Editor’s Note: Craftsbury Running Coach Brett Ely has just qualified for her fourth Olympic marathon trials on the merit of 2:41:31 (a top 20), earning herself a tidy payday in process. She generously shared this piece detailing her race and the past year’s ups and downs. Brett has 5 years of service as a coach.
California International Marathon 2014
I started school (PhD program in Human Physiology) in September of 2012 with the thought that my competitive running days were behind me. I worked on settling in to the life of a recreational runner, but within a few months it was clear that I felt like I was doing just that: settling. Settling for less than I wanted, and for less than I thought I could be. I missed competing intensely. I missed the camaraderie of being part of a team. I missed having lofty goals and I missed the pride I felt in achieving them. I even missed the heartbreak of a goal or dream denied. So, in the summer of 2013, I reached out to my friend Ian Dobson, coach of Team Run Eugene, about the possibility of joining the team and preparing for a fall marathon. We set our sights on the California International Marathon and began working together toward a goal of running under 2:43 (Olympic Trails B standard). Despite having run faster than that in past marathons, it was a lofty goal when considering I was juggling teaching, research, and my own studies. Sleep, recovery, and mileage all took a hit any time each one of those elements ramped up.
Still, I toed the line at CIM in 2013 confident I could run sub-2:43. It was a cold morning, and from the very first steps I never felt loose or comfortable. It wasn’t a dream day, but I was holding pace and trusting in my ability to keep it together and accomplish that goal. Around 18 miles, my left foot started aching, but I tried not to let it rattle me. My solution to the pain was to embrace it by pushing off as hard as I could each time that foot hit the ground. This worked for about 6 miles and I held on to the pace I needed to run to hit sub-2:43. But somewhere between mile marker 24 and 25, my plan stopped working. I tried to step down and I simply could not bear weight on that foot. My initial thought was “this is the most vivid and bizarre marathon nightmare I have ever had. I’m ready to wake up now.” The rest of that day passed in a blur of X-rays, casting, crutches, some very kind strangers and a very uncomfortable flight back to Eugene. I found out the next week that I would need surgery to repair the fracture in my navicular, and the most optimistic timeline had me missing at least 5 months of running. The week after surgery, I told Ian I wanted to come back and run CIM in 2014, and I’m sure he thought I was crazy but was willing to at least give me a “We’ll see.”
Recovery was long and slow and humbling and hard. There were peaks and valleys and plateaus and I judged my progress (often too harshly) at every checkpoint. It seemed to take forever, but I eventually got to that magical point where I no longer had to worry about injury every step, and could instead transition to actually getting in shape. This fortunately happened just in time to keep CIM a reality. The buildup was short and bumpy at times, but it was by far the most I have ever enjoyed training. Running provided a wonderful release from school, and I was surrounded by positive, supportive teammates at every turn. I ran a workout about two weeks out from the marathon (4x2miles in 11:48-11:40-11:30-11:15) that went better than expected, and I remember remarking afterward “Whoa…this might actually happen!”
The weather was beautiful on race morning at CIM 2014 and the field was deep and talented. I felt strong and fluid for the first 8 miles and the splits clicked by in the high 5:50s and low 6:00s. And then at 8 miles things just plain got tough. And then they stayed tough. I started slowing, but I was still hitting splits below the minimum standard (6:12 per mile) I needed to run under 2:43. I never fell apart and I never felt terrible, but I also never felt good and had a very long grind to the finish line. Once I got to 20 miles under 2:03, I began to relax a bit in knowing that I had a cushion—all I needed to do was not fall apart. I managed to pick it up and start passing a few people, but every step forward was hard-fought. Most of this stretch passed in a fog of discomfort, but there was one moment when things clicked. Around 24.5 miles, I passed the spot I had stood on the roadside one year ago, unable to even walk myself to the finish line. The memory steeled my resolve that there was only one way to erase that ghost: by completing what I could not complete in 2013. I pushed on to the finish, passing two women in the last half mile, and entered the final stretch with the clock turning from 2:40:59 to 2:41:00. I beamed the entire straightaway, and finished in 2:41:31, surpassing the standard by over a minute and securing my spot on the starting line in my fourth Olympic Trials Marathon (2004, 2008, 2012, 2016). I finished feeling incredibly grateful for all of it: the heartbreak of 2013, the work of 2014, and the people who shared in the ups & downs and supported me every step of the way. I’m so thankful for Team Run Eugene, the greater Eugene running community, the Craftsbury Outdoor Center running community, and the support of friends and family all over the country. Even if I could have done this without you…I wouldn’t have wanted to.