Olympic Trials marathon
When: Feb. 13
Where: Los Angeles
At stake: First three finishers in the men's and women's race will represent the U.S. in the Olympic marathon in Rio de Janeiro in August.
Four years ago, at the 2012 Olympic Trials marathon in Houston, Kara Goucher engaged in a 26.2-mile "chess match," somehow digging deep enough after just three months of training to place third, qualifying for her second U.S. Olympic team.
It was another milestone in a stellar career that began as a prep star in Duluth, Minn., continued through three NCAA titles at the University of Colorado as well as the 10,000-meter bronze medal at the 2007 World Championships, and then top-10 finishes in both the 5,000 and 10,000 meters at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
As she begins her final preparations for next month's 2016 Olympic Trials marathon in Los Angeles, where she will be one of of a number of area runners attempting to qualify in the women's and men's marathons, Goucher is happier and training better than she has in years.
While some might not list her among the favorites in a field headlined by Boulder native Shalane Flanagan, Goucher, 37, was confident during a recent interview that she does indeed have a decent chance to make the team.
"I am a lot fitter and healthier than last time," Goucher said. "Last time my race was dictated by what the others were doing; this time it will be dictated by what I am ready to do. This year we think it will take 2:25 (two hours, 25 minutes) to make the team. It might not, but I need to be prepared to run 2:25."
To do that, Goucher has been running consistent 110-to-115 mileage weeks while gradually increasing her leg speed, as her coaches, CU's Mark Wetmore and Heather Burroughs, work toward remolding her into the elite 10,000-meter runner she once was, before moving up to the marathon.
Goucher did look more 10K runner than marathoner on a cold, snowy morning as she ran a series of 300- and 200-meter repeats with fellow Olympians Jenny Simpson and Shalaya Kipp, as well as 1,500-meter hopeful Sara Sutherland. They, along with 2012 Olympic steeplechaser Emma Coburn, are the professional runners coached by Wetmore and Burroughs. The synergy among Goucher and her training partners seems to be as important to her comeback as her weekly 20-milers.
"I love the group," Goucher said. "Everybody has such different skill sets. The group keeps me lighthearted and excited to go out the door, and it's fun to follow other people's journeys and not be so focused on myself. I really enjoyed Jenny's and Emma's quest to win medals in Beijing (at the 2015 World Championships). I don't cheer for a professional team; they are basically my Broncos."
According to Wetmore, Goucher has great appeal to runners of all abilities, an appeal the coach saw up close at a half marathon in Philadelphia. He described a crush of runners following her around her warmup and getting autographs at dinner.
"Women admire Kara because she is fit, among the better runners in America, has a kid, and is open about her emotions," said Wetmore. "She is a real icon to American runners."
Count Sutherland, third in the 2015 NCAA 1,500 meters, among Goucher's many fans. Sutherland explained Goucher's appeal this way: "Kara always makes everyone laugh and makes it fun. She is one of those rare people with the talent to be real goal-oriented and extremely tenacious and determined, yet always warm, caring and genuine.
"That is why she is such a good person to look up to. She has the combination of being an admirable person and an admirable athlete."
Goucher's Road to Rio began when she left Portland, Ore., and returned to Boulder with her family, husband Adam, the former CU star, and son Colton, in January 2014.
"I moved back because I thought my best chance of making another Olympic team was with Mark and Heather," she explained. "The first two years were a learning curve, but I feel that in the last four months we've really dialed it in.
"We have figured out what I need to be healthy. I have to be aggressive with therapy. It made a huge difference when I committed to doing the little things day in and day out. It added about an hour a day, and Heather was telling me today I can't slack off on it. I made the commitment to continue no matter how tired I am."
In Boulder, Goucher is back with her long-term massage therapist, Al Kupczak; she also gets treatment from Marcus Hille and physical therapist Ed Ryan.
Another reason for her resurgence - she won two half marathons in the fall -- are Goucher's sponsors, Oiselle (apparel) and Skechers (shoes), who "just want me to be me and be happy. They've been awesome, paying me for who I am, rather than for performance. That allowed me to have knee surgery without worrying about getting my contract cut," said Goucher, who designed a new shoe for Skechers, the Forza, out this spring.
Goucher has also found a home at RallySport, where she goes with her family several afternoons a week to see friends, old and new. It is all part of a routine and connection to the Boulder community that gives her the grounding and stability to juggle the myriad aspects of her full life.
The most important part of Goucher's newfound "lightness," however, is the freedom she now feels after going public last summer in a BBC/ProPublica expose that shed light on what some say was questionable use of drugs by her former coach.
"It was so hard," Goucher said. "I have never been so exhausted in my life, fighting the battle. But some good will come out of it, and I am fine now."
Which is why, she added, finishing in the top three on Feb. 13 "would drastically outweigh the others. Making this team would be best by far. I really want to make the team and it is a big goal, but if I don't, I will cry hard for a few days and then set the next goal. I am surrounded by people who don't care if I make another team."