America’s Marathon Weekend Part 1: Experiencing the Olympic Marathon Trials for the first time

Eventual first- and second- place runners Aliphine Tuliamuk and Molly Seidel are shown nearing the Mile 17 marker during the U.S. Olympic Team Trials – Marathon in Atlanta on Feb. 29. (Vanessa Junkin photo)

I landed in Atlanta on a Thursday morning, dropped my bag at my friend Jessica’s house and headed out to a Brooks event featuring Des Linden.

It was just the start of a jam-packed trip highlighted by The Atlanta Track Club’s America’s Marathon Weekend, which included the U.S. Olympic Team Trials – Marathon on Saturday, Feb. 29, and the Publix Atlanta Marathon, Half Marathon and 5K on Sunday, March 1.

Since there’s so much to say, I’m splitting my recap into two parts. First, I’ll write about what it was like to watch and cover the Olympic Marathon Trials, and in my next post, I’ll write about the marathon I ran — the Publix Atlanta Marathon.

First up was the event with Des Linden. If you’re part of the running community, I figure you know who she is, but she’s a professional marathoner who won the Boston Marathon in 2018. (She’s also 5’1″ — yay for fellow short runners!) At the Brooks pop-up location, she talked about the Brooks Hyperion Elite and Tempo shoes.

Three people at a Brooks table; pro runner Des Linden is speaking. Brooks displays are shown.
Pro runner Des Linden speaks at an event before the Olympic Marathon Trials (Vanessa Junkin photo).

I met up with Jessica there (she’s a fellow BibRave Pro and you can see her blog here), and then we headed to the downtown area, where she had volunteer duties and I’d be on my own. I applied for a media credential since I would be helping cover the D.C.-area locals at the race for RunWashington, so I picked that up once we parted ways.

After a visit to the World of Coca-Cola, I was back to running-related events and attending the press conference. Although I figured it probably wouldn’t be relevant to our local coverage, I figured I’d stop by just to check it out and see if there would be any need-to-know info.

One thing I thought was really cool about the weekend was that local high school students were involved in different ways. During the press conference, high schoolers were able to ask some of the top-seeded athletes questions. I also watched part of a high jump contest at the expo featuring local high school athletes teamed up with professionals.

Yellow media credential shown with Atlanta in the background, including a rectangular arch stating "U.S. Olympic Team Trials."
It was exciting to have a media credential for the U.S. Olympic Team Trials – Marathon. (Vanessa Junkin photo)

During the press conference, one of the questions Bernard Lagat was asked was about how he deals with the pressure. He talked about putting in the work.

“Just do your work,” he said. This was really cool because it reminded me of the 11:30 Club’s motto of “Do the work.” Great minds think alike!

Earlier in the press conference, I’d heard that the Atlanta Track Club has 34,000 members. As an officer of the Eastern Shore Running Club, that number is just astounding to me. That’s more than the entire population of Salisbury!

Here I am with Samantha, left, and Jessica, right, at the race expo.

I also got to meet another BibRave Pro, Samantha (you can find her blog here) on Thursday. The following day, I went to dinner with Samantha, Jessica and Jessica’s husband, Adam, which was fun.

On Thursday at the expo, Jessica and I also went to a course strategy session for the Publix Atlanta Marathon, where I learned there were 23 hills — in the half. I’d be running the full! I knew the course would be hilly, so I didn’t really put pressure on myself. But I kept hearing about how hilly it would be.

Vanessa Junkin poses under the high jump world record height with her arms up.
Here I am posing with the world record for the high jump, which is more than eight feet (I’m five feet tall).

Jeff Dengate was part of that session and he had advice for marathons about splitting the race into thirds — run the first 10 miles a little slower than goal pace (maybe about six seconds slower), run the next 10 miles at goal pace and then pick it up in the last 10K. I think that’s easier said than done, but I was able to finish my marathon with negative splits — possibly a first for me, and if not a first, definitely rare.

Exploring on Friday

Friday started out with a run planned by Jessica that went past several famous sites in Atlanta. This was a great way to see some different parts of the city, although I did notice that the hills didn’t seem to make a difference to Jessica and her two local friends, while I could certainly feel them — I live in a flat area.

Atlanta skyline as shown from Jackson Street Bridge
The Jackson Street Bridge provides a view of Atlanta’s skyline. (Vanessa Junkin photo)

Her route took us through the Krog Street Tunnel (which is filled with graffiti); the Jackson Street Bridge (for the perfect view of Atlanta’s skyline); Martin Luther King Jr.’s birth home and his church, Ebenezer Baptist Church; Oakland Cemetery; and Tiny Doors. There are Tiny Doors in different parts of the city, and we also made it to one big door, which was a fun photo op.

We started and ended the run at Revolution Doughnuts, which was delicious!

Oakland Cemetery
Here’s a view from Oakland Cemetery.

Later that day, I was back at the expo for the Women’s Run Running panel, which featured Mary Wittenberg, Alison Desir, Kara Goucher, Kara Finley and Sally Bergesen. There were plenty of panels featured throughout the weekend, and I enjoyed this one.

Martin Luther King Jr.'s birth home
Martin Luther King Jr. was born in this home. On Monday, before I left Atlanta, I took a free tour of the inside of the home. (Vanessa Junkin photo)

I also got to meet former pro runner/Boston and New York City Marathon winner/Olympic medalist Meb Keflezighi on Friday at the pacer table. Retired from pro running and not racing in the Trials, Keflezighi would be pacing the 1:40 half marathon group on Sunday. I wouldn’t be able to keep up with his group if I were running the half, but I think it’s awesome that he is giving back to the running community in this way — and I mentioned that to him. I’d also met him back at the Vermont City Marathon, where I also met Jessica for the first time.

Trials Day!

Saturday was the day of the Olympic Marathon Trials — but the race didn’t start in the morning. The men’s race began at 12:08 p.m. and the women’s race began at 12:20 p.m.

Vanessa Junkin stands in front of public art of a large door.
After seeing some Tiny Doors on our run, I got a photo at this big Tiny Door.

I made my way downtown early, got breakfast/brunch and then went to find my starting spot. Because of places that were blocked off, it was a little tough to get to a good spot near the start, but after walking for a little bit, I found what looked like an opening and kind of squeezed in. My height was certainly a disadvantage, as I’m only five feet tall, so I can’t really see over anyone (except for some children).

However, I was able to see the start of both the men’s and women’s races before heading to another spot. I saw Deena Kastor sitting on one of the filming vehicles. At one point, a couple found their spot next to me and were talking about how their daughter-in-law was in the race. Turned out their daughter-in-law was pro runner Molly Huddle!

Vanessa Junkin poses with retired pro runner Meb Keflezighi.
Here I am with Meb Keflezighi, who also signed my race weekend magazine.

I’d checked out the map, and I started walking to a nearby part of the Trials course, which was three loops. I found a spot near Mile 9/17. They’d also hit Mile 1 around this point, but obviously, I wasn’t fast enough to get there before they hit Mile 1 (if I were that fast, maybe I’d be running in the Trials!).

As I walked with crowds around me, I noticed some people carrying signs for a runner named Keira. I decided to ask them which Keira they were cheering on, and it was Keira D’Amato, who was part of RunWashington’s Trials Fever series about runners with local ties who qualified for the race (read the article on her here). I’d also interviewed her for my first RunWashington article after she won the Rock ‘n’ Roll D.C. Washington D.C. Half Marathon.

Selfie of Vanessa Junkin in front of the U.S. Olympic Team Trials rectangular arch.
Here I am posing on the day of the U.S. Olympic Team Trials – Marathon. (Vanessa Junkin photo)

It turned out one of her relatives lives in Ocean City and works in the town where I live — Salisbury. Given how everyone basically knows each other in Salisbury, it’s very likely that we know some of the same people. A great aunt of mine even messaged me to say she knows one of D’Amato’s aunts. Small world!

At the spot where I was, I was able to see the men’s and women’s races go by twice. I tried to get photos of the runners I recognized from the Trials Fever series — even if I didn’t know the runners personally, they each had their last names in large print on their bibs — but they were all moving so fast it was hard for me to get any good ones (my editor, Charlie, was able to get some actual good quality photos).

I enjoyed seeing D’Amato’s family cheering for her, and they were so excited and proud realizing that she was in the lead pack. She ended up in 15th, which I think is pretty awesome.

Keira D'Amato runs past a crowd. Some are holding signs.
Keira D’Amato’s family cheers her on as she runs past during the Olympic Marathon Trials. (Vanessa Junkin phtoo)

It was fun to spot people I’d written about, like Everett Hackett and Caitlyn Tateishi.

It was also cool that so many people came out to watch. At one point, someone was trying to start the wave in the crowd.

The 1/9/17 mile marker had electronic timers showing how much time had elapsed since the start. I noticed that men were coming through Mile 17 in under an hour and a half. As a runner, it’s impossible for me to imagine running that fast. I think it can be tough for us regular people to put into perspective just how fast these runners are.

Line of green porta-potties with "Olympic Hopefuls Only" signs on them.
How often are you going to see porta-potties with “Olympic Hopefuls Only” signs? As I took the photo, someone else commented that he was getting a photo, too.

My fastest 10-mile time ever — eight years ago now — was 1:19:42 (7:58 pace). So, basically, if I were running at my fastest distance running pace ever, I could log maybe just over 10 miles in the time they logged 17 — and I certainly can’t run that pace now.

Even the runners that were at the back of the pack still ran insanely fast times. The last male finisher, Brandon Johnson, ran the hilly course in 2:56:10 (6:44 pace), and the last female finisher, Erica Marrari, finished in 3:18:52 (7:36 pace). The runners also had to deal with high winds.

There were even some pregnant runners who participated, and at least one other that just had a baby. I recognized the name of the second-to-last finisher, Stefanie Slekis, because I’d read a story about how she just ran a marathon and then had a baby — the baby was born Jan. 30 of this year.

Start of men's race at Olympic Marathon Trials - group of men running.
Here’s the start of the men’s race at the Olympic Marathon Trials. (Vanessa Junkin photo)

After many of the women were through my area on their third loop, I decided to make my way back to the finish area to see if I could catch the end of the races. The men’s eventual winner, Galen Rupp, was making his way toward the finish, and I doubted I’d get there in time, but I tried to run a little bit. Crowds were running to get back to the finish in hopes of seeing the men’s finish.

It was a little tough to run as I hadn’t worn running shoes or clothes and I was carrying my purse, which had my laptop inside. I was able to see the women’s finish, and saw winner Aliphine Tuliamuk give second place runner Molly Seidel a hug after they earned their spots on the Olympic team. Sally Kipyego came in third, earning the team’s last spot, followed soon after by Des Linden in fourth.

Start of women's race at Olympic Marathon Trials - group of women running.
The women start their race at the Olympic Marathon Trials. (Vanessa Junkin photo)

After that, I headed to a media tent placed between where the runners were exiting the finish area and their athlete tent. I was able to catch the three runners I’d interviewed for Trials Fever — Hackett, Tateishi and Lindsay Carrick — for interviews, and it was fun getting to meet them and talk to them about their experiences. I also interviewed Jillian Pollack.

As people came through, it was clear to see that numerous runners had just experienced a tough course and day. At one point, two people were holding up a runner who I guess couldn’t stand as they waited for a wheelchair for her.

I’d recorded the short interviews, so I transcribed them in a different media tent and wrote my paragraphs to send to Charlie, who would be compiling the information for the stories.

Here are the RunWashington articles on the Trials that I contributed to:

Stay tuned for my next blog post, which will be about my race at the Publix Atlanta Marathon. I came in just under double the women’s Olympic Trials Qualifier standard of 2:45 — I ran just under 5:30 for the marathon.

Keira D'Amato's family members hold signs that read "Go Mommy Go."
Keira D’Amato’s mom (in red) and her kids were in Atlanta to support her, along with other family members. (Vanessa Junkin photo)

6 thoughts on “America’s Marathon Weekend Part 1: Experiencing the Olympic Marathon Trials for the first time

  1. I had no idea that Des Linden was so short until she was mere inches from me as the lead pack passed near the 5k mark. Yay for short girls – I got measured a few years ago and was told I’m not quite 5’3″.

    Did you see the other two runners that were running at 33 weeks and 27 weeks pregnant? The woman who was 33 weeks did one loop and the one that was 27 weeks did two loops. The one that did two actually was getting lapped by the men in their third lap. It was incredible that they weren’t stopping from experiencing something they worked hard to earn. And I believe their paces were somewhere in the 8:10s – I can’t even do that for a mile!

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