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On February third 26 rabbit athletes were among the field of America’s fastest marathoners, toeing the line at the 2024 U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials, in Orlando, Florida. Here are four of their stories.

Tyler McCandless

From the trails of Horsetooth Mountain Open Space and Lory State Park, to the infinite oval of Colorado State University’s Jack Christiansen Track, to the relentless dirt hills of the “Bacon Strip,” a loop on the plains east of town, Fort Collins, Colorado is a running Shangri-la, a place with more than 300 annual days of sunshine, endless trails, countless races, multiple running stores and clubs, great food, and a supportive community—in short, a perfect place for an elite athlete with a growing family to make his home.

Originally from Northampton, PA, McCandless has a glittering running resume. An eleven-time top-ten finisher at various national championships, he is also course record-holder and three-time winner of the Kauai Marathon. A PhD in Meteorology, he spent ten years in Boulder, doing postgraduate work at the National Centers for Atmospheric Research (NCAR), embarking on a career, and training and competing at an increasingly high level. Boulder is also where he met his wife, Kristin.

Three years ago, they pulled up stakes and moved forty-five miles north, to the more family-friendly environs of Fort Collins. In FoCo, as locals call it, McCandless found his physical and metaphysical groove, and after three less than satisfying attempts at the Olympic Trials, he finds himself on the cusp of his fourth; at peace, stronger, and more confident than ever.

McCandless radiates joy. An ebullient and thoughtful speaker, sounding half the reasoned and analytical scientist he happens to be, and half, well…Tigger. Talking to him, one senses he is a man very comfortable in his skin and fully present in this moment. He emits both a mature sense of calm and a refreshing aura of childlike wonder. It is not a place he arrived at easily.

“The week after the last trials, the world literally shut down. I had a new wife. Covid happened, a kid happened. It was a good time to recalibrate, ask, Where’s the right place to make a home, raise a family, continue the journey?”
Fort Collins has proven fertile soil, a place where Tyler, Kristin, and their two young boys, Levi and Jack, are thriving, where the running is going better than ever, where the hard, yet joyful, work of balancing work, running, and family happens harmoniously.

“I even love the headlamp and treadmill, now,” McCandless laughs, speaking of how he must shoehorn 100-mile running weeks into odd nooks and crannies of his day.

His newfound peace of mind and lightness of spirit, he says, comes from taking time to do, “some internal reflection, think deeply, take the time to reflect on where I was and where I wanted to be.”

This introspection led to the creation of a mission statement, a philosophical declaration of how he intended to pursue his life. This mission statement, honed and crafted over several months, resulted in new clarity, a centered purposefulness that touches every aspect of his life, not least his running. He has internalized the statement to the point where it is a lived mantra. He recites it to me from memory.

“Always pursue excellence by exploring the edge of my potential, with purpose and optimism, bringing joy and cultivating deep relationships with my family and community.”

By speaking these words into existence, McCandless has created a calm and happy place, both within himself and without, where life and running are expressions of, and a means to deep joy and contentment.

His goals for the Trials reflected this.

“The running has been going really well for a long time. I feel like I’m ready to execute a plan, and hope to run my best on the biggest stage. The process has been the important thing, building this deep connection with my community. The external stuff will just happen, the results will be what the results will be.”

Almost three weeks have passed since the race, and McCandless has had plenty of time to absorb an experience that, while it did not go according to plan, was still one he can look back on with a sense of fulfillment.

“On paper, the result was not anywhere near what I had trained for and strived to achieve,” he says. “I executed my gameplan perfectly for the first 19 miles, letting others go out much quicker in the heat and full sunshine than I felt was sustainable, but even though I was more conservative and did my best to prepare for the heat while training in Colorado (treadmill, sauna, etc.), the heat got to me too.”

The temperature, which rose steadily throughout the race, and the humidity, much higher than in Colorado, proved tricky for many, and McCandless was no exception. “I've never drank as much fluid as I did, yet I cramped up everywhere. The last 7 miles were some of the most difficult miles I've ever run.”

He never considered dropping out, however. Instead, he just reconsidered his motivation. “At mile 22, I said to myself that this is a great opportunity, that you can finish something hard and show your boys what it means to complete something when it's not going well. I did just that, and crossed the line in 104th and 2:24, one of my slowest marathons of the approximately 30 that I've run, but I didn't drop out and got to hug my sweet wife Kristin and our boys after I finished.”

And the race itself was not all pain and grim determination. Says McCandless, “The race was also filled with joy because it was just one part of the entire journey. There's a lot of talk in athletics about being process focused versus results focused. I truly was process focused and found joy in everything, including the pre-race nervousness, the dark miles with a headlamp, the hot treadmill runs with a humidifier, etc. It was my 4th Olympic Marathon Trials and while I did not have an outcome that I wanted, I learned so much on this build-up and know it'll lead to better outcomes in the future and there's a ton of joy in that.”

McCandless is already beginning to think of the process that will lead him to another Trials starting line four years down the road. “I think the most disappointing thing is that the window for the next Olympic Trials hasn't opened yet! I'm ready to continue to journey and qualify for my 5th! I love this sport. As I write this I'm taking my last few sips of coffee before putting on my shoes and getting out the door for 90 minutes of running - what could be better?

Meriah Earle

“Don’t be in a rush to get to the hard part.” That’s just one of the bits of advice Meriah Earle gives her college athletes at Ucal-San Diego that she reminds herself to follow. “I’m always telling them things, then thinking, Hmmmm, that’s pretty good advice.”

And pretty good advice to any marathoner, particularly one toeing the line of the Olympic Trials, mainlining adrenaline. Chill early, push later: Easy advice to give, harder to follow. But after twelve marathons, she pretty much has that part down. Despite all that experience, though, early in the week before her second Trials race, Earle sounds a bit disbelieving.

“The training cycle before Grandmas, where I qualified, was so terrible. I was dealing with an illness, an infected tooth. The body was not responding. I asked people if it was even ethical to line up for the elite race, I felt so bad!”
Friends convinced her to give it a go, and the race went better than she could have dared to hope. Not that it felt particularly wonderful.
“At Grandma’s I literally took it one mile at a time, kept telling myself to finish the mile I was in, then I could drop. I never felt good, but never felt bad enough to drop out, then at mile 21 I figured I’d missed the window to drop, so I kept going, figured maybe I could grind out a qualifier.”

She not only got her qualifier, but at 43 years of age, a lifetime PR of 2:34:19. After the race, she wandered around so dumbfounded a race volunteer asked if she was okay. She asked for a hug.

That race garnered an invitation into the elite field at Chicago, where she says she again “overperformed.” Soon thereafter, she got her dream job as a DI coach, and learned to fit her own training into long days of putting the needs of her team first. It seems to be working, as her training is going as smoothly as it has in a long time.

“After twelve marathons, all those cycles add up. You take it all to the line with you.” She figures if all the pieces fall into place, a new PR might be in the cards.

“2:34 is possible,” she says bluntly.
These days Earle drinks her coffee from a mug with the word “Gratitude” printed on it, a gift from one of her athletes.

“So yeah” she says, “I’m going to be stepping up to the line with a heart full of gratitude.” She pauses, grins.

“Then I’m going to let it get as ugly as it has to get.”

For Earle, to call Trials weekend an emotional experience would be an understatement.

“I just walked around at the start, telling everyone I loved them, the athletes, the volunteers….” She laughs at her giddiness, but such joy at the starting line of a high profile race like the Olympic Marathon Trials probably points to a very healthy approach to the sport.
From the very start of the weekend, her emotional cup runneth over. “On Thursday, I went in to pick up my bib and burst into tears,” she says, laughing again.

Once the race began, though, Earle was all business…well, mostly. “In the middle of the race (two-time Olympian) Kim Conley passed me on my left and I squealed like a little girl. I was like, Kim Conley, I love you! I thought about going with her, but there was a lot of race left, so I decided to be smart.”

The heat, such a huge factor for many, kept her cautious, but not overly so.

“It was a little hot, but it didn’t affect me too much. I had to be cautious, but it didn’t really get to me.”

At about sixteen miles her heartrate spiked, something that happens from time to time, but “It dropped and I started passing people, which is always good.”

Later in the race she latched onto another runner, and from a couple meters back began to duel. “Not that she knew that,” Earle laughs. “I just kept saying, We’re going to catch this one, and this one…. It got tough at the end, but I didn’t totally die. I snuck in under 2:40, which is fine.”

“And my recovery started super smooth. It was the least sore I’ve ever been after a marathon. Three days after, I was itching to go run, but by the Friday after the race, I had one of the worst colds ever.” She laughs yet again. “But while I was in bed with a cold, I called to commit to the Grandma’s Half-Marathon (in Duluth, MN in June.)”
Which led me to ask about the possibility of future Trials races.

“Initially,” she says, “I told myself going in that this was my last Trials, which probably explains how emotional I was. I thought, This is it, say goodbye.”

But now?

“I’ll be 48 at the next Trials, 46 when I need to qualify, so who knows?”
Who knows, indeed!

Anna West

Anna West has had a big past couple of years. “Yeah,” She says, “I got married, qualified for the Trials in my very first marathon, went to a Taylor Swift concert….” She laughs, “It’s been kind of surreal.” It’s a word she uses a lot, and for good reason.

Seeing how her recent journey has landed her at a starting line within spitting distance of Disney, it is fitting that the last couple of years have been a rather magical ride. At 25, West is full of youthful enthusiasm, and with good cause. Her family are all experienced runners who have encouraged and advised her every step of the way. She even ran most of the qualifying race with her brother, a 2:23 marathoner, laughing and goofing around once it was clear she was going to qualify. She lives in Hawaii with her new husband, an officer in the U.S. Navy, a former soccer player at the Academy, and now a marathoner and sometime training partner. West even has a flexible new gig in marketing with rabbit, which she loves, and who happens to sponsor her club, Austin’s Railroad Running.

So yeah, living the dream. But not too long ago running was more of a nightmare. After some initial success running at Baylor, she transferred to Michigan, where the wheels fell off. A series of “unfortunate life events” led to “one stress fracture after another,” and trying to tough it out, channel misfortune into performance, led to insomnia, exhaustion and near physical collapse, a once promising collegiate career ended on a sour note.

After graduating college, West moved to Austin, Texas, started running for fun, and all the parts started to click together. She was happy, her body responded well to training, and even if she didn’t know it, she was on the road to Orlando.

Now, her voice practically rings with excitement and enthusiasm.

“I know I’ve only run one marathon,” she says, “but nothing went wrong, and since then the training has been great. I love the taper. Each day my body feels better and better.” I can almost hear her rolling her eyes at herself, “Yeah, I’ve been around a lot of marathoners, I’ve heard all the stories. Maybe it’s just my naivete, but I think it’s going to go well. There’s not a lot of nerves, nothing went wrong in training. I know what my legs are going to feel like late in the race.” She pauses to catch her breath. “I’m excited. I’m just going to be smart, run tactically early, and race without fear. I think maybe I can do this! And I think that if my body holds together, I’ll have a long running career.”

“Unfortunately, I had my first DNF at the Trials!” West tells me in an email a couple of weeks after the race, “I must have jinxed myself telling you my first marathon went too smoothly... haha.”

“The race was going great,” she says, “until really bad blisters started to form on the sides of my feet and toes, and it got to the point where every step was unbearable around mile 17. I pulled off and there was (trigger warning!) blood dripping down my shoe onto the pavement. The men on the side of the road were taking pictures to show their families how tough marathoners are! I've never had blisters that extreme and could sense my form was getting wacky, so I thought it was best to stop and not hobble for 9 more miles.”

The painful outcome did nothing to diminish her excitement about marathoning, and she happily chocks it all up to experience.

“I'm in good spirits and had a blast lining up at my first Olympic Trials,” she says. “What a cool opportunity to line up with runners like Des Linden, who I've looked up to since the start of my own running career over a decade ago. Thankfully, I'm young and have many more starting lines in the future.”

“It took me a full week to be able to put on shoes,” she says, “but recovery is going well and I'm back to easy running. I'm already scheming up my next race plans, because I love having something to work towards, even if it's MONTHS down the line. I'm looking towards a fall half marathon and marathon. But first, I am hopping in some of my husband’s workouts to prep him for Boston in 2 months!”

A random act of kindness may be West’s favorite Trials memory.

“One of the best parts of the Trials was the random man that let me use his phone to call my family and waited with me as they came to find me at mile 17. His name is Steve. He lives in Orlando, and he was so kind and uplifting that it was hard to be disappointed in myself when I stopped. He reminded me that even in sad moments, there's so much good in the world and being kind goes a long way. Shoutout, Steve!

Ben Payne

As a pilot for Southwest Airlines and the Colorado Air National Guard, Ben Payne is free to move about the country, (and the world) but on the ground, he is better known for covering long distances quickly on foot. The U.S. Air Force Academy graduate finished 9th in the 2016 New York City Marathon, was 17th in the 2016 Marathon Trials and 31st in 2020, and was the 2015 Bolder Boulder 10K champion. As an officer in the United States Air Force for 19-plus years, he has competed in multiple World Military Games and in 2014 joined the Air Force World Class Athlete Program in Colorado Springs, where he still resides.

Finding marathoning success didn’t come fast or easy, however.

“Early on, I enjoyed the challenge,” Payne says, “but I didn’t understand the commitment it took to have success.”

It took “a bunch” of marathons for that lesson to sink in, but once it did, he was off to the races. (Pun very much intended.)

As for this particular race, he says that though he wants to run well, and that it’s “Not out of the question” that he might scare his PR of 2:15:46, he feels no pressure.
“Running the Trials again is a big bonus lap,” he says. “Becoming a Masters runner rejuvenated my motivation. Like a lot of people, I was forced by Covid to concentrate on things other than racing, then I entered the Masters category and could be super competitive in my age group, while still mixing it up with the younger guys.”

As for the race itself, he says, “Being my third one, being a Masters athlete, and this being kind of an unexpected bonus, it’s just so special to be here. I just want to be competitive. Everyone there has earned a spot, proven themselves, and it’s really special. I’m also fortunate to have a big team at the race!”

And after the race? “We’re taking the kids on a Disney Cruise,” he says happily. “They deserve it more than me.”

“Now that we’re coming down from our Disney high and I’ve had a week to enjoy recovery and process my race,” Payne says, almost three weeks after the race, “I figured it’s a good time to recap my experience competing in the Trials.”

“Wow, that was fun! (And I definitely don’t say that about all marathons). I’m thankful for this unexpected bonus season of elite distance running! Arriving in Orlando I knew I was healthy, fit, and well prepared. I had weeks and weeks of consistent mileage and long runs.”

His three main goals going into the race, he says, were a top 50 finish overall, (he finished 34th) a top 3 masters placing, (he finished 2nd) and running even or negative splits, (1:08:55 + 1:08:10 = 2:17:05). Three for three, not bad. Here, in his own words, was how he pulled it off:
“PATIENCE was my main strategy for the warm race day weather. From racing LA 2016 Trials, I knew warmer temperatures could work to my advantage if I held back early. What I might now lack in foot speed as a 42 year old, I can make up for in racing smarts. I approach the marathon as a 20 mile run finished with a 10k race, so in the first 20 miles I try to enjoy the moment, soak up the fans and scenery, and stay as relaxed as possible so I’m ready to compete in the last 10k…and I did just that.”

He did have to remind himself of this early, however, as raceday excitement crackled in the air.

“Patience in the first half was challenging with fresh legs and the crazy high energy from the thousands of fans (especially the crowd of 35+ of my family and friends!) lining the course - it was really fun! I had a big group of guys to roll with thru about 10 miles, and then they started slowing and I was getting antsy to move up, so I started to break away on my own but still maintain a conservative pace (5:10-15).”

The patience paid off. “In the last 10k,” Payne says, “I was still holding pace and feeling strong, passing dozens of competitors as they settled into survival mode In mile 18 I passed 13 runners, in mile 21 I passed 12. I did start feeling strong fatigue in the final 2 miles, but was able to take it a step at a time and FINISH THE RACE (but no energy for high-fives in the last loop!). It’s always an indescribable complete relief to get across the finish line - and finally get to STOP running and regain my senses and sanity.

Strangely this one was so much fun that I felt slightly sad when it was finally all over!”

“Praise God for giving me this running ability and racing wisdom to have another enjoyable and successful race.”

Payne moved up steadily throughout the race, going from 133rd place at mile five, to 34th at the finish, before hitting the high seas with his family and their favorite Disney pals.


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