Confessions of a Marathon Junkie
April 24, 2008
The 2008 Women’s Marathon Olympic Trials by Karen B. Smith
I just got back from Boston, running my 25th marathon on what I consider the most “hallowed ground” of marathon running. The coveted Boston marathon is like no other. This marathon is so remarkable not just because of the qualification process but because of the amazing history that lies on that stretch of road, the influence things that have happened there have had on running in my lifetime and the amazing and unique crowd support that Boston provides every year.
In 1897, the first year of the Boston marathon, only 18 men ran the race, now it averages over 25,000 runners. In 1967, Katherine Switzer was the first woman to run the Boston marathon although they tried to throw her off the course. Her achievement contributed to the beginning of women in long distance running. Women were finally officially allowed to run the Boston marathon in 1972, and now 40% of the race participants are women. Additionally, the stories of great runners and battles they have waged on that course are inspiring including the likes of John Kelly, Frank Shorter and now 4 time winner Robert Cheruiyot.
However, the most overwhelming thing about this marathon that I have felt at no other marathon, including Chicago or New York, is the reverence and support from the people who live in the towns from Hopkinton to Boston. Many of these people are not runners and think 26.2 miles is a distance to drive not run, but for them this is still an annual not-to-be-missed event. This marathon is always held on Patriots’ Day which is a holiday only in Massachusetts and Maine supposedly commemorating the battle of Lexington and Concord. However I suspect it was declared a “holiday” to accommodate the marathon because trying to make your way to work through the masses of humanity and organization anywhere around Boston would be truly insane. So instead of going to work, they throw a party. Regardless of the weather, they throw a crazy 26.2 mile party with people lining the roads to the extent there’s not a single place along the way where there are not spectators cheering you on, handing out water, oranges, licorice, freeze pops, pretzels, unlimited high fives, kisses (the real kind not Hersheys) if you want them from the women of Wellesley and up by Boston College, I’m pretty sure you could probably get a cold beer handed to you without any trouble. Regardless of whether you have a good day or a bad day, there is nothing quite like the Boston Marathon experience.
So earning your spot and going to the Boston Marathon is exciting enough, but getting to go to Boston and watch the Women’s Olympic Trials in person and watch several friends run in the Trials, the day before running in the Boston Marathon is just about as good as it gets to a marathon junkie.
I arrived in Boston on Thursday evening, got a good night’s sleep, and short run in on Friday morning. After my run and seeing Chris and Cassie out running, I had the opportunity to drag my friend Chris (yep one of the uber fast ones doing the Trials) around in what I think is the coolest shopping opportunity ever- the Boston Marathon Expo. Here you’ll find the new products, new models of everything, clothes, gadgets … everything you could imagine running-related for 3 whole days … in other words Heaven.
On Saturday, after a short run together, I sent Chris back to her room to get off her feet for awhile, and yes I went back to the Expo … it is truly like crack for me. Early in the afternoon I met back up with Chris and she took me with her to the technical meeting for the Trials athletes.
It was so cool! I was trying not to be a dork and instead focused and took notes on my iPhone to make sure we had the details right for her. All this time, I am looking around freaking out with so many of the famous running faces I recognized even if I couldn’t put names on many. Then we went and sat on the floor with all these elite women and decorated and labeled Chris’s water bottles so she would recognize them and grab the right ones from the table on race day. Unlike the regular marathoners there are no water handouts for these fast ones - grab, go and throw the bottle down.) Again, as a self-acknowledged mid-packer, just being around this level of talent was a great experience. So we got this all taken care of and Chris was off to the athletes’ buffet dinner, then back to rest, relax and try to get a good night sleep.
Sunday morning finally arrived. My husband Ryan and I were up early and ready to go fight the crowds for the best viewing spots. Fortunately, we had our “athlete support” aka jock strap credentials from Chris, so we knew that towards the end we would be able to get to the grandstands and close to the finish. We went to the start and got to wish Chris , and my other friend Desiree Ficker good luck. I also got to finally meet Lori Stitch Zimmerman one of the other local women who has been training in Minnesota with Team Hansen. Somehow I missed Cassie Heinkel another Rogue elite with whom I have just recently become aquainted.
The start was exciting but we moved quickly over to Commonwealth Ave, to see them at 2.2 miles and their first water station. The lead groups of runners had formed but way in front was a woman I had never seen before. At this point I figured it was someone who figured they didn’t have much of a chance so they would just hammer it for as long as they could, to get some visibility. Desiree was running in the lead pack very close to Deena Kastor and looking strong. Chris was in the third group looking relaxed but focused and appeared to be holding to her plan of not getting pulled out too fast.
From here we moved over to the bridge that crossed the river. The runners would pass over this bridge 4 times both coming and going, so it was a great vantage point and I could scream to my heart’s content for all of the runners, especially the Austin women. We stayed on this bridge until around mile 15. The woman who was so far in front at mile 2.2 Magda Lewy Boulet was still crushing the lead pack, and looked like the pace was fine for her. Des was still shoulder to shoulder with Deena and the lead pack. Chris was now pretty much running on her own but still looking good, comfortable and on target. Running icon Joan Benoit Samuelson and my marathon heroine was amazing. She is 50 years old, ripped like the elite athlete that she still is, and out there kickin’ it old school. She is not a particularly graceful runner, her stride is not relaxed and she looks like she fights her way through every step but she is still seriously strong and seriously fast.
So having gotten lots of good pictures from the bridge, we moved towards the grandstand to beat the crowds and claim a spot. We got there and Ryan set up to take more pictures. We were right across from the jumbo-tron so we got to see what was going on out on the course away from where we were. Somewhere around mile 17, Deena Kastor threw down the hammer and made her move. In a very short period of time she started reeling back in Magda’s lead. Somewhere around mile 18 it looked like Magda felt the hammer coming down on her and began to slow. On the big screen we were able to watch Deena take the lead away. Meanwhile the rest of the pack was making their way along and as they would pass through the stands, Katherine Switzer would announce the runners and where they were from. The roar of the crowd was deafening for each one of these women.
I was closely tracking the progress of Des and Chris. Desiree had fallen back, I think somewhere around mile 17 so I was just hoping she was okay and not hurt and Chris, still mostly running alone. After seeing her splits Chris had been by time slowing but in appearance picking it up because she was passing people. Once I saw Desiree before her final loop running along side Cassie, I knew they were both not having the day they hoped for, but they were still in the game, making the most they could of this amazing opportunity.
Towards the end of the race, first, second and third places were pretty much figured out. The top three were, Deena Kastor- 2:29:35- 5:43 pace, Magda Lewy Boulet 2:30:19 -5:44 pace, and Blake Russell 2:32:42- 5:50 pace. Each of the first 2 women waited at the finish line wrapped in their American flag for their new Olympic team mates to finish. As she ran back with her flag draped over her, Deena looked like she could have easily kept going and was all smiles. Magda looked, well, like she had fought the good fight and was realizing she had just made the Olympic team, and had that kind of “holy crap” surprised look on her face. Blake didn’t come down to run a victory tour in the shoot, but hey 26.2 miles at a 5:50 pace…you can’t really blame her.
Chris Kimbrough was the first Austin woman to finish. She was coming down the shoot and on the heels of another woman and pushing for a strong finish. I was so proud of her, I admit I started to cry. Shortly after Chris finished Lori Stich Zimmerman came through. Ryan stayed back in the stands to get pictures of Des and Cassie but I had to get down to see Chris. I ran to the fence and got to give her a big congratulations hug. Overcome with her own emotions at that point she knew she had done what she came there to do. She ran a smart race and in spite of the fact that this was only her 3rd marathon had set another PR by over 2 minutes with a 2:42:54- 6:13 pace. Lori was there at the finish area with her, and said that she was happy that she ran the plan but just couldn’t hold the plan pace through out. Regardless she finished 2:43:56- 6:15 pace. Desiree came in with a solid 2:48:11- 6:25 pace, followed shortly by Cassie with 2:48:54-6:27 pace. All of these incredibly talented and disciplined athletes did themselves proud and proudly represented Austin, Texas. While several of them had hoped for better days or better results, with true class they each seemed to acknowledge the significance of their participation, the group of which they had been part of and the overall coolness just to have been an Olympic Trials participant in Boston.
In closing I must also note the amazing inspiration that was created once again by Joan Benoit Samuelson. She claimed it would be her last Olympic Trials and some suspect maybe her last marathon. Regardless, she leaves on top, setting a new American record for a 50 year old woman in the marathon with 2:49:08, a 6:27 pace. She ran in a bright yellow hat, supporting her sponsor Livestrong and the Lance Armstrong Foundation. During Lance’s first attempt at the marathon, Samuelson was one of Lance’s pacers. Here at the trials let the record show that she ran her own race without an entourage or pacers. In spite of the fact that she is a hero in her own right as the first woman to win the women’s Olympic marathon, she didn’t get her own little special winners tape, and yet she still beat Lance Armstrong’s 2:50:58. J While he put forth another solid marathon time in Boston, Lance got chicked by this 50 year old woman! Go Joanie!!!!!!!!!!!!!!