On my flight to LA, I finally cracked open the copy of Runner’s World that Cole picked up because it featured our best man, Jesse Cherry’s adorable face on its cover. While I was paging through the magazine, it hit me just how many of my friends were on the pages.
There have been moments over the last 6 years of post-collegiate running that my familiarity with the entire US road running world has smacked me in the face.
Arriving at this weekend’s Olympic Trials was one of those moments. As soon as I arrived in the airport, I saw familiar faces, close friends, teammates, and role models. And it didn’t stop until I got on my flight to go home. There was constantly someone else I wanted to see and catch up with. It was a huge running family reunion.
Naturally with that sense of homecoming and unity over this shared passion, there were some very sentimental moments throughout the weekend.
It got started in our team meeting. My coach, Terrance Shea, is a man of numbers. He is very scientific, but also holds an incredible appreciation and respect for the importance of our senses and feelings in how we function as runners and as people. No part of us can possibly be isolated from all the others.
But with that meticulous attention to detail, when he requested that we meet as a team (for the first time ever) prior to the Technical Meeting on Friday afternoon, we all naturally assumed that he would just go over more logistics as to how we should best approach the course, the heat, etc. Although, at the same time, none of us could imagine anything he had left out in his extremely thorough emails from the previous weeks.
He had something else in mind. Instead, he took those 40 minutes to tell the rest of the group what made each of the 14 of us so special to him – as a runner but also as a person. He actually started off by describing his father who had passed away suddenly just weeks after my win at Twin Cities.
He described his dad’s love for the sport of long distance running, but more specifically for the people of the sport of running. I nodded through the entire description, knowing exactly what he meant by the camaraderie and mutual support amongst competitors that is so unique to distance running.
Terry went on to bring all of us to tears with very heartfelt praise of each and every one of us in the room, including his wife and the mother of their two children, Carly, who had unfortunately been unable to qualify to this year’s trials – largely due to their pregnancies. There wasn’t a dry eye in the room.
So in the spirit of Terry Shea Sr., I want to share some of those moments of joy and camaraderie that welled up inside of me on Saturday.
Aside from the overwhelming joy and appreciation that I felt for all the fans and spectators on the course, some of my most vivid emotions from the weekend were those feelings of joy for my old friends, teammates, and competition out on the course.
The first was for Wendy Thomas.
Wendy has had a very rough last few years, having now lost three members of her immediate family including the loss of her father and her grandfather in the past few months. Although I really only know her through racing and Facebook, it’s impossible not to admire all that she’s survived and the grace with which she has handled each of the daggers life has thrown her way.
Race morning, I made my way towards the gathering area where everyone was waiting to walk over the start. It was crowded, so I gravitated towards a corner where Wendy happened to be. She was looking at her phone, headphones in, and as I got closer, I could clearly see tears welling up in her eyes. I have no idea what she was looking at or thinking, but I could certainly imagine how she felt.
I immediately imagined how I would feel if neither of my parents could be there to cheer me on and witness this huge moment in my life. I set down my things, gave her a long silent hug, and held back my own tears as we went back to focusing on ourselves and our own races ahead.
(After writing this post on the flight home, I checked Wendy’s Facebook wall and found this post. When I checked to make sure that sharing her story was okay with her, she confirmed that it was this post and the comments from her family that reduced her to tears on Saturday morning just before I found her.)
Fast forward about an hour, and we were making our way to the start – Wendy with the number 17, and me with number 19 pinned to our backs. I asked her if her plan was to stick with me, to which she sheepishly admitted that it was. Of course I assured her I was so glad to help and promised not to lead her astray.
She followed the plan and loyally stuck with me through over 6 miles. But then she got a little antsy and as I stuck to my plan, Wendy slowly separated herself along with Erica Jesseman.
Even as she floated off, I knew that following my conservative start had still made a huge difference because it kept her from tacking onto the wrong group of people. About 8 miles later Wendy was still in sight, and I had relished as I watched her catch runner after runner ahead of me, mile after mile.
As she approached the 14 mile mark, I watched her round the hairpin ahead of me, and was so full of joy for her that I couldn’t help but smile even bigger than usual. She looked so strong, and in the wake of everything that has happened to her, she was rising out of those ashes with such incredible grace.
I didn’t catch her until 5 more miles later, and although she was fading, I knew she was still so much stronger than nearly all the others in the field that we had passed before. I was so glad to know that I had been a part of that, too, in helping her to keep things under control early on in the race.
I have passed Wendy on one of her worst days at Twin Cities 2013 and chased after Wendy on one of our best days at Boston 2014. She told me after Saturday, “in the Trials, I had a lot of tears. It was an emotional toll.” I’m so glad that she managed another incredible top-20 finish on such a physically and emotionally challenging day.
One of the many others was Tyler Pennel
With all the looping we did on the course, I could watch both the men’s and the women’s races in bits and pieces. The first time I saw Tyler Pennel came just after that moment I had of overflowing joy for Wendy at mile 14. As I got closer to turning off of Figueroa back into the start/finish area to begin my 3rd loop, I saw Tyler coming my way across the road.
Since our days at ZAP, he has been like a (very responsible and respectful) little brother to me. For a year I woke up at 7:30am to the sound of his erupting belly laugh from across the hall as he caught up on the Daily Show episode aired the night before. He’s been Cole’s and my third wheel since 2013. He was my champion partner in crime at the 2014 US Marathon Championships, and he’s still our best friend in Blowing Rock.
This sweet, odd, brutally competitive little brother was in 3rd place at the Olympic Trials. In his 2nd marathon ever. At that point he was just seconds behind Olympic medalists Meb Keflezighi and Galen Rupp.
Chills went down my spine despite the extreme heat. I got choked up seeing his familiar bouncy stride and the silly mullet I had sculpted for him that morning. He was killing it in one of those coveted 3 Olympic spots with just over 6 miles left to run.
Unfortunately by the time he caught me on Childs Way on the USC campus, he had lost significant ground on those two medalists and lost his 3rd place position to Jared Ward. As he approached, I reached back to give him a five, but he wasn’t moving up on me nearly as fast as I thought, so as he finally passed, he grabbed my hand and we ran like together like that for a few seconds instead.
For him it was the last loop and he had less than 4 miles left to run. For me, I had almost 10 miles left and was in the middle of the fastest 6-mile stretch of my entire race. It was definitely amazing and uplifting to see this tough little brother being so strong, fighting off pain to stay strong enough to finish as a possible Olympic alternate in the top-5.
These are the people we meet and the bonds that we make in the sport of long-distance running. The truth is that no one will run his or her best marathon completely alone. And when you’ve been through something like that together, you’ve shared the highest highs and the lowest lows.
Terry’s dad was right. This is what makes the sport of distance running so special. It’s the people, and the best that it brings out of us.