Monday, November 5, 2007

Race Report: 2007 US Olympic Marathon Trials

I'm not even sure where to begin. Maybe Mile 5.5 is the most appropriate place to begin. What a tragedy. I did not know Ryan Shay but we shared a common bond, the one everyone on this blog shares. We are runners. The added bond was that we were both OTQers. Ryan had just married his wife three months ago. I learned at the Brooks party today that he and his wife were to leave this morning (Sunday) for their honeymoon. Ugh. I cannot imagine what his wife is feeling right now. There was a fantastic tribute to him during the awards luncheon and again on NBC. There was a visible somberness at the awards banquet but the program did carry on as I'm sure Ryan would have wanted. I learned a couple of lessons today from this experience: (1) you just never know when; (2) what an honor it would be to die doing something you loved. God bless Ryan's wife and family in this extremely difficult time.

So here's the race report....

This was my first race that I went into without any solid goals. I didn't want to get lapped (mission accomplished) and I didn't want to finish last (mission accomplished). Beyond that, I didn't really have a time goal or a place goal. I kinda sorta wanted to be in the 2:25-2:30 range on time. I knew going in that getting a "requalifying" time would highly unlikely given the course, the wind and the short recovery from St. George. So I had the attitude that anything 2:25-2:30 would be satisfying. Place I didn't care about because it has so little to do with my performance and far more to do with the performance of others.

So the day started in earnest around 4:30am when I rolled out of bed after getting a suprisingly good night's rest. I got dressed, packed a few things into my clothes drop bag, kissed my slumbering wife goodbye and headed downstairs to grab a bagel and a bit of water. I went up to the lobby around 5:00am and waited to load the buses. At 5:20am we rolled out to the buses and what was only 20 minutes seemed like an hour before the buses headed toward Rockefeller Center. We had police escort but it seemed for for show than anything as we still had to wait at all the stoplights. After about a 15-minute ride we arrived at Rockefeller Plaza. It was one of those times where I wished I had brought a video camera. The winds were gusting pretty hard, it was cold, but the trees were lit up with Christmas lights and it just seemed to amazing.

We quickly entered Rockefeller Center and headed downstairs to a staging area with food, drinks and therapists. I saw my coach there and a couple of the Northwest runners I know as well as Paul and Logan. We were there for about an hour before it was time to head upstairs, back into the elements and begin our warmup. It was a bit too early for my liking -- 30 minutes before the gun -- but I just went along for the fun ride.

When we emerged on 5th Ave it was simply awesome. The wind was still howling but it didn't seem as cold as when we got there. But most impressive were the crowds. 7:00am on a Saturday morning in NYC and the streets were packed with people.

Brian Sell has quite the contingent there. Probably 75 or so Sell fans had yelow sweatshirts with his effigy on the front. I don't recall seeing any sweatshirts with mine on it. After walking around a bit trying to soak up the experience, I ran into my father in law who took a red-eye in from Spokane and landed at JFK at 6am and made it to the starting line at 7am. He flew home the same day at 5:30pm. What a trooper. Anyway, I talked to him a bit and then started my warmup in earnest.

Warming up for a marathon for me is a pretty uneventful affair. Four to six strides and a few hops, skips and jumps and I'm ready to go. No sense in using prescious energy when it doesn't count. We all lined up right at 7:30 for the 7:35 gun. It was the smallest marathon I'd ever run: 130 starters. It was also the most cramped start given the number of elites in the group crowding for position.

Gun went off at 7:05:35.

Since it was on TV, I knew it would start on time. After about four hundred meters down 50th Ave, we turned onto 6th Ave, then a hard right onto 44th Ave. The turns were a bit challenging because we were a pack of 130 runners all jockeying for position. Then we made the final turn outside of Central Park down 7th Ave and befor long, we were running down Times Square. I've been down that road many times before but never like this. It was awesome. It was still dark enough that the lights were brilliant. About 1.25 miles into the race is when we entered Central Park, never to leave it again. The crowds again were sizeable and full of energy. At about 1.75 miles in, you cross the "finish line" the first of five times. The crowds were especially thick and loud from the point we entered the park through the finish line. It was amazing. The first two miles were very slow: 5:35 and 5:33.

Through three miles we were still one pack except for some guy who was looking for a bit of camera time. He wound up finishing after me. Mile 3 came in at 5:19 putting the pack almost back on "B" pace. At about the 5k mark, the pace really started to pick up and smaller packs were forming with the lead guys making their first run, Mile 4 was 5:09 which was pretty fast considering it was on the uphill (west) side of the course. I settled in nicely behind 6-10 guys and let them break the wind to help ease some of the wind resistence.

Mile 5 marked the turn south onto the east side of the course and the only straight and flat stretch on the course. It was also the first time I took a bottle from the special fludis station. I completed Mile 5 in 5:25 putting me and the pack I was in about 2 seconds under "B" pace and sending us into a fairly continuous downhill stretch of the course. I was feeling pretty strong at this point and was hoping that our pack could stay together for the bulk of the race. At about the 5.75 mark, we turned right onto the 72nd Ave transverse, the only time we would run this stretch. This short loop we did once and then the larger 5-mile loop we did four times. It also has a weird jaunt off the road and then back onto it to account for 80 yards they needed to add to the course to certify it. I'm glad we only did it once.

Mile 6 came in at 5:13 which was about right considering the more downhill nature of that stretch. The pack was still well intact.

Miles 7, 8 and 9 are a bit of a blur. My splits were 5:27, 5:25, 5:25. This may have been where Paul passed me for good, but again it's a blur so it could have been at a different spot. The pack really started to break up at this point. Some dropping back and some picking up the pace a bit. With the wind a factor even in the densely treed park, my coach had encouraged me before the race to really stay with a pack even if it meant going a little faster than I wanted to. This would prove to be harder than I thought.

Mile 10 was mostly downhill which made my 5:20 split feel a bit slower than I had hoped but at this point I was running alone and all I really wanted to do in this race was run strong.

Mile 11 marked the second time we would cross the finish line. Really the whole mile was lined with huge crowds will large vocal chords. It was awesome to see so many people out so early cheering us on. I'm sure 2004's Trials in Birmingham had nothing like this. The Mile 11 split came in at 5:29. It's a relatively flat mile until the last quarter mile which "features" the infamous uphill finish that greets the New York Marathon. I felt really good for the first two laps which was through Mile 11. The only problem I had was that I wasn't taking in enough fluids. I felt bloated all week and probably had too much to eat Friday night. In fact, I didn't even have my customary bagel on race morning to leave room in my tummy for fluids.

Miles 12-19 were very consistent..all in the 5:33-5:35 range with one exception...Mile 15 where a small pack started to form and I was trying to keep up and dropped a 5:23 for that mile. But I couldn't hold it. While this stretch felt OK, I knew the end was nigh. I had consumed maybe 14 ounces of fluids to this point and was beginning to feel the inevitable side effects of dehydration.

The nail in the coffin was at Mile 19, the next to last time I would pass by the special fluids station on the east side of the park. I grabbed my bottle and took a small sip and couldn't get my stomach to take in any more fluids with having it just slosh around. Everything I had done right at St. George I did wrong at the Trials. The problem with a marathon is you simply cannot fake hydration like you can in a 10k or even a half marathon. You simply can't cheat it and 14 ounces through 19 miles is cheating it. So even though I was still hitting respectable splits, I knew I was in trouble and I also knew I still had almost a lap and a half to go. This was a situation in which I didn't like the lap contruct of the course.

Mile 20 was the biggest downhill stretch of the east side yet I was only able to manage a 5:41 split. Yes...the lugnuts were loosing. The Mile 21 marker came a couple hundred meters before the finish line. I looked at my watch and saw 5:50. It felt like 7:50. But the cheers of the crowd were helpful, at least briefly.

As I began my last lap I looked up at the Jumbotron and saw that Ryan Hall was crushing everyone. I knew the last lap was going to be lonely. But, I crossed the finish line in a high 1:56 so I was still hopeful that with even a mediocre final five miles I could beat my Eugene Marathon time of 2:29. All I needed to do was average 6:30s.

I did get a good laugh during Mile 22. As I headed north through the west side of the park, the throngs of people were running -- seemingly faster than I was -- toward me...ummm...I mean toward the finish line. My first thought was that this must be what it's like when a golfer is 10 or 12 over par and everyone is bailing to watch Tiger Woods finish on the 18th green. I actually wanted to join them, but instead, pressed on. Mile 22 -- 6:13. Felt like 8:13.

This is where wearing a watch, or at least looking at your watch, may be counter productive. If you have the strength and energy to make up for a bad split, then it's a great idea to look at your watch. But if no matter what the split says, there's nothing you can do to improve it, then maybe it's more demoralizing than helpful. Something to think about for future races.

(As a side note, this race must have set a record for timing mats. We crossed mats 52 times during the 5 lap race. 52 times! I can still here the chirps in my head. All the more reason to not pay attention to my watch. All the data I over-analyze was going to be available to me after the race anyway.)

Mile 23 was 6:17. I actually felt good about this because it was about the same time as the previous mile which gave me some hope that I could hold on and break 2:29.

Miles 24 and 25 were probably the hardest miles I've ever run. At one point I was cresting a small hill on the east side and felt like I was going to collapse. There were a couple of points that I didn't really know where I was. Never in the race did I seriously consider dropping out. I had come too far to quit. But after passing several guys who were walking, it took everything I had to keep running and not join them.

I do remember laughing to myself about the crowd. People were yelling, "Go look great." "Sundwall, dig deeper." "#44 you're in control." Clearly these weren't the "tell it how it is" New Yorkers I was familiar with. I looked like death on two jello sticks. Mile 24 came in at 6:55. Mile 25, aided by a bit of downhill came in a tad better at 6:48.

The final mile felt like the death march that it was. The crowds were really thick for the final 1.2. In some ways that helped but in other ways, I was embarrassed by how poorly I was finishing the race. It's kind of like being 80 years old and not being able to control your bladder. You just wish someone would save you further embarassment and push you and your wheelchair into traffic.

Mile 26 was 7:29.

With .2 miles to go, I was at exactly 2:29. I knew my shot at beating my Eugene time were hopeless. Doing .2 miles in 17 seconds was not going to happen. So as I headed up the hill to truly thunderous crowd noise, I spotted my wife in the VIP grandstands and with about 50 feet to go, jogged (literally) over to her, gave her a kiss and then finished the last few feet of the marathon in 2:30:41.

I only vaguely remember the trip from the finish line to the aid tent. I just know I had two guys helping me along and a reporter from Northwest Runner Magazine (the Seattle running magazine) interviewing me. I honestly have no idea what questions he asked me or what my answers were. I guess I'll find out next issue.

About 7 minutes later I looked at my watch which was still running. Forgot to stop it at the line. I was trying to pour fluids down me but couldn't. I got a brief massage and stretch and headed for the bus to get back to the hotel and get cleaned up before the awards luncheon. I was really cold and shivering pretty badly.

I lost 9 pounds during the race or about 6% of my body weight. Not a good weight loss program.

The luncheon was pretty somber. The news about Ryan Shay dominated the entire room. It was pretty hard to get too excited about the three winners and celebrating any personal victories when one of your own died a few hours earlier doing exactly what you were doing.

So the first question someone is probably asking is whether or not I am disappointed. Certainly I wish I had finished stronger and with a better time, but if someone had told me 2 1/2 years ago, when I started running, that I would be the 90th fastest marathoner in America and run on the national stage in the US Olympic Marathon Trials in New York City, I would have died laughing and then asked him or her to give me some of whatever they were smoking. Two and a half years ago I wanted to run a 3:10 marathon and qualify for Boston. How could I possibly be disappointed? I ran 87 seconds slower than my Eugene Marathon effort in April on a much, much more difficult course, with worse weather conditions and no pack to run with. All this just four weeks after running the race of my life in St. George, an admitedly aided course, but probably the toughest course in America to recover from. Disappointed? No way. In fact, I'm probably hungrier now than I've ever been. And it's not a hunger for any kind of revenge. There's no revenge to be had. It's a hunger to further refine and magnify this talent I've been given.

I don't know if this means I'll be back in 2011 for the next Olympic Trials. I will be almost 39 years old then. Hard to look that far ahead. But I do feel like I have plenty to improve upon and I look forward to wherever that that takes me.


Mercanator said...


Again, nice job Saturday!

Photo of you at the finish is up at

Steele Connexion said...

Hey Sean, Congrats on the Race man Shelby and I wish we could have been there as well. Your goals, determination and results have inspired us as well as many others. See you next month.

Run on!

Dave said...


Congrats on the race. What an amazing accomplishment!


Anonymous said...

Wow... Your race report is amazing! What's more amazing is the story of your life.

Don't forget to hydrate!

Toshi H.

Anonymous said...

Great report, and great effort. I'm glad to hear that you plan to continue your development and tap out your potential. We'll be following your reports.

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