Wildcard Saturday! How a 100 x Mile relay helped me qualify for the Olympic Trials in the marathon

It was spring 2018, and my running career was getting a little stale. I hadn’t made any major improvements since the fall of 2015, and my long-term goal of qualifying for the Olympic Trials seemed like it just might be getting out of reach. Perhaps I needed a little change of pace to spice things up a bit and get me excited about running again. That’s when my friend and training partner Ben brought up an interesting opportunity: a group of guys in Portland, OR—the “Jacuzzi Boys Athletic Club”—was putting on an attempt to break the world record in the 100 x mile relay. One hundred men each running one mile on the track, passing a baton to each other until 100 miles have been run. I’m not a miler by any means, but I thought it would be fun and different. I was in.

After a few weeks of mile-dedicated training, I met Ben and a few others in Portland the day before the relay. The next morning I was to run the 9th leg, and hoped to run in the 4:20s. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen. I never felt great, and after a couple of laps I started to slow significantly. To be honest, I gave up. Didn’t give it my all. I was running a solo mile on the track with not a lot of people around and I just didn’t have the willpower to put in a good effort on a bad day. I finished in 4:43 and felt bad for letting 99 teammates down. Turns out this idea was less fun than I’d hoped1We ended up missing the world record by a wide margin, but did break the American record, so my 4:43 wasn’t as damaging as I thought.

But the trip to Portland was not fruitless. For the next few nights I was graciously hosted by Gilbert, the Jacuzzi Boys athlete who was the mastermind behind the relay. It’s always good to make running connections, I thought. I also got to meet with some research collaborators, visit the Nike campus, and hang out with my then-coach. So maybe it wasn’t such a terrible idea to do this.

 

My dream of qualifying for the trials began in 2014, when I ran my debut marathon on a cold, breezy day in Indianapolis in 2:24:20. At the time, the qualifying standard was 2:18:00—a long way off from 2:24, but still not impossible someday. The qualifying time is set by a committee at the US Association of Track & Field (USATF) and is the subject of sometimes heated debate. Should it be slower, or faster? Should you be able to qualify with a half marathon time? How many people should be able to achieve it? For me, it was almost perfect: achievable with a lot of hard work and patience, but certainly not easy. It got even more perfect when they revised it to 2:19:00, as I would later learn.

I followed up my debut in 2014 with a stellar 2015 that included PRs in the mile, 3k, and 5k, as well as a PR by a full minute in the half marathon and a 2:23:32 marathon (also a PR). Things were looking good. But then they stopped looking so good.

In the next two-and-a-half years, I would run a single PR, just inching my marathon time faster by 15 seconds in the fall of 2017. It was a frustrating time where I felt like I was taking one step forward and two steps back. At the end of the day, I was supposed to be doing this for fun. I wasn’t on a school team, nobody was relying on me to run. I did it because I wanted to do it—and I still did—but I didn’t enjoy it quite as much as I used to.

Even during this time, there were glimmers of hope. One of them was the Tom King Half Marathon in the spring of 2017. It was just one of those days when everything seemed to click. Halfway through the race, we were supposed to turn around and head back to the start/finish, but were misdirected and ended up running an extra 1.1 miles. Running in the back of the lead pack, I kept my cool and told myself the longer distance would play to my advantage. One by one, the others in the pack fell back. I closed with a couple sub-5:10 miles to break away from the final competitor and get the win. According to my Garmin, I averaged 5:14 pace for 14.2 miles, and it all felt relatively in control. A great day all around.

Crossing the finish line at the Tom King 14.2-miler in 2017.

Unfortunately, as my coach reminded me after the race, I was supposed to be running this as a workout at a significantly slower pace. The real race was scheduled for the following weekend: the US 15k Championships hosted by the Gate River Run in Jacksonville, FL. I better run faster there than I did today, I thought to myself after Tom King.

After arriving in Jacksonville the following weekend, I went out for a short, easy run the day before the race. As a was running, a middle-aged gentlemen asked if he could join me. My first thought was that I wasn’t sure he’d be able to keep up (little did I know this man had run sub-28:30 for 10k before!), but I said sure and he joined me. He introduced himself as John2this is not his real name. He worked for USATF and was there for the race tomorrow. At some point as we were running, the Olympic Trials qualifying times came up. Turns out John chairs the committee that decides what the qualification times should be. How cool!, I thought. He was a kind, sincere guy who explained the rationale behind the times (which I had/have no problem with to begin with). Toward the end of the run, he wished me luck on my race and we parted ways.

The race didn’t go so hot—I ran a slower pace for a shorter distance than the week before at Tom King. I should’ve probably listened to my coach and taken it easier then. That evening, the organizers hosted an “elite runner after-party”, which was kind of cool but also pretty awkward since I knew nobody. But I figured I’d swing by for just a bit. On my way out, I thanked the elite athlete director for my comped entry into the race. I was a little embarrassed about my time, given that he granted me entry into a race that also contained professionals and Olympic medalists. I also made sure to say goodbye to one other person at the party before I left—John. I felt like he was someone who might be good to know.

 

After the 100 x mile relay in the summer of 2018, I knew I needed to make some changes. I started working with a new coach, Scott, a local guy who knew me well and had had a great career of his own. I had no issues with my previous coach—she was great! I just felt that a fresh perspective and a different type of stimulus might be what I needed. I also made a commitment to get back on track with all the little things that I had gotten used to neglecting: making sure I got at least 8 hours of sleep a night, doing dynamic stretches before and after each run, doing injury-preventing physical therapy exercises 4-6 days a week, and making sure I recover well from each hard effort (including drinking more chocolate milk!).

Gradually, things started to turn around. By the fall of 2018 I felt I was in the best shape of my life and ready to go after a big PR in the marathon. That PR came at the California International Marathon, where I skipped the 2:22s and finished in 2:21:51. Still a long way off of 2:19:00, but, finally, a big step in the right direction. The winter/spring season continued that momentum, and I started the season with a win at the Hot Chocolate 15k, which I ran in 49:14 on a hilly course. A few weeks after, however, I got a stress fracture in my foot that ultimately ended my spring season.

Crossing the finish line at Hot Chocolate, two weeks before I would get a stress fracture in my foot.

After being diagnosed with the stress fracture, I was pretty down about my chances of qualifying. The following fall/winter would be my last chance to do it, and even though I’d surely be healthy by then, I knew it would take a while to get back in shape after many weeks off. The only way I’d have a shot is by cross training really hard (which I hate!) for a full two months. I’ll always remember the email Scott sent me while I was in the pit of despair and strongly considering giving up: “it just depends how bad you want it.” The nerve of that guy! I wanted it so, so bad! That email lit a fire under me, and for the next several weeks I spent hours in the pool and on the bike, trying to maintain every little bit of fitness that I could.

By mid-fall, I knew all the cross training had paid off. Under Scott’s tutelage and alongside my awesome training partners Nick and Matt, training was going really, really well. By the time I was ready to race at the Monumental Marathon on November 9th, the goal had become clear: 2:19:00 or faster.

The Monumental Marathon was designed to make this happen: a flat, fast course with 3 pacers running 2:19 pace for as much as 20 miles. I followed them for the majority of the race and was well under pace as late as 24 miles into the race. Then, my calves started cramping and my pace slowed. By the last 0.2 miles, I knew it was coming down to the wire. I willed myself across the line right as the clock turned to 2:19:00. I had no idea if I’d made it. An hour or so later, it became clear. My chip time, from when I crossed the start line to when I crossed the finish line, was 2:18:57. But my gun time, from when the gun was fired to when I crossed the finish line, was 2:19:01. The USATF website states that qualification is based on gun time, but that you can appeal for qualification based on chip time if you’re on the bubble. I’d ultimately find out whether I qualified for the Trials by checking my email.

 

I was fortunate to know someone familiar with the USATF appeal process. Matt, the elite athlete director for the Monumental Marathon and Half Marathon, previously coached an athlete who ultimately qualified with a “slow” gun time by appeal. I emailed him a few hours after the race, thanked him for the awesome event he had put on for us, and asked him for advice. The following day he gave me a call.

Matt instructed me to focus on the following factors in my appeal. First, the Monumental Marathon shares a starting line with the very competitive half marathon. Thus, I lined up a few rows back at the start line to allow the half marathoners to take off when the gun fired. Second, the start of this particular race was not well announced, and there were a couple seconds of confusion before people started running. Matt advised me to include video of local news coverage in my appeal. He also informed me that almost all runners, even those right on the start line, had a 3-plus second differential between chip and gun time, further demonstrating the confusion after the gun went off.

As soon as I arrived back home, I got to work. My girlfriend Jennifer found a YouTube clip showing the start of the race. The video showed that all but a small handful of runners did not start running immediately after the race started. I wanted to demonstrate in my appeal that only those runners who started immediately after the gun had no differential in their chip/gun times, while the rest of the field did. But the video was blurry and the runners were hard to identify. Well, all of them except one: a gentleman in a black singlet who I remembered from the day before.

Just before taking my position behind the half marathoners at the start, I noticed someone standing right on the line in a black, “Jacuzzi Boys Athletic Club” singlet, which I recognized from the 100 x mile relay. That was the guy in the video! I searched my old emails and found Gilbert’s cell phone number, which he had given to everyone participating in the relay. I sent him a text, and he identified the Jacuzzi Boys athlete named Tate. I looked up Tate’s result and saw that he only had a 1 second differential—perfect! Gilbert also sent me a picture of the start from Instagram where I could clearly identify the bibs of several other runners. That photo, along with the video, contained all the evidence I needed. I wrote up a draft and sent it to two friends: Haskell and Robbie (a lawyer and a journalist, both runners) who made edits. I was ready to send in my appeal.

The Instagram post that Gilbert sent me showing the start of the race.

Because there were no instructions on how to turn in the appeal, I emailed a random person in the USATF directory. The following morning I got an email from a name I recognized: John, the USATF official I met at Gate River. As it turns out, his committee is also the committee that handles these appeals. Just in case he could put in a good word, I brought up our run together a couple years ago and told him I hoped he was doing well. I sent him the appeal. He said he remembered our run and that he would pass along my appeal to his committee and get back to me. Forty-five minutes later, I was in the Olympic Trials!

 

In the end I’ll never know whether a random run with John, or the fact that I ran a 100 x mile relay, played a significant role in getting the appeal approved. Perhaps the whole thing was overkill and they would have let me in based on chip time without me “proving” it took 4 seconds to reach the starting line. But even if that is the case, I can’t help but think how cool it is that a group of kind runners in Portland and meeting a stranger on a run on a hot Florida afternoon were somehow connected to my cold, breezy marathon in Indianapolis that morning. Frankly, achieving your goals is a lot more fun when you feel like you’re part of a community. Even though I’ll never really know how this all happened, one thing is perfectly clear: I didn’t get here on my own.

2 response to "Wildcard Saturday! How a 100 x Mile relay helped me qualify for the Olympic Trials in the marathon"

  1. By: Alex Posted: November 16, 2019

    Congrats on the race!

    • By: Joey Posted: November 16, 2019

      Thanks Alex!

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