At 4:00pm on Friday, January 24th I was still sitting on the ground in New York. At 7:00am the next morning I would be at the starting line of the 2020 Olympic Trials 50 Kilometer Race Walk. Less than ideal… But par for the course for this season.
Wind back to July of 2019. Although I had won the poorly-attended US 10K Championship in 2016, I considered myself to be more or less retired from active competition for years. That February I had competed in my eighth consecutive US Olympic Trials, which was a record across all events in track and field. Having achieved that goal, I didn’t have much to motivate me. But as it does every quadrennium, the Trials bug started to bite this past summer. Our daughter had just celebrated her first birthday, so I had a little more freedom to train–on the treadmill at least–since Charlotte was able to go to childcare by now. And I was starting to lose some of the “post-partum baby weight” the seems to find me every time my wife is carrying.
I started coaching and training with a marathon runner, so my 10k treadmill walks suddenly became 18- and 20-milers on the road. Thoughts turned to the National 30k Championship at the end of October and a chance to qualify for a 9th Olympic Trials by extending the race to 50k. Alas, with the sudden increase in mileage, the wonky hamstring that has been my Achilles heel for years returned with a vengeance. I was able to go long and slow, but any time I tried to go fast I would be set back for days or weeks. Knowing that I “only” needed to post a time in the top 15 in the US, I did some research on who had already qualified, and found that my current training pace was more than fast enough to achieve that goal. I just needed to make sure I could go the distance. My times were nothing to write home about, but I comfortably got through a couple of 35k and 40k workouts so I was pretty sure I would be able to qualify.
On race day, October 25th, I set out at the 5:15 qualifying pace with a couple of other walkers, hoping to get an automatic “A” qualifier. That lasted until about 25k, but I started feeling like an ugly crash was on the horizon if I continued pushing the pace. I played it safe and backed off by about 30 seconds per kilometer. In November of 2015 I tried to hit the qualifying time on a 90-degree day at the US 50k Championship in Santee, CA. I missed the time so did another 50k a month later in New York. I hit the time, but was so beat up by the effort I was a wreck another month later at the Olympic Trials. I wasn’t going to make the same mistake again. I finished comfortably, ending up ranked #11 in the US, but without the automatic qualifier I had to wait until January to see if it would stand up. There were no other 50k races scheduled, and to my knowledge, nobody else chasing the standard, so getting bumped out of the top 15 seemed a very remote possibility.
I tweaked my hip-flexor a bit in the qualifying race, so my training for the first six weeks of the push to the Trials was pretty lackluster. By Christmas I was back on a roll, but the kids were passing around colds and sinus infections, so I lost a lot of training days whenever someone had to stay home from school. I was able to squeeze in a couple more 35k and 40k workouts, but I was right back in the same position I was in in October: I knew I would get through the distance, but I never got around to the long tempo workouts that would allow me to walk fast on race day. No matter… At this point in my career, a finish is a win.
I finally arrived in Santee at about 10:00pm. I made my way to Target to buy race supplies, and was up until midnight preparing my sport drinks and other aid. Less than ideal, but I’ve raced under far worse conditions. I slept like a rock for the six hours that I had to sleep, woke up with a quick shower and arrived at the course at 6:ooam. I checked in, set up my aid table, gave instructions to my amazing aid workers, Karen Byrne and Carolyn Kealty, and warmed up.
After the National Anthem and final instructions from the Head Judge, the starter’s pistol fired and we were off! The course was 40 laps of a flat 1.25km loop, which is not quite as exciting as it sounds. The first four laps–only 6 kilometers–seemed to take an eternity, but once I got into a rhythm, the successive laps started to blur. Before I knew it I was at 40 kilometers and feeling reasonably good. I was able to move up a few places over the closing kilometers, so in my 9th Olympic Trials, wearing bib number 9, I placed a very fitting–and satisfying–9th. Not my best, but certainly not my worst finish over the course of my 10 Olympic Trials races (I competed in both the 20k and the 50k in 2004).
Onward to 2024!