With about 50 days until the 2016 Olympics, hundreds of athletes are making the final push to represent their country in Rio de Janeiro come August. Track and field steps into the spotlight every four years, but the preparation needed to reach the starting line begins long before the big moment. Running goes beyond just putting one foot in front of the other as fast as you can.
Ryan Hill, a distance runner for the Bowerman Track Club based in Oregon, is on the verge of making his first Olympic team. Over the next few weeks leading up to the U.S. Olympic Trials on July 1–10, Hill will write a first-person piece for SI.com discussing his training, races, and preparation ahead of the trials in July and the Games in August. Read his first piece here.
Ten days before the Prefontaine Classic on May 26–27, Mohammad Ahmed and I ran a 4:04 mile to close out a roughly 3.5-mile workout at the Nike headquarters in Beaverton, Ore. On every lap, our coach Jerry Schumacher yelled out our split times (60! 61! 62! 60! 4:04!) and our teammates accompanied his splits with cheers (Woooo! Oh yeah, dude!). Its not easy to impress each other in this group, but Mo did that day. He ran the entire mile with me running right behind him awaiting his next move.
But the 5000-meter race at the Prefontaine Classic was an entirely different story: Mo ran a personal best (13:01) while I languished in the rear, running 13:35 amid a few pity claps. I tell this story to emphasize that at the highest level of track and field, the separation between having a dream race and a nightmare race often comes down to a minor detail. One wrong move, a little complacency, some hesitancy, just a touch too fast, weather a touch too warm—any of these can send someone spiraling off the back. But I needed that experience to remind myself that I’m not invincible and that things had been coming much too easily. I left Eugene for altitude camp with plenty of motivation knowing I had some work to do.
Now I’m in Park City, Utah with the rest of the Bowerman Track Club training for the Olympic Trials. Park City is a beautiful ski resort town that turns into an outdoor enthusiast paradise in the summer, and situated at 7,000 feet of altitude, Park City is perfect for the physiological gains that we are looking for a month before the trials. When you live and train at altitudes above 7,000 feet, the body responds to the lower levels of oxygen by producing more red blood cells. After 30 days of training we leave and race at sea level where we have more oxygen and more red blood cells to carry that oxygen. This combination makes for some very fit distance runners.
While the scientific side of training is cool, it’s not what we think about on a daily basis. We care about the workouts. Within the first two weeks of camp, I had already run 200-meter repeats in 23 seconds, completed a six-mile workout in 85-degree weather and did a one-hour, 45-minute long run with the last hour averaging 5:40 pace/mile.
The strangest incident came when we arrived at the track in Salt Lake city to find a football camp going on. With hundreds of oblivious kids and parents around something was bound to happen, and during the last mile of our four-mile tempo, an unsuspecting father wondered into lane 1 and collided with the leading runner, sending him flying off of the track! This might have ruined some workouts, but not with Bowerman Track Club. Someone else instinctively took the lead and kept the pace up, while the crashed runner hopped up and caught the group to finish the tempo. If we lost respect from the curious crowd of football players when one runner punted a football out of lane 1 during his lead, we gained it back when another got lit up and still finished the workout.
My teammates and I are constantly together—during runs, workouts, gym sessions, meals—and it can be quite exhausting; keeping up with the rhetoric and competitive banter of opinions is almost as tiring as our training. To counteract that, we routinely take the afternoons to relax on their own and decompress from the intense training environment. For me, that means watching Netflix or listening to a podcast. Right now I’m watching Bloodline season 2 and listening to “The Herd with Colin Cowherd.” And most afternoons I’ll get a quick nap in before our second run or core workout.
After the intense workouts, I have massage therapy, and at night the guys reconvene to cook meals and watch whatever sport is on that night. We’ve watched everything from the NBA Finals to the Stanley Cup playoffs to the NCAA softball championships. And when there’s nothing we want to watch on TV, our go-to activity is Mario Kart, or as we call it, Diddy!
There have been plenty of ups and downs in the past few months of training. After the 2016 World Indoor Championships (Hill won the silver medal in the 3,000 meters), I dealt with bursitis in my knee that forced me to stop doing strength work. I got back on the train and surprised my coach by hanging in with workouts and looking like I didn’t miss a step. But that was “fake fitness” as he calls it and a few rough workouts soon followed. Even our first 5000-meter session at altitude didn’t go as planned for me.
However, this situation helps me remember that it’s important to remember that distance running is rarely ever linear, you’ll always be fighting. Having a group is essential for supporting you in that fight. For instance, I have one teammate to whom I always complain, because he just complains more which makes me feel better! The members of the Bowerman Track Club push each other to achieve greatness, but there’s always someone there to pick you up when you need it.