Chasing the 10k World Champs standard in San Diego
Races are run for a variety of purposes. A local 5,000-meter fun run designed to foster community is, of course, an entirely different animal than, say, an Olympic 5000-meter track final. Then, there is a wide spectrum of races in between. A couple weeks ago, I found myself spectating a somewhat unusual event, landing somewhere on this spectrum.
Allow me to set the stage.
It’s a track race, at 10am, on a Monday, at the University of California San Diego. It’s a sunny, calm, and quiet morning. There are roughly twenty professional runners, men and women, all at this track for one reason: to hit the World Standard for 10,000-meters. The 2019 World Championship meet will be in Doha, Qatar, in late September, and anybody who hopes to compete must hit the World Standard time in their respective event. For men, the 10,000-meter time to hit is 27:40, and for women, 31:50.
This race we are at in San Diego, called Pacific Pursuit, is set up by Roots Running Project, a professional running group based in Boulder, CO, for the sole purpose of helping athletes hit these standards. A group based in Boulder setting up a race in California is another strand of strange that we can riff on next time. But, alas, I digress.
There are rabbits provided to make the task as effortless as possible, and there are fans that bring excitement to the quasi-under-the-radar meet. It’s scheduled to go off on a Sunday evening, but an unusual southern California forecast of rain and 19 mile-per-hour winds pushes the race to Monday at 10am — an unfamiliar setting, in the world of elite track racing. So, on a sleepy President’s Day holiday, a couple hundred people gather at the UCSD track to watch a handful of professional runners try to run 10,000-meters in world-class times.
Spoiler alert: nobody hit the World Standard. I’m here to explain why it still matters, by focusing on several women whose actions and words resonated with me.
While running is, objectively, a solo endeavor, the success of any one runner often takes a village. The village that came together at the UCSD track on an otherwise obscure day is what makes this an especially notable race. I arrive as the announcer is introducing the women’s field. “We’ve got a couple of Olympians scheduled to compete, and we’ve got six countries represented as well… The Olympic Standard has not yet been publicized, however this does fall within the qualifying window, so if the times are fast enough today, these times would roll over into the Olympic Games next year.” He explains that the hip numbers are granted based on respective lifetime bests over 10,000-meters. Hip #1 belongs to Alexi Pappas, with a personal best of 31:36, and #2 to Kellyn Taylor, with a PB of 31:40. These are the only two women to have previously gone under this year’s World Standard of 31:50. Next in the lineup are Sarah Pagano, Steph Bruce, Alice Wright, and so on.
“A bunch of coaches got together and were like, look - our athletes are fit,” Alice explains - “I think everybody is trying to get PRs and the World Standard today so that’s what it’s being paced at - 76-77 seconds (per lap) - we’ll see how long I can cling on for!”
Luckily, two of her teammates, who she has been training with side-by-side for months now, are two of the front runners in the field. Kellyn (Taylor) and Steph (Bruce), Alice’s Northern Arizona Elite teammates, perform their pre-race routine calmly and confidently, and assure Alice that she is, indeed, fit enough to do this. Alice tells me, “I feel like I’m going in a little bit blind, just because it’s a new program that I’m in, and I’ve been told that I’m fit and I know I am fit, it’s just like trusting the process and giving my fitness the benefit of the doubt, I guess.” The NAZ Elite cohort exchanges whispers of encouragement to one another before the race begins; it’s clear they genuinely want the best for each other.
Now, it’s not like all of these women will end up at the World Championship meet, even if they all run the standard. There is still qualifying to be had, and more eliminating to be done. However, in order to even be eligible to race at the World Championship after qualifying nationally, one must first run the standard. So, to hit the standard is like ticking one box on the World Championship checklist. At the end of the day, it’s every woman for herself, making the camaraderie at this race especially moving.
“I think everybody is trying to get PRs and the World Standard today so that’s what it’s being paced at - we’ll see how long I can cling on for!”
The gun is fired, and the women are off. The rabbits are expected to maintain a metronome of 76-to-77-second laps. The women going after the standard tuck in behind the pacers and try to shut their minds off for the first few kilometers. The tensions are high, though, as the pacers are a bit too slow, clocking off 78-second laps. This discrepancy sounds futile, but would amount to at least thirty seconds of extra time by the end of the race. The pacers peel off around three-ish kilometers, and then it’s in the hands of the racers.
Steph Bruce tells me after the race, “Myself, Sarah Pagano, Elaina Tabb, and Kellyn - we just tried to take it on. We went through 5k in about 16:05, and I would have liked it to feel easier, but it just kind of felt like I was grinding, and sometimes in a 10k you don’t want it to feel like you’re grinding that early, but I just tried to take it one lap at a time.”
The women planned to go through the first 5,000-meters in 16:00 and then close hard - this strategy, they figured, would be the best way to hit the time. “Generally, that’s how really good 10,000-meters go. You don’t want to bank time, you want to kind of wind up the pace as it goes on,” Steph reasons.
Just after 5,000 meters, the lead pack starts to splinter. Kellyn, Steph, and Sarah take turns trying to lead the others through each lap at the World Standard pace. With about 3,000 meters to go, Kellyn starts to pull ahead, and Sarah starts to fade back. After the race, Steph tells me it was here she made a split second decision to cling on to Kellyn. “We were able to work together, but I could tell neither of us were really feeling it because we couldn’t get our pace back down… but at that point, when you know that the primary goal is gone, you try not to have a pity party for yourself, but just keep racing the lap that you’re in.”
25 laps later and Kellyn finishes first, in 32:13. Second place is Steph with a time of 32:15, and then the rest of the runners filter in, all finishing within the next minute or so.
Needless to say, this was not the race that anybody was hoping for. Track delivers a very clear message of either success or failure and, in this moment of failure, it becomes obvious that these women can’t do this by themselves. I don’t mean this in a helpless way. These women build each other up and carry one another through the sport.
As Alexi exits the track, Steph pauses mid-interview to shout to her friend and competitor, “Alexi, it’ll come! You need a race to then be like, okay, now I’m ready to race again. I had a lot of those for many years!” Alexi responds with a faint smile, “Hearing that from you, I believe that.” Steph shouts back, “Yeah, you should, because you’re really good at running — like really good! You’ve run 31:36, that didn’t go away, okay? Don’t forget that.”
Self-doubt is erased by the encouragement of the other women who are, in reality, all trying to beat one another. But they know that none of them would be able to do any of this without each other.
Alexi assesses her race out loud, telling me, “I think I had 4,000-meters of fitness, and then I was like, this is an honest assessment of where I’m at, and now I have a choice. And you always have that thought, like, this isn’t going to be what I wanted, but I cannot drop out, because it’s such a poor example to myself, and to all of these college and high school kids who are out here.”
To run a time that isn’t your personal best, she says, takes confidence. Steph then echoes this, adding, “Attaching your results to your self-worth is never a good thing… you have to be able to separate those two and realize, this is still a fun thing, and it’s a passion that we have. It’s good to just keep going after our dreams, even if we miss them, it’s worth that pursuit.”
These women all have high personal aspirations, but they are in it for something much larger than themselves. Steph finds it pressing to encourage Alexi to keep her chin up, and Alexi’s mid-race train of thought went straight to her younger fans, for whom she didn’t want to set a bad example. This trend of encouragement passes through multiple generations within one race, and these women turn a meet that might have defeated most into a beacon of hope. Nobody’s head hangs low, and nobody makes excuses. The women exchange pats on the back and genuine hugs of solidarity. They know they are all capable of hitting the World Standard. They’ve come this far together, and they’ll continue to carry each other forward.