There was some good marathoning news last weekend amidst all the sweat and slow times at Twin Cities and Chicago -- Erin Ward got an Olympic Trials qualifier at the St. George Marathon in Utah running 2:45:58.
We tracked down the Run N Fun runner to get the whole story ...
DtB: It sounds like you were at one of the cool spots on the continent last weekend. What were the conditions like at St. George?
Ward: The conditions at St. George were close to perfect. It was probably just under 40 degrees at the start, which is at about 5500 feet of altitude. I tend to favor warmer conditions than most runners, so I was a little worried about the cold. I wore a hat and gloves, a long-sleeved shirt, and those dorky long socks to keep me warm. (Sometimes performance just has to come before fashion.)
The sun doesn't come up for the first half-hour or so of the race, so you're running in the dark--it seems surreal. The temps warmed to about 55 by the finish, I think. I didn't notice any wind at all, which usually means that there is a slight tailwind. Can you imagine a better set of circumstances? I flew back to Minnesota the night of my race so that I could watch the TCM, and the conditions were brutal. I feel so fortunate to have chosen to run in the desert.
DtB: How did your race play out? Were you on pace the whole way? Were there any bad patches to work through?
Ward: The race was not easy for me. The first seven miles are at altitude, but they're also downhill. I went through the 10K already almost a minute under pace and feeling fantastic. I thought I might be headed for a 2:42-2:43 race (don't we all get a little excited in the first ten miles?)
The next 6 miles are also at nearly 5000 feet, but there is one long incline that lasts from mile seven to eight, and then the course levels out through the halfway point. I told myself to not worry about pace and to try to minimize my effort on that stretch (this was Kelly Mortenson's advice, and he has won the race in the past, so I believed him!), and then to concentrate on a big negative split. I needed to be at 1:23:30 at the half to be on pace for my qualifier, and I think I was about five or six seconds under. Then the race really starts to drop.
Miles 14-16 take a very steep drop, and those who have trained for downhill running start to reap the rewards. Unfortunately I was not one of those who had trained for downhill running. By the end of mile 16 my quads were crying, and I was not far from crying myself. This is when I started to let a little self-doubt creep into my head.
I have to thank Jenna Boren for getting me through miles 16-23. She sent me a text message the day before the race that said, "If you start to doubt yourself, remember that you're the only one. Everyone else believes that you can do it." I reminded myself of this every time I thought the race was slipping away. I also told myself that if there was ever a perfect day to do this, today was the day.
At mile 24 I calculated that I was under pace again, and this was the first time that I thought I might be able to do it. I spent the next two miles holding my breath (metaphorically, of course) and trying to stay calm. With a mile to go I had 7:30 minutes to finish, and I said to myself, "You train faster than that on your easy days." Still, a marathon is a marathon, and disaster can strike at any time. I didn't celebrate until I had about fifty meters to go.
DtB: Describe how you felt when you knew you'd made the standard. It's been a long road for you, no?
Ward: This marathon was my sixth attempt at the qualifier. I think the first two attempts were probably a little optimistic (evidenced by 1:23 first halves and 1:30 second halves), but the other three were legitimate. I spent miles 15-26 at Chicago 2006 throwing up, was not quite fit enough due to a nagging injury at Houston 2007, and whined about the heat at Grandma's this June.
I trained harder than ever this past summer, running up to 120 miles per week and averaging over 90, so I thought my fitness was adequate. I am a rather inconsistent runner, though, and I tend to have either a great performance or to completely fall apart. As I mentioned, I didn't let myself believe that I had met my goal until I was very close to the finish line. The first person I saw after I finished was Kelly Mortenson, and he had waited in the cold at the finish line until I came across. I found out that he had missed his 2:22 standard by about a minute and a half, and I was disappointed for him. (Of course, he did qualify in 2000 and finished 12th at the Trials, so he's had his share of success.)
Then I saw my dad, who was pretty much sobbing. My mom was crying, too. They had flown out to Utah for the weekend to see me race, and they have been traveling around to support me in this quest to qualify for the Olympic Trials. I was thinking during the race when things got tough, "Erin, you are going to bankrupt your parents if you don't run a qualifier pretty soon--all of this flying is getting expensive."
Achieving the qualifying standard is a dream for me. So many people have helped me to reach this goal: all of my teammates at Run n Fun and Perry and Kari Bach for supporting the team, my family for both emotional and financial support, my co-workers and my boss for putting up with "compromised productivity" when training demands are high, Angie Voight for tolerating my one-stepping ways (I still don't believe that I do that), the Baba Yaga Hood-to-Coast team for the best weekend of the summer, and the Twin Cities running community for too many good times and laughs to count.
I was cheering for my friends during the TCM, and many of them shouted back, "Congratulations, Erin!" during their own races. I am one very lucky runner.
Addition: Ward noticed she made an omission and later added: "I owe a lot to my coach, Dennis Barker, who calls me Champ (because I asked him to!) and makes me believe it."