If I mentioned the names Ryan, Kara, Meb, Shalane, Dathan, Desiree, or Deena to any of my nonrunning friends, I would get a blank stare. To those who run, they’re like the names of family. Everyone knows who they are. This past weekend I got to see them all race for a chance to win a spot on the U.S. Olympic marathon team at the Olympic Marathon Trials in Houston. It was a weekend that didn’t disappoint.
I had been looking forward to the Olympic Marathon Trials ever since it was announced that both the men and women’s events would be held in Houston. I knew I would find a way to get there, even though I wasn’t interested in running the marathon the next day. Houston is synonymous with humidity in my mind, and heat and humidity are my running enemies. Even in January, I know how Texas weather can be.
I had this idea that the Olympic Trials were going to be a really big thing in the city of Houston, because for me they were. I had visions of millions of people, all vying for a chance to see the most talented runners our country has to offer the world of the Olympics. With that in mind, I went to bed at 7pm on Friday night with the intention of leaving Dallas at midnight. Michael caught a few hours on the couch beforehand. I didn’t really sleep much, but I rested, and we loaded up the car with video and camera equipment and hit the dark freeway south.
Driving when you should be sleeping is tough. Michael drove first, then I took over for the second half. We arrived in Houston around 4:30 and went straight to the area where the Trials would be held to scope out parking and a good spot to set up the video camera. The course was unique in that it started in the heart of downtown on a two mile loop, then continued on an eight mile loop along Allen Parkway, which would be run three times and finish back at the start. This meant we would be able to see the runners three times: at just past miles 8, 16, and 24.
Since the races started at 8am, with the men leading, and it was only 4:30am, we had plenty of time. The race organizers were just starting to block off roads. We jumped back on the freeway and took the first exit to a really bad part of town. The MacDonalds had three police cars and a tow truck, so we went across the street to Whataburger and ate in the parking lot. We watched someone drive up in a BMW to the Bail Bonds place across the street, open the building’s door, and drop off what looked like groceries.
See what you miss by sleeping in?
We drove back to the race location we had previously decided on and saw a man putting up $10 event parking signs at the Historical Society right across the street from where we wanted to stand. He was a very methodical man who wasn’t ready for someone so early. He directed us to pull up to the curb and wait ten minutes until the “gate” opened. We enjoyed watching him walk back and forth, setting up his cones, flags, money pouch, and plastic chair, each time checking to make sure everything was just perfect. A security guard came and asked us what we were doing, didn’t seem to know that the parking lot was being offered up for event parking, and set off to speak to Methodical Man. Eventually, after 20 minutes or so, someone pulled up and unlocked the gate, we paid our ten spot, and parked.
It was 6:30am.
We found a great corner to film and take photos, and set up all the equipment. It was freezing cold, even with down jackets, gloves, and various cold weather accoutrements. Police cars drove past continually, and we wondered why it was necessary to drive full throttle. It was probably like teachers running down the halls of school when the students aren’t there, or cussing in the teacher’s lounge on break. It was still dark, and we saw one huddled up person asleep in the middle of the park. As the sun came up, homeless people appeared from the shadows, one by one, with all their baggage, and moved on. We were never sure if the police made them leave, or if this was their daily routine.
We saw many people running past us in the dark to warm up, and many of them were buff and toned with zero body fat, but I wasn’t sure if any of them were running in the Olympic Marathon Trials or the marathon the next day. We had a lot of time to get to know the volunteer security men around us, who mentioned the Occupy Houston people had threatened to disrupt the Trials. Everyone associated with the races was extremely friendly, and most were runners themselves. I wanted to come back to Houston and run with these people.
Someone walked past and asked if we knew where the water stop was, and we discovered it was about a quarter mile from our location. I walked down and took a look and it was the longest water stop I had ever seen, one long row of numbered tables, and I realized each athlete had their own personal water stop. Each water bottle was decorated and labeled, and the bottles were all different sizes and shapes. A lot of the bottles were tossed at our feet as the runners ran past us in the race, and I helped one of the volunteers, Keelan, pick some of them up. One caught my eye because it was bigger than the others and had a low number, 5, on the label, so I knew it was one of the elite women (since they had just run past). I considered taking it, thought that might be kind of goofy and gross, and left it. After the race I noticed it was gone from the pile. Later that night, looking at the photos, I discovered it was Kara Goucher’s, and wanted to kick myself for not keeping it.
At 7:30 there were still relatively few people on the course. More people did show up later, but it was nothing like I expected. Just before 8:00, helicopters appeared downtown and we knew the race was about to begin. We could always tell where the runners were on the course because of the location of the helicopters above us. By this time I was frozen, and started jumping up and down to both stay warm and because I was so excited to see the runners. Finally, around 8:40, the lead cars appeared and the men could be seen coming around the corner.
I’ve never seen any of the men racing in person, but I’ve seen many of them on TV. I knew Ryan Hall had a very distinctive running gait, but to see him fly by in person was exhilarating and awe inspiring. Seeing Meb Keflizighi run past, winner of the New York City marathon two years ago, was amazing. They make it look so easy. Meb especially always looked like he was having fun, even on the last loop, less than two miles from the finish. Even more inspiring was to see the other runners following the elites, many of them people who hold down regular jobs and lives, but who ran marathons fast enough to qualify for a chance to go to the Olympics.
About fifteen minutes or so after the men, the women rounded the corner behind the lead cars. Again, it was all I could do to stop jumping up and down from excitement and take photos. I recognized Shalane Flanagan and Kara Goucher from the pages of Runner’s World magazine, and Deena Kastor from past televised races. Just as I had been with the men, I was amazed at their bodies. Zero fat, every muscle and tendon visible, and extremely toned arms. More than anything, I was amazed at their focus and level of concentration.
As the rest of the female runners ran past, I was amazed at how young most of them were. Some looked like they were still teenagers, and I realized I knew very little about them and how they got there. Michael and I had earlier wondered if Dallas’s own Melisa Christian was running in the Olymipic Marathon Trials again this year, as she had done four years ago, and we were both happy to see her as she ran past on her first loop. She had kinesio tape on her back and I wondered if she was injured.
We got to see the runners two more times on their second and third loops, just past miles 16 and 24, and their high level of focus and concentration never wavered. For some reason, Abdi Abdirahman looked right over in my direction when I took photos, and I wondered what had caught his attention. I always find it interesting when the elites mention how the spectators help them during the races, and I believe them, but their focus at the Trials was always so intense they seemed oblivious to anything around them.
On the men’s last loop, the crowd went crazy when Meb came around the corner in first place. He looked like he was having the time of his life, even though it would turn out to be a personal best for him. Ryan Hall was not far behind, and had a slight nosebleed. Abdi was next, and the crowd went crazy again to see Dathan Ritzenhein, America’s highest ranking American in the last Olympics, in 4th place. I would have liked to have seen how he came within 8 seconds of catching up to Abdi.
On the women’s last loop, it was Shalane Flanagan and Desiree Davila in the lead, both still looking strong, with Kara Goucher just behind, secure in her 3rd place finish and looking like she was ready to be done with the race. I was sad to see Deena Kastor too far behind to catch up, but she smiled when I yelled out, “Deena, you’re my hero!” and I caught that smile on camera. That was pretty special, knowing she had heard me and acknowledged the compliment with a smile!
Going to the Olympic Marathon Trials was truly a dream come true. I’ve loved the Olympics since I was a little kid, and I remember watching an Olympic marathon (there was only a men’s event, no women’s back in those days) when I was very small, and being mesmerized by the runners and how anyone could run that far without stopping. I don’t know if I’ll ever get to see an Olympic marathon in person in my life, but this was pretty close. It’s a memory I’ll always treasure.
USA Track & Field – for more info about the race