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.