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The fans, standing several rows deep for miles along the streets of Atlanta, gave Perry Shoemaker the boost she needed as she ran through the brutally hilly course and into 20 mile per hour winds at the Olympic Marathon Trials. Throughout Saturday’s race, she heard people shouting her name, and when they noticed her bib, a few made the connection that has made Shoemaker a bit of a celebrity. At 48, the mother of three was the oldest runner participating in the trials.
“On the course, people were like, ‘Go Perry Shoemaker! She’s the oldest one! She’s 48 years old!’ I heard that several times,” says Shoemaker, who lives and teaches preschool in Vienna. “It was really cool. It helped me going as I was like, ‘ouch, ouch, ouch.’”
Shoemaker was part of the group of approximately 30 runners who live in the D.C. area or have a local connection through high school, college, or a post-collegiate training program that made the trip to Atlanta after qualifying for the Olympic Marathon Trials. The race allowed amateur runners with full-time jobs like Shoemaker, a first-time qualifier, to mix it up with professional, sponsored athletes. For many, it was an experience unlike any other race they’ve participated in.
Knestout, another first-time qualifier, finished the race in 2 hours, 44 minutes, and 13 seconds and beat her personal best time by 24 seconds in the process. The 26-year-old Sykesville, Maryland resident trains with the D.C-based Georgetown Running Club and on Saturday, joined a group of 390 female finishers, an Olympic Trials record. One hundred seventy-five men finished the race, also a record.
Many of the local runners were first-time qualifiers. They are teachers, government workers, military members, and scientists, and fit in time to run upward of 130 miles a week around their jobs and other obligations. They are elite runners, some of the best in the country, but train in anonymity.
For one day in Atlanta, they were treated like stars.
“I think just the whole experience was incredible,” says 30-year-old Jillian Pollack of Arlington. “You kind of just felt like a celebrity out there … Like I made it to this race. It’s a big accomplishment, while [it] didn’t as go as well as I wanted … still getting here was a big deal.”
“Atlanta put on a show,” adds Pollack’s Capital Area Runners teammate Susanna Sullivan, a 29-year-old Reston resident who finished 20th at the 2016 Olympic Marathon Trials in Los Angeles. “In L.A., we were like the seventh most important thing happening in L.A. Live that weekend.”
“I’ve never had a crowd like this,” Meteer says. “It was definitely the most memorable moment. I think I had 15 buddies from college visiting.”
Each runner had their own goal. Some just wanted to finish, while others wanted to beat the place they were seeded among qualifiers. D.C.’s Caitlyn Tateishi, 33, did both, finishing 293rd with a time of 2:53:51.
“When you see everyone out there, you realize what a big deal it is,” she says, “and what an honor it is.”
Fairfax’s Bethany Sachtleben can’t help but feel disappointed about her result. She entered the race with the area’s fastest marathon qualifying time by a woman and had goals of finishing in the top 10. But at mile 11, a gastrointestinal issue forced her to find a toilet.
“I just didn’t have it in me to poop on the run,” Sachtleben says with a laugh. “I thought I’d be able to catch the pack. I’m wondering if the late [12:20 p.m.] start time [had an effect]. Next time I have a late race, I want to plan differently.”
By the time she rejoined the field, the lead pack had pulled away. At mile 23, the 28-year-old hit the “wall” for the first time in a marathon, Sachtleben says. She still managed to finish 18th, with a time of 2:36:24.
Despite her disappointment, Sachtleben speaks warmly of her first Olympic Marathon Trials experience. Running with other fast, elite women helped her push through the last few miles. The crowd size in Atlanta compared to one she saw at the Pan American Games in Peru, where she finished second in the marathon.
“It was amazing how so many people showed up,” she says. “This was so unique—and so good for our sport.”