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Olympic Marathon trials: What was it like?

Serena Kessler, a 1990 graduate of Clarence High School, took part in the U.S. Olympic marathon trial in Houston on Jan. 14. It's quite impressive for the chance to line up with America's best runners with three trips to London at stake.

She wrote down some of her observations about the experience, and generously offered to have them published here. We thank her for that and wish her well:

The Starting Line:  Humility and Pride

I swelled with pride and humility as I stood on the starting line of the 2012 Olympic marathon trials, listening to Joan Benoit Samuelson, winner of the first women’s Olympic marathon in 1984, offer words of encouragement to the 191 women, ages 22-50, about to embark on the next 26.2 miles of a journey to discover what we are capable of as runners and as women. I was proud of the work I had done to land myself a spot among such an elite group of marathoners, and incredibly humble thinking about what the top tier athletes standing at the front of the pack – who would be running close to a minute faster per mile than I was – had done to make themselves contenders in the strongest field of American women marathoners ever assembled.

Mile 8:  Cooperation and Competition

At mile eight, I found myself comfortably ensconced in a pack of about 30 women running 6:15-6:20 pace – the pace we had needed to run to qualify for the event. We were a happy, solid pack, secure in the knowledge that we had no chance to qualify for London, but nevertheless pushing ourselves to do what we knew we were capable of and to enjoy the positive energy of the day. At one point a spectator yelled out for us “break up the pack” and “compete,” to which one of our pack responded, “we love our pack.” What the spectator didn’t understand – but what the athletes who will represent us in London do, as we found out when they discussed their race at the awards lunch – is that cooperation and competition can co-exist. Sure, each one of us wanted to finish ahead of all the others, but we also knew that running as a group would make us all run better and that running our best would require both cooperation and competition.

Mile 18:  Suffering and Elation

Just before mile 18, the race started to get hard. Glycogen stores were breaking down and I was beginning to suffer. Then, as our pack approached the final 8 mile-loop of our course, the lead motorcycle whizzed by us, with Meb Keflezighi who had just taken a convincing lead over Ryan Hall close behind. At mile 26 for him (the men started 15 minutes ahead of us and ran the same looped course) and mile 18 for us, we cheered along with the crowds as Meb cruised by us and headed into his final 400 meters. The crowds were wild and the energy propelled us forward, with the joy of being in that moment making the physical pain barely noticeable. 

Mile 20:  Alone and Together

By mile 20, our group started to break up. We were all suffering to varying degrees, and though we were still together in small clusters, each was alone in her pain. At this point, we were each relying on the grit that got us to the starting line in the first place to get us to the finish. I got passed by a few people in those final miles, and passed an equal number myself, and I felt a comforting solidarity, despite knowing that the only way to get to the finish line was through my own power.

The Final Paradox:  There is no finish line

While I had been on pace at 20 miles to run 2:44, my final 10K was not blistering. I fell off pace considerably, but did not completely fall apart. I finished in 2:47:44, my second fastest of the 10 marathons I’ve run in the last 15 years. I’m looking forward to a nice long rest, celebrating my 40th birthday, and then competing once again. The final paradox is that while I’m satisfied with my performance on Saturday and thrilled that I was part of such an amazing event, I know that I have a faster marathon in me. 40-year-old Sheri Piers ran 2:37:09 on Saturday, and 50-year-old Linda Somers Smith ran 2:37:36. They are proof that age is not our enemy, and inspiration to continue this fantastic journey.

--- Budd Bailey

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