Jackson distance runner Sam Diaz went into the Chicago Marathon on Sunday, her first 26.2-mile race, with a goal that was simple enough.
Clip the Olympic Trials Marathon qualifying mark of 2 hours, 45 minutes.
Her game plan was to go out somewhat conservatively in an effort to avoid crashing and burning come the final 6 miles of the race.
She accomplished that goal with almost four minutes to spare, placing 26th overall in the women’s field in 2:41:02.
“I can’t even describe how relieving it was to come through mile 20 and know that I’d really have to die off to not be able to get [the standard],” she said. “That was a pretty awesome feeling, just knowing it’s so close and in reach toward the end of the race.”
Diaz executed the game plan well, coming through the half marathon in 1:20:58 and finishing with an average mile pace of 5:53. She was able to rely on her months of quality training leading in, sure, but a midrace alliance really helped her push through the second half of the race and stay on track.
Around mile 15, Diaz said, she and Michigan’s Erin Heenan, previously a stranger, linked up.
“Every time I would start dropping off her a little bit, she’d tap her hip and be like, ‘Come on, Sam,’ and she would bring me back up,” Diaz said. “We were in a big pack, and then her and I struck away. We looked at each other like, “Yeah, let’s do this.’”
The big question mark going into a marathon, especially the first, is the proverbial “invisible wall” runners hit around mile 20. Diaz surely had a firsthand account of the final 6-mile slog from fellow Jackson runner Matt Chorney, who suffered a bad breakdown at mile 20 in his previous Chicago Marathon.
Chorney notched a huge personal record himself on Sunday in the men’s race, finishing 52nd in in 2:21:15.
“I hit mile 20 and I was like, ‘Oh no, is this going to happen?’” Diaz said. “Mile 20 came, and I was able to keep picking up and bringing the pace down a little bit and felt good. … That last few miles, you kind of feel yourself wanting to give in a little bit.”
This week Diaz will be giving her body a chance to recover from the punishment, but she’ll soon be revving her training right back up ahead of the Olympic Trials marathon, which takes place Feb. 29 in Atlanta.
Though Diaz calls Jackson home, she will likely spend her next training phase in Boise, Idaho, with her team, the Idaho Distance Project.
It’s way too early to delve into a race plan for her sophomore marathon, but she said that race will be much less about time. Not just for her but for the entire field of some 400 women who have already qualified.
“It’s a very tough and hilly course,” Diaz said. “It’s definitely going to be more of just evaluating where I need to be. I’m still not sure what a realistic goal would be.”
But the initial goal, and certainly the biggest of her career, has already been met. Diaz knows that in part because of her finishing time and also because of her inability to move.
“I was completely happy with how it went,” she said. “I wouldn’t believe it happened if it weren’t for my inability to walk.”