Caitlyn Tateishi Credit: Brian W. Knight/Swim Bike Run Photo

Two weeks before the 2016 Baltimore Running Festival marathon, Caitlyn Tateishi went on a 20-mile run near Hawaii’s Waikoloa Beach while in town for her cousin’s wedding. During one of her loops, she noticed a woman who looked familiar blazing past her in the opposite direction.

A little later, Tateishi saw the same woman in a parked car scrolling through her phone at the nearby Waikoloa Village. She decided to approach her. The runner, Tateishi quickly confirmed, was 36-year-old Olympian Des Linden

“I told her, ‘I’m not stalking you,’” Tateishi laughs. “I was like, ‘Oh my god, I watched you at the Olympics on TV.’”

Tateishi told Linden, who was there to watch her husband, Ryan, compete in the Ironman World Championship, about her plans to run a marathon in under three hours. She calls that moment “definitely the highlight of my running life.” Tateishi had no idea that just four years later, she would once again be seeing Linden—under vastly different circumstances. 

On Feb. 29, the 33-year-old Tateishi, who lives in D.C., will be in Atlanta, along with Linden and the best long-distance runners in the country. They’ll both be running the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials.

“It’s just crazy where life takes you,” Tateishi says.

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Tateishi is among the 512 women across the country who have qualified for the race that will determine which runners represent the U.S. in the marathon at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. On the men’s side, 260 runners have qualified to run at the trials. Only the top three finishers for the men’s and women’s races will join the Olympic team.

Combined, there are approximately 30 runners that have qualified for the race—held in Atlanta—who either live in the D.C. area or have a local connection through high school, college, or a former post-collegiate running club.

Most of them, like Tateishi, are not running because they expect to make it to the Olympics. Instead, the trials will act as a capstone of years of self-motivated training. Tateishi has the 328th-fastest women’s marathon qualifying time (2 hours, 43 minutes, and 35 seconds) compared to Linden, who has the 10th fastest (2 hours, 26 minutes, and 46 seconds).

To qualify, men had to run a marathon in 2:19 or less between Sept. 1, 2017 and Jan. 19, 2020 or a half marathon in 1:04 or less between Sept. 1, 2018 and Jan. 19 of this year. The qualifying standards for women were 2:45 for the marathon and 1:13 for the half marathon.

Qualifying for the Olympic Marathon Trials, as the New York TimesLindsay Crouse wrote in a recent article about her attempt, is “outrageously hard.” Only 198 women qualified in 2016, a number that has more than doubled this time. The number of qualified male runners increased, too, from 211 to 260. 

Several factors explain the drastic jump. The qualifying time for women in the last Olympic cycle was 2:43 for much of the qualifying window—two minutes faster than this year’s time. (USA Track & Field decided to lower the trials standard after World Athletics did the same for Olympic qualifying times in 2015.) And more runners than ever are wearing Nike Zoom Vaporfly 4% and ZoomX Vaporfly Next% shoes, which feature carbon plates and a springy midsole that may give the runners wearing them an advantage.

The increase in qualified runners is particularly staggering when you consider that the majority of them are non-sponsored athletes with full-time jobs outside of running.

Tateishi works as a legal operations business analyst at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in Chevy Chase, Maryland, and fits in training around her work schedule. She started the marathon cycle running about 70 miles a week, and recently topped that off at 103 miles.

In a typical week, Tateishi wakes up between 4:30 and 5:30 a.m. and has a strict bedtime around 9 p.m. Mondays are for running hills, which will help prepare her for Atlanta’s hilly looped course of approximately 1,000 feet in elevation gain, with easier recovery runs on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Saturdays are for what she calls “shorter long runs” between 14 and 16 miles, and Sundays are reserved for long runs of up to 22 miles.

Jillian Pollack, a 30-year-old Arlington resident and another first-time trials qualifier, considers waking up at 6 a.m. sleeping in. Most days she’s up around 5 to get to the pool in time for a workout. On other days, she’ll go for an hour-long run before work as a research manager for Investment Company Institute, a trade association for mutual funds in D.C. 

She runs to work once a week and also trains with the local Capital Area Runners club. Her teammates, Susanna Sullivan, a fifth grade teacher at Haycock Elementary School in Falls Church, and Alexandria’s Rachel Viger, a 28-year-old engineer in the U.S. Navy who also serves in the Navy Reserve, have also qualified for the 2020 trials. The 29-year-old Sullivan finished 20th in the 2016 trials.

Pollack hit the qualifying standard at the 2018 Berlin Marathon with a time of 2:44:44, just under the women’s 2:45 cutoff time. But shortly after returning from Berlin she suffered a stress injury on her calf, followed by a stress fracture on her femur that sidelined her for 10 weeks.

Running at the trials provided plenty of motivation to recover. 

“I just had injury after injury, it would’ve been so easy just to give up,” Pollack says. “Who wants to go to the pool every single day? … Coming from work going to the pool, sometimes it wasn’t that much fun. But I knew I worked so hard to qualify for this, so there’s no backing down now.”

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Finishing in 24th place at the 2016 U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials in Los Angeles didn’t drastically alter Kieran O’Connor’s life as a runner. Reporters didn’t flood his phone with interview requests. Shoe companies weren’t lining up to offer him sponsorship contracts. 

“Can’t believe the modeling agencies didn’t come calling at least,” he jokes.

O’Connor, 32, followed an unconventional path to the Olympic Trials. He didn’t run seriously until after college, and hadn’t trained with a group until he joined the post-collegiate Georgetown Running Club when he moved to D.C. in 2013.

As soon as he did, he made the Olympic Trials his goal. He was close to qualifying, and now he had teammates who had done it before.

“It’s just kind of like the pinnacle for guys at my level,” says O’Connor, who lives in Arlington with his wife and two young kids. “I’m not going to make the Olympic team, so this is my Olympics. It’s kind of that honor to count yourself among best marathoners in the country. It’s just a really cool thing.”

O’Connor will be joined by Georgetown Running Club members Kerry Allen, Zach Hine, Maura Linde, and Dan Meteer in Atlanta.

Meteer, 24, ran at Brown University, but several injuries, including five stress fractures, a hip surgery, and a torn anterior cruciate ligament, derailed his career. He graduated in 2018, and immediately turned his attention to the marathon and qualified for the trials in his first attempt at the distance.

“I graduated with a sour taste in my mouth,” Meteer says. “The Olympic Marathon Trials is one of the more quantifiable goals as a post-collegiate runner, and it was something I could very much have as a tangible goal.”

Hine, who joined Georgetown Running Club last summer and lives in Kensington, finished in 31st place at the 2012 Olympic Marathon Trials in Houston with a time of 2:16:40. He has the fastest time from a local resident (2:16:36) entering Atlanta.

For the women’s race, Fairfax’s Bethany Sachtleben leads all area runners with a 2:31:20 qualifying time. Sachtleben, who turns 28 on Feb. 9, wants to use the Atlanta race as an opportunity to prove herself for the 2024 Olympic Marathon Trials. Four years from now, Sachtleben says, she will be eyeing a top 5 finish.

But for now, she has more modest goals.

“I want to be top 10, and I think that’s really doable on a course this difficult, as long as I’m smart and take advantage of people who aren’t as smart or aren’t as good on hills,” Sachtleben says of the Atlanta course, which consists of three six-mile loops and one 8.2-mile loop. “I want to have a good race—anything can happen. I’m definitely not going just for a fun experience. I’m going to leave it all out there.”

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Tateishi’s life isn’t like those of her Olympic running heroes. She can’t quite relate to Linden or 2017 New York City Marathon champion Shalane Flanagan, no matter how much they inspire her. But looking around on social media, she’s found plenty of women in the area, and around the U.S., who she can emulate.

Former Georgetown Running Club member Teal Burrell wrote in detail how she went from a 4:07 marathon runner to an Olympic Trials qualifier leading up to the 2016 race. It made Tateishi realize that those running in the trials weren’t just Olympians or professional runners. They had regular jobs. Some of them started off as mid-pack runners. (Burrell, who now lives in Richmond, has also qualified for this year’s trials.) 

“I think you can never imagine something for yourself if you don’t see it represented somewhere else,” Tateishi explains. “If I hadn’t seen Teal, or read about her journey, I wouldn’t have ever imagined someone running a 3:38 [marathon] could run sub-three and then go to a 2:45.”

At the 2018 Grandma’s Marathon in Duluth, Minnesota, Tateishi remembers that a runner right behind her started to cheer. As she caught up to other women, Tateishi shouted encouragement at them, too. It felt empowering. When she crossed that finish line, she joined an exclusive cohort of female runners. They had reached the same goal, one of shared pain and knowledge of the hard work it required.

A 26.2 mile victory lap awaits them in Atlanta.