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The Miles Before Trials

How do you get to Carnegie Hall?

You practice.

How do you get to Atlanta for the Olympic Trials? Well, that’s going to take a whole lot of practice too.

The old jokes have longevity because there’s a kernel of truth at the heart of them that defies generations. If you want to get good at anything, practice makes perfect. But when it comes to the marathon, what does practice look like? For the pros, the formula is relatively simple: miles + intensity + recovery = results. OK, maybe you need to factor luck in there too, but as they say, you make your own luck.

But for the amateur, throw work into the mix and things get a whole lot more complicated.

Two amateurs who will be lining up in Atlanta with dreams of competing with the pros are Jeanne Mack and Louis Serafini. They recently spent time at altitude in Flagstaff AZ, with Tracksmith documenting their training one month out from Trials. Two athletes, two different approaches.

Jeanne Mack is 29. She grew up running in Rhode Island and ran XC in College, but it wasn’t until she moved to Flagstaff for graduate school that things got serious. She missed the OTQ by 20 seconds in her first marathon but came back strong in 2018, running 2:39:04 in Chicago. With the upheaval of a cross country move from New York to San Francisco, where she works as a writer for Strava, 2019 was a busy year, not helped by a persistent injury that took time to get sorted: last September Jeanne ran a grand total of 31 miles; in January 2020, as she got deep into the build up for trials, she ran 445.

“It was definitely nerve racking,” she says of her five week summer layoff. “I certainly felt behind coming into November. Knowing loosely where I wanted to get to in training felt extremely far away, but it was also helpful to be coming from a place of excitement. Everything felt kind of new for me in this build up which was cool.”

Looking at Jeanne’s stats through this build up, there’s no obvious panic or playing catch up: 30 mile weeks become 40, 40 become 50, and eventually, in early January, Jeanne ran 108 miles over the course of one week.

“I think every single mentor-esque figure I've had in the sport of running has said, ‘Consistency is KEY’ at some point,” she says. “Building up a base of miles and having weeks and months that compound is the foundation of strength that you need to be able to perform well. Consistency is a form of moderation.

"Running an OTQ I realized to let go of my fearful stranglehold on having every single workout and aspect of a training cycle go perfectly. It's not going to.”

Boston-based Louis Serafini ran the Trials in 2016 when they were held in LA. His training log for the day read: “Great for 16. Hurting till 19. Jogged to 21. Stopped. More to come…”

Since then he’s been the model of consistency, logging over 4000 miles each year through 2017, 2018 and 2019, all while holding down a full time job and training through Boston’s notoriously harsh winters. At that same time he’s broken four minutes for the mile, run 63 minutes for the Half Marathon and in November 2019 in New York, he ran 2:16 to cement his place in Atlanta. To get there, he’s focussed on speed while maintaining training mileage, and with the help of his coach Randy Thomas, he has gradually developed his capabilities over longer distances.

“Speed is important in the marathon but we often neglect it,” says Lou. “It makes goal pace feel easy. One of my favorite things Randy says is that: ‘to run your best marathon, you have to be in your best 10k shape. And to run your best 10k, you have to be in your best 5k shape.’”

This philosophy saw Lou run 13:47 for the 5k just two weeks out from Trials, and a week after his training camp in Flagstaff. How rigidly does he stick to the plan his coach sets? “ I try as hard as I can to stick to it,” he says. “Sometimes I get carried away and do more miles than I should. But if there’s work stuff going on, Randy is good about understanding that and giving me a fartlek or something easier. I am pretty good about switching days around to fit my work schedule.”

Working for Tracksmith often means long hours and the bad kind of time on feet. However it also means Lou is in a job where his running is not just accepted, but positively encouraged. “Finding a job that is flexible is big,” he says when asked the secret to holding down a job and running at the highest level.

The other big secret, of course, is recovery. Where the pros can nap during the day, the amateur needs to cram their sleep into nighttime hours and for most, it’s sleep that really makes the difference. For Jeanne that means that “I’ve become pretty boring at weekends. During this build up I've had a few days where I went to bed at 8 pm and it felt great. I think even 7:30 once.”

Lou is pretty similar: “I’m usually in bed for 8:45 or 9pm and asleep a little before 10pm,” he says.

In Arizona, Lou and Jeanne were working hard in their final big weekend before Atlanta. With Flagstaff being at 7000ft elevation, taking it easy was hardly an option - the thin air is exactly what makes the town a Mecca for distance runners, domestic and international.

Jeanne started Friday with a 3 mile warm up on the flat, followed by tempo effort up to the Arizona Snowbowl, gaining 1400ft in 4.5miles. An average heart rate of 185bpm tells you just how hard this effort was. Her day was far from over though - after a 5 mile cool down, she got back after it in the afternoon with an hour run that included 8x40sec efforts.

That double effort was enough to bring about some pain in Jeanne’s left foot. Whether amateur or pro, sometimes, if you want to perform on race day you need to be brave about calling in an early rest day and that’s exactly what Jeanne did, sitting out the rest of the weekend and working on rehab and recovery to be able to get back at it the following week.

More used to the blue-collar lifestyle of miles along the Charles, Lou was excited to spend some time at altitude under clear skies, rather than the Bostonian gloom he left behind. He started Friday with 10 miles along Flagstaff’s famous Lake Mary Road, and doubled that afternoon with an easy five. Like many athletes at his level, Lou doesn’t use a heart rate monitor or rely on other sources of external feedback to keep his training on track. “ I try to focus on being present and listening to my body," he says.

Lou’s big day was Saturday, with a 25 mile marathon simulation planned at the lower altitude of Camp Verde. Atlanta is roughly 1000ft above sea level, so athletes can expect the percentage of oxygen in the atmosphere to be around 20.1%; at Camp Verde, which is at 4000ft, it’s more like 17.9%. A small but significant difference, especially when you’re running on the limit.

That didn’t stop Lou from crushing his workout, covering the 25 miles - and 1900ft of climbing - in 2:23, or an average pace of 5:44/mile.

“I just wanted to sleep forever after this run,” he says. “I felt great through 13 but after 6 miles of climbing with little relief I was questioning whether or not I'd get past 20.

"This run really tested my willpower but it felt like a breakthrough in all respects. Nobody said running a marathon was easy!”

All around the country, Trials qualifiers are deep into their tapers and reflecting on their buildups with a mixture of satisfaction and trepidation. Their training diaries and Strava logs will forever serve as a memory of this time and the effort that has taken them to US distance running’s biggest domestic stage.

“Buildups themselves are like places you once lived,” says Jeanne. “You can never go home again. It's probably changed - or you have. Comparing is unavoidable, but it's not direct. So, I try to appreciate the buildup while I'm in it. It's a time capsule of me as a person and a situation that I probably won't encounter exactly again.”

Race performances are only ever the tip of the iceberg - the sum of countless, unseen hours over months and years dedicated to achieving a goal. If you’re racing Trials only you can truly know what went into getting you there. But across the country and across the world, you have impressed and inspired a huge number of athletes just like you. You have made it seem possible. Whatever happens on race day, we’re rooting for you. Good luck.

Tracksmith has supported 138 amateur men and women in their build up to the Marathon Trials as part of their OTQ Program. To learn more about some of the amateurs racing at Trials click here.