THE HIGHER YOU CLIMB...
Coach Ben Rosario of HOKA Northern Arizona Elite reflects on his team's goals and performances at the 2016 U.S. Olympic Trials.
I know there have been a lot of blog posts about the Trials from all sort of athletes and coaches that I respect and admire. But to tell you the truth—I haven't read them. I haven't watched any race replays or post-race interviews either. My mind has sort of just been a pile of mush for the last four days since the Women's 5k Final on the last day of the 2016 Olympic Trials.
I am writing this as I sit on a plane bound for Washington DC where I will speak at the RRCA RunPro Camp to a group of eager post-collegiate athletes looking to make their way in the world of professional distance running. Up until a few hours ago I wasn't sure how I was going to muster the energy to give my speech tomorrow. But then I read this article from Deadspin about Rochelle Kanuho, one of our HOKA NAZ Elite athletes. Rochelle finished 7th at the Trials in the 10k and 15th in the 5k. But the story's not about either of those races. It's about her childhood and the adversities she had to overcome to get where she is today. And we're talking about real adversities—not stress fractures or plantar fasciitis. I'll let you read it for yourself but it kicked me in the ass and reminded me that nothing in this world worth having is given to you. You have to take it.
As such, I've been zapped back into work mode on the plane and writing a blog post about the Trials was high up on my To-Do list early in the week until I kept pushing it down due to what I call the Post Trials Hangover. It's a hangover like no other really. I had a mild version of it as an athlete and now I've had it full-blown as a coach. Let me explain—this hangover only occurs when you truly believe, deep down in the depths of your being, that you are going to do something special. As an athlete I wasn't near the level of the people that I now coach. I ran the Marathon Trials twice. The first time I ran okay. The second time I ran terrible. Certainly I had worked hard both times and certainly I wanted to do the very best I could but I knew that I wasn't going to make the Team. I knew I wasn't even going to finish anywhere near the front really. Now that's not to say I don't have a massive amount of respect for the athletes today that are like I was then. We need those athletes in the sport. They push the people above them, who push the people above them and so on. But, at least in my experience, it's a lot different when you are shooting for the very highest rung on the ladder. Because the higher you climb, the harder you fall.
When we met as a team at the beginning of 2016 to discuss our goals for the year there was one that stood out above all others. We wanted to put someone on the Olympic Team. I BELIEVE THAT WE WILL GO was our mantra. It signified that we were all working toward a common goal and if one of us went...we all went. Heading into the Marathon Trials I was so sure that we were going to get the job done. I stood in the warm-up area, with tears in my eyes as they played the National Anthem before the start. This was going to be it. Of course, it didn't play out that way. We came away with two sixth-place finishes (Matt Llano and Kellyn Taylor). As I said in many interviews I think we were all disappointed though we were also able to step back and realize that those were both awesome performances. We were close.
Honestly, if you'd have fed me some truth serum after that race I am not sure I would have been able to say I thought we'd have a better shot to make the Team on the track than we'd had in the Marathon. But I did believe we'd be ready on the day. That's what we talked about from a training perspective when the track segment began. So many athletes are cooked by the time the Trials (or the Championship race in any context) comes around that I knew we'd have a huge advantage just because I knew we'd show up to Eugene ready to roll. Now before that sounds like bragging please understand that my confidence came from having royally screwed up the year before. We made the classic mistake in 2015 of doing too many race-specific workouts too early, getting away from our bread-and-butter workouts and ultimately bombing out at USAs. I knew what we had done wrong and I wasn't about to make the same mistakes twice.
In 2016 we spread out the workouts over the course of the segment, made sure we recovered after big races, kept plenty of variety in our sessions, kept our mileage high and stuck with the types of workouts that we run best off of (steady state runs, tempo runs, hills, etc.). Only over the last month leading into the Trials did we finally really crank out some true race-specific work on the track. You can of course read all of our training logs on FINAL SURGE. And a funny thing happened as we got closer and closer to the meet. It started to become clear that we were going to have a serious chance to make the Team.
First up was the Men's 10k on July 1. The first day of the Trials always brings with it a ton of excitement. We had three men in the race: Ben Bruce, Scott Fauble and Scott Smith. It was cool because we knew that all three were in really good shape. Ben had struggled throughout the season in his favorite event, the steeplechase, but it wasn't because of any lack of fitness. He had run his first ever 10k on the track in early May in 28:25 which is a solid debut for sure and he was fitter at the Trials then he was then. Scott Fauble was on an amazing run all year long having finished third at the Great Edinburgh XC Challenge, third at the Stanford 10k in 28:00.43 (I'll get back to that shortly), second at the USATF Half Marathon Champs and sixth at the Bolder Boulder 10k. Scott Smith was coming off a huge six-day stretch in early June where he'd set personal bests in the half marathon (62:34) and the 10k (28:24). Not only that but his final couple of workouts before the Trials were as good as he'd ever looked on the track since he and I had been working together.
So we were definitely heading in with "guns-a-blazin" as I like to say. Of course, Ben and Scott and "Faubs" would be facing one of the deeper fields of any event on the men's side in the entire meet. We just had to believe that our strength and the fact that we had prepared for the heat would put us in the mix. The pre-race instructions were to make sure we were in the top 10 from the gun as I wanted us to be close enough to feel any moves being made but not so close that we'd be automatically sucked into a move that was too much too soon. Things played out well early on. Ben actually went straight to the front and ran a couple of 68-69s. He and I had mentioned that as a possibility going in just so it didn't start out at a complete jog. Once he tucked in we had all three guys in good position but the race got really crazy, really fast. Galen Rupp made a big move 2k in when he threw in two really fast laps. No one completely covered the move but it was enough to start breaking things up. He let the pack catch back up only to put in a similar move at the 5k mark. That one shook things up for good. You could tell that a few guys felt they had to cover it, that this was the move to make the Team. Most of those guys would pay for that decision a few laps later, however. For us, the move got the best of a couple of us. First Ben and then Scott, both fell off the pack. To their credit though, neither one ever gave up a single bit and their grit ended up rewarding them with 13th and 14th place finishes.
Faubs was a different story. He covered that second move as best he could but not all the way. That left him in 10th, battling with 3-time USATF XC Champ Chris Derrick. Then the 85-degree temps began taking their toll and carnage ensued. First Bernard Lagat dropped out, then Hassan Mead. Then Ben True started fading. Before you knew it Faubs was in fifth and Derrick was in fourth. I was shouting at the top of my lungs to let him know he was in fifth, unsure if he had seen the others drop out. He tried to go by Derrick a couple of times before finally settling in behind him over most of the last 800 meters. He then went by with 150 meters to go and never looked back, kicking home to a fourth place finish in 28:45. Normally fourth is the first alternate spot but because his time from Stanford was .43 away from the Olympic Standard that honor ended up going to Sam Chelanga in sixth. Still, we had come away with a better place than we had gotten at the Marathon Trials. We were getting closer.
There was no rest for us as a team with Stephanie Bruce, Rochelle Kanuho and Kellyn Taylor taking on the Women's 10k the very next morning. Unlike with the men, the race plans were different for these three. Steph, coming off a 3-week layoff in the meat of the segment due to an injury was going to have to be a little cautious pace-wise. Rochelle was in great shape so we certainly left the door open for something really special to happen but it was going to have to happen by way of running her splits and not necessarily worrying about what happened early on up front. For Kellyn it was pretty simple—get a spot as close to first (but not first!) as you can from the gun and stay there. Stay relaxed, do as little as possible and continue covering moves all the way to the end. Sounds easy, right?
The women had slightly better conditions than the men but not by much. We had been in Eugene for two weeks at that point and I swear their race was the hottest it had been at 11am the entire time. I think those temps kept the first few laps from being too crazy fast which ended up being good for us. It allowed Steph to be in the pack early on though it soon became clear it would not be her day. The injury, and the missed training, was too much to overcome. For Rochelle though, the early laps were pretty much exactly what we had talked about her running so she smartly put herself right there near the back of the front pack. As the natural attrition took place deeper into the race, she just kept making one great decision after another by intuitively passing each slowing runner to grab herself another spot. In the end she stormed home in seventh place, courtesy of the third-fastest last lap in the field. Just six more seconds and she would have been fifth.
And then there was Kellyn. Going into the race I believed with 100% certainty she was going to make the team. I believe she felt the same way. I know her teammates felt that way. Having watched her workouts over the previous two months it was just impossible for us to believe that three people were going to beat her on the day. She was averaging more than 100 miles a week. Her strength was at an all-time high—she ran a 15-mile steady state run four weeks before the race better (comparatively) than what she had done before the Marathon Trials. Her speed was amazing—she had closed workouts in 61 seconds for 400 and 45 seconds for 300. She had also run a solo 4:36 1600, cutting down each lap where she went 72/70/68/64. And her race-specific work was there as well, having run 5 x 1600 with 2min rest in 5:01/5:03/5:00/4:56/4:52 (that was the workout where she ran an all-out 61-second 400 two minutes after the final 1600). All the tools were in the toolbox.
And she executed perfectly. Slowly but surely runners fell off of the lead pack. She kept her spot on the rail. With six laps to go it was down to five athletes; Molly Huddle, Emily Infeld, Marielle Hall, Aliphine Tulamuk and Kellyn. But just as you thought she was going to do it she fell off. She was in fifth. A slight pace increase from Huddle had dropped her. She ran a 79. Her dream was unraveling. But then a cool thing happened. A thing I am very proud of her for. She ran the next three laps in 78 seconds each, catching and passing Tulamuk in the process and then she closed in 74 to finish 4th. She could have easily given up, blamed the heat, blamed the disappointment, etc. But she didn't. She fought tooth and nail for every second she could and she earned that alternate spot. And kudos to Molly, Emily and Marielle. They just plain beat her. It happens. In a way, because Kellyn ran so well it made the fourth place finish a little easier to swallow. It's tough if you make a mistake because then there's always a "what if" factor but that wasn't the case here.
The 10k had been our best shot and we had come away with two fourth place finishes. Not too shabby. Kellyn and Rochelle both still had the 5ks and they both looked awesome in the prelims but both ran out of gas in the final, finishing 12th and 15th. All told, between the Marathon and Track Trials, our group produced finishes of 20th, 15th, 14th, 14th, 13th, 12th, 7th, 6th, 6th, 4th and 4th. When we have our next team meeting in early August I will thank each and every one of those athletes for laying the groundwork for what's to come from us in the future. They have set the bar incredibly high and even though we know that we will have some really difficult falls along the way, I can't wait to see them push that thing even higher.