This Presidents Day, 12 elite women toed the line at the Pacific Pursuit 10K in San Diego, Calif. Matching athletes from respected teams like Northern Arizona Elite in Flagstaff, Ariz. with those from Hansons Brooks Distance Project in Detroit, Mich., this competition was originally created as an early 2016 Olympic Trials qualifier by the NorCal Distance Project. A few years later, the mission remains the same, though Roots Running Project took over hosting duties for this year’s event as an effort to provide an opportunity for runners to qualify for the 2019 IAAF World Championships and the 2020 Olympic Trials. As time standards for these top-tier races are becoming increasingly tougher, races like Pacific Pursuit are becoming more common as organizers attempt to give athletes opportunities to immerse themselves in elite competition.

In 2019, the IAAF World Standard in the Women’s 10K dropped from 33:00 to 31:50, a drastic change that makes qualifying for the World Championships an even tougher task. For reference, the fastest women’s time at Pacific Pursuit this year was 32:13, clocked by Hoka One One athlete Kellyn Taylor. Behind her was a familiar face in professional running, Olympian Alexi Pappas, as well as those newer to the circuit, like Olivia Pratt of Hansons Brooks, Maggie Montoya of Roots Running and Alice Wright of NAZ Elite. Since these women come from different training groups all over the country, it would be easy to have an every-woman-for-herself approach, but come race day there was instead a team-oriented atmosphere, a trait that has become common in American distance running.

“Before the race began, the athletes agreed amongst themselves to share pacing duties, if possible, once the rabbits [pacers] stepped off the track,” Pratt explained. “Having that conversation helped underline for me what a supportive atmosphere that meet had. Everyone was pulling for each other. The elite racing world is a small one, and while we are competitors on the track, I feel that we’re also colleagues—even if we train separately and wear different logos on our chests.”

Photo of Olivia Pratt (left) and Maggie Montoya (right) by Crash Kamon.

Elite distance running is too often seen in black and white, fast or slow—but any competitor knows that this tells only a fraction of the story. While there will always be those ultra-talented runners who win title after title, there are plenty of fast women following closely behind. Races like Pacific Pursuit are perfect examples of this because, though none of this particular race’s competitors was able to hit the world standard mark, they came together in pursuit of a common goal: race together, latch on when the going gets tough and walk away 10,000 meters wiser.

“There’s no championship-style racing, and the race is honest from the start,” Montoya said. “Races like this help speed up the transition into the professional ranks. They help you get a feel, both physically and mentally, for professional races. A very common set of challenges that new professionals face are the daunting qualifying marks needed to get into high-profile races. Races like Pacific Pursuit provide opportunities for athletes to hit marks that they would not otherwise have a chance to chase.”

These new qualifying marks set the tone as runners approach the World Championships and 2020 Olympics, but the women racing are responding with higher standards for themselves, as well. They’re racing more often and at various distances to gain experience and another crack at a breakthrough performance.

While there’s a sense of urgency in wanting to prove oneself as quickly as possible, trusting the process and having patience is a must for many of these women. “It’s certainly a process in professional distance running, and I’m sure many new professional runners can relate to the pressure of feeling like we need to be running fast now in order to prove ourselves,” Wright said.

Photo of Alice Wright by Crash Kamon.

Putting aside this sense of urgency and allowing oneself to escape the pressure is vital for development in distance running for pros and amateurs alike. Taking a few days off to focus on life’s other demands is needed for mental and physical breaks from the grind. “For me personally, I know I need to sharpen up on the track a little more and get my legs used to some faster paces before my next 10K,” Wright said. “If nothing else, a bad race can always be seen as a good workout for the next one.”

Just like the grassroots programs that these women come from, their humble attitudes are paving the way for future generations in distance running. They’re proving they don’t need big title sponsors or contracts to get their feet in the door of the professional running world—the collaborative effort and shared goals are enough to get started. “You realize that all around you are athletes that are working just as hard and chasing the same dreams that you have,” Montoya said. “The positive side to this is that it lifts all of the competitors up and helps set new standards for excellence in the sport.”