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Six Olympic Trials Marathons: Bev Docherty Reflects on Her Historic Run

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Bev Docherty was among the 238 women in Olympia, Washington for the first women’s Olympic Trials Marathon in 1984. It was more like a celebration than a race, she says, marking their role in history and the open road of possibilities ahead. They savored the moment—as new as most of them were to the marathon, they knew the odds were long that they’d be on the start line again in four years.

Hitting the Olympic Trials standard is tough even once—school, jobs, family, motivation, illness, injury, all can complicate an already daunting task. And life’s obstacles increase exponentially with every four-year cycle. Of the thousands of women who have risen to the occasion, only one has qualified and finished six Olympic Trials Marathons. 

Docherty, now 61, competed in 1984, 1988, 1992, 1996, 2000, and 2004. During that 20-year span, she also worked a full-time teaching and coaching job, maintained her marriage (and still does), and gave birth (all C-sections) and raised four children. One of the sweetest results from her lifetime of competitive running? Seeing that passion continue forward. All four of the Docherty kids ran in high school and college, and one, 30-year-old Dan Docherty, will carry the torch all the way to this year’s Olympic Trials Marathon. 

Bev Docherty winning race
Bev Docherty winning Capitol City 10-mile in 1983

“It must go back to being from Iowa, where you have to be durable and work hard,” Docherty laughed, still a little uncomfortable that a self-described “pretty good” runner has accomplished something truly exceptional.

Self-confidence, dreams, big goals—those were luxuries a lot of farm girls in the 1970s could not afford. Docherty, nee Boddicker, ran for the University of Iowa, cross country and track, from 1976 to 1981 (the Hawkeyes didn’t yet have women’s cross country in 1976—Docherty played basketball). After two years of showing up and going through the motions, a baseball coach at Iowa gently prodded her to think about goals.

“Then they added the 10,000. I’m not fast but I can hold a pace,” Docherty said, as we chatted in her St. Paul kitchen. “Making goals and the longer race, that was a turning point. I won a couple races, and I hadn’t won anything in ages.” She graduated with a degree in Physical Education, and a 10,000-meter PR of 35:50. 

Bev Docherty runs 10k
Docherty runs a 10K in 1984

Patient, low maintenance, pragmatic, with an appetite for hard work and endurance—Docherty was made for the marathon. She went from 3:03 in her debut to 2:43 at the 1983 Chicago Marathon, well under the 2:51 qualifying mark for the historic 1984 Olympic Trials Marathon.

“You know, I still had goals, and it was in my mind that I’d never made it to Nationals. I thought, maybe this [Olympic Trials] is something I can do. Why not me?”

Docherty finished in the top third of the field with a time of 2:45:33. She was 25 years old at the time, newly married, new to the marathon, new to St. Paul, Minnesota, and new to her job at Mounds Park Academy where she not only taught PE, but was the athletic director, and coached girls and boys cross country and track, and basketball.

After that race, she upped her mileage to 70-90 miles per week, and set her PR the next year at Twin Cities Marathon—2:38:23. But she’s quick to point out that she was childless, so that schedule was a relative picnic. 

She and husband Jim knew they wanted a family, but running made her feel good, it gave her confidence; she wasn’t about to give that up. So, in what became a pretty workable pattern, Docherty focused on a single, local marathon early in the Olympic Trials qualifying window. It was a one-shot deal. There was no time for a second chance because she had to fit pregnancy and recovery into about a year-and-a-half time frame.

“I wasn’t really on [at 1986 Grandma’s Marathon], but it was my one shot,” Docherty says. “I didn’t want to change our family plans for running.” She finished that race with a time of 2:46, qualifying for her second Olympic Trials Marathon; 11 months later, she had her first child, and a year after that, she finished the 1988 Olympic Trials in 2:50.

Continuing to wedge long runs and mile intervals in between work, diapers, going to parent teacher meetings, and taking someone with inflamed tonsils to the doctor was “not easy.” There wasn’t one big thing; it was a lot of big things. 

“What’s always driven me, my strength I guess, is that I set appropriate goals. Nothing out of reach,” Docherty says. “I’m realistic about my abilities, and my limitations. I didn’t want running to be my first priority ever, even before kids. If I was having a bad day and I didn’t qualify, I could go home to my kids and teaching and be fine. I get it—I’m a pretty good runner. And heck, I love to run. It rejuvenates me; it’s my mental health piece. I also thought, why do just men get to take time to train like that? That’s something I’m proud of—showing that a mom can take time for herself, for individual goals.”

Docherty had a Master’s in PE and, eventually, Level I and II coaching certification, so was a knowledgeable self coach. Jim was her advisor, cover-all-the-bases childcare, and sport psychologist; two early-rising friends were her training partners. Sixty to 70 miles per week included a long run on the weekend and mid-week workout of 12 to 15 miles that might be fartlek, hills, threshold, intervals—up to 10 x mile. Otherwise, her training was an hour a day. “There were no naps,” she laughed. “No stretching or foam rolling. When I walked in the door, running was over.”

Her Olympic Trials memories are tied to the baby that came before. Second child Dan was the year of getting back to running too soon—two-and-a-half weeks after a C-section. Third baby, Laura, was only four months old at the 1992 Trials, memorable for the highly unlikely circumstances—she was breastfeeding and got her period.  “I strapped two tampons to my water bottle with a hair binder, and handed it to the guy managing the drinks table,” Docherty says. “Another nursing mom and I were dead last for the first three miles. It was a humbling experience, let me tell you. It was really hot that day, and we kept moving up—I ended up 54th!”

The 41-year-old mother of four qualified in 1999 with a stellar 2:42:06, but two weeks before the 2000 Olympic Marathon Trials, fell and cracked a rib. She completed Columbia’s hot, hilly OT course in 2:59.

And 2004? “We figured it might be my last one, so all my family and every one of my siblings was there. I’m really proud of that 2:52 because I’d qualified only two months earlier with a 2:46. I was 46, and I was tired.”

Bev Docherty with son Dan
Bev Docherty with son Dan Docherty, who will run at the 2020 Olympic Trials Marathon in Atlanta.

Saying the Docherty children— Jenny (1987), Dan (1989), Laura (1991), and Kevin (1995)—were influenced by their mom’s running is like saying William Faulkner was influenced by the South. Long runs were the reason for weekends. Fartleks, track sessions, build-ups, tapering—running was the background music of their lives. 

Dan was 14 years old at the 2004 Olympic Trials in St. Louis, his mom’s last OT race. “She started way at the back of the pack,” he remembered. “But she moved up throughout the race. For the first time, I really saw how in tune she was with what she could do, her ability to focus on her own goals. To see how she was able to focus on her own goals, that rubbed off on me.” 

Throughout her entire running career, Docherty never had much time for experimentation: If something worked, she kept doing it. At 50, her training was going really well—so well, that in 2008 she quietly determined to give the Olympic Trials another go. She flew to the Virginia Beach Marathon over spring break; Jim drove with all the kids. Of course, she hadn’t told anyone. “Come on— a 50-year-old woman?” she thought. 

Dan, now a pro with Minnesota Distance Elite, filled in the narrative from that race. “It was probably an illegal move, I didn’t clear it with race organizers,” he laughed. “We were biking alongside my mom, and there was a strong headwind. I was a high school senior, so 6-minute pace was not too hard. I jumped in around 10K and ran ahead of her to break the wind. We thought if she could get to halfway, she might find a second wind.”

Docherty bowed out of the race, and the family carried on with their vacation, but they recognized what had happened—the torch had been passed. As they have many times of the past 20 years, the Docherty tribe, relatives and friends will be in Atlanta for the 2020 Olympic Trials Marathon, this time to cheer for Dan.

“That changing of the guard from me to Danny, well, it was a sweet thing for him to do, for one thing,” Docherty said. “It couldn’t have ended better for me. With a start for him.”

Head over to Podium Runner to read more about what Dan Docherty learned from his mother Bev as he carries on the family legacy this month in Atlanta.