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I love the Olympic Marathon Trials, but not because it’s the race that chooses Team USA. For me, it’s about the stories. It’s about who finishes 200th right alongside who wins.
The athlete in 200th was faced with so many decision points to get there. You can imagine some of the questions.
Graduating college. Do you go all-in and chase your potential, even without the structure of school teams? In high school or college, maybe you’re a runner because that’s what you have always done. After that, you need to decide if you’re a runner because that’s who you want to be.
During the training grind: Do you run far enough and train hard enough to eventually come face-to-face with the futility of all? The best marathon-training cycles are often designed to involve a few weeks of hope followed by a few-month existential crisis.
What happens when you get close enough to the mountaintop to realize that between you and the summit there is a lactic-acid-filled moat teeming with very fit crocodiles?
Seeing what it truly means to be one of the best in the world: What happens when you get close enough to the mountaintop to realize that between you and the summit there is a lactic-acid-filled moat teeming with very fit crocodiles? I am so thankful that most of our lives don’t provide such stark comparisons as a marathon clock.
That athlete in 200th answered those questions.
Yes, they’ll go for it.
Yes, they see the futility of it all.
And, yes, you don’t need to reach the very highest summit to have a good climb. And what have the crocodiles ever done to you? They’re good crocs, Brent. 14/10.
Striving at the Trials
Running is so cool because it’s a metaphor for other things. You strive, day after day, hoping for the best. But eventually, the worst is always waiting right around the corner.
Over time, all of the Olympic Trials athletes have likely lived so intimately with the worst of a running life that they have a secret superpower. They can see the metaphor as it ticks by on a marathon clock. Grind and grind, and for what? That’s why so many runners and coaches can sound like a mix between Nietzsche, Buddha and Matthew McConaughey .
That’s why the running world loves the Olympic Trials so much. Just like all of us, every single runner on that start line has had to fall down countless times. They’ve had to get back up. And they’ve had to keep running.
On a podcast, comedian Pete Holmes said that life was about falling down, getting back up and talking about it. I think that’s why the running world loves the Olympic Trials so much. Just like all of us, every single runner on that start line has had to fall down countless times. They’ve had to get back up. And they’ve had to keep running.
So when we talk about the race, it’s not just about who finishes on the podium. That is really cool and admirable, and it’s super fun to watch unfold. But I bet who makes the Olympics has no particular correlation with long-term fulfillment and happiness.
Instead, this little essay is a celebration of everyone, including those that don’t make the Olympic team, and especially whoever finishes 200th or 512th or dared to dream of the Olympic Trials in the first place. Those athletes can teach us a lot about ourselves, whether we’re runners or not.
Like Roberta Groner, who shows that dreaming big and going for it can lead to unthinkable places. Her Twitter handle is @marathongirl245, indicative of her past chase for the Olympic Trials standard of 2 hours 45 minutes. Now, she is a 2:29 marathoner with a good shot at making the team. A 16-minute difference at that level is mind-blowing. It means she must have jumped over lots of those crocodiles on her way toward the summit. In our own lives, we’ll all run into the seemingly impenetrable moats. Like Roberta, let’s make a jump for it anyway.
Like Jim Walmsley, who shows that when you put yourself out there, haters are always gonna hate. Jim is one of the best trail athletes ever, and he doesn’t need to prove anything. But he made himself vulnerable and publicly stated the big scary goal of going for it at the Trials. His training has been unreal, looking like something from a video game rather than real life. And alongside plenty of big fans like me, he has haters that are rooting against him. Those same haters are waiting for all of us the moment we make ourselves vulnerable and shoot our shots in life. Like Jim, let’s say our big scary goals out loud and chase them anyway.
And alongside plenty of big fans like me, Jim has haters that are rooting against him. Those same haters are waiting for all of us the moment we make ourselves vulnerable and shoot our shots in life. Like Jim, let’s say our big scary goals out loud and chase them anyway.
Like Megan Youngren, who shows that training hard can lead to incredible places. At the 2017 Equinox Trail Marathon, she ran 4:48 and got hooked on longer distances. That eventually led to a 2:43:52 at the 2019 California International Marathon. Over the last couple months, her Alaska-based training has consisted of long runs and track workouts in below-zero Farenheit conditions.
In an article by Chris Chavez in Sports Illustrated, she said, “I trained hard. I got lucky. I dodged injuries. I raced a lot, and it worked out for me. That’s the story for a lot of other people, too.” Like Megan, let’s work hard enough to put ourselves in position for breakthroughs.
Like Zach Ornelas, whose second act in running is largely about showing the kids he teaches and coaches what hard work looks like. Zach had Achilles tendonitis in the build, but he never stopped believing. As he puts it, he is trying the “couch-to-marathon” training program. But that belief has fueled surprisingly good workouts, some of them with the students he coaches, most of them early in the morning before school or late at night after a long day. On race week, he’ll be grading 150 student essays and writing his own 10-page research paper for a graduate program. Like Zach, let’s believe enough to give ourselves a chance … even if it might make us tired sometimes.
And finally, like Ashley Brasovan, who shows that no good adventure is a straight line. Ashley was a high-school national champion, only to face tons of obstacles in college. But whenever she got knocked down, she kept coming back. Now, she is a busy environmental-efficiency consultant, waking up in the dark to run, often on snow and ice. She races trails and roads and everything else. She is an amazing human being and someone that has taught me and so many others so much over the years. I think her adventure has a lesson for everyone. Why?
Ashley fell down. She got back up. She talked about it.
And she kept running.
David Roche partners with runners of all abilities through his coaching service, Some Work, All Play. His book, The Happy Runner, is about moving toward unconditional self-acceptance in a running life, and it’s available now on Amazon.