Seventeen Seconds - Part One

Take a breath - let it out slow and count to 17. How far can you run in that time? 100 yards? 150 yards? Then think about the last 385 yards in a marathon. Now at that point - how far would you go in 17 second? Or think about the prior 26 miles - where could you find the seconds on the course? It's less then half a second per mile. How many times would you replay those last 17 seconds counting away as you attempted to sprint for the finish line?

In every event there are time thresholds that people want to reach. Some of them are for personal satisfaction and for recognition from other athletes. Those tend to be the even number goals, like the sub 3:00 marathon. Others are set by outside parties - the Boston Qualifying times are perfect examples. And then there is the pinnacle of sports, beyond the reach of most athletes but still in the dreams of many. The Olympic Trials. The final step before the Olympics. Back in 2003, the qualifying time for the 2004 Olympic Marathon Trials was 2:48:00 for the women. A marathon in an average pace of 6:24 per mile for 26.2 miles.

In 2002, I'd just missed running a sub 3:00 marathon at New York. I'd come agonizingly close, having watched the clock ticking down from two miles away. I finished in 3:00:39 - close enough to taste but far enough away to limit second guessing. But I knew I could run faster - I'd had a far from perfect race. Having run the two big marathons, Boston and New York, I set my sights higher. The Olympic Trials. The only other marathon that required a qualifying time. I was realistic though - taking 12 minutes off my time in less then two years would be nearly impossible. So I looked at the 2008 trials, all the while secretly hoping my training would work magic and I would find myself in St Louis on April 3, 2004. I ran the National Championships on the Trials course in April 2003 and began to seriously entertain thoughts of attempting to qualify for the 2004 trials. With PT school ending and not being able to work until I passed my boards, I had the entire summer to run and recover and get my time down. So that's what I did. I decided to play running bum and focus on studying and running.

The training was going great - I was hitting huge mileage for me and getting my times down both workouts and races. I just had one problem - I needed to choose a marathon. As a not even sub 3:00 runner, calling up or email race directors or elite coordinators was pretty funny - and an exercise in patience. I had narrowed it down to a few choice based on number of other fast runner, race course and running conditions. Finally, I had it down to two races - the Chicago Marathon or the Top of Utah Marathon. Chicago was a proven fast course, with lots of other runners. Two weeks later and usually had perfect running weather. But it was also a big city marathon and I've had issues at all the big city races I've done. Top of Utah - small, well organized and I knew the course having run there once before. But few other super fast runners - I would have to take 10 minutes off the women's course record to meet my goal time. It was also at altitude, but was a generally downhill course. And I run well in downhill events. My choice was made for me by the Chicago Marathon - when I emailed with questions I was bluntly told I would be in the "sub-elite" corral as only invited elites or people who have run faster then 2:45 are in the elite corral. Since I would already be running a fine line, I knew I couldn't sacrifice 15-30s to get across the starting line. Unlike Boston, USATF does not accept chip time for qualifying. So I turned to Top of Utah and fine tuned my training to emphasis downhill running.

Race morning in Logan, Utah dawned crisp and cool. Perfect for running. I had the long bus ride up Blacksmith Fork Canyon to gather my thoughts and prepare. But it was hard - could I really do it? Was I capable of taking 13 minutes off my personal record. Or would I crash and burn spectacularly like I had at New York when I'd started out at a 2:52 pace? It wasn't until the shotgun sent us flying down the canyon that I really settled. Nothing mattered but running - finding the right tangents, keeping the pace smooth and running intelligently. The first 17 miles clicked off according to plan - I was running between 6:15 and 6:20 miles, and felt really strong. We came out of the canyon and two motorcycle cops began the escort. Lead Woman, hopefully Olympic trials qualifier. At 19 miles, we turned off the main highway into the Logan neighborhoods. With 7 miles left, I was feeling confident that I would make it - my mile times were slowing, but still solid. But I forgot to factor in the sudden change in course - from a flowing trek down a canyon to a twisty urban meander to make up the last six miles. The easy, steady pace was transformed into slow for a corner, accelerate back to speed thru multiple 90 degree or steeper turns. And the hills. What had seemed to be small bumps in the road a few years ago were suddenly mountains in my way. I wasn't holding the pace anymore. I was getting passed by men and couldn't keep up with them like before. Physically, I was starting to fall apart. Mentally, I kept pushing, kept lifting the pace until my legs rebelled, then forcing a few more steps. Mile 20 - still below target pace. Mile 21 - inching closer. Mile 22 - 30 seconds to spare. Mile 23 - starting to flail. Mile 24 - footsteps behind me and the motorbikes pulled away as another woman passed me. Mile 25 - I couldn't hold on anymore, couldn't keep the pace and fell away from the leading woman. Mile 26 - where was the line? Turning the corner and seeing the clock counting. Each second agonizing, each footstep bringing me closer. But not close enough. Nothing I did mattered - there was no sprint, no lunge for the line. Just the inexorable sense of failure as I saw the numbers. The cruel ticking of time - waiting for no one.

2:47:56
2:47:57
2:47:58
2:47:59
2:48:00
2:48:01
2:48:02

It was over and I was still steps away.
Part two - coming later this week

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