Olympic Trials Recap - Reflecting on Eugene

There's nothing like a nasty case of bronchitis to sideline you from running and make you nostalgic for healthier, faster days. I've been couch-bound for a week with a nasty cough (thank you asthma and inherited bad lungs!), and over the past few days I've been reflecting on the Olympic Trials this past summer. I never got around to writing a race recap, as I immediately jetted off to Europe to race following the Trials. So, at long last, here's the play-by-play from the Track & Field Olympic Trials this past July!

Spoiler alert, I didn’t make the Olympic team (the woman with the long blonde hair you saw on NBC was Emma Coburn, no it wasn’t me winning a medal in the steeplechase!). While I didn’t go to Rio, I had an incredible Olympic Trials experience in Eugene. Allow me to give you a glimpse behind the scenes of my week at the Trials. 

I left Providence nearly a week before the Trials, heading first to California to get acclimated to West Coast time and to do my final workout under Dena’s watchful eye. I ran my tuneup at Stanford, on the track I’ve circled many times - as a high schooler new to the sport, as a college athlete in awe of the pros, as a recent college grad chasing a dream. I ran breakthrough races there, heart-breaker races, and many workouts in between. Doing this final workout here was fitting - it was full circle (literally!), and I ran my last fast quarter on the track thinking about the long, joyous journey I’d been on to get here. 

On Wednesday I flew to Eugene and got settled in my hotel, which would be my home for the week. The days before the race were filled with logistics - getting my athlete credential, visiting athlete hospitality and medical, shopping for groceries, and of course running. I ran my first-ever lap on Hayward Field - in my many years of racing, I had never set foot on the historic track til now. I could see why people revered this stadium - everything felt bigger, faster, more important than on the tracks I’d worked out on. On a track with such history, in a town with such respect and passion for track & field, it is a very fitting location for the Olympic Trials. 

 Got my credential. I'd wanted one of these for 8 long years. S*** is finally getting real!

Got my credential. I'd wanted one of these for 8 long years. S*** is finally getting real!

The Trials officially kicked off on Friday, July 1 with my brother Brendan running the men's 10,000 meters. I was almost more nervous for his race than my own - I get so anxious watching him race! It was warm for the men's 10k, with the late afternoon sun beating down on the runners. It was a tumultuous race, with leads changing, surges, and Olympic dreams dashed as hopefuls faded and dropped out, succumbing to the heat and pressure. But Brendan stayed the course, running patient and smart. I was going nuts as he moved up in the field, running in 6th place in the final miles. It took great self-discipline not to lose my s*** in the stands cheering for him! He got nipped at the line and ended up 8th, but what a race - 8th in the country, when just a few months prior he'd had to drop out of the Olympic Trials marathon due to injury. I was such a proud sister, and left the track feeling more inspired than ever for my own race just a few short hours later.

 Brendan killing it en route to 8th place

Brendan killing it en route to 8th place

 Gregg family cheering squad - Go Brendan!

Gregg family cheering squad - Go Brendan!

With Brendan's race done, now it was my turn. Saturday, July 2 - race day. I got to see Avi the morning before the race, who'd flown a red eye from Providence to get there. Dena picked me up at the hotel and we drove to the track and sat in the athlete area, me with headphones on, laying on the turf and zoning out. My competitors were there too, each of us in our own head, contemplating the task (and the dream) before us. 

10 am arrived, and it was time to warm up. Stretch, activation drills, one more bathroom stop, then a few miles jogging. Back to the tent, grab spikes, check in; some hard strides on the practice track, a few more pump-up tunes, take my inhaler. Then, pause for the National Anthem - hearing the Star-Spangled Banner made it all feel real. I felt a surge of pride for the opportunity to compete against our country's best, and I was ready to give it my very best. I received some final words of encouragement from Dena, and then it was go time!

Walking from the athlete check in area to under the grandstands, where they held us until it was time to go out to the track, I had one of my favorite moments of the whole Trials. I was hoping to see my dad before the race, but hadn't yet. However, in the final moments before we entered the holding area, there he was, waiting before the gate with just the biggest smile on his face. He was so proud, and so happy, and I was overwhelmed with joy that I got to see him before! We embraced, and then I kept walking - there was nothing else to say, everything was complete - now it was time to run.

It was hot, the sun relentless, and it was crowded in lane 1 - there were so many talented women in the field. My goal was to put myself in the mix - I wanted to give myself a chance to respond to moves, react to surges, and compete for that coveted Top 3. I went out with the lead pack of 12, clicking off 77s and 78s through 5k. That pace should have been comfortable, but the heat took a bit of a toll, and when Molly Huddle started to crank down the pace after 5k, I couldn't respond.

 Grinding, grinding. The hurt is real.

Grinding, grinding. The hurt is real.

I slowly fell off from the lead group, but tried to keep my eyes up, as I wasn't the only one struggling. Even though I was alone on the track, I kept grinding and looking ahead. Unlike in the dreadful Marathon Trials, I'm proud to say that I never once gave in to negative thoughts as my Olympic dream slowly slipped away. Instead, I drew on the cheers from my family, which I heard every lap, and I kept pushing, kept pressing all the way to the finish. As I charged hard for home, I tried to take a second to smile and to soak in the moment, one I'd dreamed about for years. I finished 1 second out of 10th, overall 11th in 32:55, my 2nd fastest 10k ever. Though not an Olympic spot, it was a finish I could be proud of.

 Dena cheering, saying "Look ahead!"

Dena cheering, saying "Look ahead!"

 One of my favorite photos from the Trials - that's my mom cheering me on during the painful final miles. I heard her every lap!

One of my favorite photos from the Trials - that's my mom cheering me on during the painful final miles. I heard her every lap!

That day and that race wouldn't have been possible without the many amazing people who'd supported me and my goals. Getting to the Trials takes a village, and I was so happy and grateful to share the journey with so many I cherish. My people are pretty darn awesome! "Thank you" doesn't even come close to expressing my gratitude.

The 10,000 meters was the event I'd dreamed about competing in since I sat in the stands at Hayward watching the 2008 Trials. It was the event I chased in 2012 but came up short, and that I sat at home watching on TV while drinking wine and I wishing I was on the starting line. So when I punched my ticket for it in 2016, I was all-in for the 10k. But as the spring track season went well, I allowed myself to dream of a 5k Trials berth as well... and as luck would have it, my 15:29 5k ended up earning me a spot in a 2nd Trials event! So once the 10k was over, I rapidly switched gears to get ready for the 5k.

The 5k prelims were scheduled for Thursday, July 7, so I had some time to kill in Eugene. My family had to go back home, as did Dena, so I was really grateful that Brendan was able to stick around. He stayed with me and served as my assistant/sherpa/chauffeur/buddy for the week, shuttling me to athlete medical for massages, to the grocery store for food, to the track for a tuneup workout, etc. Hanging out with Brendan was another Trials highlight for me - just the two of us siblings chilling out in Track Town USA, a runner's paradise, competing at and watching the Trials - it was a blast, and he helped keep me grounded during the long layover between the 10k and 5k. 

 All smiles with Dena at the Trials

All smiles with Dena at the Trials

Dena came back to Eugene for the 5k, as did my amazing parents, who road-tripped back up from Davis. Dena and I recreated our pre-10k dinner - same restaurant, same meal - and we talked 5k race strategy. We knew it would be challenging to make the final, as my heat included Molly Huddle (2012 5k Olympian, then-5k American record holder, and 2016 10k Olympic Trials Champion), Shelby Houlihan (eventual 2016 5k Olympian), Marielle Hall (2016 10k Olympian), Abbey D'Agostino (eventual 2016 5k Olympian), among many other fast folks. Talk about a stacked heat! We knew it would be tough to get out of the heat automatically (top 6 auto-qualify), so our plan was if the race went slow, to step up and make it honest and fast, and aim to advance as one of the 4 time qualifiers from the two heats.

 Entering the stadium

Entering the stadium

Heat 1 took the track, and those of us in Heat 2 watched the clock. 7th place in Heat 1 was 15:44, so that became the time to beat. If I wasn't in the top 6 in my heat, I had to run one of the next 4 fastest times. I was ready to make that happen.

I was determined to make the race an honest one, and well, I did. I was maybe a little too eager... I got a little excited and went right to the front. I took the lead and basically said, "This is the Olympic Trials, let's not pussy-foot around, let's RUN!" I took off, and fast. 

Molly and I had chatted before, and I knew she planned to go at halfway, so my goal was to stay in the mix once she took off. I hoped that the fast early pace might be too much for some of my competitors, and that I could find just enough to hang on and snag a time qualifier. Unfortunately for me, I paid the price of my own early pace. I also got tangled up a few times in some pushing and jostling, and I let that affect me mentally. In the 10k, while it might be crowded, it's usually quite orderly on the track - but in the 5k, it's physical, and I was unprepared for the elbows being thrown. This mental lapse cost me, and I ended up having a rough back half of the 5k, finishing last in my heat, out of the time qualifiers. My Trials were done.

 The face you make when your Olympic Trials come to a close. Tired.

The face you make when your Olympic Trials come to a close. Tired.

Still, I couldn't be too disappointed. I'd executed my race plan, albeit a little too eagerly - I admit to some nerves and rookie mistakes out there. But you can't be upset when you gave it an honest shot - although I didn't make the final, I gave it my very darn best, and if I could go back and do it over again, I'd still take the lead. I'd rather run brave than scared, and that's a lesson I'm happy to have learned in Eugene.

So I waved goodbye to the Olympic Trials with a smile. It was a magical conclusion to many years of hard work, joyful miles and not-so-joyful ones, workouts where I was flying and others where I finished in tears, snowy miles, humid sweaty miles, and thousands more in between. I was one of only two women who competed in all 3 distance events at the Olympic Trials - marathon, 5k, and 10k - that's something I'm quite proud of. While this chapter of my running career has closed, I'm excited for what the next 4 years hold for me. 2020, I'm already looking at you!

To wrap up this lengthy blog post, I'll close with one more message of gratitude, to the people who shared this adventure with me. Thanks for the smiles & miles, and here's to many more together!

Joyfully,
Kaitlin