Chasing an Olympic Trials Qualifier at California International Marathon
It may be the 2018 USATF Marathon Championships, but my camera isn’t the least bit interested in the race at the front of the pack. It’s only focused on the women about fifteen minutes back from those racing for national glory. You see, back here, we are going to witness nurses, insurance agents, television producers, and women from all over America chase an Olympic Trials Qualifying (OTQ) B standard.
That is the goal for countless women toeing the line on this perfectly cool and calm Sunday morning 42.2 km's north east of the state capital in downtown Sacramento, CA. A line that is less than a mile from the Folsom Dam holding back 1.205 cubic KM’s of water from flooding the California International Marathon (CIM) course with the same amount of collective energy that taper time has bottled up in these runners.
Two hours and forty five minutes of camaraderie, shared support, and good old fashioned teamwork. My camera isn’t watching a race unfold, it’s watching magic explode with every step from this powerful group of women, as they work together to earn a spot at the Olympic Trials in Atlanta.
The marathon doesn’t begin at the start line however, and desire for an OTQ certainly didn’t manifest this morning. The marathon starts long before any of these women tossed and turned in their hotel rooms last night, or even before their training cycles started for today’s race 12, 16, or 18 weeks ago. For Carly Gill, the quest for an OTQ begins with an innocuous direct message (DM) on Instagram the day after she breaks three hours for the first time at the 2016 TCS New York City Marathon.
"They won't release the Olympic Trials Marathon Standard for another year, but 2016 was 2:45...Juuuuust FYI."
Julia Lucas to Carly Gill via DM on November 7, 2016
Carly Gill, her friend Nicole, and I start at The Mill on J St in downtown Sacramento. Followed by packet pickup and a quick meeting with coach Mario Fraioli at the convention centre before heading out to scout the course, get that bread, and finally head back to the ladies temporary home for some last minute race day prep — discussing Carly’s running history the whole time.
I piece together this puzzle revealing Carly’s entire running career is not unlike the DM from Julia quoted above. Small interventions and coincidences during her high-school and collegiate life are what ultimately has her standing here amongst 10,000 other runners — eyes focused on two hours and forty five minutes.
In high-school, drama and music are Carly’s jam. Swimming, soccer, and diving are her sports to date with a limited running background. But when a lack of interest in the senior play results in a minimal role on stage, a friend suggests rolling around the track with their free time. This simple enough nudge leads to a fall indoor track season and the exposure to running as a team sport.
"I loved my teammates."
Throughout Carly’s life this is a common thread. She is a team player, and loves the dynamic of working with others. Like high-school, Carly doesn’t expect to run at Ithaca College, but once again, a friend convinces her to walk-on and of course Carly quickly states that she “liked being a part of the team.”
The first flicker of Carly’s long distance running light happens at Ithaca when a training run with the track team results in the group getting lost off-campus. 16’ish miles later, the rest of the pack is disenchanted with their adventure, but Carly is all smiles. This young woman doesn’t know it at the time, but this random event is her start line for today’s marathon.
Carly isn’t the only one running through Sacramento today who thrives in a team atmosphere. Everyone running around the 6:17/mile pace that is required for a 2:45 marathon is aware of what is at stake. Especially the Friends of Team Impala mini-pack that I cruise up to around mile 15.
When I first find this group, they are rolling about 8 deep. A couple miles later they are a pack of 12. Holly Clarke describes it as “this amoeba picking up people.” Lizzy Gregory yells back every time I cheer them on — fist pumping with authority. The blue singlets are a force to reckon with on course today, and I don’t stray far sensing just how special they are making this experience for themselves and everyone else around them.
The blue singlets belong to Impala Racing Team, a San Francisco based all-women’s elite development program head coached by Tony Coffee. Clarke explains that “our coach trained us to be happy during the race”, and this group have made Coach Coffee proud. It is all smiles all day long.
And it works.
A total of six women from the Impala Racing Team earn their OTQ on this day, testament to the power of the team. Steph Rouse, Camille Matonis, Lizzy Gregory, Holly Clarke, Kathleen O’Neil, and Teresa McWalters all ensure that the roads of Atlanta will be sprinkled with the royal blue Impala Racing Team singlets.
Holly can’t understate the role that her team has played in her success on the streets of Sacramento. Coming off three self described “shit marathons” including “one of the scariest nights of her life” before the 2017 NYC Marathon. A night she spent alone in her hotel room due to the pressure she puts on herself. As part of the Impala team this year, last night is different.
"I felt no pressure at all...Saturday night I slept."
She didn’t have a team post-college “and it sucked” Holly explains. Coming into CIM this year, she says she is able to “trust in my training, trust in my coach, and trust in our group.” She didn’t have that without a team, and admits as a result, “I didn’t trust in myself”.
It isn’t just about the workouts, or her coach, but about knowledge sharing. Carly Gill touches on this when describing her experience running with Nike Run Club in NYC. Holly quickly adds, “I wouldn’t know a lot of things today without a team.” This collaborative effort spills all over the streets of Sacramento during CIM as Holly describes learning women’s names, where they are from, and their goals — mid-race. That doesn’t happen at other races. Not on this scale.
"That's the cool thing about CIM, you're never running alone."
Kaitlin Goodman nails it with this quote. I talk with her, post-race, about her day on the sidelines cheering on friends, teammates, athletes she coaches, and strangers alike — describing the atmosphere as “a perfect day”. On my flight to Sacramento I end up sitting beside Amber Morrison, yet another OTQ hopeful who experiences the magic before the gun even goes off saying “we all figure it out on the line” forming an immediate bond with everyone around her in the starting coral. She quips, “race day friends”.
Amber embodies the power of the pack and the camaraderie of the CIM course today. She finds herself running in a group with another elite from Colorado, both of which have access to aid station bottles as a result of their elite status. They offer their bottles to other women in their pack not afforded the same luxury, setting the tone early in the race, and letting the other women know they aren’t out there alone. This is a group effort.
With that said, not all bottle pickups go as planned today for a number of the women, including Amber.
This is when I realize that it isn’t just women chasing the 2:45 OTQ standard supporting each other. Men running the race, and aid station workers alike, combine resources to get missed bottles to their rightful owners. I witness it over and over again, getting caught up in the selfless act myself as I take time from shooting and instruct one volunteer to toss a bottle up ahead of the women at one station, identify who missed the bottle as one of the male runners picks it up off the ground surging to deliver the valuable package ahead at another station.
Despite her day not going as planned due to an admitted tactical error, Amber is still inspired by her fellow Bellingham Distance Project training partner Courtney Olsen who has a great race running an incredible 2:36:17. She tells me after the race that watching Courtney’s recent breakthroughs confirms that “if you put in the work, the same thing can happen to you.” A sentiment that comes up throughout my interviews post-race.
The profound impact of this inspiration is endless. Cate Barrett describes her day as “almost like it was cheat codes…I just felt so good.” It’s obvious for Cate that something special is happening on the course today, “a feeling that built…early on.” I won’t attribute Cate’s Konami code day solely to the positive vibes emanating from these women working together, but it’s obvious it plays a big role in her perception of today’s effort.
"I think this is going to be the best day of my life!"
Caitlin Keen, Mile 13
Just past the halfway mark on a long straight heading south on Fair Oaks Blvd, the sun bathing the runners in golden warmth from the east, I am hammering to get to a spot when I hear the above bold statement emphatically come from the front of the pack I am passing. I slow down to ask “what bib number was that?”
Ironically, it’s Caitlin Keen who is vocally sharing her inner joy with all of us on course. I meet Caitlin Keen the day before outside the convention center when her and Carly Gill — social media friends — meet for the first time in person. You honestly can’t walk ten feet in any direction in Sacramento without running into an OTQ hopeful. Not in an Olympic year anyway.
Caitlin is playing a leadership role on course today. One mile into the race when someone near her asks about pacers, she quickly retorts, “I think we are our pacers.” She poignantly identifies the role the pack is going to play for the next 25.2 miles. Never the best athlete on her teams in college, Caitlin always “held that leadership role” though. Her perspective on the work they are putting in comes across throughout the day keeping the mood light and enjoyable for those around her.
"If you're not enjoying it, there's no point of even getting to the start line."
The smile on Caitlin’s face all day is testament to the fact that she is practicing what she preaches, something she’s learned as a coach, and part of that enjoyment comes from providing a leadership role. With less than two miles to go, it is once again Caitlin who addresses the white elephant — on a bright red Jump Bike rolling beside us — exclaiming the unthinkable; “we are going to do it!” Bringing smiles to the faces, and tears to the eyes, of the women that surround her on their victory miles towards the state capital through the shade of downtown Sacramento’s “tall” buildings.
Katie Hynes is another women in Caitlin’s pack. Katie isn’t at CIM today for her OTQ, she punched her ticket to Atlanta back in June of this year at Grandma’s Marathon, but gets caught up in the magic happening on course today nonetheless.
"There was such energy with them going for it, I just went with it."
Side note, I am completely aware that I happen to have interviewed Caitlin, Kaitlin, Cate, and Katie while writing this piece. Most definitely not by design. So, if you are having a child, and want her to be an accomplished distance runner, I have a name suggestion for you. A story for another day — I digress.
Feeling good at various points during the race, Katie feels like she could take off and chase a personal best, but refrains. “I wanted to stay with the group as long as I can” knowing about the power of the pack and the role she is playing by adding her tap-tap of footsteps to the collective forward motion of these women. She references the book ‘Running Within’ authored by Jerry Lynch, and Warren A. Scott for her understanding of the role she can play for these other women.
"Synergistic competition provides a surplus of energy for positive performance."
'Running Within' by Jerry Lynch & Warren A. Scott
I can’t think of a better quote to summarize what is happening today. These women are racing for two hours and forty five minutes, but they aren’t racing each other, they are racing together. A single organism moving towards a common goal, and as a result, more powerful than fighting for success as individuals. As a result, a lot of smiles, hugs, and tears await on the other side of the 2018 CIM finish line. For those that qualify for the Olympic Trials on February 22, 2020 in Atlanta, and those that don’t.
I’ve been on a lot of race courses over the last few years. I’ve helped many a runner out of a dark spot, and witnessed just as many fall into a pit they can’t crawl out of. Today, I’m inspired like never before on a race course. I won’t lie, as tears form at the corners of my eyes a few times out here, I tell myself it’s from the cool air as I pedal amongst the fast moving runners.
It’s not the cool air causing the tears.
Two hours and forty five minutes doesn’t happen for Carly Gill today. At near mile 22 as I pass Carly to ask if she needs anything before I hustle my way to the finish, her eyes return a look I’ve seen before. A look of defeat. A look of quit. A look that indicates the finish line won’t ever come, but to my surprise, it does. Later Carly says “I know I gave it my all” describing her race and admits towards the end she needs some self talk to get across the line once it was evident her OTQ is not going to happen.
"Carly, you didn't come here to run 25 miles."
Carly Gill at Mile 25
It works. Carly finishes in 2:47:24, a massive 2:01 PR. At this pace, that is huge improvement over her 2017 Berlin Marathon. Not something to be disappointed with. In our post race interview Carly says that “looking back at these photos, I think some people will see someone who failed, I see someone who is strong.”
Her strength is evident as we move through the crowds and begin the process of returning to normalcy.
And celebrations with fellow NYC runners ensue.
Carly Gill’s road to Atlanta is still under construction, but I’m confident it’ll be finished well before we tear December 2019 off our calendars.
All told, 99 women achieve the Olympic Trials standard from the 2018 California International Marathon. An astonishing number. To date, 297 women have confirmed their position on the start line at the Olympic Trials in Atlanta on February 29, 2020.
It isn’t even 2019 yet.
To put things in perspective, only 161 women qualified ten years ago in 2008 — with a B standard that is two minutes slower than it is this year. It begs the question, are the standards for the Olympic Trials in the marathon too high for women?
To that I will leave you with a quote from Carly Gill that sums up my thoughts succinctly.
"Make the standard 2:43...make it 2:40, we’ll still chase it. I don’t need anyone to tell me the 2:45 standard is easy.
It’s not easy. Women are just transcending."
After what I have witnessed on course in Sacramento, I can not agree more Carly. Women are transcending, and doing it together. As a group. As a collective. As one nationwide team. And I for one am loving the opportunity to capture it every step of the way.