Let's start with a little background. After 70.3 Worlds in September, you reached out and asked if Smashfest Queen would be supportive of your taking a little break from triathlon-ing to pursue an outside-the-box goal of qualifying for the Olympic Trials in the marathon at CIM. We were like HELL YEAH HALEY this is a RAD goal!!! Can you tell the readers though what inspired this pursuit?
About a year ago, in December 2018, my close friend, and fellow collegiate swimmer turned runner, Shelly Anderson, asked me if I thought I could run the Women’s U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials qualification standard of 2:45:00. My initial reaction was “No way!” But the idea stuck in my head, and through a late night google search I learned the qualification period for the 2020 Marathon Trials went through January 19, 2020. I knew my 2019 “A” race was the 70.3 World Championships in early September and I also knew the California International Marathon in December was a race many people target for a Trials qualification time. I felt like maybe the timeline would work and I could focus on triathlon through September, then change gears for three months to focus on the marathon and the Trials cut. I floated the idea by my coach, Matthew Rose, in early 2019. He was surprised, but after some thought he agreed it was a worthy goal.
My triathlon season didn’t go exactly as I planned and I nearly abandoned the Trials qualification goal following my 26th place finish at 70.3 Worlds in September. I wasn’t satisfied with my result and felt motivated to seek immediate redemption at another triathlon. Matthew reminded me of the reasons I had initially laid out for pursuing the Trials qualification standard and I’m so glad he helped me stick to my long-term plan rather than get caught up in the emotion following a less-than-perfect result. Once I felt sure I was going to race the marathon, I started to tell people, including Hillary and Michele. I was nervous about the reaction since this did feel like an out-of-the-box goal, but the enthusiastic response helped me realize this was the right path for me.
Can you tell us a bit about your training for CIM? What kind of mileage were you running and what were some of your most challenging workouts?
By marathon standards, my mileage was probably pretty conservative. My biggest mileage week was 70 miles, and I think I did that twice. I was shocked by how hard it was for me to build run volume. Even while training for Ironman, I probably don’t run more than 35 miles per week, so 70 was a lot for me and did require me cutting back on bike and swim time and increasing my sleep time. My total training hours were about half my usual triathlon training time, but I was just as tired.
The first month and a half of training went pretty smooth, but then the cumulative effect of the run volume started to hit me. I struggled to get out the door on many days, blew up on easy runs, and some days I could barely hold a 12 minute mile. Since I live in Montana and we had snow in September this year, I spent a lot of time running in really tough conditions, often feeling pretty sorry for myself. However, I have enough experience in sport to realize gains can sometimes be made just by staying upright and making some kind of forward progress for the designated amount of time, so some days, that’s just what I did.
I did all of my speed work on the treadmill (at 1% incline, and I am also running at 5000 feet elevation here in Bozeman). My most challenging treadmill workout was 2x27 minutes at 6’19-6’05 pace. I actually didn’t make it. I barely made the first interval, jogged 5 minutes of recovery, then I think I made it about 10 minutes into the second interval when I couldn’t hold the pace. I got off the treadmill, went to the bathroom to cool off, got back on and tried again. I ended up backing off the pace and running the duration of the interval at a slower pace.
I’m a coach, but I also have a coach because for all my own athletic experience, in tough moments it’s so easy for me to lose perspective of my own training. Matthew helped me put this specific workout in context. In the context of my day, week, marathon build, and even life, my struggle made more sense. We also recognized even at the slower pace, I was actually accomplishing our desired training benefit of an extended hard effort. I did use this specific workout as motivation to really focus on rest, good fueling, and getting myself in a good headspace during taper.
You absolutely NAILED IT on race day, not even just sneaking under the qualifying time but making it by a healthy margin. Can you tell us about how it all played out on the day?
Race day was wild. I found trying to hold a specific pace really mentally stressful. In triathlons I run more on effort and will take risks trying to catch someone or maintain a lead and my mile paces can vary widely. In the marathon, I aimed to hold 6’15 pace with less than a 5 second margin for error in either direction. It felt odd to spend so much time looking at my watch, and very little time worrying about the other runners on the road.
I felt pretty rough in the initial miles. The road was hot and crowded and my target pace felt uncomfortable. I think it took 10 miles for me to properly warm-up, then the pace started feeling more manageable. Once I hit the half marathon mark in 1:21:30 I believed I had a chance to run sub-2:45. Three months earlier I had run a 1:22 half marathon off the bike at 70.3 Worlds in a race that had felt like a huge struggle from the gun. That tough race in France now gave me confidence in Sacramento. Fair Oaks Boulevard turned into the Promenade des Anglais, and a race I had previously thought of as a failure, became my primary source of motivation.
At mile 19 I decided to pick up the pace. My surge was short lived when at mile 21 I started to struggle and brought the focus back to hitting 6’15s. I knew my goal for this race was different and I couldn’t risk blowing up. I ate seven gels total, with two of those coming in the final five miles.
I was super happy and relieved to see 2:43:30 on the clock as I ran across the finish line. I was even happier to hear the announcer call Ruth Brennan Morrey’s name just seconds later. A former professional triathlete, Ruth was one of my favorite competitors and despite very different race strategies, we had many close finishes. It felt wildly fitting that in a race with 8,000 competitors, we crossed the line only two people apart.
You have just under 3 months between your qualifying marathon and the big dance itself, which is February 29th--what's the plan of attack to run another fast one with this relatively short turnaround time?
Right now, I’m not really sure! I’m the type of athlete who puts full faith in my coach, and while our relationship at this point is more collaborative, since CIM I have been focused on recovery, making sure I’m structurally healthy, and also celebrating my race and the holidays. I’ve definitely started building my run volume again, but at this point I’m mostly just doing whatever workout shows up on my plan and not giving it too much thought. I actually think I’ve recovered faster from this marathon than even a typical 70.3, so that’s a good sign. And this second marathon is less of an unknown since the memory of CIM is still pretty fresh. I imagine things are going to get more “real” on January 1st. I hope I have time to take another stab at the 2x27 minutes treadmill workout, or some variation of it.
With trials happening on a tough course in Atlanta, a place that is so special to you, what are you most looking forward to about this incredible opportunity?
Atlanta is a really special city for me. I graduated from the University of Georgia and then lived in Atlanta for a decade after college. It’s the city where I got my start in endurance sport and where I learned to properly train for and race triathlon thanks to the Atlanta-based Dynamo Multisport team. I have so many friends and supporters in Atlanta, and I wanted a chance to race in front of them on what I imagine will feel like a hometown course.
The 2020 US Olympic Marathon Trails will likely feature a record 400+ athlete women’s field, nearly double the field size in 2016 with the same qualification standard. The Atlanta Track Club’s insistence on supporting all qualifiers equally with financial assistance and clearly communicated support has obviously encouraged more women to go after that 2:45:00 time standard, including myself. I do feel like this race is an example of a little bit of support resulting in an incredible response and hope other races and organizations are watching and learning from this experience as well.
Have you thought about what the rest of 2020 will look like once you recover from trials?
I have increased my swim and bike volume since CIM and I do look forward to getting back on a triathlon start line sometime after the Trials in February. Coeur d’Alene 70.3 in June is one of my favorite races, so that’s definitely on my radar. Assuming I come out of Trials physically and mentally healthy, I might be on a start line before then, but my best strategy has always been to take races one at a time. I’m interested to see if this marathon focus helps my triathlon run splits, or at least just helps me with better pacing! I’ve learned a lot as both an athlete and coach from this slight diversion from my typical race calendar and I look forward to putting these new skills to work in 2020!
Haley Chura is a long-time Smashfest Queen-sponsored pro triathlete who is now a member of our Smashfest Queen-NUUN Pro Team.