Twenty Feet From Stardom: My Experience Running with the Elite
Over the past two years, I’ve been lucky enough to start with the elite runners in the Berlin Marathon, Lilac Bloomsday Run, and Chicago Marathon. Before then, I had always been curious as to how one obtains such a status and what it meant in terms of race day and amenities.
Big Little Race Details
The first instance in the 2015 Berlin Marathon was purely a result of knowing the right people. There was no time standard to my knowledge to start with the elite women, but the pool was very small; it was likely invite-only with appearance fees and contracts to boot. Me? I got a fancy bib number (F61) and access to the elite runner race day amenities including a starting position right up front.
The day before the race, there was a technical meeting for the professional athletes and their coaches. The director pointed out little details, like how there was a line painted on the ground that follows the tangent of the course- very important to know in the case you’re going for a world record. Or in my case, a personal record. There was a protocol for everything. When your name was announced at the start, you were to smile, wave, or otherwise do something interesting for the camera. If you were to win, you were to open your arms wide in victory, not only because it looks good on television, but so the sponsor’s logo on your bib number would be visible. They also instructed the winner to be sure to hug their coach or spouse and show emotion. Fake it ‘til you make it, right? Or in this case… fake it after you’ve made it!
Related: What You Need on Marathon Race Day
Elite Race Day Perks
Race day perks for the elite runners included a private shuttle from the host hotel directly to the start line, a private warm-up area with restrooms and a changing tent, and the option to have personal drink bottles throughout the course. Also included was a secured exit off to the side after the finish line, where your personal belongings would be waiting along with a table filled to the brim with fresh fruit, snacks, bottled water, and sports drinks.
The warm up area was nothing fancy; just a few tents with some chairs and tables. However, having space to jog around along with zero lines for the restrooms was a luxury in itself, considering the tens of thousands of entrants in the race. The organizers weren’t kidding about the cameras; as the pro runners and I were guided to the starting area, news crews were immediately running up to the favorites, hoping to get one last quote before they toed the line. I couldn’t imagine being in the top runners’ shoes, trying to focus on the enormous task at hand while dealing with microphones and cameras in their faces just moments before the start! Not to mention being whisked off to a press conference immediately following their effort.
Placement-wise, the women were lined up just behind the men at the start. There was no delay between the elite start and the general corral, so almost immediately I was swallowed up in a sea of thousands of runners and the rest of the race went like any other.
Squeaking Under the Time Standard
The second instance was the 2016 Lilac Bloomsday Run, an internationally renowned 12K road race in Spokane Washington. Some call it the “Boston of the West Coast.” It attracts over 40,000 runners every year. I just squeaked in under their time standard for the elite women’s start. The amenities were similar to those in Berlin, but even better was that the women got their own separate start before the men and the rest of the field. I loved this and certainly preferred it because I could see exactly where I stacked up among the other women throughout the race. Plus there was prize money on the line 15 places deep! Every person I passed counted toward my overall place, whereas in open races I might be left wondering if I’m chasing a woman or a dude sporting a man bun. Even though I was nowhere near as fast as the frontrunners, it was exciting to start the race in that sort of company, with the TV crews and hype from the crowds.
The American Development Program
Most recently, I ran the 2016 Chicago Marathon by way of their American Development Program, which provides a starting position just behind the professional runners and a private warm-up area and gear check similar to Berlin and Bloomsday. I was especially proud to be part of that group because it had been a goal of mine to qualify via their time standard since I’d read about it years before. As we filed in at the start I recognized top athletes like both Florence and Edna Kiplagat and Serena Burla just yards ahead of me. It had taken years of work to get to where I was standing, but already I started dreaming up what would come next and how I could make that jump from “sub-elite” to “elite” in the future.
What Motivates You?
Time standards have always served as carrots, or motivators, for me whether that means getting special perks on race day, a guaranteed race entry, or qualifying for an event like the Boston Marathon or U.S. Olympic Trials. What motivates you to run your best?