on to walk off the course before the finish. Many will question his decision to stay with the leaders especially given the ugly result. But, you can’t question that he went for it. He dared to dream big and test his limits in a bold way. Tonight, I would bet there are at least a handful of men, who finished in places from 5 to 20 who are now questioning their decisions to hang back and let the lead pack go so early. Even though his day ended early, I would bet that Brian has no such doubts about his race.
Today, I saw hard work pay off.
There is the story of our own Allison Macsas. I have met few in my life that work harder with as little fanfare and as few complaints as Allison. Not only does she work an intense ~40-50 hours week, but she trains over 100 miles per week on the roads, often rising at 4:00 am to get her run in before supporting early morning Rogue workouts/runs. She did all of this and worked so hard to run in this race today, all while knowing that she had essentially no shot at making the Olympic team. She may not have been the fastest or most talented today, but I would put her up against anyone in the field on work ethic. Today she ran the perfect race, executing a textbook, negative-split race, just as she was trained to do. She came into the field seeded 131st based on qualifying times. She would finish 45th with a 4-minute PR, passing at least 40 women boldly in the last 8 miles of the race. That is what hard work looks like, and it doesn’t always come at the front of the field.
Today, I saw someone with an insatiable hunger to be the best deal with failure.
There is the story of Dathan Ritzenhein. Just like Amy Hastings, he would also finish an agonizing 4th place. He was running with the other leaders through mile 20, when his hamstrings started cramping. He would lose 30-40 seconds on the leaders within a few miles, causing many to write him out of the race at that point. But, he fought back. By mile 24, as the eventual 3rd place finisher began to fade, Dathan was fighting hard to move into striking distance again. When I saw him at mile 25, the agony on his face was so vivid and palpable that my own stomach turned as he passed. He turned himself inside-out over the last mile to score a PR and finish under 2:10, but still miss the 3rd place spot by only 7 seconds. At the finish, he would collapse to the ground, initially in disbelief but then in despair. In interviews, the disappointment in his face was extreme. He even talked about quitting the marathon altogether and focusing on other distances. Does he really want to quit? No – those are just the words of someone who wants so badly to be the best that thoughts of being anything less are completely paralyzing and unbearable. Is it trivial to have such feelings about running? Maybe or maybe not. All I know is that I want a taste of his hunger to see if my hunger comes even close.
Today, I saw humility, pride, and graciousness in action.
There is the story of our own Scott MacPherson. His day went in opposite to Allison’s. At Mile 15, his legs started cramping. By mile 19, I could visibly see that he was struggling – what is normally a smooth, effortless gait was labored and inefficient. Having been there in a marathon, I knew it would be a LONG final 7 miles for him. Even though this was his first marathon, Scott knew it too. But, he would say these words to me post race: “By mile 15, I knew it wasn’t my day, but I also knew I wasn’t quitting whether I finished in 2:20, 2:30 or over 3 hours. I was getting to that finish line.” Scott could have walked off the course, and we wouldn’t have faulted him. Scott also didn’t have to show up at the post-race celebration lunch, where he came to give thanks to the many Rogue supporters in spite of his race. Scott finished today because he is too proud to quit and especially because he didn’t want to let us down, regardless of how he was feeling. Scotty will be back, and the world better watch out.
Today, I saw someone silence the critics in the face of tall odds.
There is the story of Meb Keflezighi, the eventual winner on the men’s side. He is the most decorated American marathoner in recent history. He is an Olympic silver medalist and the only American winner of the NYC marathon in the last 30 years. At 36, Meb is also getting older, and that was apparently less attractive to sponsors. A year ago, in spite of his accolades, Nike decided not to renew his sponsorship. A few months later, several spring marathons including Boston and London decided it was not worth paying him the usual appearance fee to run in their races. It was said that he was too old and that his best running was behind him. This summer, he signed a sponsorship deal with Skechers, and as a result, came under additional scrutiny for signing with a “less-than-credible” running shoe brand. Where does he stand today? He just ran 2 marathon PRs in a matter of 10 weeks, and finished as the top American today and at New York a few months ago. He just made his 3rd Olympic team…. running in a pair of Skechers… and finishing strongly ahead of 1 pair of Asics and 2 pairs of Nikes worn by his closest competitors. Touché, Meb, touché.
Today, I saw the marathon humble even the fastest and strongest of professional runners.
There are countless stories that we will never know from those who towed the line today. All of them faced one of the greatest tests of human endurance – one that does not discriminate with the challenges that it dishes out. There were good days and bad days. There was smiling and laughter and there were lots of tears. There were men and women facing doubts and fighting through them. There were those who quit and those who finished injured and nearly walking to the final line. Somehow in all of that, I find comfort and resilience for my own training journey. There is solidarity in this journey, even with the elites. Regardless of speed, pace or talent-level, we all face the same challenges, doubts, struggles, and insecurities. Elite or average, fast or slow. We are not alone.