Zach Panning Still Proud Of His Effort After Finishing Sixth At The 2024 U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials (2:10:50)

The CITIUS MAG Podcast

February 16, 2024

"That's been my focus since I started running – just being faster today than I was yesterday and just checking off all those boxes to do that. Focusing on the process makes the outcome not easy to get over, but it makes it more bearable."

My guest for today’s episode is Zach Panning – a marathoner for the Hansons Brooks Distance Project. He just finished sixth at the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials in Orlando but that doesn’t tell the full story. He went for it and found himself at the front of the race by Mile 5 and led for about 17 miles of the whole thing. Eventually, Conner Mantz and Clayton Young pulled away and Panning was left on his own to fend off a challenge from a charging Elkanah Kibet, Leonard Korir and CJ Albertson. Those three guys managed to pass him in the final three miles.

Panning made that race. He fell short but he was still super proud of the effort in his interviews afterward. Almost two weeks since the race, we checked in to see how he was feeling and how he’s going to take that as a major learning opportunity for future marathons.

Host: Chris Chavez | ⁠⁠⁠⁠⁠⁠⁠⁠⁠⁠@chris_j_chavez on Instagram⁠⁠⁠⁠⁠⁠⁠

Guest: Zach Panning | ⁠⁠⁠⁠@zachpanning on Instagram⁠⁠

Zach PanningZach Panning

Kevin Morris / @KevMoFoto

Time Stamps:

  • 5:22 - Reflections on his 4th place finish at the Olympic Marathon Trials.
  • 7:09 - What the public reception has been like since the race.
  • 8:24 - His mindset heading into the race.
  • 10:52 - Unpacking his race strategy to lead the majority of the race.
  • 12:29 - The atmosphere during the race + more insight on his mindset.
  • 14:58 - Why he felt excited instead of nervous going into the Trials.
  • 15:56 - How he managed the heat of Orlando.
  • 17:20 - How his experience racing at the World Championships in Budapest compared to racing in Orlando.
  • 19:16 - Why he prefers to front-run in races and workouts.
  • 23:52 - When the race started to get tough and how he worked through it.
  • 27:27 - Thoughts when Conner Mantz and Clayton Young passed him.
  • 28:30 - How he got through the final miles of the race.
  • 30:15 - His relationship with his competitors.
  • 31:59 - Reflections on how far he’s come in the sport and his mindset moving forward.
  • 34:35 - His trajectory going from a below average high school runner to becoming the runner he is today.
  • 36:34 - Returning to the track for the spring and summer.
  • 37:31 - Specific races he’s looking ahead to.
  • 39:27 - His pride for running NCAA D2 in college.

The following interview excerpt has been edited lightly for clarity. You can listen to the full interview with Zach Panning on the CITIUS MAG Podcast – available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or wherever you get your shows.

CITIUS MAG: Now that you've had some time to process the race, how are you feeling?

Zach Panning: I'm still feeling those same feelings. I'm proud. Obviously I'd rather be an Olympian than feel proud of a race where I failed. But I think I learned a lot and it was something that I had prepared for mentally to do what I did. I figured that there was a chance that I would probably have to do something like that to try and make the team. I’m just proud that I took this chance and bet on myself a little bit. I came up short, but I would say those feelings are still there. Just pride and excitement for what's next. I think this sets me up really well for the next four years. That's the other thing. It really lit a fire in me and I'm really excited to make it back in four years and hopefully learn from the mistakes that I potentially made and better the result.

CITIUS MAG: Race morning, and even in the days leading up to it, how were you feeling in terms of your confidence? How did you assemble the race plan with your coaches to take the lead early?

Zach Panning: I was excited. I think I was just chomping at the bit to get going. It was my first Trials. In 2020, I was in Atlanta watching and that was enough to light a fire that I wanted to be competing in the next one and be a part of this. So I was really excited going in. I felt really fit. And like I said, I had been preparing because we had talked about a race plan like that leading up to it for a couple of weeks. That’s what I had to wrap my mind around – ‘if this race goes out the way that we think it may, you're going to be leading the Trials and it could be for a really long time.’ That took a while to really accept… By the time race morning came, I was ready to just run free. I've been training a lot in that way, where I was doing workouts with teammates, but would be leading and doing a lot of the work by myself. I was ready and excited for that task.

CITIUS MAG: Did you let anyone know about your race plan? Or were you the only person in that field who knew that if you had to fall on the sword of going to the front, you were going to do it?

Zach Panning: It was just me and Kevin and my wife that knew. And Nancy, Kevin's wife. We went out to dinner and talked about that probably two weeks before. He wanted me to realize and wrap my mind around the fact that I could potentially be leading for quite a bit of that race. And that's not because we were chasing the 2:08:10 or anything. It's just that we thought that was the best way to be in the top three and make the team. And if we ran 2:08:10, which we felt we were capable of doing on a great day, that's a nice little added bonus… I don't really talk about race plans too much. I try to just have fun leading into races and then when the gun goes off, it's working time. I like to keep it light.

CITIUS MAG: The atmosphere in Orlando made it so easy to get caught up in the excitement. You ended up in the front by mile four or five. How did you mentally keep yourself from getting overly excited realizing that your plan was in order?

Zach Panning: You don't really prepare yourself for running through this sea of people that are just screaming. It’s really easy to get a little excited, especially when you're leading and the pacing is on you. A lot of the runs that I've been on leading up to the race were really quiet. So that was a new variable for me. It’s something that I'll really have to pay attention to moving forward – just not letting myself go with the excitement that's swirling around me. I have to say, Orlando was awesome for that reason… I had never been in something like that. It was so cool to see so many crazy running fans that came out and were excited to be a part of the trials.

CITIUS MAG: All the attention was directed at you. Did the nerves come over you at any point?

Zach Panning: Honestly, the nerves weren't too much of a factor. Obviously there's always doubt creeping in. That's just a part of running. I don't want to embarrass myself, so that was part of it. But nerves? I don't think so. It was so much fun. I couldn't keep from smiling and just enjoying doing what I was doing.

CITIUS MAG: In the last 10K, Connor talked about the awareness of doing the math, the rankings, the time. And even if the three of you had gone all the way to the finish line together, you would have had to get in the top two. Were you thinking about any of that stuff or was it just survival mode at that point?

Zach Panning: I felt like the top three were going to go. That’s what we discussed the whole 12 week build leading into it. We weren’t super worried about the rankings. These things are going to figure themselves out. Just focus on being in the top three. So that's all I was thinking. Once those two passed me and I started to fade off into the distance, it was just like, ‘Get to the line.’ Obviously the wheels completely fell off the last mile or so. So that became tough. But yeah, I wasn’t thinking. That's too much thinking for me. I just wanted to go out there and run.

CITIUS MAG: Did it really sting just missing out on making the Olympic team? You were very composed in the mixed zone, but afterwards when you were reuniting with your family, did you let go a little bit?

Zach Panning: There have been some moments where it’s been like, ‘Oh man, I worked so hard and wanted it so bad.’ But at the end of the day, I think it's more about the journey. I look back and think, ‘I was not supposed to be here.’ I think it's really cool that I've been able to use this gift from God to break through walls that as a freshman in high school I thought would never be a possibility for me. I try to focus on the process as opposed to the outcome. I think I did everything in my control, maybe made a few mistakes, but I was prepared and laid it all out there – and when you've done that, there's not much you can be super upset about. Obviously the result stings, and you want a different result, but it's something that just continues to fuel the fire.

Like I said, I was in Atlanta (for the 2020 Olympic Trials) watching on the sidewalks. Here, I was a player in the race. And now it's just focusing on 2028 and just continuing to get better each and every day. That's been my focus since I started running – just being faster today than I was yesterday and just checking off all those boxes to do that. Focusing on the process makes the outcome not easy to get over, but it makes it more bearable knowing how far you've come and how far you still have to go.

CITIUS MAG: You brought up freshman Zach. In The Lap Count interview, you talked about how you weigh less now than you did in high school. Back then you were 165 pounds, a little bit shorter, playing full back, and playing hockey. After the race, a photo of you running cross country in high school that you tweeted a couple years back resurfaced and ended up going viral. What's the story behind the photo?

Zach Panning: I don't know who took that picture. Probably someone’s mom on the team. But I found it in my house one time, like my parents' house. I knew that I was chubbier and a little bit bigger in those moments, but actually seeing that picture that I tweeted in like 2016, it's been something that I like to show people… Never count yourself out, because with those steady incremental increases in performance and those days that you continue to get a little bit better each and every day – you slowly climb that ladder, that staircase and these huge dreams that are now goals for me become reality because of that hard work each and every day.

CITIUS MAG: How are you, Kevin, and Keith approaching your next races?

Zach Panning: We always like to focus on the team events. Everybody that ran the Trials will be in Chicago for the Shamrock Shuffle this year, we’ll try to bring back the hardware from that. So that'll be fun. I always love doing that as well, still being able to run cross country as a team. That's another thing. As a freshman, at first running just really sucked. I hated it. But what kept me coming back was the people that it introduced me to, who I'm still friends with today. So anytime I have an opportunity to run as a team and focus on the team side of things is huge for me. It's something that I love doing and I love being a part of because like I said, it kept me around and really helped me fall in love with the running itself.

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Chris Chavez

Chris Chavez launched CITIUS MAG in 2016 as a passion project while working full-time for Sports Illustrated. He covered the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro and grew his humble blog into a multi-pronged media company. He completed all six World Marathon Majors and is an aspiring sub-five-minute miler.

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