Only a Spectator at the US Olympics Marathon Trials

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We were only spectators but I was glued to the stories behind the women running 26.2 miles in the blazing hot sun on Saturday February 13, 2016. The women’s 2016 US Olympic marathon trials began precisely at 10:22 a.m., twenty minutes behind the men’s starting gun. We arrived at the first corner of the starting two-mile loop only minutes before the start of the men’s race, so decided to stay put until both groups had finished the first loop before heading to a more permanent viewing location near the LA Convention Center.

Did I say it was hot? Last week we had almost 16 inches of snow in Boulder with temperatures down to the single digits. Although it’d warmed up by the time I left on Friday for California, still, walking around Los Angeles in a tee shirt, Capri-length pants and no socks seemed a decadent luxury. I wondered—often—how it’d be like running in this heat on pavement with little shadows from the skyscrapers or barely-leafed out trees for the distance of a full marathon? Last fall I ran a 10k trail run on Catalina Island in similar temperatures: it was draining and exhausting. Imagine running four times that distance at a pace upon which your career or passion depended? Hard isn’t it?

I was particularly intrigued by the quartet of favored women competitors: Shalane, the best handicapped with her recent marathon times; Desi, the loner with fierce talent and a disappointed DNF from the 2012 Olympics to avenge; Amy, the fourth-place finisher at the 2012 Olympic trials with singular focus on this race; and Kara, the beloved “mother runner,” who’d re-ignited her racing and sleekness the past six months. There were others, dark horses, lesser-known runners, viable threats to a spot on the US Olympic women’s marathon team, but these four women were high on the list, having captured our imaginations for years. They did not disappoint!

We remained in spot on Figueroa Street for two and a half hours as the men and women looped and lapped one another, sometimes making it difficult to determine who was at what point in the separate races at any one point in time. We were close to one of the water bottle tables as well as volunteers handing out wet cloths to drape around necks, stuff down the front of running bras, hastily tuck into the back of shirts. The runners grabbed their water and/or the cloths and with determined looks kept on pace.

The faces told the stories of those so few hours: stoic, sheer joy (at least during the first miles), disappointment, pain, grit, smiles, set mouths, a gamut of emotions depending on the person, the point in the race, the body’s ability to withstand the heat, the near-exhaustion, the loneliness of running 26.2 miles, the slight glimpse of “why am I doing this?”

We saw some runners every lap, cheering on loudly those we knew from interviews (ultra runner W. Caitlin Smith and the indomitable Colleen de Reuck) and so many others: the newly-formed team of Amy Cragg and Shalane Flanagan, my personal favorite Desi Linden, Kara Goucher, Sara Hall, our Salty Running contributor cohort, Teal Connor Burrell, long-time Olympic qualifier in three sports (and Boulder woman) Joanne Ziegler, and others whose names have graced the headlines. We noticed when some women no longer made the third or fourth lap, wondering if they’d dropped back or out of the race, and why, hoping their health was okay. We read the blog posts and tweets after the race of the struggles with the heat, cramps, nausea, and chills of those who finished and those who didn’t—personal and brave choices, no matter which route they took.

Early on, the runners were in a huge pack that quickly dissipated to smaller groups, then, to our amazement, so many runners ran alone, sometimes for long stretches (or at least the mile or so we could see from our vantage point), some veering close to the sidewalk, perhaps to find a smidgen of shade from the trees or the shadows of the tall buildings, maybe to find a spot off the crown of the road, or to prepare for another turn (of the 87 comprising the course). We saw women sprint at the end after more than two and a half hours of running, others cheering on those who passed them, encouraging even within their individual frames of lost hope. We saw the excitement of women running their marathon for the first time among a group of elite, top-of-the-heap runners. Can you imagine how magical that would be?

In 1984 during the first US women’s Olympic Marathon Trials the aunt of a dear friend was the oldest woman competing (Sr. Marion Irvine). I thought of her on Saturday: the course distance hasn’t changed but the preparation, the clothing, the ancillary paraphernalia, the media, the crowds, so different, yet, still, women running the trials as their Olympics, no different over these past thirty-two years.

Congratulations to all of you. I was only a spectator but I was honored to watch the talent, the hard work, the strength and endurance, the fearlessness, of over two hundred women on a hot day in downtown Los Angeles. Thank you, all.