2020 Olympic Trials Experience

by Josh Merlis

                                    Winners going to 2021 Summer Olympics

The movies Prefontaine and Without Limits hit the theaters when I was in high school. As a member of my school’s cross country team, I was captivated by the man and his story. We all wanted to be like him, and surely it’s sad to think about all he could have achieved, had his life not been cut short at just 24 years of age.

Like almost any school team, we were a band of brothers; pushing one another in each workout (unfortunately, even on easy days) to become faster runners and tougher runners. Dreams of making the state meet and even the Footlocker Cross Country Championships bounced around our adolescent minds. Yes, we had schoolwork to do, but running, and being part of the team, was everything to us.

While I’m incredibly thankful and fortunate for the manner with which the Albany Running Exchange has been able to extend that feeling, the reality is that the demands of life post-school make it impossible to live such a narrow existence, devoid of the endless responsibilities of adulthood.

Off to Atlanta

On Thursday, February 27, I flew to Atlanta, GA with Michelle (my wife) and Dick Vincent. Dick was the officiant at our wedding and Michelle and I have shared great experiences with him over the years, but in many ways, nothing could compare with the raw excitement of us being at the 2020 Olympic Marathon Trials.

In addition to them, Nick Webster joined us at our Airbnb, conveniently located at an intersection the runners would run past several times during the race. Nick and I lived together for many years at the beloved ‘131 Arcadia’ house, home to over 30+ runners since 2005, and continuing to this day. In short, it was a mini reunion for us, and especially fun to spend time with Nick, as he had relocated to Charlotte, NC nearly 1 year ago.

Besides my housemates, numerous other members of the Albany running community were down in Atlanta. With ARE member Karen Bertasso racing, along with current Capital Region residents Jacob Andrews and Dan Lennon, we especially had reason to cheer as we had our very own competing in the event. (There were several others racing with Capital Region roots as well.)

We spent our evenings joining Joe Benny and friends at local establishments for food and fun, relishing the chance to be on a vacation for which running was the entire focus. In fact, nearly the entire group except for my own housemates would be racing on Sunday in the sister event of the trials race.

The afternoon before the race, we stopped by Karen’s hotel room to catch up with her and wish her luck. Years of training, and years of striving towards that once-elusive OTQ (Olympic Trials Qualifying time) had paid off with her running a brilliantly executed 2:43:46 at the Hartford Marathon in 2018. Now, over 15 months later, only hours separated her from the start line of the Olympic Trials! She was in good spirits as we chatted about her experience thus far and the big race just 1 day away.

Long Lost Connections

Click on picture of Steve (above) for video

In 1992, my father and I attended the Gold Medal Running Camp at California University of Pennsylvania. He was the oldest camper, and I was the youngest, about to enter 5th grade. We became regulars, and looked forward each summer to our week in southwestern PA. In 1994, Steve Jayaraj was my counselor. His love of running was palpable and I greatly enjoyed being part of his group. I honestly don’t remember if he was there for more than that summer, as the years all blend together now, but well over a decade later we found each other on Facebook in 2009.

I don’t recall what made me reach out to him then, but over the ensuing decade we kept abreast of what one another was up to simply through social media. With that said, 11 years would pass before I reached back out to him for one simple reason: I was headed to Atlanta, where he lives.

Steve is a teacher and a running coach, for all levels and ages. He has both a school team and also an adult group he works with. I reached out to him about meeting up during the Olympic Trials, at which time I learned he’d be working at them – specifically as an elite athlete liaison. In simple terms, it would be his job to be the handler for the final male qualifier for the Olympics. Wow!

The trip to Atlanta was busy, and while I wanted to see him, finding time to meet up amidst all going on didn’t make it easy. On the morning of the race, after waiting a significant amount of time to get breakfast at a packed café, he messaged me that he didn’t have much time before he had to start working. After having run 10 miles that morning and starving, I chomped down a few bites of my sandwich and gave the rest to Michelle to hold onto for me as I then ran the near mile to his hotel located right by Centennial Park.

It had been 25 years or so since we had seen each other. My entire association with his existence was just a few days at a running camp, but the memories from that age remain so visceral. I loved that camp. It was the hardest running experience I’d ever known, even to this day. Runs at 6 a.m., 10 a.m., and 3 p.m. Workouts every day and the humid air sucking at your soul beneath the relentless sun. And so we ran. We reflected on those great days, and talked about what had happened to everyone we knew from camp. But the minutes passed quickly, and it was time for him to assume his post, and for me to return to the group and prepare to take it all in.

         From left: Josh Merlis, Kyle Framer, Larry Galluzzo, Kevin Becker, and Jim Gilmer

AREEP’s Software for Course Measurement

In 2017, the Advanced Topics in Computer Science course I was teaching at Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake HS began a project that ultimately was adopted by USATF as their official course measurement and certification program for the entire country. As a result of their work, the team has attended the annual USATF Conference and also received the RRTC (Road Running Technical Council) Special Service Award. One of those students, Kevin Becker, has been working as a FT programmer for AREEP nearly ever since, and was invited to attend and assist with the Olympic Trials, along with Jim Gilmer, who was the longtime NYS Certifier and also the impetus, backbone, and Project Manager for the software project.

When Michelle and I decided to go on this trip several months earlier, I made it clear that I would not be working the event. (There were some potential opportunities to be involved in some capacity, but NO, this would be a vacation for the two of us, along with some friends, and NOT a work trip.) And I was true to that, although a few weeks before the race, once I learned that Kevin and Jim would be driving down from Albany, I thought it would be fun to make wherever we were hanging out on the course a little more exciting. To that end, I asked Jim if he had room in his pickup truck to take a few items down to Atlanta for me.

On Friday, February 28, I met Jim outside my Airbnb and loaded the speaker, generator, and ancillary equipment onto the cart I had also sent with him, and brought it up to our 15th floor abode. The next day, after parting ways with Steve around 11:25 a.m., I ran straight down the first kilometer of the course to our Airbnb and quickly re-descended to the street level after getting the cart.

Party at a Street Corner

As I walked outside, roughly 25 minutes before the men’s start, the barricades were being set up directly in front of the building, at a location in which the runners would be running in both directions on the street. When I had scoped out the spot a day earlier, I had an inkling of where I wanted to set up, but with the barricades now in place, it truly was the perfect place to be – smack dab in the “middle” of the race.

I said hi to the people setting up, wheeled my cart into the sectioned off area, and set up a sound system. A crowd was forming as I got the music playing. I then proceeded to inform the crowd that where they were standing would not actually get passed at the start. The race would instead turn a block sooner for the first lap. Like a herd of sheep, they scuttled one block up the hill, while I chuckled to myself, wondering if they would have ever known this had I not, without any official involvement, “gotten involved.”

Throughout the race, I played music and provided live updates that anyone could have gotten from the live tracking website. Amusingly, a few people came up to me asking a variety of questions about the race, all of which were answered on the website. I would answer the question and politely encourage them to use the event website; laughing to myself that I actually had nothing to do with this event,but everything they were asking is answered on the website. Ah, if people would only read!

                                         Click on picture above for Rubb Interview

Galen Rupp Sightings

After the races began, the rest of the ARE gang descended upon our oasis, amidst hundreds of spectators lining the streets. I stayed true to Michelle; I was not working the event. While others wear headphones to listen to music, I simply brought a (much) larger “head”phone.

Perhaps most exciting was when the men came through on their second lap. As they reached us just shy of 16 miles, Brian Shrader still led, but Galen Rupp was closing the gap fast. Less than a kilometer later, as they came past that location for the final time, Rupp was leading, with the rest of his chase pack close behind.

                        Click on picture above for video link

Karen Bertasso Sightings

While that was definitely exciting to watch, our proudest moment was seeing Karen. We were paying close attention to the tracker to have a solid idea of approximately when she’d go by. Considering the size of the pack, it would be easy to not see someone if unaware of their estimated arrival time. As she ran by us each time, we went crazy for her, excited to see her literally living her dream.

After Karen went by the second time, we had a thrilling 5 minutes as we quickly disassembled our sound setup, loaded the cart, and then sprinted (as a group) nearly a half mile with the cart. The generator did fall off at one point on the steep topography, but we made it to 25.2M a few minutes before Rupp came by, and proceeded to continue cheering on the runners from our new location on that cool and windy day.

Running Into the Sunset

That night, many of us headed out for one final gathering. Karen, her parents, and her husband Mike joined us in celebration. We were also clearly in the presence of countless others who had descended on Atlanta for this most exciting of events. Atlanta was all about running that weekend, and it was amazing. I felt like that kid on the high school team again. Like that camper from 25 years past when all that mattered – all that existed – was a pair of running shoes on your feet, the dirt beneath your feet, and miles and miles of beauty stretching before you, along an unending river of happiness and freedom.

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