Monday, 17 May 2010

Gladys Ganiel:Making the US Olympic Marathon Trials

I went for my first run 20 years ago. I was 13 and it was the summer before I was to start eighth grade at Harrington Elementary School, in Harrington, Maine, USA.

On Sunday April 25, with two decades of running behind me, I completed the London Marathon in 2 hours, 41 minutes and 45 seconds. This time qualifies me for the US Olympic Marathon Trials, which are scheduled for January 14, 2012 in Houston. The qualifying time for the US Trials is sub-2 hours, 46 minutes. Runners have between January 2010 and December 2011 to qualify. The first three finishers in the Trials race make the US Olympic Team.

I’ve been running for Abbey AC in Belfast and Newtownabbey since 2006. I’ve lived in Ireland pretty much full-time since I first arrived in 1999 to start graduate school, but I’m not yet eligible for either Irish or British citizenship.

Especially since 2008, I’ve really benefitted from the support of Athletics Northern Ireland and the Northern Ireland running community, returning to a level of training similar to what I did under Coach Ray Treacy at Providence College in Providence, Rhode Island, USA (1995-1999).

London was the third marathon that I have trained properly for. I ran London in April 2009 in 2.47.53, and Amsterdam in October 2009 in 2.46.46. For a period of seven years between 2000 and 2007, I had a chronic pain condition that prevented me from running seriously – even though I was a member of Dundrum South Dublin AC and scored for the club on three occasions when we won the National Inter Clubs cross country championships. I had a lot of pulsing and throbbing in various parts of my body, as if my nervous system wasn’t working quite right.

This was hard for me, because I loved competing. During that time I was completing a doctorate in Politics at University College Dublin. In 2006 I got a job lecturing in Conflict Resolution and Reconciliation at Trinity College Dublin at Belfast (on the Antrim Road). That’s where I still work.

In 2007, not long after I returned to Northern Ireland from doing research in Zimbabwe, my pain condition (which no regular doctors or sports doctors had ever really been able to explain), started to gradually get better. In 2008 I married an Irishman, Brian O’Neill, and he and his family have been a great support to me. It especially helps to have a husband and mother-in-law who are good cooks and ready to feed you after a long run!

For my marathons, I have devised my own training schedules and taken advice from my coach at Providence College, Ray Treacy, and North Belfast Harriers veteran Matt Shields, one of the fastest marathoners ever from Northern Ireland. Irish Olympian Maria McCambridge of Letterkenny AC, who was my teammate both at Providence College and in DSD, has also always been supportive and offered a useful perspective on training.

London 2010: Running the Race …

Because of my experience in the two marathons in 2009, I knew I was close to the Olympic Trials qualifying standard and I knew what to expect in the race itself. If you are trying to race a marathon, it is inevitable that you are going to experience a great deal of pain for much longer than is normal in other races.

I had been doing good long runs with some of the top marathon runners from NBH, and judging from my performances in workouts and races I thought it was reasonable to try and run 6.10 per mile pace from the start. My first two miles were right on target, but then I went a little faster than I should have! I went through halfway in 1:19:55, about a minute faster than I had planned for that stage.

That’s not a huge misjudgement for a marathon. But in my previous races I’d gone out in roughly 1.21.30 so I was concerned that it would all fall apart. By 16 miles it was becoming increasingly difficult to hold the pace. I knew that I had to relax and concentrate on running one mile at a time. To think that there were still more than ten miles to go would be overwhelming! At every mile mark, I tried to add 6 minutes and 10 seconds to the time on the clock, so that I had an overall time goal to be shooting for at the next mile marker.

Back in high school, my coach Ric Lamoureux had said it was important to relax in races. He tried to get me to smile as I was running by him, as smiling relaxes the muscles in your face. If your face is relaxed, then the relaxation can spread more easily to your neck, shoulders, and all the way down to your legs. So I tried to smile – although it probably looked more like a grimace of pain.

When I turned the final corner in the race, to run down the mall, I could see the time on the clock ahead and my overwhelming emotion was relief. I knew I would finish well inside the qualifying standard and I was happy that I’d soon be meeting up with my husband, friends, and runners from North Belfast to enjoy the accomplishment.

Next Steps …

Leading up to the Trials, I hope to keep running marathons. I plan on running the Dublin Marathon this autumn, and competing well there for Abbey since the Dublin Marathon is also the AAI National Marathon Championships.

I ran about 70 miles a week in preparation for the London Marathon. I know that mileage total puts me on the low end for women who will be competing in the US Trials, but that is simply the level that I’ve been able to build back up to after my seven-year hiatus and also while working a full-time job. To put it in perspective, the top women marathoners in the world routinely run more than 100 miles in a week. I read recently that Kara Goucher, one of the leading American marathoners, is four months pregnant but still running 70 miles per week!

Before my previous two marathons in 2009, I averaged 60 and 55 miles per week. 55-60 miles per week would have been my normal training load during most of my years in Providence, training for cross country and the 10,000 on the track.

I’m excited, though, because I think there’s a lot I can do in the next few years to keep improving. Apart from taking advice from experienced coaches and runners, I would also read a reasonable amount about training and I have found the website and books by Matt Fitzgerald especially helpful.

I think that after every training cycle you can find something in your preparation that you could have done better, whether it is drills to improve stride efficiently, using hills more strategically, or adding core stability exercises.

But what I’m most excited about is that I am able to run again. I’ll treasure every step, and every smile, on the road to Houston.

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