On February 13 in Los Angeles, four long distance runners currently living and training in Indianapolis will vie for a shot to represent the United States in the marathon at the 2016 Olympic Games, a 26.2-mile race scheduled to unfold on August 21 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
Those four elite runners — Jordan Kyle, 29; Jesse Davis, 34; Anna Weber, 27; and Erin Nehus-Vergara, 34 —will compete in the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials. What binds their tales is that, on top of qualifying to compete in a race in which the top three runners proceed to represent the U.S. in Brazil, they are doing it out of pure love for the sport.
Put simply, most have full-time jobs and careers in something other than long-distance running and running is, for them (like it is for the grand majority of people who do it), a hobby.
Only these runners aren't your average hobby joggers — and they can run fast. Very fast.
For the trials, the United States of America Track and Field (USATF) maintains qualifying standards that one had to run by January 17, 2016 – either in the half-marathon or the marathon – to earn a spot in the exclusive race. Two out of the four Indianapolis-based runners competing in Los Angeles hit the half-marathon qualifying mark in order to qualify and one out of the four — Weber — hit both the marathon qualifying mark and the half marathon qualifying marks.
Those numbers, though, only tell part of the story. To learn more about what goes into training for the trials, I joined all of the athletes for a day of training, riding alongside them on a bike (while they ran, that is) to get a feel for and glimpse of what it takes to compete at the highest level of the sport.
Kyle: future lawyer
Jordan Kyle — a Fishers native who has averaged 85 miles per week this training cycle — is, in addition to being an elite runner, a full-time third year law school student at the IU McKinney School of Law. He also works as a volunteer assistant coach for the Indiana University-Purdue University of Indianapolis (IUPUI) men's cross country and track teams.
In college, Kyle ran at Indiana University-Bloomington and then transferred to University of Colorado-Boulder — the latter's one of the most prestigious collegiate distance-running programs in the U.S.
Like most other law school students, he takes out loans to help pay for tuition. But he doesn't have to worry about running gear expenses — he's sponsored by Brooks Running.
"Balancing full-time law school with being an elite runner is a daily exercise in managing priorities. I try to run in the morning, so I have the remainder of the day to study, go to class," said Kyle. "I have a lot of breaks in my schedule but I have to continuously keep up with school work to ensure I use my time productively."
Davis: running community staple
A 19-time marathoner, Jesse Davis completed the Monumental Marathon in an almost fairy tale-like manner, crossing the finish line as the victor exactly a tenth of a second before the Olympic Trials qualifying time cut off of 2:18:00.
Flailing and hurling his body across the race's final meters and the finish line, the way Davis completed the race and earned his qualifying time made headlines in national running publications such as Runner's World Magazine. The video of his win went viral on social media within running circles.
"Monumental was a race I have wanted to win for several years. I had previously finished second and fourth. I couldn't have possibly written the scenario better," said Davis, a Bloomington, Indiana native who averages 90-100 miles per week of running. "To not only win, but to qualify by such a narrow margin in front of all my friends and family was a very special experience."
A 2012 qualifer for the trials as well, he works as a manager at the running store Runners Forum and also serves as vice president of Indy Runners, a local club for runners of all levels.
Nehus-Vergara: mom, physical therapist and adversity fighter
No runner I met in this story juggles as many balls in a day as Erin Nehus-Vergara, the mother of a 2-year-old daughter, wife of a husband fighting stage-four colorectal cancer and part-time physical therapist. Most days, to fit in training, she's out running before the sun rises at 6:30 a.m. on the Monon trail near Broad Ripple and peaked at about 100 miles per week for her training cycle.
Nehus-Vergara is likely the most accomplished of the runners as well, nearly qualifying in past Trials in the 5K and 10k on the track, with personal best times of 15:52 and 32:56, respectively. She also finished 24th overall in the 2012 Olympic Marathon Trials in Houston.
A Gallia, Ohio native, Nehus-Vergara ran collegiately at Cedarville University in Dayton, Ohio. Despite fighting cancer, Nehus-Vergara's husband has supported her efforts to go for a personal best performance at the trials.
"Having the opportunity to race at the trials in hopefully my best shape to date is as much apart of the healing process for him as it's been for me," said Nehus-Vergara. "We have chosen together as a family to sacrifice and pursue this goal despite so many obstacles in our way this year."
I recently met Nehus-Vergara at 8 a.m. on a Saturday morning and biked alongside her and her training partner, Rosie Edwards — a 26-year-old Butler University cross country and track alum training to compete in the British Olympic Marathon Trials in April – during their respective workouts. Nehus Vergara did a light 4x600-meter workout at her current 5K race pace effort (5:20 per mile), while Edwards did 4 miles at goal half-marathon pace (roughly 5:40 pace per mile). Though doing different workouts, the two of them found a way to do the workout together and helped push one another to hit their workout goal paces.
Weber: grad school to full-time elite
Anna Weber, a Michigan City, Indiana native and prolific blogger on her Tumblr account, has high expectations for herself at the trials — she dreams of a top-ten finish. She ran for Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and runs the highest mileage of the Indianapolis Trials-qualifying cadre, clocking 100-110 miles weekly.
Logging huge mileage — as Weber does — takes a significant chunk of time, one of reasons she decided to take some time off from her analytical chemstry Ph.D. program at Indiana University-Bloomington in 2015 and focus on making the Trials.
Though now sponsored by women's running company Oiselle after qualifying for the trials, which provides her with running gear and helps cover race expenses, when Weber decided to take time off of graduate school she had no sponsor. So she started a GoFundMe crowd-funding campaign to pay for the solitary and non-lucrative life of a non-sponsored elite distance runner.
Weber told me during a 12-mile run we did together (again, with me on a bike) along the White River Trail and Canal that some had criticized her for making the decision to take time off to become a full-time elite marathoner.
While conceding it can still be difficult to pay the bills even with a sponsor, it appears Weber's decision has paid off. She has hit personal best times in the 10-kilometers, half-marathon and marathon during her break from grad school.
Favorite Running Spots, Tips for Local Marathoners
Where do the Indianapolis-based Olympic Trials qualifiers run? And what's their advice to other Indianapolis-area marathoners (and aspiring marathoners) on conquering the distance?
Favorite Running Locales: Southwest Way Park, Eagle Creek, Eagle Creek/Leonard Park Trails in Speedway, Canal Towpath, White River Trail, Fall Creek Trail and the downtown Canal path.
Advice: "My advice for other Indy area marathoners is to remember that training is a process, and that there are multiple ways to reach your goals. Ultimately, if you find you aren't where you want to be, don't be afraid to take a good hard look at what you are doing, where you want to be, and make the necessary life changes to get yourself there."
Favorite Running Locales: Eagle Creek and the Monon Trail.
Advice: "For training, get in as many 20-mile runs in as your training and body will allow. Mentally, the more you can break the race up in your mind the better off you will be. At the end of the race every mile is a challenge. You have to take each challenge on one at a time and forget about what comes after."
Favorite Running Locales: Monon Trail, Canal Towpath, Meridian Hills.
Advice: "Achieving the best marathon performance out of yourself on any given day takes more than just all the logged workouts and miles. While this is certainly a means to an end, the more important aspect is running with your heart, reaching deeper into your soul and tapping into that source when your body wants to quit."
Favorite Running Locales: Canal Tow Path, Eagle Creek, Butler University track, IUPUI track, Meridian Hills neighborhood
Advice: "Take baby steps! Do yourself a favor, take your goal time for your first marathon and add 15-20 percent extra time to it. And above everything else, don't take running so seriously. You need to have fun. Enjoy the runs you do and the people you train with."
NOT for the money
Even for those who end up finishing top ten in the trials, the financial pay off is pretty slim compared to many other sports. The winner takes home $80,000; second place $65,000; third $55,000; fourth $25,000 — and down to $7,000 for tenth. Each gender has a $300,000 prize money purse.
"There is no life-changing financial incentive," Wendy Shulik of Wendy City Productions, who is making a film about the 2012 and 2016 U.S. Olympic Trials Marathons, recently told Competitor Magazine. "They are making huge life sacrifices every day because of their unwavering love for the sport."
How fast are they?
Kyle: 1:04:35 in the half-marathon (4:57 per mile) at the Indianapolis Monumental Half-Marathon in 2014 for a second-place finish.
Davis: 2:17:59.9 (5:15 per mile) in the marathon at the Indianapolis Monumental Marathon in 2015, which also earned him an overall victory in the race.
Weber: 2:38:39 (6:03 per mile) at the 2015 Twin Cities Marathon in Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minnesota. The time landed her a sixth-place finish. Then in January, Weber ran a 1:14:03 (5:38 per mile) half-marathon at the Houston Half-Marathon, good for 14th overall in the women's race.
Nehus-Vergara: 1:14:48 (5:42 per mile) in the Monumental Half-Marathon in 2014 and a fourth-place finish. Nehus-Vergara also ran a nearly identical 1:14:56 in the 2015 Monumental Half, which got her a third-place finish.
The US Olympic Track and Field Trials are scheduled as follows:
• Marathon — Feb 13, Los Angeles, CA
• 50K Race Walk — Feb 21, Santee, CA
• Track and Field (all other events) — July 1-10, Eugene, OR
• The 2016 Summer Olympics run from Aug. 5-21 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.