By Ryan Hall
Part I – July 17
My watches silent alarm buzzed my wrist with warm pulses of vibration. It was early. 3:30 am. And I had to be stealth. Our pitch black, freezing cold ice both of a hotel room was perfectly still so Sara could get as much sleep as possible 2 nights out prior to her competing in her first ever World Track and Field championships. She had trained not just the customary 12 weeks marathon block but her entire life for this day. To test herself against the very best in the world and I was not about to throw that day off by waking her up two nights out from marathon day. Luckily for me I have a history of sneaking out late at night with my brothers to go toilet papering back in my mischievous teens so my stealth skills are pretty high. It’s all paying off now. Haha. Anyhow, I manage the get my things and get out using only part of my iPhone flashlight and I am away, free and clear.
I hop in my rental car (which we had to pick up in Portland due to the lack of rental cars in Eugene as the small town seems over-run by international track fans…even basic hotel rooms were running well over 500 dollars per night) and start making my way towards the start of the marathon just outside of University of Oregon’s behemoth of a football stadium. Today is the men’s marathon and I have Rory, a talented younger athlete competing for Team Canada. I park a mile away just before all the road closures for the race and jog it in to the athlete’s warmup area. I have a credential to get through various security checks before I arrive to the athlete’s warmup area but don’t have a warmup pass to get me to where my athlete is hanging out and waiting to warmup. I decide to just try and jog through the security check and flash my credential hoping they assume I am an athlete warming up. My plan works to perfection as I coast through without a close inspection of my credential. I am both happy that my plan worked but also miffed that I can still pass off as a marathon runner having spent the last six years years training in the gym to see how “big and strong” I can get. Apparently, I haven’t achieved transforming my body to a point to where I’ve completely lost my “runners frame.” ‘But alas”, I think to myself, ‘today is not about me, it’s about supporting my athletes and helping them find their best version of themselves out on the race course’ so I push the thought aside. I had an important reminder for Rory that I wanted to share before he warmed up.
“It’s not about the performance results, it’s about you emptying yourself” I reminded Rory as he sat on the artificial turf filling the football indoor facility that was being used as the staging area for the athletes. Kenyans, Guatemalans, Ethiopians, Mexicans, and many other international athletes were all nervously making their last-minute preparations before beginning their warmup. The message that I really wanted to get across with my words for Rory was for him to let go of needing to place in a certain place or needing to run a certain time, but rather to set his focus on him getting 100% of whatever he has on the day out of him. This “complete emptying on oneself would be our measuring stick as to whether Rory had a successful run. It seems silly to me for an athlete to base their level of success entirely off comparison to others. After all, we can’t control how fit someone else gets or how well they perform, all we can do is control ourselves and milk out all the potential that we hold for that day. This mindset allows athletes to maximize their performance by setting their attention and drive on something that is attainable every time out regardless of the weather, course, or level of competition. One can always empty themselves. But where does the drive come from that is so necessary to completely empty oneself. “For the joy set before him” I remind Rory as the key to someone (Jesus) enduring one of the most horrific ways of dying (crucifixion on a cross). It says in Hebrews chapter 12, verse 2 that Jesus “Endured the cross for the joy set before him” and here in lies the key to being able to completely empty oneself: joy. How much fun can you have out there? Because the more fun you have the more you will get out of yourself. The two are directly correlated. So, I encouraged Rory to get as excited as he could out there. Let the crowd energize him and set his mind of those he loves when those closing excruciatingly painful few last miles come. Find the joy on the race course…it is the key to suffering well and getting everything out of oneself.
I don’t have the space here to walk you through the race but let’s just say that Rory accomplished our goal of emptying himself and on this day, in this field, that equaled a 20th place finish and an over 2-minute improvement in his marathon personal best finishing in 2 hours and 10 minutes. I was proud of Rory, not because he had improved so much or finished top 20 in the world but more because of the effort he had put out. Sure, there is more there, and I believe that he can run much faster than 2:10 but on this day, in these conditions, in this environment he had given everything he had to give. What more could you want from yourself?
Part II – July 18
The buzz of my watch alarm again vibrated me to wake, although this time a less alert version of myself stirred in bed searching for the light switch to flick on. It was 3:30 am, again, and I was tired but I knew I needed to be mentally sharp today so, after drinking water, I got quickly to my caffeine. Sara was getting her previously laid out uniform on and getting herself ready to race the World Championship marathon. Who knows what this day would hold, as World Championship races are not paced with pacemakers, so no one knows exactly who is going to go to the front early and whether they will make it fast or slow. This is why Sara and I didn’t have a precise race plan in mind but had talked through many different scenarios which she might encounter and chatted through how to respond best in each scenario. It’s a little unnerving not having a precise plan in place heading into the marathon but for experienced athletes it is often the right move because we don’t know what is going to happen. So rather than be surprised about the pace being fast, slow, or anywhere in the middle, we will “expect nothing, and be prepared for everything” as the Samurai are accustomed to say.
In the indoor football warmup area Sara chatted with her two team USA teammates and waited until 45 minutes prior to her race to do her customary 7-minute warmup run along with her drills in strides. In marathoning, you want just enough of a warmup to have the pace not feel hard in that first mile but you are trying to reserve all your glucose levels for the actual race, which is why the marathon warmup is so much shorter than warming up for all other distance races (typical is 20 minutes for halfs, 10k, and 5ks). Sara’s been loading up on glucose for the last two days knowing that come mile 20 and beyond she was going to need all the glucose she can get.
Heading to the start line on my friends barrowed bike I could feel butterflies in my stomach. I always get a lot more nervous for all my athletes’ races, which I love, because it reminds me of my days of competing professionally. The difference between coaching nervousness’ and competing nervousness is that usually the nerves all dissipate once the gun fires if you are the one competing. When you are coaching the nerves last until your athlete crosses the finish line.
When the gun fired it was clear the pace was going to be fast and two groups quickly formed with the best of the athletes from Africa in the lead group and the most everyone else in the chase group, which was still running close to American record pace. In the first of the 3-loop course Sara looked clam and relaxed running next to one of her team USA competitors. The first 2/3s of a marathon is about covering the ground as relaxed as possible. Relaxation is the key to being able to “bring it” in the last 6 miles of the race. If you are overly laboring at 20 miles you are in trouble. As my coach used to tell me, “run the first 20 miles with your head, and the last six miles with your heart.”
It was good to see Sara interacting with the crowd with an occasional hand to the ear (as in, ‘I can’t hear you), wave, or even smile. These small gestures are a hidden key to staying relaxed. You might not think it but chatting with the people around you and interacting with the crowd are great ways for athletes to remind themselves that they are not working too hard and help aid in relaxation. Try it out next time you find yourself in the pain cave.
Being on a bike on a loop course was ideal for me to get around and give Sara important information about what was happening in the lead pack up in front of her. There was about a 2 mile stretch where I could bike ahead of her, stop, and give her feedback and I wasn’t the only one. Our biker gang was growing loop by loop starting with about 50 bikers and it growing exponentially each loop. Everyone was cheering Sara and the other team USA athletes on. At points even chanting “USA, USA.” This one of the coolest experiences I’ve had on a marathon course. Crowds make such a big difference because it gives athletes little hits of adrenaline when everyone is screaming and going crazy for you. The uniqueness of having a large pack of bikers all giving their support for long stretches almost gave me goosebumps at times and I knew it was helping Sara out. This is the beauty of competing on your home soil.
Sara looked relaxed throughout much of the race and things were starting to happen in the lead group which was about 10 athletes to start and was slowly dwindling down as the race got into the last 10k of the race. From my stopped bike I was relaying to Sara what place she was in and what the time gap was to the next women in front of her. Our goal going into the race was the maximize whatever energy she had on the day and to finish as high up as possible. Being a 2:20 marathoner Sara had a shot at a podium if the cards fell her way but we like to have different levels of goals. The first goal should be something you can attain every time out. I call these heart goals. An example would be to completely empty oneself or compete out of a heart of love. These can be accomplished regardless of how fit one’s competitors are or what the course is like. Then it is helpful to also have performance goals. Finishing in the top 10 would be Sara’s next goal. Top 10 in the world is a great day and definitely well attainable to Sara. The next level goal would be top 5 and the last level goal would be to podium or win the race. I feel it’s important to have this multi-goal approach when racing because it opens up the definition of success. It makes me sad when I see athletes’ podium at the world championships or a games and be all bummed out because they didn’t win. I get it. I like to swing for the top as well. But if your definition of success is so narrow that the only way you are going to be completely happy is if not one person in the whole world is better than you, well, you are setting yourself up for a lot of disappointment and heart break. It doesn’t have to be this way. We get to define true success for ourselves. But if we are not careful, default sports culture will tell us that the only way you can be happy with yourself and your performance is if you win.
I love watching Sara compete because she is so gritty. She fights until the very end. As she was in the last loop she was in sixth place but one athlete had just popped off the lead group and was not moving well. So, despite Sara being over a minute back with just 8 miles to go I knew Sara could move into that 5th spot if she went deep for it. The excitement of our biker gang in those last few miles was something I will always remember. You could feel the energy of the crowd and their collective cheers willing her on to catch the athlete in front of her. I could see the look on Sara’s face was one of both pain and engaged in a fight. Going as deep as she could possible muster. Sara ended up catching and passing the 5th place runner with about 600 meters left in the race. I biked through the crowd joyous as could be. 5th in the world. A great day for Sara. I was so proud of Sara because I’ve seen all she has been through to get to this moment. Tears after bad workouts, months off running due to injury, the heart break of finishing outside the top three at the US Trials. And I’ve also seen the incredibly hard work Sara has put in. Grueling 26-mile training runs and then going straight to the gym after to lift and do additional cross training. Her work ethic and devotion to her craft is beyond anything I’ve seen in sport. So, when it all pays off and she maximizes her performance on the day it is a pure joy to watch and celebrate.