Leah Thorvilson

2012 Olympic Trials Women's Marathon Qualifier

Midsouth Marathon…..the 5 Seconds That Changed Everything

Driving to Wynne, Arkansas on the morning of Saturday, November 2nd, I had no intention of doing anything spectacular. I had set down with my coach two days before, looking at the options of races I might do throughout the remainder of the year. I had suggested going to run the Midsouth Marathon as a workout. I half expected him to shoot the idea down, but instead he encouraged it. He said as long as I could go with a plan, and not be upset if it didn’t go as well as I wanted, that it seemed like an okay idea. We agreed that based on my recent training, and the progression since my surgery in March, breaking 2:50:00 was a reasonable goal.

 

The course in Wynne is an out and back, known for it’s tendency to have a nasty headwind in your face over the second half of the race. I had calculated that I would have to run just under 6:30 per mile to hit the time I wanted. I was hoping that the pace would feel easy in the beginning, and that it would just be a matter of maintaining plus a slight push over the second half. Just a mile in, I was feeling like I was working harder than I wanted to. I expected that maybe this meant I was out a little too hard and needed to back off. Hearing the beep of my Garmin, I glanced down to check the split….6:35. Shit.

 

I told myself to just chill out and that the slow first mile may have just been my body warming up. Since I didn’t really intend to race hard, I hadn’t done any sort of warm up before the gun. I made a deal with myself to not look at another split for a few miles. There was no sense in freaking out 2 or 3 miles in to a marathon. At mile 4 I checked again, and hit a 6:18. Honestly, I still felt like I was working harder than I wanted to, but at least I was out of the red zone on my pace. While typically I encourage people trying to run even or negative splits, I knew that having some “money in the bank” would probably be a good idea if I was going to face the last half into the wind.

 

Working through a marathon is always a mental game of some kind. It may be trying to figure out race tactics of the other runners, it may be self checking your body over the terrain change of a challenging run, it may be monitoring your nutrition, or it may be (as was the case with me and Midsouth) math. Every mile I ran towards the turnaround, I was seeing splits of 6:15-6:18. Every mile I was calculating “okay, if I hold this to the half, then I would get my goal even if I slowed down to 6:38 pace on the way back”…. I felt like I was running at a very slight downhill, which I remembered being the case over the first 5 miles, but not the whole first half. This put another element of worry in my mind, momentarily.  Surely I could hold 6:38 pace even if I turned into a headwind, even going slightly uphill, right?

 

When I hit the turnaround, I felt a sense of relief. The tension of having to hold that pace was gone… and… I was still going downhill? (I would later discuss this with my girlfriends as we drove home, and they would tell me that I was nuts, and the course absolutely was not downhill in both directions) Over the next few miles, I had one of those days that is like running magic. The temperature was perfect, the sun was out but not hot, and the breeze that was blowing seemed to actually be at my back! I checked my watch at the 16 mile split… 6:07? While part of my brain said “whoa! slow down killer” another part of me felt like speeding up. I was running close to my PR pace, and felt better than I had all day. Maybe it was a fluke mile. I tried my best to just set my cruise control, and it seemed to work. 6:09, 6:08, 6:01. Suddenly it dawned on me, maybe I needed to be doing some new math….maybe I could actually run under 2:46:00, the Olympic Trials Marathon B standard!!

 

20 miles in to a marathon, your body is going to be tired, and so is your brain. I couldn’t make perfect calculations at that point of exactly what splits I would have to run to get under 2:46, so instead I looked at my total running time at 20 miles, and started making estimations “if I run 6:30s from here to the finish, will I get it?” and the answer was yes. After that every mile was a hand I was dealing myself.  6:30s will do it, don’t slow down. I was definitely riding a high at the prospect of this run turning into a trials qualifier. I could already imagine the phone calls to my coach and my family and friends, “I just qualified for the Trials!!” and hear the stupified “huh? you what?” responses on the other end. I would have been happy with a 2:49 at this stage in the game. Instead, I might be going home with an OTQ!

 

At mile 21 you turn a corner on to a busy section of highway. You are running on an ugly cambered shoulder of the road, and the ever so slight uphill begins. It is slight, but just enough that when you are already fatiguing, it makes you dig. And, though I won’t complain because it wasn’t there the whole last 13 miles, the notorious headwind showed up in those last 5 miles too. I continued checking my splits, 6:15, 6:12…..and continued my math. Every time it was a check to see if 6:30s would do it, and while it seems obvious now, to my marathon brain, it was a big relief every mile that the answer was still yes. Miles 23-24 have an uphill you can actually see, and I felt my legs start to slow uncontrollably. I heard the Garmin beep and glanced down, 6:23. I started to talk to myself out loud. At this point I was passing some people who were finishing the half marathon, and they probably thought I was crazy as I ran by them saying (while breathing heavily and grunting) “you’re okay, relax, you’re okay” The race director later told me that some people I passed had said I was “growling like a dragon” I got a good laugh out of that.  I knew if I could get to about 24.5, it was a slight down and then flat to the finish.

 

I crested the little hill and felt a huge relief. I knew I was going to do it. I came around a corner right about mile 25 and there was a family standing in their yard cheering. Something struck me as I passed them. I can’t remember what they were yelling, but through my panting I burst into tears of joy and disbelief. What a year this had been! Dropping out of Little Rock Marathon, surgery, rehab, months of hard training wondering if I would ever get back to my old level of competing again, a new job that had put a major strain on my training schedule…. all those moments came down to this, I had made it. I gathered myself together and pushed for the finish. There had certainly been no hype about me attempting to qualify for the Trials, because I had no idea that I would even try.

 

I really didn’t know how far under 2:46 I was, I just knew I was going to make it. As I came around the bend of the Wynne High School track, and the finish line came into view, I saw 2:42:something….I didn’t pay much attention. I jumped into the air and screamed “F yeah!!!” (I later apologized for my profanity, but at the moment I couldn’t help it). As the volunteers in the finish chute handed me a mylar blanket, water, a medal, and all said “congratulations” I just started screaming and laughing and crying all at once. I grabbed one poor girl by the shoulders and looked her in the face and said “I just qualified for the effing Olympic Trials!!!!” …she responded with another “congratulations”. It wasn’t that she generally wasn’t happy for me, I just don’t think she got it. I needed to find someone who would understand, and I did. My friend Erin and her husband Dan had been there running the half, and she came running over, simply ecstatic that I had won, having no idea about the qualifier. When I told her, she hugged me and screamed in total shock. Yes, this is what I needed. I got to replay the scene again a while later when I went to run in my friends Annette and Paula, who were on the way to running Paula to a new PR too. I probably cost her a few seconds, because they stopped dead in their tracks when I told them “hey guys….I have some news…”

 

It wasn’t until that evening, after floating around on cloud nine all day, still hardly able to believe what had happened, that I realized the truth. The window to qualify for the Trials had just opened August 1st. I was curious how many women had already qualified, and got online and began searching for a list. I never did get so far as finding a list. The first page I came to damn near gave me a heart attack. It was something I had known, but completely forgotten all day. Earlier this year, the standards were changed. 2:46:00 was the standard I had needed to qualify in 2012. For 2016, the B standard was lowered to 2:43:00. I had made it, by 5 seconds. I couldn’t help but think about how different that moment would have been if I had run a minute slower. I would have thought all day that I had made it, and then had the crushing blow that I had actually not. I thought about all the little things I could have done that would have been the difference in the outcome of the day…. Had I decided to just cruise it in at 6:30s, knowing I would still be under 2:46, or had I stopped to give high fives to people along the track coming in to the finish…hell, had I stopped to scratch my butt, I might not have made it…. 5 seconds.

 

I was talking with my friend Camille the next day, and she told me “I was wondering what was going through your mind as you watched the clock tick towards 2:43….but you didn’t have a clue!” How funny….the mentality of it all. To be honest, I am not sure I would have gone for it if I had remembered. I don’t think I would have had the confidence that I could make it. It turned out to be a blessing that I chased the wrong time.

 

This was not a big race, 144 marathon finishers, about 300 half marathon finishers. The course rolls through a country town, there is nothing real noteworthy to look at…a field here, a tractor there, the occasional random dog.  While the race organizers and the people of the city who support it do a wonderful job, I never would have suspected the Midsouth Marathon to turn out to be the stage for what may be one of the best race stories of my career. What started as a workout and a road trip with a few of my best friends, turned into a Trials qualifier, and a turn in the road where for the first time since my surgery I can honestly say “i’m back”.

GCI 2013…The Best Race, Forever!

Hang on….you did what?? Yeah yeah….I ran a 50k. It’s really okay. I lived to tell about it! So let’s just agree that it was fine and let my doctor and I argue about it later (cause I know he will have heard about it by the time I see him next). For the record, he did tell me to just keep working my mileage up and working my pace back down to what it used to be…I don’t think he expected my buildup to hit 31 miles yet, but…. oops. Anyway, on to the good stuff!

I ran the Great Cranberry Island 50k in 2011. I planned to return in 2012 but had to back out due to injury. So, fast forward to 2013, and I am still injured (or rather, recovering from surgery) but plane tickets had already been purchased and the race directors had decided it was going to be the last year for the race, and they are both dear friends of mine whom I really wanted to see regardless of my ability to start or finish the race, so I decided to go ahead and make the trip. When I arrived at the very tiny Bar Harbor airport, I was surprise greeted by my dear friend Mary (one of the RDs). This place really is smaller than my house, and when she appeared from behind a wall, I let out a scream that I’m surprised didn’t alert the TSA.

 

 

Our Little Rock contingent of runners spent the next day traipsing around Acadia National Park and scoping out all the best seafood and blueberry flavored items we could find in Bar Harbor before heading out to the Island on Saturday morning. I was quite excited to see the dock, and the general store, and the flags and motivational signs hanging from every telephone pole. GCI….we were back!! Pictured below, we have Dan on far right lookin’ like he’s getting ready to do a gangster crotch grab, my very intimidating prancing with Chinese hat, and Nicholas looking like T-Pain (I mean..he was just on a boat)…we are quite the force to be reckoned with.

 

 

GCI is notorious for the lobster bake and post race island camping festivities. Our motley crew hoofed it to the campground, pitched our tents, and got ready to run! While we were waiting I was asked if I was going to win again. I gave a very emphatic no and told the friend I was speaking to that there was about as good a chance of me winning as there had been me making the Olympic Team when I ran the Trials. My coach had actually advised me to run 20 miles (as long as my longest post surgery run had been) and drop out. I knew pretty well that I wanted to finish if at all possible, but I wasn’t willing to hurt myself over it and planned to walk as much as needed. The whole island has one road on it that is just over 4 miles long, and the race just runs back and forth, 7.5 revoltions of this same road. I posted a few supplies by the side of the road near the start in case I should need them….a change of shoes, and my tutu. I planned to grab that for the final lap. Despite knowing that I was not in my true form, I was given bib # F-2.

 

 

I wasn’t actually too keen on having that number honestly, so my good friend John who was there doing the race timing helped me “doctor” it up with some duct tape. I’ll post a pic of the final product later. :) Before long, we were on our way! Even though you get to see it 4 times, you can’t deny that this is a spectacular view. And that is race director Gary Allen in the blue shorts. Ow ow!!!

 

 

One of my very best friends, Alison, was also running. This was to be her very first 50k ever. Because of the out and back and out and back (x7) nature of the course, you encounter all the other runners from one angle or another. Ali and I never passed each other without some encouragement. Early on in the race, she told me enthusiastically “you’re in 5th! 5th female!”… I was feeling pretty good at that point in time. To my surprise, everything was clicking. Not that I was going at any warp speed or anything, but that was by far the best I have felt on a run post surgery. I started to move my way up. I am not sure if I was speeding up or they were slowing down…probably a bit of both. I managed to work my way up to 2nd place female. There was even a moment in time when I had a flashback to the conversation i’d had earlier in the day, and I thought “holy crap! I actually might win this race…what???” But, that thought was fairly fleeting. I had been reeling in the leader for a few laps, and then she started to move away….or maybe I just started to fade. What I remember is, I had made a point of not counting my laps. I didn’t want to overthink it. Don’t think, just run. If I started to think about things, there were way too many reasons for me to start feeling like crap or not believing I could finish. One time as I was passing through the finish area, I made the mistake of peeking at the time clock…1 hour 50 minutes and change. I wasn’t sure how far I had to go, but I knew I was going to be out there at least another 2 hours. That did a bit of a mental number on me. I hung tough for a while, and had lots of support from friends on the course, running beside me and trying to encourage me. There were a few times I thought to myself “Gary (coach) told me to drop out, maybe I ought to drop out..I don’t want to hurt myself” and then “no, you can’t work your way up to 2nd place and then just drop out, besides, you’re not hurt…are you? you’re just tired” and then “you know what….this is one hell of a run of perseverance after what you’ve gone through, no matter where you finish, it’s okay”.  Yep, the usual self dialogue of a long distance race. I ended up finishing as the 3rd place female behind my good friend Angie from Memphis and another girl named Lindsay. It was a really great race for Angie, and I was so happy to be there to support her. Not even a little bit upset that she whipped my ass. :) The final 8 miles were a real grind, and they should have been. This was 11 miles longer than I had run in months, and in the end, the pace was faster than most of my training runs have been. The coolest thing for me that day was the finish though. They had flags to hand off to the top 3 finishers, to carry as they ran across the finish line. This is a very symbolic thing for me, as I remember seeing pictures of Kara, Shalane, and Desi running with their flags after making the Olympic Team. It may sound cheesy, but to me it was quite serendipitous. The fact that I was talking about there being as much a chance of winning as making the team earlier….and that I truly believed when I lined up that even on a perfect day that day, I wouldn’t be top 5 women….here I was, finishing 3rd place…successfully completing a 50k race 4 months after having a major surgery. For those final 20 seconds of GCI, I was Kara Goucher in my mind. I flapped that flag over my head like I had just made the Olympic Team.

 

 

I had never stopped for the tutu, or the shoes, but they were there waiting on me to don in celebration when I finished. Here are your top 3 women, with our champions cups, GCI rocks, lobster claw belt buckle medals, and flags. Yeah baby!

 

 

My knees felt like they were going to explode, but my heart was happy.  I strapped some ice bags to my legs with my compression tights, ate a trophy full of goldfish, and awaited Ali’s finish. She had a goal time of running under 5:20, and she came flying strong across the finish just over 5:14. I was so very proud of her.  I’ve been testing out my coaching abilities with Ali being my guinea pig, and she has turned into my pride and joy. Seeing her finish with her hands in the air and a huge smile on her face put a satisfaction in my heart that you just can’t put down on paper. “You did it!”

 

 

All in all I have to say it was a phenomenal trip. My time won’t go down in history as anything spectacular or earth shattering, but it was a big stepping stone on my road to recovery. It was a confidence in those moments where I felt so smooth, that I actually will get back to a competitive level of running. It was one more beautiful rejuvenation of my running spirit. Post race, we feasted on lobster, drank blueberry wine straight out of the bottle, and made the kind of memories that GCI is known for. Judging by the aftermath, I think the inflatable T-Rex was the “last man standing”

 

 

 

In closing out this post, I want to share a quote…that I can’t remember where I found. I believe it was in someone’s blog sometime after the Boston Marathon this year. I copied it down to take to a women’s running clinic I was going to speak at, and I have used it multiple times since, because it is wonderful. I apologize to whomever wrote it that I can’t give you credit.

“Runners are tough, and resilient. When we train…., we put in months of work. We voluntarily put our bodies, minds, and spirits through tests of sometimes nightmarish rigor. We have bad runs and get over them. We have injuries and get over them. We soil ourselves in every way imaginable, and see others doing the same, and we get over it. We share water, food, toilet paper, elation, and despair. We keep on running”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Life Between the Miles

I recently started following someone on twitter, @Once Upon a (L)ime (@SarahOUaL). On the page where you are given a small number of characters in which to summarize  yourself, she has this statement “it’s the life between the miles that counts”. It has resonated with me ever since I read it. Don’t get me wrong, I think the life during the miles counts too…especially considering the number of hours I spend on the run :) But, at the end of the day, those experiences wouldn’t hold much value without the ability to relive them and share memories of them with the people we hold dearest in our lives. I think any runner who has  suffered a major injury struggles with the fear of the unknown outcome. Will I ever return to my pre-injury level of performance? Will I ever be able to run again at all? If I can’t run again, will I ever be able to find anything else that makes me feel the way running did? While I certainly don’t care to ever go through another surgery, the time I have spent recovering has allowed me to focus on some new things, reconnect with some things I had neglected, and really appreciate the life between the miles.

 

It’s pretty funny what little things will bring you joy when you haven’t been able to do them for weeks. One of the first things I did when I got the okay to stop using crutches was to sweep and mop my kitchen floor. I also really enjoyed being able to prepare food for myself again. I sometimes take gratuitous pictures of salads I make that I think are pretty and send them to my friends. I’m sure they aren’t all that interested in what I am eating….but it’s almost like an art form to me to produce a pretty salad. This seems like the only time I might be able to slip one into a blog with any bit of relevance, so…here ya go!

 

 

The key factors of deliciousness include Strippagio Cranberry Pear White Balsamic (http://foodiecuisine.com/wordpress/tips-and-tricks/specialized-olive-oil-and-balsamic-in-little-rock-ar/ you’re welcome for the suggestion) and tamarind pumpkin seeds. You can put those on a hunk of tree bark and make it taste amazing.

 

Since being freed of my crutches and sling, I have progressed from walking, to jogging, and even some real running! I have not been cleared to do any speed training, or any aggressive hill running. I imagine it will be a while yet before I am anywhere near “race ready”, but for the time being I am content to be back moving. In the first few weeks back on my feet, I was mostly walking. I found it pretty interesting the little things you notice walking by places you may have run by a million times. I actually started recording little video blogs of some of the random things I passed, and posting them on my Facebook page.

https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?v=525256520845072&set=vb.205563519481042&type=2&theater

 

Since then I have been able to pick up the pace a bit, and have even participated  in a couple events… Yes, when I say events I am talking about races, but I am not taking them seriously. I prove my point with this finish line photo.

 

 

The store I work for puts on a one mile race, the Go! Mile. I have never been able to participate, being hurt last year and out of town running a marathon the year before, so this year I decided to run it as a celebration of the fact that I am back on my feet. In hindsight, the jump at the finish was probably not the safest or smartest move for a new hammy. I was using the photo to prove to the doctor that I hadn’t run hard, and we agreed that the jump was probably more dangerous than the run itself. Oops! Sure did make for a great picture though.

 

If I had to give a single piece of advice to any runner recovering from an injury, it would be to do yoga. I have done yoga on a semi regular basis for years, but never as a focal part of my training.  Over the past month, I have really fallen in love with hot yoga. Part of the need to run for me is the need to feel like I have worked hard, the need to sweat the yuck out, the need to feel the high that you only get after being completely exhausted. I don’t know that I ever would have thought I could get those things from yoga, but I was wrong. I think a lot of people have the impression that all yoga is the earthy, “om”-y, hairy armpits and granola bars type of yoga. The zen yoga is out there, but there are many other varieties as well. I have noticed huge changes in my flexibility (this is relative, I am still a stiff runner, not a pretzel), my strength, and my balance. It’s hard to put in to words how much a difference it has made in my recovery, but it’s been huge. Slowly but surely I am convincing my runner friends to try it, and no one has disagreed yet! Here’s a picture of a few of us after a really hot schweddy session last week.

 

 

It’s crazy to look back at where I was jut a few months ago and think how far I have come. It’s still a learning process and I have a long way to go, but I am getting there. My coach recently sent me a link to the qualifying standards for the Olympic Trials Marathon for 2016. 2:43:00 for the B standard. That is doable. The closer I get to being recovered, the harder part becomes the patience with not doing too much too soon. But as my friend Gary once told me “long candlelit dinners are always better than the drive thru”…. a nice reminder to enjoy the journey. :)

 

Yeah…it’s getting to that part of my blog where I lose focus, realize it’s dinner time, and forget how exactly I intended to tie all of this together. So, I will leave you with this delightful image of something that happened “between the miles”….I did in fact, let the mother *@#er burn. :)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Something Worth Singing About :)

As of yesterday, I am 4 weeks into my 6 weeks on crutches…. 4 miles into my 10k. Last week was exceptionally challenging emotionally. I had anticipated it being a great week. Monday marked the halfway “hump” of my crutch time, and to kick things off right, the Boston Marathon was on!  I planned to go get coffee, and then be glued to my computer from 8:30 a.m. until the marathon coverage stopped…. As we all know, the marathon coverage didn’t stop.  There is nothing I can say that hasn’t already been said about the events at Boston.  What I would rather leave it at, is that the running community has shown once again it’s strength, union, and unshakable ability to  support one another and rise above tough times. I am proud and blessed to be part of that. I’m not sure if it was the emotion swirling around after Boston that got me down, or if I finally just wore down in my resolve to be stronger than my frustration in being injured….but I struggled maintain a very upbeat demeanor. Then I went to the doctor for my check up on Friday…

 

At my first check up one week post op, all I had hoped for was to be told that I could sit with weight on both sides of my butt, rather than propped awkwardly to the one “good” side. That had not been the case and I was really let down. So, I went into the 4 week check up with zero expectation, although I secretly hoped for the same thing again, the freedom to put both cheeks down. Not only was I told that I could indeed sit normally, but the doctor told me I could take off my wretched sling!! I literally shrieked out loud in his office at the news. In case I haven’t painted a good visual of what this torture device looks like, I have attached a photo.

 

“The sling, the sling, the sling is on FIRE! We don’t need no water, let the mother @!%#  BURN!!”

 

Okay, so I haven’t actually burned the sling yet. When I do I will be sure to take video. I am still supposed to wear it when I go out “walking”, but for every day activity I was cleared to take it off. Being freed from the sling felt like being let out of jail. I would be able to drive myself around again, I could stand up at work and not have to bear 100% of my weight on my good  leg, I could get up and down off the damn toilet without having to fasten and unfasten the belt from my waist! I left the doctor’s office and went straight to celebrate the end of the sling era with my friend Annette by having our favorite salads and margaritas at Local Lime.

 

 

Though getting around on crutches is still cumbersome and not fun, I feel like I can see the finish line now. Just 2 more weeks until I get to start moving around crutch free and working on rehab. I am done with the fetal position baths, I can sit without anxiety in the shower. I have fully mastered the twist and shove to the point that I don’t even think I realize I am doing it anymore. I am learning day by day what I can do to make getting around on my own easier…. I recently made some important additions to my crutches. My coach teased me that I’m not going to want to get off of them by the time my time is up. “It’s like fixing up a house before you sell it! Then you’re thinking, this is the best this place has ever looked! I don’t want to leave!!”

 

 

I will be more than ready to “move out” when it is time, but for now I am appreciating what I can do, and being thankful for that. Probably the best silver lining to this whole process is the quality time I have spent with my friends. When I am healthy and training, my schedule is packed between morning and afternoon workouts, getting proper nutrition and rest, and working my “day job”. It’s easy to get caught up in that whirlwind and forget to take a moment to sit down and breathe, let alone take hours at a time out of your day to visit as you prepare meals, or laugh over coffee. I know that as I am looking down the homestretch of my “10k” on crutches, I am really just lining up for another long haul of rehab and slow progress toward running, but I am doing my best to enjoy the journey. So for now, if you see these crutches motoring down the road or the River Trail, and you don’t mind walkin slow, come and join me! And don’t be afraid to ask…”Hey, whatchu got in that pouch?”

 

 

Tales from the South

On January 16th, 2012, next to a tiny photo on the front page of the sports section of the Arkansas Democrat Gazette, the words “Thorvilson fails to qualify for Olympic Team” were printed. This was the manner in which my run at the Olympic Trials Marathon was summarized and immortalized by the press. I remember that day quite a bit differently.
It was 7:00am when my coach Gary knocked on my hotel room door seconds before I opened it. “You ready to go?” he said. All I could do was nod. I had been preparing for this day for years, and all that was bouncing around in my mind was, “Oh. My. God. I’m really here.”
It was the Olympic Trials, and all 3-400 elite men and women runners, including me, congregated in a sectioned off area of Houston’s George R. Brown convention center waiting for the race to begin. Some of them were sitting calmly, others were stretching, others were lying on the ground with their legs propped up along the wall. I was just trying to not look painfully out of place and nervous. In hindsight, I am quite certain that everyone else there was way too caught up in their own state of mind and preparation to give a damn about me, but at the moment, I was really self conscious. “Does everyone notice that my shoes are a different brand from my gear?…which is a different brand from my bag? (The marks of an athlete who is not sponsored by one of the big name companies) Do the old bag check tags I have sentimentally left dangling from my backpack make me look unprofessional? What about my lucky plastic pickle safety-pinned to my shoe?  I’m not built like a marathoner. I have stupid hair. What am I supposed to be doing right now? Should I be stretching? I don’t ever stretch before I run… yea, I should be stretching…I need to look like I have a routine, like I have my stuff together.”
The Trials course was set up as one 2.2 mile loop, followed by 3 times around an 8 mile loop to get the total 26.2 miles. The men started off on their 2.2 mile loop while the women were held in a corral waiting. This is where my monologue continued. “Should I do some drills? Everyone else is doing drills. I don’t ever do drills…. just keep running in circles. Do a few stride outs. Is it close to time to go? Should I take off my warm ups yet? It’s too early to take off my warm ups…I need to adjust the laces on my shoes… I need to take off my gloves. I don’t want to be in the way of everyone, where can I go to fix my shoes? Where’s Gary? He has my GUs…I need to pee. I don’t have time to pee… should I try to go pee real quick?” Seriously??
I don’t remember hearing commands to the women to move towards the start…just the motion of all of us moving as a crowd. Someone yelled to me from the sidelines…. a lot of the details are a blur, but in typical fashion, I turned and stuck my tongue out at whoever it was…. I only know this because there is a photo of it. A couple dozen women around me, all straight faced, eyes ahead, focused, and me….like a Where’s Waldo of the Women’s Olympic Trials.
I crossed over the starting mats, hearing the beep beep bee-bee-beeps of the timing chips. Here we go!
Gary and I had discussed a race plan. We decided that unless the women just went balls to the wall from the beginning, that it would be fun to try to stay with the pack for that first loop. Soak up the experience of the trials. After that, see how I felt and what the leaders were doing.
In the beginning, the pace was slow. So slow that it was almost uncomfortable. I felt like I was practically stepping on the women in front of me, and had company so close on my sides I couldn’t really jockey for a better position. When we got to the 1 mile, the time was close to 6:20. For a race where the winners are going to average around 5:30 per mile, I knew that this would mean a hard break at some point, it was just a matter of when.
The break came quickly, and I tried to move with the pack. With marathons, I usually get a sense pretty early on about how the race is going to go. Either it feels great, and it’s a matter of keeping that delicious energy in check for 26.2 miles, or it doesn’t feel so great, and it’s gonna be a long haul. Unfortunately, the feeling I had on the day of the Trials was that it was not likely to be my greatest day. I hoped I was wrong… why couldn’t I have my greatest run be on the biggest stage of my life? Hadn’t we timed the workouts perfectly around it? Hadn’t I rested enough? Sometimes you can lay things out just right, and your body still doesn’t want to work with you.
I had anticipated every inch of the race course would be crowded with people. You figure there are 14,000 runners participating in the Houston Marathon the next day, wouldn’t all of them be out watching the Trials? While mile 25 through the finish was packed, the majority of the course seemed parsely populated.
Because of this, it wasn’t difficult to spot my friends in the crowd. PT and Stan, shirtless, with “L” and “T” painted on their chests. Jesse and Kristen, standing with their signs in the “Cabrini Green” section of the course, which I named because of the resemblance to the Cabrini Green apartments in the movie “Candyman.” They were the only 2 cheerleaders within sight or earshot. Every loop I made, they held up different signs, cheering with all their hearts.
Then there was Hatim, screaming at me while on his cell phone with Gary, who was back in the stands at the finish area….”Gary says, you’re doing great Leah! He says just keep doing what you are doing!”
As we approached the halfway point, someone yelled to the pack from the sidelines that we were about 1:18 at the half….that was under my personal best! This would have been really exciting news if I didn’t feel so bad. I hadn’t fallen off the pace as terribly as I thought, but the pack was starting to thin out,it was go time…. and I wasn’t ready to go. Now, had we been at mile 20, I would have dug for that push to the last 10K. Reality was though, we were only 13 miles in. I thought, I am pushing way too hard to only be half way… by mile 16 I had that dreadful feeling “this is about to be the longest 10 miles of my life.”
I passed Hatim a second time, and he yelled, “How are you doing? Are you okay? Good job Leah!!”…I knew he must be relaying to Gary on the other end that I was not looking so good as I had the last time.
I had a fractional moment of thinking “Do I really even have to finish? This isn’t going to be the race I wanted. It’s not going to be a PR. I’m not going to be anywhere close to making the team… Do I have to?”
The answer, of course, was damn right you have to! This might be the only Olympic Trials I ever ran in, I wasn’t going home without a medal. I would finish that race if I had to do it on hands and knees!
On the final loop Hatim was keeping pace with me, running in the grass up the curb. He kept up for what felt like almost a mile, and I remember thinking, is he sprinting? Or have I really slowed down that much that someone on the sidelines can keep up?
Then I saw Jesse and Kristen’s final loop sign. It said,  ”We love you, no matter what!” and I remember thinking, well that’s good, cause this is all I’ve got.
I have never been so happy to cross a finish line as I was that day. I walked over to the fences that separated the runners from the spectators and met up with some of my friends. We had bright, obnoxious, easy to spot “Team Zoey” shirts made for my friends to wear. One by one, two by two, the team Zoey shirts started to fill the slope of grass on the other side of the barricade.. A boy with a video camera asked if he could interview me about the race, and about who all these people were. I told him they were my friends, and my family, and the best support a girl could ever have or hope for. Before long we broke into a chorus of Ole’s! “Ole Ole ole ole!! Ole!! Ole!! Ole Ole Ole! Ole! Ole! Hey!” This followed by cheers and screams.  I may not have been the fastest girl out there that day….in fact, I was 55th. But, I had so many people there in my shirts, supporting me, loving me…. No one could top that.
I took a minute to give fence hugs before I was escorted back to my bags and belongings. My mom, dad, and sister were there along with Gary. I hugged everyone, and finally….i picked up my finishers medal. I got choked up as I put it around my neck. It was really a beautiful medal. One I would treasure more than any other award I had ever received. I wasn’t really ready to talk much. It was a lot to sink in….the whole idea of the big event we’d been preparing for being over…just like that… My family understood this, told me they’d call me in a few hours, and let Gary walk me back to the hotel room.
When we got to the room, I saw that my friends Kim and Carl had left a bottle of Baileys and 2 cans of Guinness on a bucket of ice. I took a deep sigh, sat down. Gary asked “What you wanna do?”..and though I really wasn’t sure….I said “well, we’ve gotta do car bombs”. He had shockingly never done one, and didn’t know what it was. We had to fashion makeshift shot glasses from the mayonnaise and mustard containers left from Kim and Carl’s earlier take out meals. They worked just fine. Gary and I toasted, threw back the car bombs, and he said “we did it!”….yes, yes we did.
If I could go back and make someone rewrite that headline in the Democrat Gazette, I think it would say “Hometown girl makes Arkansas proud at Olympic Trials Marathon.”
I gave my heart and soul that day. That is all I can ask for.
*This is the story I read April 2, 2013,  on Tales from the South, a radio show featuring Southern storytellers reading their stories to a live audience. The readings are recorded and aired on National Public Radio. My story will be aired on May 9th.