by Michael Cassidy, @
January 27, 2015
I’m pissed at the ancient Greeks.
Not only did they fail to take into account human glycogen-carrying capacity when planning the proximity of their epic battles, but they decided four freaking whole years would be a reasonable amount of time to wait between career-defining athletic events.
Hence the cruel irony of marathon running, a 365-day-a-year sport whose capstone competition comes once every four years.
You expect us to wait four years to find out who’s the world’s best? Four years for a shot at glory? Four years for redemption?
What were they thinking?
Four years is way too short.
In a just a few weeks, on February 13 in Los Angeles, the U.S. will hold its Olympic Marathon Trials for men and women, with the top three finishers in each race punching their tickets to Rio. The Trials are the focal point on the American distance running calendar, a quadrennial celebration of our nation’s running royalty. It is, at once, a reunion and a retreat, a weekend-long party to honor and cheer the sport we all hold so dear.
For those who toe the starting line, the stakes could hardly be higher: a chance to compete on sport’s grandest stage, to have their name forever preceded by the adjective “Olympian.”
In all of sports, it is difficult to envision a situation with pressures more acute. It’s not just win-or-go-home. It’s win-or-go-home for four years. And not only must you have your best day on the right day, you must do it in perhaps the least predictable athletic endeavor humankind has yet devised: running 26.2 miles as fast as you can. The margin for error is thinner than the torsos of the protagonists, the ambitions more expansive than their prodigious lung capacities.
But nothing is given, nothing is guaranteed. Neither pedigree nor PR provide immunity. The Trials disregards resumes, it could care less about shoe sponsors. All that matters is the order in which you cross the finish line. There are no replays, no timeouts, no excuses. It is egalitarianism in unblemished form, a model meritocracy. Get to the finish line first.
For the favorites, it’s about fulfilling expectations, proving their status, moving on to the real goals. For the contenders, it’s a chance to reach the next level, pull off the upset, become a household name.
But for the vast majority of the qualifiers, 244 women and 211 men, the Trials is itself the crowning accomplishment, the reward for having earned a place in American distance running’s most exclusive club. Most of them harbor no illusions about making the team (okay, maybe some illusions), or, for that matter, even finishing the race. For them, the Trials is a victory lap, a chance to rub shoulders with their heroes—their equals for a weekend.
But it is the presence of these satisfied qualifiers—and the family and friends they bring along for the ride—perhaps as much as anything else, that helps create the festive, convivial atmosphere that pervades Trials weekend.
In many sports, championships are clouded by the antagonism of the warring factions, a cauldron of conflict, hostility, and stress congealed into a toxic stew. But the Trials are different, because running is different. Despite the magnitude of the moment, the mood is mutually supportive. Rare in sport, or in life, is something so fierce so friendly.
Running has its rivalries, sure, but it is only facially zero-sum. Though we seek a scarce prize, we know, deep down, it is only us versus ourselves, no one else to hold accountable, no one else to blame. Our competitors make us better.
So the Trials is less a 200-way scramble for three slots than it is 200 one-way struggles to surmount personal limitations. The external, tangible prize is abundantly visible, but all anyone can ask is to perform to the best of their ability on that day. Putative opponents simultaneously serve as biggest allies; the very triumph of the eventual top three will be a feat facilitated by the packs they undoubtedly will have worked with in the prelude.
And that is why the Trials has always been more of a pep-rally than a try-out, its purpose, after all, to put together a team—not three individuals—who will represent the rest of us on the world stage. As much as we each yearn to be that representative—instinctual selfishness being what it is—you can’t help but appreciate something far more special is going on, a communion of runners, united by a passionate dream. We compete, we cheer, we watch six fortunate runners claim the coveted prize. And then we drink lots of beer.
Four years ago, I had the opportunity to participate in the 2012 Trials, by virtue of having run a five-minute PR just a month earlier at the California International Marathon, squeaking under the standard by the narrowest of margins with a 2:18:52, a perfect race on a perfect day. Although I did not finish the Trials race, dropping out after 15 miles—newsflash, trying to run two marathons in a month is not advisable, unless you are Michael Wardian—the experience was one of the most enjoyable I’ve had as a runner, and a career-changing moment.
Prior to 2011, the Trials was not something I’d thought all that much about, perhaps because my prospects seemed unlikely, perhaps because I was more occupied by narrower goals. But after qualifying, it quickly became obvious that the Trials is a BIG DEAL. Within the running community, you’ve become upper class, two simple words, “Trials Qualifier,” giving you instant credibility and status. Your confidence builds, and you begin thinking of yourself as not a “local elite,” or as a “sub-elite,” or as any other infantilizing superlative, but as a legitimate, full-fledged elite yourself. With confidence, unsurprisingly, comes improved performance.
Naturally, having tasted the Trials, my goal was to be competitive in 2016. So I set to work, upping my mileage and doing faster workouts than ever before. By the time the qualifying period opened in the fall of 2013, I’d achieved big PRs in virtually every road distance from 5k to the half-marathon.
As a native Staten Islander, I set my sights on the New York City Marathon. Though New York is obviously not known to be a fast course, I felt my unprecedented fitness paired with my hometown advantage would give me a credible shot.
If you’re a regular reader of LetsRun, you know how that marathon turned out—on a tough day, both physically and meteorologically, I was well off my goal pace, but had the impossibly good fortune of finishing the race hand-in-hand with Meb Keflezighi, an outcome more meaningful than the one I had sought.
Nevertheless, I was in the midst of the longest healthy stretch of my career, and during the harsh New York winter that followed, I prepared to get my Trials qualifier at Grandma’s Marathon in June. About a month out, I was in fine form, running a road 10k best in Central Park and a near half-marathon PR in the same week, during a hard training stretch.
Yet it was during that half—the 2014 NYRR Brooklyn Half—that I first began experiencing an unusual and disquieting sensation in my right leg, an injury that can best be described as “unresponsive leg syndrome,” and one that, within two weeks, had stopped my running entirely.
Difficult to describe and apparently impossible to diagnose—every test came back normal and every treatment regimen proved ineffectual—the injury was not the least bit painful, but instead an unnerving confluence of asymmetrical weakness, tightness, and general inability to generate force, not unlike the feeling you get when a friend kicks your knee out from behind. Reliably, it would resurface a mile or two into every run, only to disappear, essentially entirely, at the run’s conclusion. Yet it’s elusiveness was matched only by its stubbornness, and it kept me out of competition for the next 14 months—a period that encompassed two spring marathons and one fall one—and has impacted my training to this day.
After two months of zero exercise and absent a clear cure, my best antidote, I decided last winter, was simply to incrementally resume training. If not running didn’t make things better, and some running didn’t necessarily seem to make things much worse, maybe I could gradually regain a semblance of fitness. Progress was slow and uneven, but by last August, the symptoms had subsided to the point where my training was, on paper, almost back to normal—except, of course, that each run included at least some encounter with the awkward asymmetries propagated by the injury, along with the attendant inefficiencies it inculcated.
My fall training was hopeful, if frustratingly inconsistent. Though things generally trended in the right direction, I frequently found myself struggling to recover from hard workouts. Strong performances were indispersed with inexplicable blow-ups; some days I’d feel relaxed and smooth, only to regress to limping staggers on others. Even on my best days, I lacked a gear—to say nothing of my confidence.
It soon became clear a fall marathon would be too ambitious, and so I settled on the Houston Marathon, to be held on January 17, 2016, the very last day of the qualifying period. Just like that, four years were compressed into a single race.
The last two months of training I had heading into Houston went better than I could have expected. Focusing on marathon pace work and long runs, I did higher volume workouts than ever before, consistently achieving goal paces. Though inconsistencies remained, on a few occasions, I knocked it out of the park, running as well as I ever had in training. Impossible though it had seemed for so long, I had a credible chance at the Trials standard, which, in a stroke of good fortune, had been relaxed by a minute, to 2:19, just a month before my race.
As I stood on the starting line on Sunday, January 17, shivering in an unusually cool Texas morning, I was as excited and nervous for a race as I’ve ever been. I knew I was fit, but the memory of months of uncertainty was fresh in my mind. How would my legs feel today, the day that counted, the at-the-buzzer chance of making the Trials?
The answer, it turns out, was “medium.” Conscious of not going out too fast, my first mile was 10 seconds too slow, but I stayed calm and soon settled into consistent 5:15 to 5:20 pace. It felt comfortable, though not quite as relaxed as I had hoped. My plan was to be patient and aim for a negative split.
I reached the half mark almost perfectly, at 69:39. I was feeling good, but not great; during the previous few miles, I could sense my hamstrings tightening, which, recently at least, has been one of my first markers of impending fatigue. Simultaneously, the race turned north into an unexpectedly brisk headwind, and my pace—and the pace of the runners scattered around me—slowed, almost instantaneously, by 10 seconds a mile. I knew this meant trouble for my Trials chances, but I also could recall, far too vividly, other marathons where I’d pushed too hard early, only to fall apart in the final miles. I had a choice to make: did I put the hammer down and try to stick with 2:19 pace, regardless of the consequences, or did I accept the reality of fatiguing legs and adapt the conditions of the day?
In previous years, a sequence like this would have left me disenchanted. But I’d struggled too long with injury—and worked too hard to get back—to let a handful seconds per mile spoil a beautiful day. Only a few months earlier, it was unclear when, or if, I’d be able to run a marathon again. My answer was clear: I had to finish.
In the forefront of my mind were the words my fiancee, Molly, had texted me just minutes before the race: “Remember, there’s more than one positive outcome!”
And she was right. 2:19 and a trip to the Trials was my top goal. But I could fail to qualify for the Trials and still succeed. My focus turned to maintaining the 5:28ish pace I’d locked into. If I held it, I’d be assured my second fastest marathon time.
I focused on good form. I focused on staying positive. I began to pull away from the two runners who’d more or less accompanied me for the previous 15 miles. As we passed the 30k mark, I began passing runners who had went out even harder. By maintaining, I was moving up. I was being competitive.
I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t disappointed with seeing 2:19 slip away. But I was at peace with it. I knew I was giving the best effort I had on this day, measuring my resources carefully to leave enough in my damaged hamstrings to get to the finish. The final miles of the course, after all, covered the exact territory where I’d dropped out of the Trials four years earlier. This time, I was going to finish a race in Houston.
A radiant sun shining brightly on my face on a perfectly crisp morning, I made it a point to smile, to reflect on and appreciate just how lucky I was to be in this moment. Few runners ever get the chance to take a realistic shot at reaching the Olympic Trials. Few runners get to experience the thrill of moving into the top 20 of an internationally competitive field at a big city marathon. Few runners pause in their prime to enjoy the experience.
I thought about my struggles, my frustrations, my fears. I thought of the times when I doubted if I’d ever run a marathon again. As a student of economics (in my day job), I know all too well about the underappreciated role that luck and circumstance play in determining outcomes. It was a lesson viscerally underscored by my injury, and if my comeback had taught me anything, it was to learn to appreciate the journey.
The truth is we can’t control outcomes, we can only control how hard we work. The prize, then, lies in the process, wholly independent of the result. My training for this moment had been over a year in the making. The payoff was not a specific time or a particular place, but the very act of running itself, of pushing my limits, of giving physical expression to the work I’d put in, the gift I’d been given. I could run.
And that is why, as I crossed the finish line, I raised my arms in triumph, as if breaking an invisible tape. My result will be quantified by 2:21:20, 18th place, 3rd American. But the real victory was known to me, and those closest to me: I was back.
There are many runners who had the same Trials qualifying goal as me last weekend who also came up short. There are many more who tried repeatedly, and valiantly, during the last two and a half years.
For each of them, there was a moment—whether it was midway through a marathon or in the final strides of a half—when they realized the Trials standard was out of reach, that come February in L.A., they’d be a spectator, not a participant. My wish for them is that somewhere, in the midst of their disappointment, they took—or take—time to recognize just what it is they have accomplished.
For victory and defeat do not define us. Failure and success do not make us who we are. They are the visible—but inescapably imperfect—markers of the processes which came before them, whipped by the winds of chance, merit conflated with nature’s vicissitudes.
No, we are more that the sum total of our results. Our essence is in our efforts. You dreamed big. You worked hard. You went for it. There is no shame in being a few seconds shy of an arbitrary standard of excellence.
A race is but a realization of the work that went into it, but the true transformation transpires in the training. The Olympic spirit is not, at its core, about winning or setting PRs. It’s about having the courage to run searing fartleks at 6:30 a.m. in sub-freezing temperatures. About the endurance to put in aggressive 23-milers, accompanied only by your own thoughts. About the discipline to get to bed early and eat your vegetables. About the willingness to sacrifice time with friends or chances to make more money.
About the intrepidity to dream big dreams.
About the indomitable confidence to do it again and again, day after day, even when the goal seems impossible and the opportunity costs irrational.
What is inspiring is not how fast you cross the finish tape, but in how far you’ve come to reach the starting line. Fellow Trials aspirants, this is my message: you are the embodiment of the Olympics. You will not be racing in L.A., but you were close. Recognize this. Appreciate this. Give yourself a pat on the back.
You’ve earned it. In aiming high and daring to fail, you’ve made yourself stronger than ever before. 65 and 2:19, 75 and 2:45 may have come and gone, but you, by sheer virtue of your effort, have truly gained entry to Olympic fraternity you sought to join. In so doing, you have inspired those around you, by example exemplifying excellence.
And what is true of the near-qualifiers is true of any runner, fast or slow, novice or master, local champ or humble mid-packer, who strives in the pursuit of their full capabilities. If you’re willing to dream, willing to work, willing to make sacrifices and go for it, then you are the expression of the Olympic spirit that animates and illustrates the best of our sport. It is from runners like you that the Trials derives its meaning and significance. For we each have “Trials Qualifiers” of our own, whether it be to win a race or win an age group, to raise money for a good cause or raise self-esteem, to set a PR or set an example, to finish a marathon or start one.
So near-qualifiers, take heart. Watch the Trials. Enjoy the Trials. Join with the community of runners as we celebrate our sport and seek to put our best feet forward on the international stage.
And then get back to work, because it’s already the middle of January, and the Trials are only four years away.
Editor’s Note: Mike Cassidy, a 2012 Olympic Trials qualifier, is a native of Staten Island with a marathon best of 2:18:52. He was 22nd overall and the sixth American at the 2010 ING NYC Marathon in 2:24:05. His essay after the 2013 NYC Marathon generated more than 12,000 Facebook “likes” and is still one of the most popular articles posted on LRC. Before that, he wrote a piece on why the 2012 NYC Marathon shouldn’t have been cancelled.