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November 14, 2017

Track, Ultra Specialists Converge for 26.2 Mile Showdown in Sacramento

As part of our continued coverage of the 2017 USATF Marathon Championships in conjunction with the California International Marathon, we’re going to take a look at the elite fields from a number of different angles. Today, we’re focusing on what we’re calling the “jack of all trades” runners — folks who are racing CIM who’ve succeeded at distances either shorter or longer than the marathon.

There’s no single traditional path to get to the marathon.

The casual runner might make competing a marathon a bucket-list item. Others may set a goal of the number of marathons they want to complete in, such as running every World Marathon Major race.

The conventional wisdom for elite runners, however, is that you start racing shorter distances on the track and on the roads and gradually move up in distance as you age and start losing foot speed. Once that starts happening, it’s natural to start looking at the marathon as the next big challenge.

“My coach and I disagree about whether I’m totally done with the track, but I feel pretty content with what I’ve achieved at shorter distances,” said Carrie Dimoff, a six-time U.S. championships qualifier in the steeplechase and 10,000 meters. “I see the marathon as a new and exciting challenge to tackle.”

Despite the immense challenges that come with training, the marathon encapsulates a certain thrill and societal prestige that track races run in front of a handful of fans simply can’t match.

“Being a New Englander, cross country and road racing are the life blood of the running world here, both now and historically. Road races in general and the marathon in particular make me feel very much connected with the running community which supports me,” said Tim Ritchie, a 13:38 5k and 28:26 10k guy on the track. “Running my debut in Boston in 2013 was revolutionary for me both personally and professionally. I’ve since really enjoyed road racing.”

Dimoff cited a similar inspiration for being drawn to the marathon.

“My original interest in the marathon stemmed from just being a fan. I’ve been to all the World Marathon Majors except Tokyo,” Dimoff said. “It’s super cool seeing these huge cities overtaken by runners for a day. The energy is amazing.”

Then there’s the possibility that dabbling in the marathon can bring about improvements back on the track, like for Kaitlin Goodman, who since her debut at CIM in 2014 has brought her track 10k personal best from 33:14 to 31:55.

“I ran 2:39 at CIM in 2014, and then went on to run the Olympic standard in the 10k the following spring and to PR across all distances, 1500 to 15k,” Goodman said. “You could say moving up to the marathon and training for CIM was the springboard for my breakout on the track.”

Those are some stories of athletes who made the traditional move from the track. Though common, it’s by no means the only path to 26.2 miles.

Take the story of Cole Watson. After racing distances ranging from 800 to 10,000 meters while running for the University of Oregon, Watson decided to test the waters in the world of trail ultra-running. He experienced success pretty quickly, finishing second at this year’s USATF 50k Trail Championships.

Now Watson is back dropping down in distance and opting for asphalt instead of gravel for his marathon debut.

“I’ve found over time if I don’t change things up, I don’t feel like I’m really improving,” Watson said. “Switching back-and-forth between roads and trails really breathes new life into my running.”

While the marathon is a unique beast, there was not clear consensus among athletes about the difficulty of transitioning from the track/ultras to the marathon, or vice versa.

“I do not think the mindset needs to change too much from the track to the marathon,” Ritchie said. “The same basic principles apply: be grateful, be patient, be confident and be ready.”

Goodman holds a bit of a different view, arguing the track and the marathon require contrasting mindsets.

“It’s a whole different kind of focus in the marathon versus the track,” Goodman said. “This fall I’ve worked really hard on being patient and focusing on ‘running the mile you’re in’ — something I frequently tell the athletes I coach, but something I’m not always good at myself. It’s easier said then done, but lots of long runs and long tempos have given me plenty of time to practice.”

Either way, the confluence of runners moving up and down distances, along with the marathon veterans who will be racing on December 3, will make for a fascinating 26.2 mile contest in Sacramento.

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