Belonging | A Day at the 2020 U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials
By Jenny Donnelly
The U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials had been the talk of the town before thousands descended upon Atlanta for Feb. 29. There was a lot of chatter leading up to the race on the size of the field – the number of athletes, bottle service, room assignments and meal offerings.
The Atlanta Track Club deserves a standing ovation (and perhaps multiple bottles of champagne) for what they pulled off. They went above and beyond in making every athlete feel entirely taken care of. More than that, they made every athlete feel that they belonged (a phrase that I have long struggled with and would become a new mantra over my three days in Atlanta).
On paper, the athlete hotel should have been a terrifying experience for me. I was housed with not only my ‘competitors’ of the upcoming race but also my running idols – many of whom I have looked up to since I started in this sport in ninth grade. But that’s one of the beautiful things about running: We may all perform at different paces, add up to different weekly mileage totals, but we are all out there to put in work day-in and day-out. And there’s a mutual understanding and respect because of this.
Over the three days, the Omni Hotel took on a life of reunions between current and old teammates, Strava friends, Instagram acquaintances, family and loved ones. And…don’t forget the aforementioned idols.
Even my mom felt the excitement. She convinced herself that Sara Hall would remember me from a dinner encounter TWELVE years ago. (Spoiler alert: the moment I let Judi out of my sight, I heard the dreaded question. Sara, of course, did not remember 16-year-old braces-clad Jenny Donnelly, but could not have been sweeter in humoring us).
It’s hard to find the right opening words for the story of one of the most exhilarating, emotional and special days of my life. So instead, I will just jump right with how it started – me laying awake at 5:30 a.m. and thinking about how I had two more hours until my alarm was set to go off.
Warming Up For A Marathon…It’s A Thing
With a race that started at noon, I woke up feeling as if I had the whole morning ahead of me. I watched TV, listened to some music and braided my hair (multiple times). The early hours dragged on. But then, all of a sudden, it was 11 a.m. and I was meant to be downstairs….Wait there still were a million little things left to do! I quickly grabbed all my belongings and said that dreaded goodbye to my room. ‘See you on the other side.’ The room said nothing back.
I headed down to the hotel lobby. The area was buzzing with nervous excitement and questions on what time to actually head over to the warmup tent. What gloves should I wear? Are my warmup clothes weather-appropriate? You can spend hours planning and thinking ahead only to start second-guessing yourself and those decisions just moments before the start.
Alongside a group of Team NYC ladies, I crossed the street to the athletes’ tent. I dropped my stuff off before warming up with fellow New Yorker and close friend Grace Bowen.
Warming up for a marathon was never something I had thought of before the California International Marathon a few months before. Wasn’t that what 26.2 miles were for?? Why expend any extra energy when you know this race is going to take everything ounce you’ve got?
Off we went! There were hundreds of us jogging around a half-mile square.
At 11:53, it was time.
We checked our bags and headed toward the start. But surprise! In typical fashion, I was still wearing my athlete lanyard!
I quickly ran back to the tent, dropped it off and headed back to the start. I found Grace just moments later and secured our spot in the back of the pack. There was a brief moment when we just looked at each other and thought, “We are really doing this.”
We were ready to go.
Marathoning Is A Contact Sport
It’s the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials. With that title, I would have expected the starting line to be filled with fierce competitor stare downs and a dead-silent anticipation of the drama to come. But what I found was the opposite.
The starting corral was one big reunion. I celebrated the moment with several of the women that I had met at the CIM finish line just three months ago. There was an outpouring of words of encouragement and stories being shared about how we had dreamed of this moment for so long. The field of competitors wailed in celebration when the public announcer noted this was the largest women’s field in history.
Then the race started.
It felt like unleashing 440 excited, caged animals – but into a tiny hallway. Just past the starting line, the road immediately narrowed in half and the bottleneck could quickly be felt. Elbows and hands were pushing on me from all sides.
I chuckled a little and thought, ‘We still have 26 miles to go!’
You could feel the 4 years of pent-up energy and excitement. Many were laser-focused on their respective carefully-devised race plans that were dependent on each mile’s perfect split. I simply focused on not worrying about pace or position and just making sure that Grace and I were stride-by-stride, staying relaxed and soaking it in.
Within a half mile, the tension subsided. Runners settled into strides. Smiles re-emerged. Grace and I quickly settled into a pack working together.
Hills, Wind, and the World’s Best Fans
The first mile included a few twists and turns until we eventually entered the out-and-back section of the loop, which would come to be my favorite part of the course. It was the ‘least hilly’ section, which only says so much for this course. It was lined with familiar screaming faces on each side.
The first part of this section briefly climbed uphill and followed by an approximately 1.5-mile stretch of (mostly) downhill. This sounds fast and wonderful, but wait! Throw in a 20 mile per hour gusting headwind for some fun.
As I came upon the second mile mark, my true test of the day approached: the bottle grab.
This was my first time ever using bottles in a race.
Note: In all honesty, it was one of my most feared parts of the weekend. I am forever grateful for the fellow runners I met at drop-off. I noticed them attaching pipe cleaners to their bottles. Therefore, I pretended that (of course) I had always planned to do this and mimicked their exact twists and taping prep. I digress – back to the race.
I grabbed the pipe cleaner seamlessly into my grip. I was very proud of myself for this highly athletic feat. While basking in my bottle glory, I heard the screams of Ali Feller (the popular host of the Ali on the Run) on the sidelines. I quickly turned to her and let out what I could only have imagined to be a squeal from my excitement. This would become one of my favorite sections of the loop. My mantra became: Grab bottle. Look left. Big wave!
The ‘out’ section continued into the wind and turned into a bit of an uphill at the end. At this point, you could see the front ladies coming back on the other side of the course. I reminded myself to save some energy. ‘You are already too excited!’ But….I couldn’t help screaming at the ladies of Team NYC that I saw dominating from the other side.
From there, the course got to the first of hairpin turns. In the lead-up to the race, lots of chatter was made of the hills but the turns were underrated in the discussion of what made the course super challenging. I didn’t think much of them until I turned and somehow found the pack a few seconds ahead of me (Note to self for the future: Work on quick feet drills).
Then, it was back up the hill that I just came down. This is where I found another magical gift of this course: The headwinds managed to gust in every direction! Love it. Following the grind back up the long stretch, I turned onto the rest of the loop, which also featured a few turns and steep hills. For those familiar with the NYC marathon, I’d describe the loop akin to running mile 23 on 5th Avenue but on repeat with a few Central Park Cat Hills added in for good fun.
I Smiled A Lot
Over those first 20 miles on the loop, I kept waiting for the fatigue and pain to settle in. I stood by for the panic to take over. Somehow, I felt like I was running on pure exhilaration and gratitude for two hours.
Locked in with my friend Grace for the first loop, we ran stride-for-stride, waved to the crowds, and screamed at our family and friends. It bears repeating but I was truly just soaking everything in. It was a feeling – that even days later – I cannot put into words. The best way I can describe it is it was as if I was floating just outside of my body. I was flooded with all the happiness and love for this sport that I had been chasing for years.
For the first time in a race, I felt like I belonged.
Toward the end of the first loop, Grace and I came upon two other New York City women within a pack of ten and we locked onto them. Running into the second loop as a pack of four NYC women was a highlight of my day. None of us are official teammates in uniform, but the camaraderie we have developed, a shared understanding of winter training in our one of a kind concrete jungle, was powerful as hell.
I hit the halfway point in about one hour and 23 minutes. I found myself still grinning from ear to ear. I was happy with the time. My legs felt alive and I was itching to get to the next crowd of family and friends to give my obnoxiously giddy wave at.
Approaching the third loop, the pack had broken up and I found myself running solo. My goal for the race was to put myself in a place to fight on this last lap. As someone who is incredibly competitive with herself, this tends to manifest itself in crippling anxiety and fear. But the trials were different.
I had confidence in myself.
I was EXCITED to race?!
I focused on picking off one bib after the other to move ahead. I’d give a quick word of encouragement and then move on to the next. (I later found out that I moved up from 308th at the half to 201st at the finish).
Each woman on that course was pulling me along. However, this is the marathon. I eventually started to feel a bit of that dreaded fatigue around mile 20. Just when I started to feel fear creeping in, I brought the focus back to gratitude. I was thankful for the stretch I was in and the power of the footsteps around me.
Hills of Carnage
Yes, this was the happiest, most fun race of my life. But, there is no getting around those last 6 miles. For my New Yorkers, imagine Harlem Hill at Mile 22 – and then add some West Side hills after that.
It was impossible to know what pace I was going with the carnage that was taking place. I knew my pace was drastically slowing, but I decided to not look at my watch (ME!?) and instead focus on fighting and racing (ME!?).
When I hit the “1 Mile to Go” marker, I kept telling myself to enjoy this. Soak it in. This is the moment and a feeling that I’ve been chasing for my whole life.
I sprinted through the ‘200 meters remaining’ sign and then through the finish with my arms raised.
I immediately fell into a fellow New Yorker Lauren Perkin’s arms.
I felt like everything was circling around me. I wanted to see my family, my fiance and the rest of Team NYC.
But first I wanted to see the girl who had inspired this crazy dream. It’s the girl who was a stranger a year ago and then turned into one of my closest friends. I watched Grace cross the finish line shortly after me. I hobbled over to her and we embraced.
‘We did it,’ we screamed.
‘We did it’ is everything I love about this sport.
The Year I Never Expected and Am Forever Grateful For
A year ago, if you had told me any of this past weekend were to happen, I would have laughed in your face.
First came the 15-minute personal best. It had taken me five years to break my 3:12 debut.
Smiling mid marathon? Mid Olympic trials? After more than a decade of crippling anxiety attacks, that’s another girl. Not me. I had long accepted that I didn’t have the talent needed in this sport. I told myself many times that I wasn’t mentally tough enough. I said I didn’t have the guts to fight. I needed to go out fast in each race to bank time because I was always bound to give up the second half. But that’s the thing about this sport, if you place restrictions on yourself, that’s what you are bound to perform at. It becomes the splits you pace yourself for and the mentality you train with. I am lucky enough to have found a community that believed in me. It was enough that over time I started to believe them.
I’m lucky to be part of a city that loves this sport in a way where victory comes in the world we create together.
So, to the year that I never expected – You were everything.
Yes, I have bigger than ever goals and dreams, but I also hope that in going after the unexpected, I can make just one other person realize that they too belong.
Thanks to Johnny Zhang and Andrew Dearling for the photos.