“Permanence, perseverance, and persistence in spite of all obstacles, discouragements, and impossibilities: It is this, that in all things distinguishes the strong soul from the weak.” – Thomas Carlyle
By Brittni Hutton
Ever feel like your life’s a movie? Playing exclusively inside the theater of your own mind? My brain flick’s got a real plot, drama, a love story, some funny and bittersweet moments, and even some action too. But no violence or nudity: I play the hero, after all. (It’s rated PG-13 for bad language and graphic vomiting, viewer discretion…) A poster for my movie has a picture of me and says something like this: “The trials and tribulations of a young woman trying to qualify for the 2020 Olympic Marathon Trials.”
In the fall of 2017, I was on track to run my first road race marathon and, hopefully, qualify for the Olympic trials. My training in my adopted home of Santa Barbara, California, was going great, my coach was awesome, my sponsor gave me perks and confidence and support. What’s the phrase? The world was my oyster or pearl or whatever, shiny, briny and cool. So Act One of my movie was going pretty sweet. But of course stories have to have obstacles to overcome in order to be stories.
On cue, last September, I started having this weird psoas pain, one of those stupid, naggy and inexplicable little hurts (how the fuck did that happen?) that was just shitty enough to defy a doctor’s diagnosis and keep me from hard training and good sleeping. But still, things could’ve been worse. Santa Barbara could’ve burned down, right?
I think you know where this is heading, and believe me I’m not making light of it. The Thomas Fire and the slides that followed were a tragedy for so many close friends, co-workers, and clients. It really hit home. My heart went out to them. Still does for those who lost so much. My issues were tiny compared: The air was filled with smoke and ash for weeks, making training outdoors verboten. Again, meaningless compared, but still it’s part of the plot: If I can’t train, I can’t compete, and I didn’t. So the dominoes began to fall (as they always do in the movies).
Because I couldn’t train or compete, I couldn’t post times and show my value to my coach and running team. Eventually, I received the heart-breaking phone call, and my training under the Mammoth Track Club was no more. Down goes domino number one.
Next, my contract with my sponsor, who had provided training gear, entry fees for races, and travel fees, didn’t get renewed. Having a sponsor says you’re legit. So not having a sponsor means…? With that domino fallen, I became just another runner with a dream… Fade that shit to black.
Fade in on me bottoming out, starting to hate myself, and questioning my whole Olympic quest. Why the hell am I still doing this? Is it really worth all the rejection and humiliation and living like a pauper? Do I really, really want it? My fiancé Brandon and I talk it through, kick it around, howl at the moon some. I strip away ego and emotion from the mix, and I determine that I really, really did want it. (In the movie version, I went to therapy with Robin Williams in scenes stolen straight out of “Good Will Hunting” and reached the same conclusion.) Either way, I decide I’m all in.
So time to get my fallen dominoes standing upright again. First, I need a new coach to put a program and a plan in place for me. And I find one: Brandon. And guess what I learned: My fiancé’s a damn good coach. (Okay, I already knew that.) But Brandon knows me better than anyone. My strengths and weaknesses, quirks and foibles. And, of course, he gave a damn about me. He’s invested in my story.
Next, after the smoke cleared and folks in Santa Barbara started getting back to their lives again, and my psoas healed (cue the “Rocky” theme), my training resumed, and Brandon and I got to work planning for my first road marathon, one that would, if I ran below the 2:45 mark, qualify me for the 2020 Olympic Marathon trials. That means averaging 6:18 miles for the entire 26.2 miles of the marathon. (But to race with the best women come the 2020 Olympic Trials, I’d have to run closer to 2:30, which means averaging a 5:43 per mile.)
We chose Grandma’s Marathon in Duluth, Minnesota, as my qualifying attempt. Duluth is a hard town to get to, so Grandma’s is a destination race. A legit field of elite athletes show up every year.
For those of you who have trained for a marathon, you know marathon training is incredibly unique. Back-to-back days of running 15 miles or more that can add up to 90 – 100 miles (sometimes more) a week. Workouts and long runs of up to 25 miles a day. You feel inspired and amazed at the capabilities your body reaches, but also really fucking tired. Though in the end, you know it is all worth it.
Three weeks before the race, Brandon put me through a workout that would give me a taste of what “race day” might feel like and serve as a measure for where my fitness stood: Twenty-two miles, alternating between near marathon pace – so 5:50-6:00 minute miles – and moderate mile pace – 6:30-6:35. I averaged a sub-6:10 pace, right where I wanted to be. It felt so good I wanted to keep going and going, but Coach Brandon cut me off: “No, no, Brittni, save it for Grandma’s.”
I was hitting my stride – fit, strong, confident again – and then ten days before Grandma’s, another obstacle: I learned that when I returned to Santa Barbara, I wouldn’t have a job. The mental acrobatics my mind played: “What’s wrong with me? What’s wrong with them? No, it has to be me. No, it doesn’t have to be you, Brittni! Whether you shoot hoops, write blogs, or run races you need confidence to do what you do wholly.” But I wasn’t going to let any obstacle at that point bring me down. Brandon said I was gonna kill it, and I believed him as surely as if he’d said “It’s sunny out, Britt.” (Cue “Rocky” theme again. Or maybe “Eye of The Tiger” this time.)
EXTERIOR – DULUTH, MINNESOTA – RACE DAY
On your mark, get set, BANG went the gun and we were off. After two minutes, I look at my watch and I’m running at a 5:34 pace. Feels great, but too quick for comfort so I find my groove with a group of ladies running just under 6:10 per mile. After 3 miles I progressively increase my pace to 6:00 minutes per mile, as planned, and cruise at that speed for another 7 miles. I cannot believe how loose, easy and comfortable I feel.
Around mile 9, I see my mom and dad (they carpooled to Duluth with us from Milford), already bawling their eyes out, overwhelmed with joy to see me finally racing again. And there’s Brandon, too. I point telling him, “I got this and I love you.”
Next, I target a group of guys running in front of me and increase my pace and I join their pack. I ran 5:47 for mile 10 and once again it feels too easy. What am I missing? The next 5 miles felt fantastic and the guys I was running with, all so cool, asked if I was aiming for the Olympic Trials Standard. I smiled and said “heck yes,” and just like that we became like musketeers, all for one, one for all!
All was going smooth for we Musketeers until mile 15. I approach the water table to grab my (very own labeled) water bottle filled with electrolytes, as well as a caffeinated energy gel – all part of the plan – but the official points to the wrong bottle – not part of the plan. When I realize the error – I needed those electrolytes – I backtrack quickly, which throws off my rhythm, I lose my musketeers, and a competitor I passed earlier passes me. I grabbed my bottle and sprinted to catch my group.
Finally back with the pack, I down my water and eat my caffeinated energy gel, which proved to be nearly a race murderer. Because a mile and a half later, my stomach starts doing flips, and without warning, I puke and puke and I puke for the next 5–6 miles. At the next water station, I puked on a volunteer’s shoes (sorry dude) but I had to take in more water or my body would dehydrate and cramp up. With my blood and energy rushing to my stomach, my pace drops for several of those miles by 15–20 seconds. I did my best to average 6:05 per mile, but the caffeine and sugar were getting the best of me. I was no longer fighting for places in the race. Instead, I was fighting for a qualifying time – and was in doubt about whether I would win that battle.
I looked for motivation, anything around me, the crowd cheering, the music playing, and I thought of Brandon waiting for me at the finish line, reminding me of when I waited for him in LA to finish his death march (see my previous blog post “Proposal Day”), where he proposed marriage to me before collapsing and practically dying. He is my inspiration.
By the time I reached the last mile, and after having puked over half of Duluth, Minnesota, even though my time was not near my sub-2:40 goal, I knew it was good enough for me to qualify for the trials. A mixture of emotions moved through me: relief, anger, joy. Making the last few “S” turns into the finish, and into the final straightaway, I could hear the announcer in the distance, and the crowd getting louder. My emotions turned to fireworks exploding now; I sprinted to the finish line, hands above my head. As I cross, the clock reads: 2:41:31. I had punched my ticket to the 2020 Olympic Marathon Trials.
I hear Brandon’s voice shout at me, our eyes met, and he yelled, “BRITTNI, YOU DID IT!” We both cried like babies. My parents were euphoric and crying their eyes out too. My dad hands me his phone and it is my brother, Corbin. Back in Michigan, he had tracked my whole race and watched me cross the finish line on the live feed provided by the marathon. Holding the phone in my hand, listening to Corbin cry some tears of joy too, Brandon, my parents and I embraced – the whole family – and time stood still.
That’s a good place to say Fade To Black. But somewhere in the credits in the movie in my mind, after thanking everyone on the planet, a coda to my movie pops up on screen. It’s the sequel to the movie inside my head, and I’m competing for a top 3 finish in the 2020 Olympics Trials. A graphic reads, “Coming soon to a theater near you.”