Although almost a month has passed since my storybook 5000m race at the US Olympic Trials in Eugene, in some ways the time, ensuing travel and Olympic preparation phase has helped provide me with a fuller perspective on the events of the Trials as well as the road that took me to the night at Hayward Field.
In the press conference following the race I told reporters that the experience was “more than a dream come true.” My intention was not to convey that I didn’t believe I could make the team, since I doubt anyone makes an Olympic Team by accident. Approaching the 5000m final I had my head wrapped around doing what I needed to do to put myself in a positon to qualifty. By “the dream” I was referring to the entire journey I’ve been on in the last four years.
In 2008 I set a goal of running at the Olympic Trials; not the Olympic Games, the US Trials. Flash forward to the morning of June 28th, 2012. I went out on my morning shakeout run feeling as happy as I had ever felt. Normally there’s a sense of apprehension on race morning, but this day was different. I remember smiling throughout my run and at one point thinking to myself “I’m here. This is what I dreamed of four years ago, and now not only am I here, but I’m going to go seriously contend for a spot”. In that moment I was happy to know that not only had I achieved that initial dream, but that in the process I’d surpassed what I’d initially set out to do and allowed the dream to evolve.
For those that have followed my blog, you can probably appreciate this. In my first blog post last July I talked about the reservations I had about pursuing post-collegiate running and how I had decided that even if I never “made it” as a professional runner, I could still dedicate a few years of my life to doing something that I love while seeing world in the process. Six months later I wrote about my decision to step back from coaching and fully commit to being a professional runner. Even at that point I didn’t feel comfortable saying, even to myself, “I’m training to make the Olympic team.” I was simply trying to be the best I could be, and in the spirit of the Olympic year it seemed appropriate to step back from other obligations and fully focus on training. A grant from the Sacramento Running Association was going to allow me to give up my coaching income, and so I figured I’d spend six months being the best athlete I could be every day and toe the line at the Olympic Trials with no regrets about how I had prepared for that day.
As I moved into the spring season and started to have some good results on the track, I realized that making the team wasn’t out of the question. Not probable, but also not impossible. That mentality took me clear into the finals of the Olympic Trials on June 28th. On paper I was still a long shot. I didn’t have the Olympic A standard of 15:20 (my time from Mt. SAC was 15:24), and I still had to beat several women who had run faster than I in order to finish in the top three. But beating them was possible, and shaving five seconds off my PR was also possible, I just had to put myself in the best postion to accomplish both objectives in one race. Given the shape of the field in the final, my race strategy was to go to the lead from the beginning to set an honest pace. A championships race almost always starts conservatively and finishes very fast, which is the style of racing I had rehearsed and trained for, so I didn’t necessarily want the the pace too fast from the get go, but I also needed the A standard to remain attainable.
From the gun I went to the lead to keep it faster than tempo pace, but I also tried to stay as relaxed as if I were sitting back in the pack. It was a balancing act, and I didn’t handle it perfectly. By the time we were 3000m into the race we were several seconds slower than I had envisioned in the worst case scenario. At that point, I thought the A standard was out of reach, and for a moment I thought my Olympic hopes were dashed. I fell out of contention for a while but soon regrouped. Olympic team or not, it would have been shameful not to leave my heart out the track at that point. If not for myself then at least for my coach, my family and all the people that have supported me over the last three years. And so for the last 500m I was driven not by the quest to make the team, but simply to give the race everything I had to justify the years of work I had put into getting to that moment, as well as to honor the people in my life that had pushed me and loved me and helped me get there.
In a way it’s fitting, because the journey was never just about making an Olympic team, it was about becoming the best runner I could be, and in those last moments of the race all I wanted was to run the greatest race I had in me and not give up. It was almost as if the entire three year journey culminated in the final 150m and created an extraoridnary will to chase that third spot. My path to the podium hasn’t been a direct or easy one, and I never would have made it there without my support network pushing me and believing in me. I owed them more than settling into a 5th place position.
After spending week back home in California my schedule took me to Europe for a pair of races to help tune-up. A week ago I arrived in Birmingham England, where Team USA Track & Field is holding camp, and as more athletes, staff and coaches arrive to comprise our group here, I continue to gain an appreciation for what it means to be a part of such a special group of athletes. The stories exchanged over meals and on the bus about people’s paths to this point are diverse and remarkable, and as I watch my new teammates training at the Alexander Park Track or run with fellow women’s distance runners, I am convinced now more than ever that anything is possible if your belief and your effort are strong and true enough. In July 2011, coming off a decent, but by no means impressive US Championship race in the 5000m, I wrote about how as a competitive runner I’m never willing to settle for the status quo and that goals must always evolve. At that point competing on the Olympic stage represented the ceiling of what I could reasonably dream about, but now that I am here I hope the experience will continue to expand my horizons and allow me to develop a new framework for what is possible in the four years to come.