Monday, January 16, 2012

Olympic Trials Marathon write-up

Houston, Texas—Go big. And go home…OR, just go home.

“Everything’s bigger in Texas”…

5:00am - Alarm goes off. My first thoughts (usually, a little dramatic, as my mind takes a few seconds to come to reality): “S#*%, I am running 26.2 miles today” but QUICKLY re-routed the brain waves to: “S#*%, I AM RUNNING IN THE OLYMPIC TRIALS TODAY!! Let’s DO THIS!”

5:15am - Red glitter band headband: on, most of the uniform/warm-up: on, marathon mentality: on. Pre-race breakfast for my marys is a preferred banana and oatmeal…and coffee, DEFINITELY coffee. Explanation is (hopefully) not needed…

6:00am - Justin and I head to meet (training partner) Ash and (her husband) TJ, to start our 0.9 mile walk to the George Brown Convention Center (directly adjacent to the start/finish, where all Elite Athletes are required to warm up, check bags, and be escorted to the ‘Calling Area’ before the race begins). The temperatures were quite ideal for a marathon, ~high 30’s at 7am with minimal wind and ~low 40 degrees by the 8am start- of the men’s race. Walking those 10 blocks toward the race in the dark, I had few jittery nerves running through my body (or through my mind). Ash and I seemed to have pep in our step, but I felt excitement and readiness to just get this sub 3 hour party started.

6:30am - The Elite Athlete warm-up area is already bumpin’ with athletes, coaches, and support personnel, as we take the escalators up to the designated athlete warm-up area. Some seemed to rest in chairs, while others paced the hallways in their warm-ups. Numerous runners held styrofoam coffee cups in hand, while others sipped bottles to stay hydrated. Ash and I, and our “athlete support” men (Justin and TJ), found a row of chairs to spread out our things and we just sat, and took it all in. We spotted our 3 other Iowa racers (Robyn Friedman, Erin Moeller, and Jason Flogel) in the room, and seemed to relax more as we talked with them.

7:00am - Ash and I decided to shake out the legs and utilize the separate warm up facility available for running indoor loops, along with various other men and women competitors. We continued to keep our nerves at bay, as we seemed to converse about non-race topics… why neither of us could wear our hair in a braid and race comfortably…my memories of warming up in confined spaces for indoor collegiate track meets… and, as Ryan Hall (2nd place finisher and London Olympic Games qualifier) came into the small arena to jog, we joked about whether or not it would be professional to give him a good luck slap on the booty, as he cruised by us… we decided it would probably be best not to find out.

7:35am - “First call for the men, First call for the men” was announced, as Ash and I returned from our (2nd or 3rd… I lose track) bathroom trip.  I organized my warm-up gear, leaving behind one bag of extra shoes and clothing, while taking only minimal warm-up clothing and fluids in my race bag. I looked around and saw many of the women competitors stripping down to their uniforms and lacing up the racing flats, as the men seemed to disappear down the escalators. I could hear cheering coming from the crowd, just outside the windows of the G.B.R. Convention Center and for the first time in the entire weekend- felt the true stomach butterfly’s begin to flutter in the gut.

7:40am - “First call for the women, First call for the women” was heard, in what seemed like seconds after the men’s second call was announced. Justin stood close, as I quickly gathered up my race bag, checked my larger bag with the athlete personnel, and continued to feel more butterflies flutter. Women seemed to be quickly exiting the athlete warm up area and making their way toward the large windows that revealed the loud and excited spectators that waited for the athletes to emerge. As I heard “Second call for the women, Second AND LAST call for the women”, Ash and I knew it was time to march. Justin gave me one last big, bear hug, as he said, “Good luck, Babe. Just have fun. There’s no pressure. I love you”… that seemed to flatten some of the butterflies… but they had escalated to an army.

7:46am - As I walked along side Ash, toward the escalators, the women surrounding me seemed to be suddenly quiet. I looked down at the way I was cradling my race bag, and realized my tight grip-hug on the bag was quite equal to my nervous emotions in my head, and my heart. Ash looked at me and said, “can you imagine being here, running this, without anyone else?” I was suddenly reminded how extremely lucky I was to have 3 other women, from Iowa, that I know to take on this experience with. Ashley took me under her wing, as I ran my first marathon in Twin Cities, just 1 year and 2 months ago, and she continued her lead in Houston, as we were about to start the biggest race of our lives. We walked out into the brisk 40 degree air, and the wind seemed to tunnel through the city street. We quickly found a spot on the curb for our race bag, fluids, and gels, and began jogging small loops in the competitor “Calling area”.

7:55am - Hearing the national anthem play before each sporting event has brought goose bumps and an escalade of emotion over me, ever since I can remember hearing it as an 8 year old-playing Little League.  Standing on that street in Houston, watching the multiple American Flags blow in the wind, scanning the blocks worth of red, white, and blue Olympic signs and banners, while standing completely still with my competitors and the thousands that surrounded the start line… was like no other national anthem I had ever been a part of before. Listening to the beautiful words brought emotions of pride, gratitude, disbelief, and pure honor; not only to have the ability, but the opportunity to have this unbelievable experience for our country. 

8:12am - The men’s field had started 12 minutes prior, and the announcer was yelling out the names of the top men, as they came around the curve of the first 2.2 mile loop. The women’s field suddenly flocked toward the end of the calling area, as the race officials corralled us together. At this point, my nerves were combined with chills and jitters of excitement to hear that gun go off.

8:15am - Ashley and I found ourselves at the back end of the pack as the women jogged to the start, just before the gun was fired. Frank Shorter, Gold medalist (Munich, 1972) and Joan Benoit Samuelson held the gun for the men’s and women’s races.  The front of the start line was occupied by a BMW SUV, the lead car for the women’s leaders on the course. A BMW convertible was also seen, carrying the main announcer for NBC broadcast and just one of the many cameramen’s on the course.  Little did I know at the time that not far behind me was another set of cameramen sitting on the back of motorcycles.  I cannot remember the last time I had started that far back in a pack of runners, from the start line, but today- I did not care. The first 2.2 mile loop would be filled with 90 degree turns and congestion, and I was not about to get flustered… there would be 24 more miles to let the legs really stretch out.

First loop (2.2 miles) The start line was paralleled with crowd-filled bleachers on either side, as I passed through the Road to London, Olympic Trials Marathon archway to begin my 26.2 mile journey. The entire 2.2 miles were loud with cheering, whistling, and those blessed, clanking cowbells. The short loop downtown seemed to go by in a flash, even though our first mile split read 6:40 as I crossed by the MILE 1 sign. So much for a consistent 6:10-6:12 pace! I stuck to Ash’s shoulder and we seemed to weave from the middle of the pack, toward the edge of the street in order to give ourselves some room for our stride. It is hard to tell what pace you are truly running at the start of an exhilarating race… your adrenaline is pumping, your legs are fresh from the taper, your heart is beating like a drum, and to top it off- the tall buildings of the city seem to deflect any accuracy of my GPS wrist watch.  As I looked down at my GPS to see my “average pace” for those first 2.2 miles, I realized that I hit the “stop” button instead of the “split” when I came through the MILE 2 sign… meaning, my average pace had lost 2 miles worth of running and was no longer even near-accurate. I truly did not know my average pace… but again, at this point I did not care. I was just taking that first loop for a joy ride.  Each female wore a bib number on the front of her respective uniform, displaying her last name in capitalized letters. The bib pinned to the back of the jersey displayed our actual bib number, which was the rank number from our original qualifying time. My back read 94 (of the 189 competitors) and I enjoyed the game of passing any number, especially one lower than 94. Again, at this point in the game, the heard of cattle that I seemed to be running in was quite packed and I just let the pace of the group take the reins.

Second loop (2.2- 10.2 mile) The race seemed to just begin as the compact group of runners began to spread out and head west, out of Downtown Houston. The first water stop came and went, but the crowds of fans and loud cheering continued along the entire 4 mile stretch out of the city. I seemed to stay about 5-10 yards behind Ashley, but we both gradually moved up on other women and I began to even out my pace to a consistent ~6:11-6:12 minutes per mile. I heard multiple cheers of “Let’s go KELLY!” and “YEAHHHH KELLY!!” … to the point that I was convinced one of the girls near me had the first name of ‘Kelly’. That or, I just had a last name on my chest that was easy to read and pronounce. Regardless, I cannot tell you how many times I was supported, with my last name in the cheer, and how great that was. I was not surprised to see a bright orange tee shirt over a grey hoodie, with jeans and running shoes, as I heard the voice of my Dad yell, “Let’s go DK! You’re looking great!”  I can always count on my Dad to be at one of the furthest points away from the crowds and where I need encouragement the most on any course. The crowds of enthusiastic cheering continued as I made my way west, on the one side of the median-divided Memorial Parkway. Justin stood just to the left of my path, and yelled to me “use the tangent! Get to the middle of the road!” The triathlete in him wanted me to be as efficient as I could with the curve of the course. We rounded Shepard Drive, hearing loud cowbells and cheers of “I like your pink shoes!” and the course was heading back East on Allen Parkway, back toward downtown.  The course made a quick hairpin turn (180 degrees) 2 miles before we returned to the city district, and I was able to see how many women were behind my tracks.  I saw my teammate, Robyn (7th at the 2008 Olympic Trials), as I entered the hairpin turn and she was blazing back out with a big group of women. Ash was about 60 seconds ahead of me at this point, according to her husband (TJ) as he rolled his bike to a stop and cheered me on.  Coming back into downtown, I rounded the MILE 9 sign and reminded myself that the first 8 mile loop goal was to “RELAX” and hit the 6:11 splits.  I went for my first Powerbar Gel and continued to gain on the women ahead of me. Running into the East, I was blinded by the light of the sun but led by the sound of the loud cheering.

Third loop (10.2-18.2) I passed by the camera lady of the day, my mom, as I hear her excited voice scream “Let’s go Danna! YEAH, let’s go girl!” and the video camera held up, in one hand, proud. Being her first marathon experience with me as the competitor, she was by far one of the most pumped up fans on the course. My brothers and I joke that my mom asks a lot of questions and digs deep into the minds of her children, when it comes to our competitions, but I truly have nothing but envy that my mom’s passions are only that of her children’s. She expresses the emotion that I don’t always wear on my sleeve and she witnesses the time and effort that goes into being an athlete. Never judge a mother’s athletic knowledge by her athletic background. I came through the long straight-away of the start/finish line and could only smile as the crowds seemed to make me pick my feet up faster. I had no idea how far back (or front) I was compared to the majority of the pack, and the spectators did not seem to notice either. Waving American flags and screaming my own last name propelled me past and into my 2nd, 8 mile loop of the race. “LIGHT” is the goal of this loop, to convince the mind and legs that I am light and floating through my stride.  Suddenly, a megaphone of screams comes to ear and I see my friend and training partner, Coll, and her husband, Jason (holding the megaphone) and screaming my name. I continue West through the city and out of the downtown for the 2nd repeat 8 mile loop. I have yet to run for more than ~half a mile with a consistent competitor, as I seem to be making up some ground and running up on women ahead of me. Although the 13.1 mark is the “half” distance of the race, I have never let myself believe that to be true. The 13.1 is simply just another marker that I want to have a certain split at. I roll through the MILE 13 sign and see the clock read 1:20:40… perfect. In planning out my race, I set it up to run the first 13.1 anywhere between 1:20:30-1:21:30, giving myself a 1 minute window to ease my mental clock.  I knew if I wanted to finish with a strong race and strong time, the biggest sin in a mary is to beat the legs up too much in the first 13.1 BUT if you go out too conservative, you sell yourself short of a quality time and overall effort.  During the first loop of the 8 mile circle, I heard a fan yell out, “I like your red headband!” and again as I returned into the city, on that loop. I proceeded to hear that man scream that 4 more times, running past him on my way west, and back east into town…He seemed to laugh when I gave him my signature “marathon thumbs up” and flashed a smile.  Justin continued to pop up multiple times and run his way to many mile markers of the course, taking pictures, video, and cheering loud and proud.  I entered the hairpin turn for the 2nd time and threw up the fist to Ash, and she returned the sole sister signal while she was coming out of the turn.  I kept her bobbin’ blonde ponytail and bright orange jersey in sight, doing my best to get myself closer to the pack of women surrounding her.  I continued east, back toward the skyline. I ran under one of the pedestrian bridges that arcs Allen Parkway and hear “YEAH DK! You are looking SO STRONG!” from friend and training partner, Ellen, who also seemed to run herself all over the course to super fan.  Coming back into the city district seems to give the legs a natural adrenaline and surge of energy with the increased sights and sounds of the supporters, including another Des Moines training pal and super fan, Mark.  I still have no idea where I am in the midst of the 189 women, but this only drives me to push on and pass more.  I see my mom again, as I loop her cheering territory and smile as she continues to hold her hand-held video camera. Just past her, the next runner in route to catch seems to have a familiar stride and uniform. I come up on Runablaze teammate and my marathon/physical therapist role model, Robyn, and hear her say, “Go get ’em girl!” Coming through the start/finish line straight away for a final trip back out on the course, the crowd seems to be louder than the lap before. I hear the announcer yelling that the men’s leaders are rounding the MILE 26 mark and Meb has taken a flag from a fan, as he rounds the final corner before breaking the tape… I clear the finish line and begin my final 8 mile loop before the Men’s champion has a chance to site the finish.

Final Loop  (18.2-26.2) Leaving downtown for the last time, I think to myself “I am feeling great. This is where it really gets fun”… The goal in the race plan for the final 8 mile loop is to think “Smooth”, making any type of robotic stride feel as natural as possible. This is also “gut check” time, how many women can I catch? I take in Powerbar gel #2 just after 18.2 and prepare the mind for just 8 more miles. Because of my mistaken “stop” push on the GPS at mile 2, I am unaware of my true average pace, but seeing the running clock at each mile marker told me that I was not on pace to run a PR (my best time being 2:43:54) but the drive of the Olympic Trials, and the drive of placing as well as my feet could carry me, pushed me into the last incline outside of the city. The legs were definitely heavier than they were at this point, one loop ago (8 miles earlier) but the mental drive pushed on. The amount of spectators seemed to have decreased in the areas outside of the city, since the men’s field was finishing and the women’s winners would be getting close. I see TJ on his bike brigade once again and hear him yell, “Lookin’ good D! Ash is about 40 seconds up, keep pushing!”  Another Justin cheer spot and he tells me that many women are starting to fade.  Continuing to gain on women, my body starts into a running robotic-like stride mode. I suddenly do a double-take to my left and realize Ash is on the side of the road, stretching her hamstring. Instinctively, I yell “C’mon girl, let’s go!!”  The turn to return east seems to be further away than I remembered, but I use the sporadic fan support to push me on. Those cowbells and cheers using my last name, meet me at Shepard Drive, for one last turn to press on eastbound.  I come to the hairpin turn and roll through MILE 23… and think “Just a 5K left”. The legs seemed to grow heavier. I saw the NBC helicopter flying over head and the flags that lined the street remind me of what this race is all about. I repeat a mantra prayer and dig deep. The 4 months of sub 4am alarms, the extra workouts at the YMCA, the treadmill speed work that I truly disliked, the soreness and fatigue coupled with school, whatever the sacrifice was- it was all for this day and this moment. I would fail not only myself, but my family, training partners, friends, classmates, and anyone I have ever inspired along the way, if I did not give the last 3.2 miles all that I could give on this day.

The Final Stretch- I rounded the final curve, after seeing MILE 26 and have nothing but near-numb legs and a smile to show. The streets were lined with fans hanging over the fences, waving flags, and still cheering me by ‘KELLY’. I make my last and final left curve-turn and see the ‘Road to London’ archway and Olympic Trials Marathon signs lining my final 100 meters to the tape.  With each stride, I thought about the sacrifices that each person in my life made to make this finish possible and the pride of this day, I would be able to share with them. Almost unknowingly, I felt myself lift both my arms for a quick “pump up” wave and laughed as I heard the cheers heighten, even if it was only for a few seconds. I crossed the line and felt the release of every single emotion that had built up over the last 2 hours, 45 minutes, and 42 seconds.   That’s just what seems to happen after 26.2, the Runner’s High, gone BIG.

In the End- Did I qualify for the London Olympic Games? No.  Did I expect to? No. Did I meet my goals? YES- without a doubt…

1) I set myself up to finish strong and allowed myself to enjoy the entire race and the entire experience.

2) I beat my 94 rank, as I finished 82 out of the 189 (finishing in the top 50% of the field)

3) I broke 2:46:00 (the time required to get into the race) proving to myself that my previous marathon was not a fluke-fast marathon time, but that I have the ability to run that time, from my own drive.

At 1 year and 2 months old to the sport of the marathon, I am confident that I have a lot of room to grow, learn, and mature in the journey of 26.2. This was my first ride at the Olympic Trials, but if I have any input in my running career, I will say that it will not be my last rodeo. Giddy-up!

1 comment:

  1. Awesome Awesome Awesome Danna! I am so proud of you! Thank you for sharing that! It was amazing to read about your experience! I hope your recovery is going well and that your internship is off to a great start! Congratulations again!