Racing returns to the track in St. George, Utah
A curveball, in American sport parlance, is a euphemism for some super unexpected shit flying right at you, ready to ruin your day. The term comes from our national pastime, when the pitcher, unbeknownst to the batter, throws a pitch that, at the very last millisecond, falls off its normal plane and creates havoc for the batter and their intended goals. A lot of batters have trouble with the literal curve, and just about everyone struggles with the metaphorical one.
It’s early July and I just got done chatting with Dominique Scott, not after chasing Olympic glory in Tokyo but before a 5,000-meter track race in St. George, Utah—a sentence that reads like some sort of bizarre madlib. The grandstands in Tokyo would have housed tens of thousands of fans. The stands in St. George will contain… well, zero fans. The curveballs are flying fast and free here in southern Utah.
Following a standout career at the University of Arkansas, Scott inked a professional contract with adidas and stuck around Fayetteville to train under her college coach, Lance Harter. After the Indoor World Championships in 2018, Scott transitioned to remote coaching under the guidance of Joe Bosshard. Eventually, as much as Fayetteville was a good fit for Scott and her husband, she made the decision to move out to Boulder last year after competing at the Doha World Championships.
“It couldn't have been better timing because we were already so isolated and alone during this COVID period, but I felt very lucky to at least be near my teammates,” Scott said of her relocation. “It really would have been miserable to have been in Fayetteville during all this. I mean, I was running ninety percent of my runs and workouts by myself. Sometimes I was lucky enough to have someone come to the track to time me and that was about as good as it got. I’m definitely very grateful to be part of this group.”
Scott opened up with a few strides in the triple-digit Utah heat the day before the race. In an alternate, curveless reality, she would have gone through this pre-race routine months ago. Only the strides would have taken place in Palo Alto—gentle, cooling breezes coming off the San Francisco Bay and all—alongside her teammate Emma Coburn, ahead of the 10,000-meter run at the Stanford Invite. But in this reality, here, she was all alone and none-too-pleased with this heat.
“Well, that’s about enough of that,” she laughed as she left the stadium. She’ll return in a little over 12 hours to line-up in one of the first quasi-races of the season.
Scott readily admitted she has never truly been excited for a 10,000-meter track race, which is entirely understandable for about 10,000 reasons, but she was looking forward to giving it a go with Coburn earlier this year. A good rip of 5,000-meters will have to suffice for now.
“Joe had it in my head that this was the event for me. Emma and I had done some crazy workouts and that Thursday morning, about three weeks before the race, was the first day we were able to let loose on the track and really go for it,” she remembered. “We both crushed the workout and were feeling, you know, on top of the world. We went to the gym afterwards to do our strength workout and as we were warming up, Joe read a tweet saying the Stanford Invite had been canceled.”
Moments later, and not too far away, Scott Fauble peeled off his sweat-adhered mask, exposing a well-manicured pandemic mustache.
“If you would have told me that I was going to run 2:12:30 and I was going to have a shot at 2:11 for many miles, I would have thought I had a shot to be there,” Scott Fauble said in a St. George hotel lobby, harkening back to Olympic Trials Marathon in February, which feels like a lifetime ago. “I just wasn't good enough on the day, but I don't think that is a reflection of how good I am as a whole.”
After two years of world-class marathoning, Fauble had cemented himself as a favorite to secure a spot on the podium in Atlanta. On the big day, however, he finished outside the top-10 and well outside his own expectations. His buildup towards the Trials was one of oscillating wildly between lifetime best workouts and missing the next big workout due to lingering illness. A palpable disappointment is mixed with a profound sense of clarity here in Utah—he hasn’t shaken the letdown at that far-off finish line, but he knows he’s still got great marathoning ahead of him, even if he can’t say for certain when he’ll be given a shot to prove it.
“When you pour yourself so fully into an endeavor that doesn't go your way because of something that feels a little bit out of your control, you just have to realize that's sort of the sport and that is life in a lot of ways,” Fauble noted. “You can be really good at something and the world gets in the way. And so I'm at peace with that now. I've reconciled it.”
Getting out the door at the start of the pandemic was tough at times for Fauble. With no racing in the foreseeable future, he’d rather have been working on his short game at the local links than gasp for altitude-thinned air in Flagstaff, a feeling akin to breathing through a straw.
“I took my time and Ben (Rosario) was respectful of that. I didn't want to force myself out the door when it didn't feel natural.”
But soon enough, Fauble found himself figuring out how to find competition in lieu of a Boston, a Chicago, or a New York.
“I've really enjoyed and rekindled the fire to compete on a pretty regular basis. These workouts that I'm in I’ve really been digging and having to buck up in the last couple of reps to hang,” Fauble told me. “And really making up my mind to be like, look, I'm not fucking getting dropped, you know? Like I'm gonna win this rep. Even if that rep is basically meaningless, that sort of competition has been fun to get back to.”
"...I'm not fucking getting dropped, you know? Like I'm gonna win this rep. Even if that rep is basically meaningless, that sort of competition has been fun to get back to."
Fauble splashes himself in cold water, a perhaps allegorical gesture that quickly evaporates under the rising desert sun. It’s 7:30 in the morning on race day, and it already feels like somebody turned the broiler on.
“A lot happened during the quarantine period for me,” Dominique Scott reflected over long pauses. “I started running by myself again on recovery runs and enjoying the simplicity of running.”
She took a measured pause. “Just running.” Then she lets those words hang for a beat.
“It made me realize that running is just a sport and that it's not the end of the world at the end of the day,” she continued. “For so long, I've been chasing this dream of being a professional runner, being an NCAA champion, and being an Olympian. Sometimes I feel like all I am is this runner, this professional runner. But during the time of quarantine, when people weren't only watching races or sports and concerned about who's winning, who's losing, it kind of reminded me that I’m more than just an athlete.”
A familiar and missed sound rings out: the blast of the starter’s pistol. The men’s race is off and they’re perfectly strung out behind the rabbits. Each racer occupies their own constantly moving meter of the track, monitoring the moves of non-teammates for the first time in months.
“I get nervous when I think about how much it’s going to hurt to try and win this thing,” Fauble shrugged. “Every instinct in my body is gonna tell me just sit here, just sit here. And I know I'm going to have to override that. It’s that sort of challenge that is exciting to me and makes me nervous to think about more so than necessarily the pace or the physical task of it all. It’s the mental aspect of trying to like really, really make a move.”
And try he does. With just over a mile to go, Fauble asserts himself in the lead. He’s doing what he set out to and overriding any natural inclination he might possess to the race’s shorter-distance-specialists duke it out in the front. And still, the marathoner is well aware of the decorated runners and their accompanying 5K palmarés nipping his heels.
“I know this is a pretty low-stakes environment so doing something I normally wouldn’t do excites me. I probably wouldn't make a big move two or three laps out, and I'm not saying I've made up my mind and I have to do that, but having the green light to do that is exciting to me. And hopefully I'll be able to walk through that door, if the situation calls for it.”
With this surge, Fauble opens the door, but can’t slam it quickly enough to shake anyone. Half a dozen runners burst past him with a little over a lap to go, and though he does well to stick with them, he ultimately fades to 7th place with a time of 13:57. The win goes to Dillon Maggard in 13:50.
Visibly spent, Fauble rests his weight on the chain link stadium fence. It appears the traditional post-race feelings of regret and self-loathing are beginning to set in and you wonder if, more than ever before, Fauble is urging them to stay around a bit longer, or at least until the next time he gets to walk through that door, spikes or racing flats in hand.
Sporting her racing kit, Dom Scott decelerates after her last stride. She wipes her face down with a cold, damp towel and sets off to toe the line. Whatever she feels about this unconventional racing opportunity, she appears calm and focused.
“The positive for me, which is actually very powerful, is I’m now approaching workouts and races as if they aren't the end of the world,” Scott said. “I got to a period probably about a year ago where I was getting so nervous for races, even nervous with some workouts, thinking this is such a big deal — I have to execute this perfectly. Now I'm feeling like I'm giving myself a little bit of grace. Telling myself ‘you're getting to do this, enjoy it.’ You're not defined by your results in this race or this workout. And I think that's given me a sense of peace.”
Like the men’s race, a perfect line of athletes forms behind the rabbit as she tows the field through six laps at an even 75-second clip. Scott looks relaxed, shuffling between third or fourth position. The heat on this day will reach a blistering 110 degrees and though not there yet, the weather isn’t doing these racers any favors.
“The two question marks for me in this race are the slight altitude and the heat,” Scott explained. “I'm just preparing myself to expect that it's going to be hard and that I know with the marathoners in the race that they're going to be used to hurting and used to pushing their bodies really hard. I'm trying to just mentally prepare for that.”
“The positive for me, which is actually very powerful, is I’m now approaching workouts and races as if they aren't the end of the world.”
Two of the marathoners in question are in fact controlling the race. Kellyn Taylor and Stephanie Bruce, both of Northern Arizona Elite, exchange the lead. With 800-meters to go, Taylor drops the hammer and, along with Bruce, they run away from the field. Scott is unable to match the pace of the final few laps and finishes in fifth position in 15:41.
As we walk back to seek out a bit of shade under the stadium, she tells me her coach won’t be too pleased with her last 600 meters as she cracks a wry grin. Chalk it up to the altitude, the heat, or just the fact that it takes practice to remember how to hurt like that. Either way, Dom Scott is giving herself a little bit of grace.
The fans are buzzing outside the fence, the post-race hugs are exchanged for congratulatory fist bumps, and yes, we’re in St. George, Utah, and experiencing its weather. Despite all that, it feels like a track meet and these athletes are finally competing for something other than virtual kudos.
Life can be a real mixed bag. Some days you get a free coffee just for having a pulse and other days it’s 95 degrees outside and you spill hot coffee all over your crotch. The last six months have felt like a lifetime of precariously placed hot beverages, waiting to ruin your day. There’s a chance, though, that we come out of this better than we started. Even if for now, the best most of us can hope to do is develop an appreciation for the daily routine and an appreciation for self. Maybe it’s just a product of witnessing live track for the first time in forever but, hell, it gave this guy some hope.