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The Closest I Will Get To the Olympic Dream: Watching the US Olympic Marathon Team Trials

When we hosted the Olympic Marathon Team Trials here in Atlanta in 2020, I was so in awe of the whole experience that I vowed to attend the event every 4 years, no matter where they were located. Not only would I get to see the top marathoners in the sport in person, but maybe I could see a fun new place or take a vacation around it. 

Then, of course, it was announced that the Trials would be in Orlando. I’m not going to lie I was a little disappointed - growing up in Florida I had been to the greater Orlando area my fair share of times, but of course this meant that it would be a driveable trip, and more importantly, I would get to see one of my closest college friends. Not a bad deal at all! 

On February 3rd I awoke with the excitement of a kid on Christmas Morning. I couldn’t wait to put my running shoes on, inspired by the events of the day. The thought of how much work went into this race for so many really made me want to put in work of my own. 

My friend and I set off into the dark, babbling about anything and everything. We made our way over to the adjacent city of Winter Park, the sun rising in our faces as we navigated neighborhood streets and brick roads. My friend is an extremely fast marathoner, having run a 2:42 at Boston last year, and she was one of the many women who chased the elusively quick 2:37 OTQ. While I will never be in the position to dream quite that big, I’ve been so inspired by those who put their heart on the line in pursuit of earning a spot at the starting line in Orlando. I do know the ache of having a big goal and falling short - I’ve been there many a time - and it was top of mind for both of us as we ran. 

We talked about what it means to truly go “all in” for something: the risk, vulnerability, and pursuit of something unguaranteed. There is so much wrapped up into this: the peaks and valleys of the process, the lessons learned about the self and the sport, the possibility of triumph enough to weather it all. 

We finished our run and quickly got ready to go cheer on the course. We picked a spot where we would be able to see the runners 3 times, and on our way there we saw some of the women warming up (the men were already queued up, as it was getting close to 10am). I loved seeing the different strategies: some warming up in groups and chatting, others with headphones on and alone. I fangirled for a bit before making our way across Lake Eola park and toward the longer loop of the criterium-style course. It was a beautiful day - blue skies and a springlike warmth enveloping chilly morning air. The park was a bustling place, full of people wearing GPS watches and race shirts. I’m always struck by how similar we all look when in a city for a big race weekend - sort of like a (semi) healthy cult.

Our first cheer spot was roughly at the 15k mark. We all waited eagerly as the helicopters buzzed overhead, many with the livestream pulled up on their phones in order to not miss a single minute of the action (It’s me, hi). You could feel the excitement build as the course marshalls came by, the crowd murmur getting louder and louder. The sound continued to build until the lead vehicle came into view, to which the sidelines erupted into a roar. The men came flying by in a large pack, all looking strong and confident. The crazy thing about the Trials is that even the “back of the pack” runners are still 2:18 marathoners for the men and 2:37 marathoners for the women. About 20 minutes later the women’s lead vehicle came into view, sending my heart into frenzied butterflies. These women are my heroes in many ways - not only the ones in the front competing for an Olympic spot, but so many others whom I follow and gain inspiration from nearly daily. Seeing them in their element on such a big stage was emotional, and good thing I was so busy screaming my face off for them or else my eyes might have teared up. It was a total of maybe 30 seconds seeing them pass but it was so worth the drive. 

The second lap was a different story, with both fields spread out and clearly sweating more than on the first. We had ditched our jackets long ago and the sun was nearly overhead now. The men’s singlets and split shorts appeared to be plastered to their bodies; salt residue was beginning to show on the women’s crop tops and buns. This was at mile 17 and it was clear that the brutal conditions anticipated with the selection of Orlando as the race location was beginning to take its toll. Granted, it certainly could have been worse: the humidity was between 50-60%, which is practically arid for central Florida, and the temps started out at a cool 57 degrees. However, being from Florida, I know it’s possible to have fall/winter in the morning and middle of summer by the afternoon, and that was exactly what the runners were experiencing. Me? I was hardly sweating in shorts and a t-shirt and quite the happy camper. 

For the last lap we moved down the course, close to the turn for the finish line and with the “800m to go” sign in view. Everyone crowded around the brave person in their group willing to drain their phone battery by streaming the race on Peacock, eyes glued to the dwindled Men’s pack and war of attrition from the hot pace the women set from the start. It wasn’t too long before we saw Connor Mantz and Clayton Young, seemingly cruising all by themselves. Even at the end of a marathon, those guys make it look so easy. We saw the race for third brewing behind them, and it looked spicy. Once they passed we again turned to our phones to see Leonard Korir’s million watt smile as he crossed the line. 

Fiona also looked great passing us - it definitely did not look like her first marathon. She was still driving her knees, controlling her body, and looked as relaxed as one could look as someone about to make the Olympic team. Next was Emily Sission and her flawless form - even as a very picky running medicine PT I have a hard time finding anything wrong with it. However,I have listened to some interviews since the race and heard that she had a side stitch similar to what she dealt with at Chicago earlier this year. I will not sit here on my treatment stool in Atlanta GA and publicly try to suggest why it’s happening and how to fix it, but I’d be lying if I haven’t tried in my head. Dakotah had a firm grasp on third by 800m to go and I was happy for her - she is someone I’ve followed for a while and seems like just one of the sweetest humans. 

The remainder of the race was waiting for my other favorites - colleagues, friends, people I’ve had the absolute privilege to work with over the years. I was cheering with my coach Kaitlin, Ali Feller of the Ali on The Run Show, and a couple of other high profile people in the running world. I was easily the most normal person in our group but loved witnessing the excitement of them seeing their friends on the course. 

I could write forever about the stories that came out of this race, but of course, I’m a Physical Therapist and not a journalist. The major theme I took away from the weeknd personally was that I was equally inspired by the runners who made the team and those who dropped out. Having a perfect race is cool, but have you ever had a race go completely sideways? It is so much harder and while it feels crappy in the moment, the reframing and rationalizing that follows is what makes us better. Don’t get me wrong, I would rather have a new PR than a life lesson any day ( the equivalent of a kid getting baby carrots on Halloween). But if we really think about it, really really think about it and be honest with ourselves, we know that our goals are usually quite arbitrary, but the development that gets us there is solid as a rock. That’s where the magic is. That’s the magic of this crazy sport of ours. 

Keep going, you got this! (and go USA!)

Dr. Kacy Seynders, PT, DPT


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