For most, the Olympic Trials Marathon is the marathon of the year. Others leading up to this ultimate showdown race are either mere practice to make the Olympic team, have a massive PR day or simply experience running on national stage. But for two athletes at the Hansons-Brooks Distance Project, the 26.2-mile event, happening in Los Angeles on Feb. 13, marks their very first marathon—ever.
“For Melanie and me, this will be our first marathon,” says Katie Kellner, a member of the Hansons-Brooks Distance Project, started in 1999 by brothers Kevin and Keith Hanson, and training under the mentorship of veteran marathoners Desi Linden, Dot McMahan and Melissa Johnson-White. Both Katie and Melanie Brender are new members to the project, hoping to get a good taste of what “double the distance” feels like, having qualified with their impressive half marathon PRs at the Rock ‘n’ Roll Philadelphia event in 2014 and 2015.
There are four women in total—Katie, Melanie, Dani Miller and Jen Rock—who have gathered under the wings of Desi and Dot, hoping to blossom in their young marathoning careers for years to come. All four are pretty close out of college, and the Olympic Trials is merely a run to get the “jitters” out before another go at the team in 2020.
“When we all joined the program, they make a long-term investment in us,” explains Melanie. “This is more getting all the jitters out so in four more years when we are at the line, we know we belong there, and it’s not a dangerous new experience.”
The foursome definitely have a helpful advantage having pros like Desi running next to them through the elements of training in Michigan and emotions of training for a marathon.
“We all went to the Hansons running camps together; we grew up going to these high school camps. I remember when Desi had this killer eyebrow piercing,” laughs Dani, who stumbled into the project after working at Hansons Running under brothers Kevin and Keith Hanson, who started the distance project in 1999. “It was like 2006. And now we are running along beside her all day in the rain, talking and laughing and getting ready.”
“I think it’s special to get so much advice from [Des, Dot and Mel]. The marathon is such a unique event,” adds Katie. “It’s double the distance. It’s so beneficial for us to hear those things and trust them.”
All four women are still young in their running careers. Katie ran for Cornell University and realized her potential as a professional runner during her last years of college. Melanie walked onto the team at Michigan State University and followed the advice of a professor to “do something you’re passionate about.” Dani was “late to the running party,” in that she did not truly discover her passion until later in college. After her coach claimed she “wasn’t being a team asset,” Dani reclaimed the love she knew was there in the back of her heart and pursued running with a fresh mind. Jen did not pursue professional running right away, rather, she surprised herself with a sub-2:40 marathon during her first go and fell into her talent over 26.2 miles.
The team trains in Rochester, Mich., but more recently traveled down to Florida near Orlando to get out of the winter and focus more on hard training with less delicate footing around ice and slick roads, as Desi eluded to during the pre-Olympic Trials press conference on Thursday.
“Obviously when you’re a marathoner you run lots and lots of miles. It’s like hanging out with your friends for an hour and half or so when you have to run a long 14 miles,” says Katie of the project, which now boasts two Olympians since it’s inception. “I think it just ramps up the fun for all of us.”
Jen adds, “The biggest thing is, with the marathon, it takes a lot of patience. Especially since this is some of our first marathon, or maybe only the second or third, so we still have a lot to learn. It really takes years until you really break out or really start to improve.”
All four girls have the goal to get such experience at Saturday’s Olympic Trials Marathon, as well as run some fast PRs along the looped course. But perhaps more important is the goal to have fun and enjoy running next to the fastest women in the country—and inspire all runners who will be tuning in to the event.
“Go out there and have fun and enjoy the experience—that’s the goal,” says Katie. “Not that many people get to run in the Olympic Trials, so having fun is a huge goal and representing the people who have got me here is what we will do.”
Melanie also says that this race is bigger than the Super Bowl or the World Series and says every runner should be watching. “People aren’t running all their biggest races leading up to this. This is the biggest race. There are people who have been training for years out, months out, and there’s no other sport where you say they’ve been training all these months for this one day.”
“Great things can happen. Whether you run for fun or just enjoy the sport, you’re a runner,” adds Dani. “I think the pain is the same. I think you can dissect it a little lower, but if you just run, we have this connection with you and we can just talk for hours. I think there is a connection between everyday runners and elites—we have the same struggles challenges, just in different forms.”
Saturday’s trials race has the biggest field to date and, for the first time, will be aired on NBC starting at 10 a.m. PST. The weather will be a factor—no one is predicting records to fall or massive times between the high temperatures and nature of the hairpin turns along the course—but there will still be an incredible for those top-3 spots, and all four women hope to see one of their own make it onto the podium.