Twenty miles is considered the psychological halfway point in a marathon—quads and hammies are starting to rig, feet are swollen and pulpy, raw skin stings from salty sweat, bodily systems send increasingly frequent and frantic cease-and-desist messages to the brain. The remaining 6.2 miles require at least as much mental and physical effort as the first 20.
It was just past this point in Sunday's L.A. Marathon that Japanese runner Mao Kuroda decided to put the hurt on American Blake Russell. They'd gone shoulder-to-shoulder for about half of the first 20 miles, matching economic strides through the gleaming canyons of Beverly Hills and the bodegas that signal you're nearing the 405, each 5:55 mile a little bit harder than the last, when Kuroda lengthened her stride, moved her center of gravity forward ever so slightly and, inch by inch, pulled away. Russell had worked so hard, for miles, months and years before that, patiently sitting in the lead pack right from the gun, even as others fell back one by one.
The L.A. Marathon served as the 2015 USATF Marathon Championship so there were more top American runners than usual, seeking both the $150,000 USA Track & Field money and the $110,000 open marathon purse. At 20 miles, Russell was the top U.S. woman and in third place overall, but other competitors were close. Slowing by even 10 seconds per mile might have meant five or six places, the difference between a podium spot and an also-ran. Frontrunners have no idea how far back competitors are, nor how many there are. Hitting the skids at 20 miles is a steep and slippery slope, such that it's hard to confine the damage to 10 seconds per mile. A rough patch at 20 miles is often just a brief purgatory before the wheels completely come off. As Russell watched Kuroda's back pulling away, she grimaced, her shoulders seemed to slump, her stride shortened. Each step looked painful. She was alone on a baking plane of cement, sparse spectators silently watching her, the hunted, struggle, peering down the heat-smeared road to the closing hunters. It had been such a valiant effort.
But at about 22 miles, it started to look like Kuroda had sprung too soon, or Russell had miraculously come back from the dead, or a little of both. Form, attitude and positions changed and suddenly Russell was attacking, eyes ahead, arms swinging, landing on the balls of her feet. The 39-year-old wife and mother of two put Kuroda away and crossed under the finish arch on Ocean Avenue in 2:34:57, the U.S. Marathon Champion, third overall, and $35,000 ahead between the two prize purses.
Russell has been running competitively since ninth grade, including a stellar four years at UNC-Chapel Hill, a spot on the 2011 World Cross Country team, many road race podium performances and a berth on the 2008 Olympic marathon team. Her marathon best of 2:29:10 was set in 2005. She expects to return to physical therapy work when her children—Quin, almost six, and Liv, almost two—get a bit older.
Having been awake since 3 a.m., run 26.2 miles, dealt with a scrum of reporters, played with the kids, kissed the husband, gotten a bite to eat and a shower, and walked the dog with her sister, Russell said, sure, she could talk with me on the phone—now or later, whatever worked. The ease of getting an impromptu interview with the 2015 U.S. Marathon Champion hours after her race was just the first surprise.
She dropped out of all three marathons she'd entered previous to L.A.. The last marathon she had finished was the 2008 Olympic marathon.
"I've definitely struggled with the marathon since 2008. I've run some good track and shorter road races but just haven't been able to put it together for a marathon. I DNFed at Boston, the 2012 Olympic trials marathon and this past fall at New York City. I won the U.S. Marathon Championship in 2003 in the Twin Cities and that was the last marathon championship I ran—twelve years ago! I had no pressure going into this race. I mean, it couldn't get any worse at this point, having DNFed the last three. I don't think other people expected it. The surprising thing is that I was pretty confident. I'm really stubborn—I still think I can PR in the marathon. And my training had been going really well; I felt fit enough to run with anyone in the field. This time, I felt good from the start, got to 17 miles and thought, I can do this."
She's 39 years old and 5'6" in the morning. The other top 12 finishers ranged in age from 24 to 35. She's been competing at a top level for longer than some of the elite runners have been alive.
"My husband would have been happy for me to retire after the second baby but when I started running again after Liv, I thought, Oh gosh, I feel really good. Then the athlete mentality kicked in—I don't know how to run and not train. I like the goals, and as I said, I'm really stubborn. That's why I keep hanging on. Meb is 39. Deena Kastor and Jen Rhines are still going strong in their 40s. They're definitely proving you can be competitive longer than we thought."
She copped to being on the downside of her career.
"Yeah, I am on the downside, the sunset of my career. [Laughs] It's sort of bittersweet, but it makes me appreciate it all the more. It's such a great sport. When I'm not competing anymore, I still plan on running every day. I love to get out and run."
The L.A. Marathon was supposed to be the Sara Hall show. Sara and Ryan Hall, the first couple of American distance running, were the headliners at this race. The race was Sara Hall's highly anticipated debut at the distance, as she's been tearing it up at the half-marathon and spent several months training at altitude in Ethiopia. Things went disastrously for both Halls, as Ryan dropped out at about halfway, and Sara fell off the pace after sixteen miles, struggling home in 22nd place at 2:48:02. Russell was mentioned in the pre-race publicity only as a possible contender.
Russell coached herself for the first time, switched up her training and, counter-intuitively for a "sunset" runner, went higher mileage. She has been coached by Bob Sevene (who also coached Joan Benoit Samuelson) since 2001.
"I've sort of gotten into coaching because I'm helping a Mexican athlete. I'm getting into her training and getting excited about it, so I decided to coach myself for this marathon. I still talk to Sev all the time—he's a great sounding board. It's a little more exciting because it was all on my shoulders. I decided to change things up because your body responds to stress and adaptation. I knew my body, I knew I needed more mileage, so I did about 15 miles more per week than I used to. So about 120 miles/week. I've been injury prone the last couple years, so I did more workouts on the road versus the track. Ever since high school, I've been doing most of my workouts, intervals, on the track. The turns put stress on my calves—I'm done with that. I'm able to handle more mileage, a little bit slower, on the roads. And I took two or three days between workouts. I was able to hit the same times and do the same workouts, but I needed more time to recover."
She does a lot of miles on the treadmill.
"I do a lot of training on the treadmill after the kids go to bed, so my second workout of day. Also, it's so hilly where I live [Pacific Grove, CA], I have a hard time getting a marathon pace workout in. And I don't have time to drive somewhere, so most of my stuff is done from the house. I used to run before my husband went to work and he'd watch the kids, but then he took a new job where he has to leave really early, so 'Hello treadmill.' I will say, I only run once a day on the treadmill. My mom lives a mile away, so I'm really lucky to have free childcare for one run."
She wasn't bothered by the heat. It was 67 degrees, already warm by marathon standards, at the 6:45 am start, and mid-70s by the time Russell finished. Though marathon organizers were well-prepared with misting stations, ice, cold towels and air-conditioned buses, 54 people were hospitalized for heat-related maladies as the temperature reached 91 degrees later in the day.
"It was tactical and slow from the start, clicking off 5:50s, 5:55s, so time was out window. That was my slowest marathon—I knew I was in shape to run under 2:30—but I'll take it. The heat wasn't bad at the start—it didn't cross my mind until about 18 miles. Then I thought, It's starting to get hot, but I didn't think about it much after that. I'm usually bad at taking water, but I was definitely more cautious this time, made sure I got it every time."
She was able to come back from a late-race rough patch.
"Just after 20 miles, the Japanese woman surged. Her agent had told me she was going for the win even though it was her debut, so I wasn't surprised by that [her surge]. You always hit dead spots in a marathon. I know that. It's been so long since I put together a good marathon, this one felt like my debut, but I did have that experience [of getting through a bad patch] to fall back on. I just wanted to get to the finish line, I just wanted to be done at that point, so I rallied and regrouped. I focused on my form and breathing, and said these mantras, You can do this, all that kind of stuff.
"We came over a hill at about 23 miles and I knew the last part was downhill or flat, so I picked it up. Sometimes when you go a little faster, it makes you feel better. I saw the Russian lady [Natalya Puchkova] ahead and I knew she had run 2:28, so it was encouraging to be that close. I caught her at 24 but she ended up pulling away from me again. Actually, once I got to 23, I was thinking, Just 15 minutes to go. I was rounding down a little. When I turned onto Ocean Avenue, I could see pretty far ahead. There's still sort of a long way to go, but I could see an orange banner over the road and I thought, Please let that be the finish, not 26 miles, because if I had to run another .2, it would not be pretty."
The U.S. Marathon Champion has to buy all her own kit.
"Right out of college I was sponsored by New Balance and then I switched to Reebok, and they were both great companies. But since 2009, when I had my first child, I've been sponsored by Team Russell. It was kind of funny, and kind of frustrating—I thought, I'm an Olympian and I can't even get shoes from anybody. I raced in Asics shoes this time and I was standing on the podium right next to the head of Asics. I think I got some equipment out of him."
Photo: Getty Images.