Last week, Smashfest Queen-sponsored pro triathlete Haley Chura had the incredible privilege of competing in her third Olympic Trials— in a new sport this time, the marathon. You can read more about her OTQ here (link to other blog) and today we get all the scoop on what it was like to be a part of a historic women’s Olympic Trials event.
It sounds like there were a lot of cool events and activities leading up to race day in Atlanta--can you tell us about that and what were the highlights for you??
The obvious highlight for me was the Ironwomen Podcast Live Event Panel that happened the Wednesday before race day. The panel included myself, Ruth Brennan Morrey, and Sarah Bishop, with all of us being professional triathletes racing in the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials. The panel was moderated by my fellow Smashfest Queen-Nuun Pro Team member and Ironwomen Podcast co-host Alyssa Godesky. It was really fun telling my story from “the other side of the mic” and sharing the stage with women I really admire as athletes and humans. I also met so many podcast listeners, friends, and even a few Team SFQ teammates in person for the first time, and that was a really special way to start my trip to Atlanta.
The days leading up to the marathon were pretty busy and filled with check-in, uniform and shoe checks, decorating my personal fluids bottles, technical meetings, athlete dinners and meet ups. Since the event was under USOC rules, the uniform and logo requirements for anything we wore during the race as well as before and after were really strict. Any logos not in compliance were covered with duct tape. Luckily my Smashfest Queen sports bra and speedster shorts were in compliance!
Did you have any "fan girl" moments or running hero meetings/ sightings?
I had my first fan girl moment at the Atlanta airport when I arrived on Tuesday and saw a group of women walking toward the ride share pickup area and I just knew they were runners! The Atlanta Track Club provided hotel rooms for all athletes in the hotel right next to the start and finish. It was impossible to go anywhere near the hotel without seeing tons of athletes running or hanging out.
On race morning I walked into the athlete staging area behind 2016 Olympian Jared Ward and watched him stopping to sign autographs and greeting fans. The women’s tent was like a “who’s who” of U.S. Marathoning and I geeked out a little seeing women like Des Linden, Stephanie Bruce, Molly Huddle, and Emily Sisson. Sally Kipyego even passed me during warm-up! I also recognized many women who weren’t necessarily Olympic Team contenders, but they were people I had followed in articles and podcasts over the past couple months and it was really cool to see them in person.
The race was set up as three loops with multiple out-and-backs, so even though I was a little further back in the race, I still had a great view of the top women’s and men’s packs after every turn around. It was so cool to feel like I was part of their race and really recognize we were running the same route, in the same conditions, and I wasn’t really even that far behind!
Having qualified less than 3 months before the race, what kind of preparation did you do for this one, especially for a course that was markedly different than where you qualified?
In my last Smashfest Queen Diaries blog post I mentioned a specific treadmill workout of 2x27 minutes at marathon race pace that I hadn’t quite finished in my build up to the California International Marathon and I said I had hoped for a chance to repeat it. Well, I never even came close to being in a position to attempt that workout. As I came out of the holidays I struggled with tempo sessions and extended hard intervals, so my coach Matthew and I changed our focus to more strength-focused runs on hills and just gradually increasing my volume and staying healthy. In a perfect world, I probably would have qualified earlier and taken a break after the first marathon and then had a longer build into Trials. But that wasn’t how things worked for me so I embraced what I could do, tried to focus on the few good sessions I managed to put together, and worked my hardest to maintain the perspective that my real prize was being healthy and on that start line in Atlanta.
What was your strategy/ plan leading for race day? How did you come up with a goal time/ pace given the difficulty of the course?
After I visited Atlanta in January and ran a loop of the course I realized even at my best, this was likely not a PR course for me. The hills on a single loop felt challenging and the full course covered nearly 1400 feet of climbing. For perspective, the Ironman website lists the elevation gains at Ironman Chattanooga and Kona at 673 feet and 1009ft, respectively (and that Kona number feels a bit overstated to me.) After seeing the course and considering my training, my coach and I decided on a goal time range of 6’15-6’45 per mile and an overall finish time goal of 2’49. The fairly consistent nature of the course at CIM had made it easy for me to really dial in 6’15 pace and hold it for the duration of the race. However in Atlanta I knew the hilly course would lead to more variation in mile paces. We also knew I would likely have to further adjust those goal times if it was unusually hot or cold. In general, I went into the race with a pretty adaptable plan.
Can you tell us all about the race itself and how it played out for you? We are so curious also about the camaraderie with the other women competing given the impressive numbers and depth of this particular field--what was that like? Did you form any spoken or unspoken alliances along the way?
The start felt like a dream. I was standing next to Ruth and surrounded by 450 American women who had all run a sub 2’45 marathon to qualify to be there. I expected large cheer crowds at the start, but when me turned onto Peachtree Street, a major Atlanta road and the primary route of the marathon course, the roar was deafening! I’ve never experienced crowds like that. I probably got a little excited and went out a little fast those first few miles and it might have cost me a few minutes in the final miles of the race, but honestly looking back, I wouldn’t have changed a thing. I was running in the biggest race of my life in front of the biggest crowds ever, in one of my favorite cities, surrounded by a historic number of fast women! I’m so glad I leaned into that excitement!
The field thinned out over the three loops, but I was never really running alone. I was a little inconsistent in my pacing, so I wasn’t really around the same group of women for any extended period of time, but I definitely felt the camaraderie and I know all of us recognized the significance of the event. The turn arounds also allowed us to see a few of the visibly pregnant women running in the back of the pack and many women threw high fives or yelled in support as we passed.
This was your third Olympic Trials after two experiences as a swimmer. You've also competed on US National Swimming Teams, in the Ironman World Championships as a professional, and won multiple titles between Ironman and Ironman 70.3. Yet you described last week as "probably your coolest experience in sport." That is a HUGE statement given your resume!!! We are so curious what specifically about last week made it tip the scales.
I know it’s probably strange to say a race where I finished in 304th place, didn’t PR, and didn’t even meet my more conservative finish time goal could be my coolest experience in sport, but I think it does teach me it doesn’t always take a great performance to have a great experience.
The streets in Atlanta were lined with people from all parts of my life. My college roommate, three-time Olympic swimmer Kara Lynn Joyce’s family was out cheering for me and they even made signs! Another of my fellow University of Georgia Swimming teammates and her dad were also on the course. Those people have been cheering for me for more than 17 years! I saw one of my former bosses from when I worked in an accounting firm in Atlanta. The Dynamo Multisport cheer section had vuvuzelas, cow bells, and one of my athletes had come off an ER night shift to cheer and she brought a boom box and DJ skills! The very first athlete I ever coached came with her two daughters. I saw friends and fellow Team SFQ teammates working at aid stations. Betty Janelle, who has been a huge influence on my life and my progression in endurance sport is going through cancer treatment and she ventured into public for the first time in five months to cheer. I am getting emotional just writing about it. It was such a unique experience to have a major event happening in a location where so many people I knew could attend. It was like having Kona in my hometown and I felt so loved and supported. I’ve never heard so many “Go Haleys” in my life.
At the technical meeting before the race Rich Kenah, the Executive Director of the Atlanta Track Club and an Olympic runner himself, talked about the ATC’s vision for a championship event and how that meant supporting all qualifiers equally. I believe he later talked about how he recognized there were maybe 20 athletes who were contenders to make the U.S. Olympic Team, but for the hundreds of others they hoped to create a race experience they would never forget. I can confidently say that mission was accomplished. I felt so supported in every interaction with ATC employees and volunteers in the months, weeks, and days before and since the race. I am in awe with how the ATC handled the logistical and financial challenges of a record number of qualifiers and turned those challenges into points of pride. I really felt like they wanted me on that start line, and in turn, I felt so proud of myself for being there.
The last couple miles were really tough for me, both because of the hills and wind, and just because they came at the end of the race. In the final miles we ran under the Olympic Rings from the 1996 Games and I looked up and I could see the Olympic Cauldron, lit for the first time in 24 years. Thinking back on that moment now, I feel so invested in the races of Aliphine, Molly, and Sally and I can’t wait to cheer for them as they represent us and Team USA in Tokyo/Sapporo. I also look forward to cheering for Des in Boston, and for the many other women I had the honor to share the race course with on February 29, 2020. I also hope anyone who might have been on the sidelines or at home this time can find their own OTQ equivalent, an experience so big it transcends performance and connects them with a community they might have otherwise not known existed.