By Chris Lotsbom, @ChrisLotsbom
(c) 2014 Race Results Weekly, all rights reserved
(19-Aug) — Some may call it a comeback, others a revival. For Kara Goucher, her return to racing at next month’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Philadelphia Half-Marathon will be the culmination of a long and arduous journey, a seemingly endless race that has lasted the better part of two years. Training hard and improving her form week by week, Goucher is ready to close one chapter and begin a new one, starting what she hopes is a narrative that will take her to the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.
Speaking to Race Results Weekly by phone, Goucher, 36, sounded upbeat and extremely positive, a drastic difference from the last time she raced in a competitive contest. Fourteen months ago in Des Moines, Goucher stepped off the track with tears in her eyes, overcome with emotion after finishing fifth at the U.S. National Championships 10,000m. At that moment, she knew she would not represent Team USA at the IAAF World Championships in Moscow, a frustrating end to her season. What she didn’t know was that it would be over a year until she’d race again at the national level.
Since that steamy Iowa evening, a number of things have changed for the mother of one. Goucher has moved from Portland, Ore., to Boulder, Colo., and switched coaches from Jerry Schumacher to Mark Wetmore and Heather Burroughs. She now represents Oiselle and Skechers instead of Nike. But the biggest change of all is one that can’t be seen from the outside. Something only Goucher can speak of.
Goucher has reclaimed her fire, the feisty competitive intensity that had gone missing and once led her to a bronze medal at the 2007 IAAF World Championships.
“The passion is definitely back and I am excited for it to start,” Goucher said, speaking with gusto and authority.
Throughout an elite runner’s career, there are bound to be peaks and valleys. For Goucher, the last year and a half has sometimes felt like a bottomless canyon, filled with hurdles and setbacks, obstacles and injuries, and worst of all uncertainty.
In January, Goucher arrived in Boulder ready to start anew with Wetmore and Burroughs, full of optimism. In March, however, her plans of racing in the spring and summer were sidelined after learning she had a sacral stress fracture. Unable to run and without a shoe sponsor, Goucher felt lost.
“It was pretty devastating, just cause I had moved out here and really focused on track and learning a new program,” Goucher said, her voice briefly dropping to a sad tone. “But it happened.”
It indeed happened, and Goucher made the best of the setback. Unable to run, she spent lots of time rehabbing, cross-training, and reflecting. Taking a step back and pondering over recent years, Goucher knew her passion for the sport had faded. She felt overwhelmed and burnt out.
“I honestly believe things happen for a reason. I think there was just too much on my plate at the time,” Goucher said, again speaking with passion. “Between switching training programs and moving across the country, getting settled into a new community then trying to figure out who was going to sponsor me, I just think I had too much on my plate and I think in a weird way [the sacral stress fracture] happened for a reason. I had to sort out the rest of my life before I could kind of move forward. I’m not saying like ‘Oh then it was great.’ I actually had a lot of miserable days but I think then in the end it was like a blessing because now I have the ducks in a row in my life and am back at it.”
While rehabbing her injury, Goucher spent more time “being a mom,” spending hours with her son Colt and husband Adam. After signing with Oiselle and Skechers and joining a training group that includes Jenny Simpson and Emma Coburn, Goucher knew the spark and drive had returned. As she got healthy, Goucher began to fall in love with the sport again.
In retrospect Goucher admits that during her rough patch she wasn’t running for herself. Rather, she was racing to please others and fulfill commitments.
“I think I had kind of gotten away from why I love running, and I have definitely got back to that place again,” she said. “I’m enjoying my running now more than [long pause] I don’t know when. I think a lot of it has to do because I’m running for the right reasons. I get to choose what I want to do; I’m not forced to race anything I’m not ready for. I just love my running right now. Life is good right now.”
Touching upon past years, Goucher explained the rut she found herself in with greater detail.
“It was kind of this cycle of rushing for stuff but never putting my body back together,” she said, rattling off race after race that –while she did well in each of them– took tolls on her physically, mentally, and emotionally.
“I don’t feel like in the situation I was in,” she starts, before pausing to rephrase her thoughts. “The passion was kind of gone. I was kind of running it out basically. I was like ‘Yeah, I can still compete with these women.’ But there wasn’t any real passion behind it and I had to take this really long, dramatic journey but the passion is definitely back and I am excited for it to start.”
Healthy and recharged, Goucher is anxious to return to racing. Training no longer is a grind, and she sees every session –whether it be quarter-miles, mile repeats, or a long run in the thin air of Magnolia Road as an exciting opportunity.
One can tell that Goucher is champing at the bit simply from the tone in her voice. While still soft-spoken, there is a clear tone of motivation.
“I’ve been gone, and that’s fine,” said Goucher. “I know that there are people that think I am done and that’s fine, they can think that. But I’m not running to prove anything to them; I’m running to prove everything to myself. I know what I am still capable of, and I know the last couple years haven’t shown it, but I know what I’m capable of and I know how my body is responding to the training. I guess, yeah, it is a comeback. The goal is to make it to Rio and to be somebody again, and to really compete for something. This is the beginning of that journey.”
Training at altitude, Goucher has run weekly mileage in the low 100 miles-per-week range and cross-trains for around 80 minutes. Oftentimes Goucher will run with fellow University of Colorado alums Simpson and Coburn, both of whom bring a youthful exuberance to training sessions.
“I feel really lucky to have fallen into that group, and I feel really lucky that they kind of accepted me and let me in,” she said. “I get totally motivated watching them. I know what they’ve put into it so it’s super rewarding to watch them do well. It makes me excited because I know I’m on the right path and that I’ve put my career in the hands of people that know what they are doing.”
At the Rock ‘n’ Roll Philadelphia Half-Marathon on September 21, Goucher will don her Oiselle kit and lace up her Skechers racing shoes for the first time, a renewed sense of energy flowing through her veins.
“I’m trying not to make it too much of a big deal in my head because obviously this is just a step back into racing, but I also feel a lot of pride,” she says, paying homage to those who believed in her through the last year. On the roads of Philadelphia, Goucher will face off against Aberu Kebede, Werknesh Kidane, Caroline Rotich, Serena Burla, Adriana Nelson, and Deena Kastor. Interestingly, it’ll be the first time Goucher and Kastor battle in a half-marathon, according to Competitor Group’s Dan Cruz.
Realistically optimistic, Goucher knows that a sub-70 minute performance in all likelihood won’t happen, though she feels a time around 71 minutes is well within her capabilities. She understands that if her first race back doesn’t go as planned, it’s not the end of the world.
“If I go out and run 72 minutes I’m not going to toss up my hands and be like ‘Well I’m just going to retire,'” she said with a laugh. “This is the beginning of a long process. As much as I would love to just step out and run 68:30, I’m also realistic and that’s just not going to happen. I need a couple more months for something like that.”
After the Rock ‘n’ Roll Philadelphia Half Marathon, Goucher will race a fall marathon, though would not reveal where that would be. Having waited many months to line-up alongside the worlds best again, Goucher is giddy with anticipation.
Once again Kara Goucher is running for herself, no longer letting the pressures from others get in her way. Rejuvenated, she’ll line-up in the City of Brotherly Love with a smile on her face.
“I think that honestly I will probably have high emotions because I feel like my running is mine again. I like taking control over my career and every decision has been mine. I had lost that for a while,” she said, speaking fast with fervor. “I know that I will be emotional and it’s just been such a long journey to get back to this place. The last year and a half –although they’ve been amazing in all other areas of my life– they’ve just been trying in my professional life. I just have to keep reminding myself what is my big goal. Mark [Wetmore] and Heather [Burroughs] are really good at reminding me that the big goal is to make the team for Rio and that these are just the little steps along the way. I definitely will have a lot of nervous positive energy to just get the first one and get back at it.”