Last December, at a marathon starting line in Sacramento, Calif., Spokane women Rachel Jaten and Victoria Russell crowded together with 80 other women who shared the same goal: qualifying for the U.S. Olympic Trials.
On Saturday, both will be in Houston living the dream. How they qualified is remarkable.
Rachel Jaten, 36, competed for University High and Montana State University. But injuries and burnout caught up with her, and she stopped running. She moved back to Spokane after graduating in 1998. She no longer considered herself a serious runner, but still ran Bloomsday every year.
“I would train for about two weeks, and then I was ready to race,” Jaten said. “But slowly over the years, the urge crept up on me. I would be driving by a track and see high school kids working out, and it would bring me to tears,” she said. “I realized I missed it, and wanted to run again.”
After 10 years, she returned.
Jaten’s path back led her to the all-women’s Spokane Swift running group three years ago.
“It was awesome to have people to share hard workouts with,’’ she said.
But Jaten wasn’t in shape, and paid a price in injuries.
Realizing she needed a more gradual approach, Jaten set her sites on an auction item at a fundraiser: one year of marathon coaching by elite local runner Mike Bresson, two pair of running shoes, and entry in last June’s San Diego Rock ’n’ Roll Marathon.
“The bidding was down to me and another person,” Jaten said. When the other person outbid her, Jaten gave up.
But her partner, Michelle Chapman, grabbed Jaten’s paddle and kept bidding until she won.
During Jaten’s first meeting with her new trainer, she and Bresson talked about what she wanted out of the process. Jaten wanted to run the San Diego marathon in less than 3 hours – more than half an hour faster than she’d run her only other marathon nine years earlier.
“I hadn’t trained for that one and I walked the last 6 miles,” she said. “I thought I could be faster with better training.”
Jaten also consulted a nutritionist. “I needed less protein, more ‘good’ fat,” she said, “so I eliminated my five weekly visits to McDonald’s.”
And she endured 10- to 15-minute ice baths after long runs and races.
After five months of training and two half-marathons, Jaten finished the San Diego race in 2 hours, 59 minutes.
Having achieved one goal, she raised the stakes. Now she wanted to qualify for the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials.
In preparation for the Chicago Marathon, Jaten squeezed in 85 miles a week in addition to her duties as a full-time UPS driver. She ran the Chicago in race 2 hours, 51 minutes.
“I was satisfied with my time for about two days,” Jaten said, “but I still believed I could qualify for the Olympic trials.” The next day, she signed up for the California International Marathon, eight weeks away.
Russell, 39, grew up in Spokane with 14 sisters and brothers. She ran track and cross country at Gonzaga Prep, but was too busy with other activities to devote herself to the sport.
“Running was just for fun,” she said.
She married Mark Russell, and they moved to Seattle and started a family. After her third child, she weighed 180 pounds. “I had no self-confidence,” Russell said. “I was unhealthy and miserable.”
In 2004, she began running again, but her knees ached. The extra weight had to go before she could run comfortably. She bought an elliptical machine and used it daily, shedding 50 pounds in six months.
Russell credits her current success to her family’s return to Spokane.
“I found out I was allergic to almost everything in Seattle,” she said.
A 6-mile run in Seattle was a struggle, but the same distance in Spokane felt great.
In 2008, she ran Bloomsday in 51 minutes. The following year, she ran 4 minutes faster.
“I began wondering what a marathon would feel like,” Russell said. With limited training she won the 2009 Windermere Marathon in 3 hours, 6 minutes. Two months later, she ran the Missoula Marathon in just less than 3 hours.
Soon after, Russell’s husband introduced her to a running coach. She also sought the advice of Ferris cross country coach Mike Hadway, fitness and nutrition consultant Ben Greenfield, and fellow elite runner Janet Collar.
And, like Jaten, she too changed her diet.
“I haven’t eaten a hot dog in two years,” she said. “I avoided fast foods, I reduced my portions,” and she added a battery of nutritional supplements.
Russell began running more, averaging 50 miles a week.
“Many top runners log 100 or more miles,” she said. “But my first job is my kids. If I want to run well, I have to feel balance and calm at home.”
Coming off an eight-week rest to nurse a stress fracture, Russell won the 2010 Coeur d’Alene Half Marathon in 1 hour, 26 minutes.
Her marathon breakthrough came later that year when she finished the Chicago Marathon in 2 hours, 48 minutes, shaving 11 minutes off her personal best.
A few days later, an article in The Spokesman-Review observed that she’d barely missed qualifying for U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials. “That was the first time I even thought about trying to qualify,” Russell said.
She entered three marathons between January and October 2011 without qualifying for the trials. Her last chance would be the California International Marathon in December.
On race day in Sacramento, Jaten felt good, but Russell struggled from the start.
“I felt horrible,” she said. “By mile 9, my calves were locking up.” By mile 18, the pack of women trying to qualify – including training partner Collar – was a half-mile ahead.
Meanwhile, Jaten was doing her best to stay focused and relaxed.
But at mile 21, she began losing her momentum. “I could tell it was going to be very close,” Jaten said.
Russell, too, was falling back. “It was hard to see the pack pull away from me. I almost stopped,” she said.
But she kept running.
“And then I looked up, and Janet was up ahead,” she said.
Russell dug dipper and passed Collar. She did the mental math: She could still make it.
Jaten couldn’t see the seconds on her watch.
“As I rounded the final corner, I saw the race clock. I had 30 seconds. I knew then I was going to make it,” she said.
She sprinted just to be sure, and finished in 2 hours, 45 minutes, 47 seconds.
Three seconds later, Russell crossed the finish line.
The two Spokane runners hugged, and screamed, “We are going to Houston!”