Monday, January 23, 2012

My Interview With a U.S. Olympic Trials Marathoner

Most of us in running blog land are pretty dedicated to the sport, usually logging 1,000 to 3,000 miles per year, year after year.  We all have different running goals, but almost all of us never have to push ourselves beyond the point of running a Boston qualifying marathon if we can get that far.  Many blogs, mine included, allude to the quest of reaching the Boston Marathon by virtue of running a 3 to 4 hour marathon.  See BQby40, Ali's Boston Marathon Training Blog, or Boston or Botox? to name a few.  Many authors of other running blogs have at least ran in the Boston Marathon.  But this post isn't really about Boston.  It's about another marathon that is a lot harder to qualify for.  One that is off of everyone's radar due to it's exclusivity, and it only comes along once every four years.  I'm talking about the Olympic Marathon Trials.  I have yet to see a blog titled, "Olympic Trials or Die", or "OT by 40".

For those unfamiliar with the Olympic Marathon Trials, they were held in Houston on Saturday, January 14th.  In order to run in it, male runners had to run a sub 2:19:00, and female runners had to run a sub 2:46:00 marathon within the previous 2 years.  That works out to about a 5:18 mile for men, and a 6:18 mile average for women.  To put those standards in a better perspective, there were only 161 men and 226 women in the county who accomplished that feat.  One of those women is a small town Kansas wife, and mother of two, in her mid 30s named Raquel Stucky.  I happened to get to know her as the modest running guru at a local running store called First Gear. She was always there to greet customers in a trendy running ensemble, ready to tell you if you over or under pronated, and then sell you a pair of running shoes for it.  She graciously took time out of her day to tell me about how she got in the Olympic Marathon Trials, how she did once there, and what it was like from a participant's point of view.

Raquel's Background:
  • Age: 36
  • Wife, and mother of 2 girls, 11 and 8 years old.
  • Grew up in a family of runners, and started out on the middle school's track team.
  • Ran for Southwestern College in Kansas where she was a 4 year NAIA All-American taking runner-up and 3rd place in consecutive national championship marathons.
  • Worked at First Gear running store last 10 years.
  • Previous marathons:  Chicago, New York, Wichita, Boston, Phoenix, Grandma's Marathon (Duluth)
One of the neat aspects of Raquel's story is that the Olympic Trials were never part of her original plan.  She is over ten years removed from competing in college, and has settled into family life and a job while running became more of an enjoyable hobby.  Raquel told me, "A friend who then became my coach approached me and said, what if I give you a training schedule to shoot for the trials?  I thought, well, that will be a lot of work, but let me look at it.  Then I thought, I'm already running, so why don't I put in more effort...  How many more 3 hour marathons am I going to be able to do, so maybe I should just step it up a bit and have some fun.  I still have that desire, that drive."  And so the journey began...

2 Slow:  "What sacrifices did you have to make to train properly to qualify?"

Raquel (without hesitation):  "Sleep.  I'm kind of a night owl so I had to force myself to get to bed by 10:30...  You learn that your body needs sleep to repair.  I didn't really sacrifice sleep, I sacrificed awake time."

2 Slow:  "What was your previous marathon PR before Olympic Trials training?"

Raquel:  "It was 2:58.  Then during training, I dropped to a 2:49, then 2:44 (Olympic Trials Qualifier)."

2 Slow:  "Describe your approach to training for the Trials in terms of mileage per week, speed workouts, cross training, etc."

Raquel:  "I can't say the mileage per week would be a shockingly high number.  I think I capped at 80 miles, and that's because you don't want to ramp up your mileage too high, too soon.  My speed work days are usually my longest days.  For a marathon, I do a lot of long reps.  My hardest workout was probably a 3x6k.  My progression runs are always pretty long, just lots of long reps with short breaks in between, and they're not stand still breaks, they're running.  One of the nice things about having a coach is I don't have to worry about, what do I have to be running my in between jogs, at what pace.  They are already ready to go, I just look down at my Garmin and say, OK, I'm on.  Cross training.  No...  It was all running, but I do core training twice a week for about an hour and a half.  Once every two weeks I get Active Release.  That makes a big difference.  To go into a workout feeling like you still have stride left and strength and mobility in my hips, has made a huge difference for me."

2 Slow:  "You have a treadmill.  How much of your training was done on a treadmill?"

Raquel:  "Zero.  None.  I try to avoid the treadmill as much as possible.  Anytime you get on something that's forcing you to move, it changes your gait, it changes the way you approach a run.  I did some last year, maybe at least three times prior, but the weather has been pretty decent.  If it's freezing cold, and there's no ice, I'm going to run outside.  I've got all the gear.  Might as well put it to use."

In a sad twist of fate that almost all runners have experienced if you run long enough, Raquel came down injured about a week before the Olympic Marathon Trials.  In her case, it was the right big toe that was causing her pain.  Ironically this was well into the taper.  She first noticed it after a workout.  Then the next day it felt like she stubbed her toe on something.  The pain continued for her remaining workouts to the point of her limping.  Plus, it spread to her calf, probably from having to compensate for the toe.  She's not sure how she got injured in the first place other than maybe it's because she runs on asphalt and it just compounded.  Despite being in considerable pain, Raquel told herself she would do whatever it took to run in the Trials.  She ended up getting a cortisone shot 2 days before the marathon, and it provided instant relief, for that moment at least.

2Slow:  "Let's fast forward a little to Houston.  How were the pre race events different from most marathons?"

Raquel's race credential, bibs, and finisher medal.
Raquel:  "There's really not an expo for the Olympic Trials.  They keep you pretty busy.  You check in.  You get all your credentials so you can get anywhere.  Shortly after that, you have to check in your uniform.  All the USATF, USOC, and IAAF rules are pretty strict about what can be on your uniform...  For instance, my singlet had the logo on it, but on the back side it had another tech logo on it.  That tech logo was considered a separate logo and so it had to be covered by tape.  On the back of my shorts there was a small logo so it was covered too.  They wanted to see everything from your socks to your jog bra, to anything you might possibly warm up in.  Then they took a picture of it.  So then I guess if you were not wearing that come race day, you would be DQed."

2 Slow:  "Did you have a chance to mingle with the other runners?"

Raquel:  "Absolutely.  Aside from all the meetings, there's dinner for just the athletes.  They had all this stuff set up.  They really take care of you.  So there's plenty of chance to mingle with the pros.  You just walk into a dining hall, and there's everybody.  It was really a neat experience, but you learn they are runners just like you are, just faster."

2 Slow:  "So what were your conversations with some of them?  Did they have anything memorable to say?"

Raquel:  "You know.  They're pretty ordinary people.  They're not there to give a speech.  One thing that everyone talked about was the check in process of the uniform and how unbelievably long it took."

2 Slow:  "Did you get pictures with other runners?"

Raquel:  "I got a couple pictures.  Definitely got some pictures with Desiree Davila.  She's one of my favorites."
Raquel running the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials

2 Slow:  "Can you give a little narrative on how the race played out for you?"

Raquel: "It was pretty exciting actually cause you know going in that everyone there is an elite athlete.  And you're warming up in the same area as the Olympians that crossed that finish line that day.  You get to the starting line and it is deafening.  You can't hear yourself think.  The crowds were so crazy.  If you weren't excited that day, something had to be wrong.  The first loop was only 2.2 miles and you got nothing but cheers the whole entire way, and goose bumps the whole entire time.  The course was a little challenging.  There was an overpass that was a steady incline, which if my foot hadn't hurt so bad I probably never would have felt it.  Then you had to do that 3 times.  My toe bothered me the whole time, but by mile 16, it hurt enough that I was wanting to quit.  Usually I'm pretty focused, but by the end, I was looking for distractions.  I was looking to see who's out here.  I don't usually do that."

Raquel can be seen wearing red to the left on top, and to the right on the
bottom as the top men, Meb Keflezighi and Ryan Hall, finish the marathon.
2 Slow:  "I saw the screen shot of Meb passing you.  Looks like you had a smile on your face.  Were you able to take any of that in?"

Raquel:  "How can you not?  I mean, Ryan Hall was the favorite.  Meb had some issues.  When I turn around to look, and it was Meb...  It took my mind off the ache for a little while.  It was a highlight.  Another goose bump moment."

Raquel crossed the finish line that day in 2:51:08.  Good enough to be 122nd runner-up to the Olympic Team (125th place overall).  A herculean time for any of us reading this, but 7 minutes slower than her previous marathon.  Based on her training runs and how much faster they had gotten since her 2:44:39 in Grandma's Marathon, she was prepared for a sub 2:40:00.  I asked her if it was obvious her toe slowed her down.  She said it was and that she wasn't even sore (besides the toe) after the marathon.  She ended up having to alter her gait, working harder on the outside of her foot.  Her calf tightened up as a result.  Raquel says, "If you think about how much pressure goes down, and how much push off you get from your big toe, you never realize that until you're hurting so bad."

2 Slow:  "What was going through your mind as you crossed the finish line?"

Raquel:  "Several things.  Hard to describe.  It was heartbreak.  I knew I wasn't able to give my full.  But it was also excitement because I just crossed the finish line of the Olympic Trials and I didn't DNF.  A lot of other people did DNF.  I think 189 women started the race, but only 152 finished it.  Three steps past the finish line my foot throbbed so bad I just wanted to take my shoe off."

Raquel let me try on her medal for size.  I don't feel as slow now.

Raquel had an MRI done on her foot and was told her toe has a "Stress Reaction" which is one step (no pun intended) before a stress fracture. Her toe also has a strained ligament, a sprained tendon, and inflammation around the joint.  She says if she does everything right, she should be back at it in 4 weeks.

While I had her undivided attention, I figured I'd see what insight she might have for novice runners, in general.

2 Slow:  "What advice do you have for casual runners who want to improve their time, or qualify for Boston like me?"

Raquel:  "Stick with a plan.  If you are committed to something, I think you will be surprised by what you can accomplish.  Put in the time, put in the effort."

2 Slow:  "What's the most common mistake you see runners make?"

Raquel: "Taking off to hard at the beginning of a race.  Especially for a marathon, it's about having patience."

2 Slow:  "What about for training?"

Raquel:  "Recovery.  You have a long run, and then you have a hard workout and in between you have these easy days of running.  But I think a lot of people say, well, today I feel really good so I think I'm going to run hard...  Recovery is just as important as a (hard) workout."

Looking through the Trials results, you see most of the other runners who toed the line that day (had to put in one more toe reference) are being sponsored by a name brand athletic company or are part of a prestigious running club.  A lot of those elite runners get to train full time for this persuit, in state of the art facilities with lots of resources at their disposal (coaches, trainers, equipment, etc.).  They might live at high elevation so that they'll have more red blood cells to deliver oxygen more efficiently.  Even with Raquel's big toe issue, there was less than 1 minute/mile difference between her and the top runner.  I would be curious to see how she would measure up if all things were equal.  She made South Central Kansas very proud of her that morning.  There were over 20 masters women running the Olympic Trials, and Raquel thinks she will be ready in 4 more years when she too will be 40.


Christi said...

That was a great interview. Thanks so much for spotlighting and supporting a wonderful Kansas asset!

Coy Martinez said...

This is incredibly cool!! I love that she's in the same pic as Meb!! He's one of my all tie favorites!! Serious! She did so well! Great interview!

Terzah said...

Fantastic story! I was there watching, and many of the women who got "lapped" by Meb and Ryan had smiles just like Raquel. I'm so sorry her toe tried to spoil the party, but she made the best of it. What an inspiration! Thanks for doing this interview!!

Nelly said...

Great interview, really fun to read about her experience. She sounds like a really great runner. Amazing to even be able to run in the Olympic trials. I hope she recovers from her injury, and she runs again in 2016!

And I want to see a blog like "OT by 40"!

Char said...

I found the bit about their clothes fascinating. Who'd have thought that they could be disqualified on the basis of a visible Nike tick or equivalent?

Johann said...

Lovely post to give us a glimpse into the world of the top runners. Thanks!

Jill said...

This was EXCELLENT!! Learned so many things, especially about the clothing and a huge reminder - especially to me - that rest and recovery is key to running well. Thanks for the interview, 2s4b! I hope she recovers quickly from her injury (and you also!) and back out there kicking some road soon!!

Tortuga_Runner said...

I love this interview, I love that she is a mid 30's mom. Makes me feel like I need to get off my butt! P.S. I'll be tagging you in my Friday post.

Caroline said...

I loved this. Really interesting. rest and recovery...for sure something that I need to work on I forget about that sometimes and think I need to train every day or I will regress or something. At my age rest and recovery is most important to avoid injury !!
thank you for this and for stopping by my blog tonight!

Detroit Runner(Jeff) said...

Great Idea - the Blog tracker! Thanks for adding me!

misszippy said...

That was really fun to read, thank you! She seems incredibly down-to-earth, which is always nice to encounter. I say she goes for it again in 2016!

Nelly said...

haha yea I totally know how you feel as a Cowboys fan now. I think out of all the teams in the NFL the Cowboys underperformed the most this season - that team has a ton of talent on it. Losing those games because of massive comebacks (Jets, Lions, NY Giants) must have been painful to watch.

Niners had a great year, they really shouldn't have beaten the Saints, so the NY Giants game was a bonus game.

Hope the hip flexor feels better soon.

I filled out the info on the runner database, good idea!

Jeanette K. said...

Awesome interview. A friend of my ran in the OTM and had a similar experience. It's a wonderful honor and all those who participated should be very proud of themselves.

Nelly said...

Yea, I've basically had 2 main injuries over the past year - 6 months of a left knee injury (runners knee) from Apr to Sept. Then I started to feel better for 2 months, but I was too aggressive with both coming back to running and playing soccer that I got a right ankle stress fracture. So I've been on a rehab running plan for the past 2 months now.

I've stopped playing soccer for good, with a lot of thanks to you for imploring me to do that. My friends that still play soccer had a massive 11 on 11 game on Sunday, hearing about it was hard since I wasn't there. But I know it is for the best that I don't play, because the risk of injury isn't worth it.

I will try to add Kansas to my list of states! Could likely visit both you and Jim since he is in Missouri.

Brittany said...

I finally read it...