I had one of the best weekends of my life at the Olympic Trials Marathon on February 29, 2020 in Atlanta, GA.
This whole trip was actually a Christmas gift from my family. In lieu of stuff, I asked my family for things like plane tickets, hotel stays, rental cars, excursions. Experiences. And a trip to the Olympic Trials Marathon was one of them. I mean, I still got my favorite Paper Source planner, but most of the things on my wish list were “wheres” not “whats.”
When I arrived in Atlanta on Friday evening, I somehow figured out the MARTA train system on my own (hi, directionally-challenged over here) and made it to my hotel in about 20 minutes for just $3.50. Win! Thankfully, I was staying within walking distance of all the weekend’s goings-on, so I didn’t need a car for anything. I quickly dropped my bags in my room and headed to Centennial Olympic Park to scope things out.
The park was closed off in preparation for the race, but it was cool to see everything set up and ready to go for Saturday. Even at 7:30 p.m., the streets were buzzing—and it was easy to pick out the people who were there just to watch the race. Sinewy male and female athletes donning specialty running shoes, team hats, club trackies and t-shirts, and embroidered jackets were milling about downtown, gathering in restaurants and bars, and scoping out different areas of the course. The energy was THERE, it was palpable, and it felt so good to soak it up.
I missed this.
I haven’t been around such a rich running community or event in years. Eight years ago when I was diagnosed with Dystonia and my running life and career quickly dissolved, I was pushed further and further away from this world. I took up biking and hiking and the closest I came to a starting line was listening to or watching race recaps on my favorite podcast and Youtube channels. It was nice to be back, but part of me felt like a fraud for thinking I belonged when I can’t race anymore, don’t belong to a club, and have run with one person in the last seven years. That sucked. I tried to shake that off as I made my way back to the hotel.
Whenever I travel from altitude down to sea level, I get raging headaches that stick around for a day or two, so on my way back to the hotel, I stopped at a CVS to stock up on Powerade and water to stay hydrated and help me sleep a bit better.
On Saturday morning—race day!!—I was up early for walk/run/hobble to Piedmont Park. Again, it was packed with groups of runners getting in a workout before the Olympic Trials Marathon kicked off at noon for the men and about 20 minutes later for the women. I did a little over 5.5 miles, which was all rollers there and back. The course profile for the runners that day was going to be much of the same without really any flat spots. Brutal. I got back to the hotel, showered, and took advantage of the free breakfast, then got my stuff together and headed out to the course.
I knew I couldn’t miss the start, so I hung out near the line to get a good spot. Very slowly, the crowds grew and suddenly a sea of people spilled out onto the sidewalks, and into the streets and the medians of the boulevards. Kids with painted faces, friends waving American flags, three women wearing glittering gold capes emblazoned with the Olympic rings.
I had never seen so many people come out for a race in my life. We are in a moment with distance running, and I got chills thinking about how many people this sport and these athletes have reached.
After the national anthem and before the gun went off, Atlanta went silent. Save for the wind whipping the leaves around on the trees above us, no one and nothing made a sound. Suddenly I could feel my heartbeat in my face and nerves washed over me for all the men on the starting line about to battle for one of three spots on the US Olympic Team.
In an instant, they were off with Bernard Lagat, and Galen Rupp leading the way with one hundred more of my heroes at their heels. I furiously started snapping photos both on my phone and my camera, but I haven’t quite figured out the settings on it yet, so from here on out, 99% of the runners are blurry.
As soon as the group passed by, I made my way down Marietta toward Forsyth (a cross street on Marietta) where I could see the women come through. About twenty minutes after the men set out on the course, the women came blasting by in a flash. One by one I saw all my favorite runners: Des, Steph, Em, Jordon, Molly, Kellyn…the list went on and on.
I couldn’t believe I was within feet of some of the fastest women in the country. (More chills!) After they passed, I continued on down the road almost a mile to a spot where the runners would pass about five more times before heading back toward the finish line at Centennial Olympic Park.
The course had several loops in it, which I imagined would totally suck for the runners, but was very convenient for the spectators. (Several years ago, while I was training for my first marathon in Florida, I did a half marathon as a training run and it had THREE out-and-backs. Guys, I literally wanted to die on the last out-and-back. WHO CREATES A COURSE LIKE THAT? Anyway.)
Even though a lot of the race weaved through downtown, it was all very walkable and pedestrian-friendly which made it so easy to jump between different points on the course. I wish I would’ve gone a bit further up toward Piedmont Park, but I was still in a great spot.
While I was waiting for the men to come back through, I snuck into a café to use the bathroom and escape the cold and wind for a bit. Though the sun was out all day, the temps were just in the 40s and the wind was blowing hard all day long. I definitely felt for the runners!
When I was packing for this trip I assumed Atlanta was going to be warm and only took a couple light jackets which wasn’t enough. Brutal!
After the men and women went by another time, I made my way back to the park to get as close to the finish line as I could, but by the time I arrived, the men were still about 15-20 minutes away and the crowds were already about eight people deep on each side of the fence to watch them run through. I squeezed through the crowd and planted myself in one place to wait it out. We were packed in like sardines which I hoped would shield me from the wind but no luck.
The only thing that helped me keep my mind off of freezing to death was the couple standing next to me. The girl had her phone out with the live placing and pacing of the athletes in the race and her boyfriend had the NBC livestream open on his phone so we could watch them race before they got to us. That was awesome as first, second, and third places were changing up all the way to the end of the race.
Finally, finally Galen Rupp came bounding down the hill triumphantly in those ridiculous Nike Alphafly almost one minute ahead of the second place male. He carried a small American flag and wore a huge smile. He and some of his teammates have been under fire recently especially amid the Salazar drama, but he was definitely the best man on this day, and I really think he deserved to win. One by one we watched the men run down the final straightaway before we anxiously waited for the women. Again, the dude next to me came in clutch for everyone by reporting time and distance out from the finish and even doling out stats on all the top runners. He was great and so funny.
About 15-20 minutes later, the crowd erupted as Aliphine flew by towards the finish followed by Molly and then Sally—all clutching tiny American flags. I so so wanted to be them in that moment—I mean, maybe everyone in the crowd wanted to be those athletes. But, in general, I wanted to be a real runner again. I wanted to suffer for something really big again. Tears filled with happy and sad memories rolled down my cheeks as I cheered and clapped and mourned all at the same time.
I watched about 100 or so women run by before I couldn’t feel my fingers anymore, then turned around and headed back toward my hotel. It was around 3:30 p.m. when I walked like a frozen zombie back into my room and faceplanted on my bed feeling like I had actually run a marathon. I could’ve very easily fallen asleep but instead I sipped on hotel coffee to warm up, posted a few photos, shared some with my family and friends, then got ready to head back out for Ali on the Run’s live podcast at a hotel down the street.
I was running on fumes, but felt totally reenergized when I walked into the ballroom transformed into a live podcast recording. For one, Sarah Sellers was sitting about five feet away from me. For two, Dathan Ritzenhein was on stage, Ali Feller walked right behind me, Meb was waiting in the wings to speak…GAH it was swarming with people. I felt like I was rubbing elbows with pros all weekend, which was incredible. I only ended up staying for half the podcast which felt like enough for me after such an early morning and long day. My headache was still totally killing me, so I was very content sinking into bed at 8:30 p.m.
I went for one final run on Sunday morning; my plan was to head back to Piedmont Park, but it took a bit longer since there was another race happening all morning and afternoon: The Publix Atlanta Marathon. What a weekend for racing! It was fun to see so many people going normal speed, ha!
I didn’t feel great, but made it almost six miles before packing things up, heading out, and meeting a college girlfriend and former teammate for coffee! Though we have kept in touch on social media, we still had a lot to catch up on since we hadn’t seen each other in about eight years. That was one of my favorite parts of the weekend. She is a sweet soul and super down to earth. We had a great time!
The rest of Sunday was filled with travel. Lots of waiting around at the airport, lots of money spent on a stupid, underwhelming salad, lots of reading on the plane. The best part, though, was meeting my mom at her gate in the Denver airport! She flew in for business and her plane landed 10 minutes after mine! It was so great to get a big hug from her after a tiring day and weekend.
Overall, I had an amazing experience (HUGE AMAZING shoutout to the Atlanta Track Club who hit it out of the park , but I definitely felt disconnected from the running community and missing out on group rides and get togethers made me really sad. I hope this post wasn’t a downer, but it’s truly what I felt.
Here are some more recaps of the OTM that I really enjoyed and provided even more info about the race, the runners, and what’s next: