WE HAVE LIFT OFF
Tackling the 2020 Houston Marathon together in pursuit of an OTQ.
Words by Alyssa Barette, Liz Anjos, and Lauren Ross
Photography by Fredis Benitez
We’re three runners from Portland, Oregon with three very different running histories, three different coaches, two different clubs, and one goal: to qualify for the Olympic Trials.
For Liz it started over 10 years ago. She came to competitive running as a senior in college. When she finally approached the coach about running for the team, his response was “I was wondering when you’d come around!”. She wondered what it would take to be one of the few lining up at the Trials. A dream was born. In October 2019, Liz ran a PR of 2:57 in Chicago and followed it with a 190-mile week traversing the Appalachian Trail. In December, she ran a half marathon PR of 1:22:43, then six days later placed 4th in her first ultramarathon, the Hellgate 100K. Her route to Houston would be unconventional, but it just might work.
Alyssa went the other way, starting out as a collegiate runner and stepping away from the sport after her Freshman season. Following a career move that took her to Portland, she began to observe women like her, with full-time jobs and lives outside of running, running incredibly fast. Alyssa started to wonder if she could do something big. In 2019 she took nearly 24 minutes off her marathon PR to run 2:50 at NYC. The thing is, this massive performance came after weeks of cross training due to a scooter accident (ask her about it sometime). There was so much more potential to be shown. It was time to go for it.
Lauren is different still. A collegiate downhill skier, she began to run for fitness and found it a great way to explore. When a move to New Orleans eliminated the mountains as a weekend destination, running took over as her competitive outlet. In 2016 she became aware of the marathon trials process, but it wasn’t until late 2017 after a surprise PR in the half that it became a goal. In Chicago 2019, Lauren PR'ed by 6 minutes to run 2:52, but left feeling unsatisfied after hitting the wall hard with 12 miles to go. She needed another shot.
We decided to run Houston at different points of the fall, but as soon as it was clear that we’d be there, we banded together. Any day we could train together, we did; we modified workouts to fit each others schedules; we braved the dark, rainy PNW mornings; we fought through windy long runs. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts - this has never been more true than in marathon training. When one woman falters, the other is there to hold the pack together. We are strong not just for ourselves, but for the women beside us.
Lauren - Saturday - I spend about 45 seconds going over a race strategy with my coach, in person for once since he lives here: “I’m going to run with the pack and not do anything stupid.” “Yep. Tuck in and turn off. No partying till after.” He likes to remind me of all the energy I wasted running NYC on my birthday - buns, party hat, and all. “Cage the party animal”, he has told me in the past.
Liz - Mile 0 - We huddle close together with the crowd to keep warm a few minutes before the start. Lauren offers one last swig of Gatorade to our group of Portlanders before tossing the bottle.
Alyssa - We arrive at the ADP corral and marathoners and half marathoners are running little loops inside the fenced off area. I’ve never warmed up for a marathon before so it makes me feel like I need to, and I jog a couple laps.
Lauren - The ADP corral is bigger than it had been in 2018, and there is a clear distinction between the two main categories of competitors in there: a large contingent of half marathoners prepping for Olympic Trials, anxiously jogging laps in the corral; and an equally large group of marathoners hoping to get to the race for which the others were training. I catch up with friends from college, Portland, Texas, and the internet, and more than anything feel thrilled. Where usually there is nervousness I find the confidence that everything that could have gone right to this point has. It is time.
Liz - Mile 1 - Lauren darts up ahead of me and I spot the 2:45 pace group up ahead to my right. I am a little nervous about the quick pace required to hit the OTQ, but I have to decide now. I stride ahead to join the group.
Liz - Mile 3 - I’m surprised by how easy this feels, no doubt a result of running with such a large group. I don’t have to think. I just run.
Alyssa - The first water station is a surprise. I am stuck in the middle of the pack and completely miss it. I thought I was told the water would be on the left and it’s actually on the right. A rookie mistake.
Lauren - The first section of the course runs along Washington Ave, and I know I have friends cheering here. After working my way up towards the front of our pack to find Alyssa and my friend Starla who I trained with in Houston, I settle in. I recognize women all around me from the shakeout the day before or from connecting online, and feel secure though notably cramped. I nearly miss my friends along the road, one yelling “LAUREN WHERE ARE YOU!” at the mob of fast women. I wave and smile. The first water stop is a learning process but I manage to snag a cup and decide it will be best to stay along the right side of the pack to make grabbing water easier and decrease my chances of being boxed in or tripped. As we ease into pace, women shed layers, offering them up to the group in case someone nearby has cold fingers or arms. If not, the items are passed along to the flanks and tossed gently to the side of the road to avoid tripping anyone. We are here for each other.
Lauren - Mile 5 - I settle in towards the front of the pack next to Starla with Alyssa to our left. I can’t stop smiling. I take comfort in knowing these roads and knowing so many spectators. “I’ve missed so many of the mile markers!” I say to Starla. “Perfect, that’s what we need!” Right on cue, there’s a scream behind us to the left. We keep on moving.
Liz - We’re moving together like a well-oiled machine, until I hear a scream and just ahead to my right, a woman flies forward and goes sprawling on the pavement. Runners scatter to either side, pushing into each other, and another woman trips and goes down.
Alyssa - My coach told me this would be the hardest part of the race. She wasn’t kidding. This is the first time I have run in a pack like this, and I find myself stuck in the middle more often than not. Lauren looks at me and I give her these huge eyes full of anxious energy. I need to get to the side. Heels are getting clipped and women are falling.
Lauren - Mile 6 - We go by a cheer station and a man with a microphone exclaims “2:45! These ladies are going to qualify for BOSTON!” which gets some chuckles and shouts of “Hell yeah ladies we’re going to BOSTON!” from the group.
Lauren - Mile 8 - Rice village is a beautiful section of the course but I didn’t remember the oak-lined streets being so narrow! With such a large pack, the turns become treacherous and I take to carrying my arms a bit wider, elbows out to prevent getting squished. I notice two women in particular with odd strides that clip my feet multiple times and I do my best to get away from them.
Liz - Mile 9 - I’m beginning to fatigue. I focus on Alyssa’s singlet just ahead of me. I find myself repeatedly playing the game of “slip away, catch up.”
Lauren - Mile 10 - This is the first time I actually take stock of how I’m feeling. There’s a cross breeze coming at us from the right, so I migrate to the left side of the group where I also find a bit more space. I consider my legs, my lungs, my heart - I feel great. Compared to Chicago in October, this feels like an easy jog with the dogs.
Alyssa - Halfway - I am having thoughts that this might be my first DNF because I feel like I am working way harder than I should. Maybe it’s the nerves? I find myself more comfortable in the back of the pack. I am able to stride more normally and have an easier time grabbing water. I tell myself to stay with the pack and take it one mile at a time in an effort to push out any negativity. Whenever a spectator cheers for someone else, I repeat the cheer with my own name. “Let’s go, Alyssa!”
Lauren - I make my way back through the pack to find Starla before we go up the overpass by the halfway mark. We keep an even effort, and though the front of the pack gets away from us we grab water and stay calm, easily catching back up on the back side. No wasted energy.
Liz - I cross the halfway point in 1:22:37, my fastest half marathon ever. I’m struggling to hang on and ease back on the pace. I watch the group sail away ahead of me, with Lauren and Alyssa in it.
Lauren - Mile 14 - We’re rolling through the galleria now, and I’m still feeling fantastic. We have been gaining on people who went out too fast, tiny little groups of a few runners here and there. I hope they can tuck in and come with us but I don’t look back. The pack has thinned out so slowly I only notice it now. Still, it’s dangerous - another girl goes down, victim to heel clips from the people around her. She screams, gets up, and continues on.
Alyssa - Mile 15 - I start to notice that we’re passing women who went out ahead of us. Someone in the pack yells out “Only 2 miles until single digits!” and I think about how that’s just a normal morning run in Portland.
Lauren - Mile 18 - This feels significant because it’s where I absolutely died in my first marathon. I spot friends, get a boost, and take stock - it’s not easy anymore, but I still feel better than I have in other marathons. My legs don’t hurt yet, but perhaps they’re a little stiffer than at the beginning. I’m not struggling to breathe, but it’s getting harder. Starla leans over to our friend Lauren and says “I don’t know if I can do this today”. I don’t answer, but I think to myself just because it’s not easy anymore doesn’t mean we give up. This sentence plays over in my head until we reach Memorial Park.
Liz - Mile 20 - I recognize the singlets of runners that had also once been part of the 2:45 pace group. They’ve fallen off too and now they’re coming back to me.
Lauren - Ok, it’s officially hard now. I’m not sure when that happened exactly. I look around and notice the pack isn’t a pack anymore - when did that happen? Alyssa is still here. Starla is still here. Where did everyone else go? I realize that of all those women who seemed indestructible to me, many of whom I’d looked up to for years, I’m one of the few still on pace. As we approach a water stop I try to take a gel and accidentally inhale some. I cough and my body reacts by retching, a full involuntary reaction while clicking off a sub-6:10 mile. The idea of how insane I must have looked to spectators makes me smile. Runners, we are so weird.
Lauren - Mile 21 - I prepare myself for what’s to come. A gentle climb, right on Shepherd, left on Allen Parkway, where the underpasses come. I’m not at the front of the group anymore, but I’m still there, grinding (turns out this mile was a 6:02). We turn left and smack into a wall of wind, but I grit my teeth. I’m in this.
Lauren - Mile 23 - An aid station comes up and I know I need to take some gatorade to keep things moving through the finish. I grab a gatorade and a water, suck down some of each, and the group - now just 10 or so runners, has put some distance on me. This happened previously in the race, but when you have 70 people behind the pacer you can lose a few steps and still be in it. This time, the distance feels huge. I keep pushing - I can use the downhills of the underpasses to make up distance. My quads are screaming. The wind is pushing me backwards. The uphills of the underpasses feel like mountains. I get through one and in my mind I tell myself This is a decision point. You can keep pushing or you can ease up. The group is now far enough ahead of me that I know I can’t catch up. I try again to use the downhill to make up some time but the uphills are crushing. I feel my pace slow noticeably, and pass friends on this section with urgency in their voices. “You’ve gotta GO, Lauren!” And I try.
Alyssa - Mile 24 - We are pushing through insane wind gusts and a spectator yells “You got this, just lean into the wind!” I finish my last gel (my coach told me to save it for around 2:30). Woah, I successfully ate five gels with no stomach issues! I feel renewed energy. There are two miles left and I break off from the pacer. I slowly start catching up to Neely Spence Gracey who broke off from the pack with four miles to go. I tell myself to keep pushing and hold onto the pace - you have this.
Liz - Somehow the miles are flying by and I’m feeling pretty good. The sun’s out, there’s a strong breeze, and I’m continuing to pass runner after runner.
Lauren - Mile 25 - I see my husband Brooks on the sideline, which means that the ankle he sprained last week did not cooperate for the full race. I can tell he knows I won’t finish under 2:45. He’s encouraging, but not freaking out. This last mile is always so long, and willing my legs to move faster isn’t doing anything.
Alyssa - Mile 26 - Running through downtown Houston is the perfect ending to my imperfect race. The half marathoners are on the left side of the road and we are on the right. I hear people yell “Go get that trip to Atlanta!” I cross the line. I turn around looking for Lauren. I start talking to myself, “Come on girl where are you?” The race officials try to usher me through the finish chute back into the convention center. As I’m walking it hits me: I just qualified for the trials! Wait what? Did this just happen? I am so happy but don’t know how to process it or if I can process it at this moment.
Lauren - The finish line is in sight, thank god. And then suddenly, I hear the announcer “5, 4, 3, 2, 1 - that’s it folks, all your Olympic Trials Qualifiers are in!” Wait - I was that close? I had no idea, and while hearing this countdown could be crushing, I have to laugh. What?! I cross the line, stagger past, having nearly no control of my legs at this point, and find Starla and Alyssa, crying and smiling, champagne in hands. They did it. And I did it too - those seconds (23, it turns out), though they’ll keep me from another start line in Atlanta, mean nothing. I crossed the line knowing that I did what I thought I could do, that I was that good. It’s one thing to think it, and another to prove it. I am a 2:45 marathoner.
Liz - I’m about to round the final turn of the race and I’m eager to catch my first glimpse of the big clock by the finish arch. I can’t believe it. I’m going to finish in 2 hours and 51 minutes. I won’t achieve my big goal, but a six minute PR is a wonderful consolation prize. I stride out and cross the finish line with a big smile on my face.
Three PRs, each by more than 5 minutes. That doesn’t happen every day. While only one of us will be running in the Trials, all three came in with belief and broke barriers that once seemed impossible. No matter the road that got us here, we couldn’t have done it alone. That’s true of the training and it sure was true of race day. Every check-in, every time we locked onto one of our women to hold pace, we did it together, just as hundreds of women just like us, right across the country have done in the build up to Atlanta.
Liz Anjos is a musician, running coach, and co-founder of Rose City Track Club. She can be found online @pinkfeathers.
Lauren Ross is a registered dietitian in Portland, OR with roots in Tracksmith's home state of Massachusetts. Follow her running and eating at @how_to_eat_RD.
Alyssa Barrette is a Product Manager and can be found online @alyssa_barrette