At the 2018 Grandma’s Marathon in Duluth, Minnesota, Caitlyn Tateishi wasn’t supposed to qualify for the 2020 U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials. It wasn’t that she wasn’t training for sub 2:45 finish. She planned the June race as a tune-up, a chance to run fast and earn a spot in the elite field at the California International Marathon later that year, her real goal race.
But as she started clicking off miles, the past six months of training fell into place. Everything felt really good. The 33-year old runner from Washington, D.C. crossed the finish line in 2:43:39 and burst into happy tears.
Still, she thought it was a fluke.
“For a long time, I didn’t give myself a chance to feel like I could be good,” Tateishi tells Women’s Running during a phone interview. Growing up in Pahoa, Hawaii on the Big Island, her running career started inauspiciously as a sprinter in middle school. “I wasn’t fast. I lost all the time,” she says. “But I loved it.”
It wasn’t until high school that Tateishi realized she was better suited for longer distances.
While she loved being part of the team, she assumed she wasn’t cut out for collegiate running. She didn’t know anyone who planned on continuing to compete in college. Plus, Tateishi says she intimidated by athletes on the mainland.
“Growing up in Hawaii, there’s a lot of diversity but everyone I saw running on the mainland didn’t look like me. I thought since I didn’t look like anyone who was fast that I wasn’t going to be fast,” she says. “You have to put more energy into believing you can do it. When you see yourself represented, you believe it faster.”
With some encouragement, Tateishi went on to run cross-country and track at Pacific University in Oregon, a Division III school. When she graduated, she left running behind too.
It was several years later in Africa that Tateishi found her way back to running. She had been lacing up her sneakers for fun during her Peace Corps service in Zambia. Then, she read the book Born to Run and began to wonder if she could run an ultra.
She and a fellow Peace Corp member designed their own endurance test, covering approximately 40 miles from their village to the provincial capital. They set off in the early morning under a starry sky. Along the way, children ran up and said hi. When women passed them on the road, Tateishi heard them say, “They’re strong.”
When they arrived at the capital, Tateishi was hooked.
As Tateishi returned to running, she shied away from big goals. “I remember putting unnecessary pressure on myself and not meeting my goals in college,” she says. She stuck with ultra distances where she could push herself without the weight of expectations dragging her down. “With a 50 miler, I didn’t know what was a good time. It was just about seeing if I could finish,” she says.
In 2015, she set her sights on the marathon and her success at the distance—including winning the 2016 Baltimore marathon—led to dreams of snagging an Olympic Trials-qualifying time. “I saw these women on social media who have full-time jobs, who are mothers, who maybe didn’t start off super fast and were able to work hard and get faster,” she says. “I felt like maybe I could do that. Why not try?”
On a white board at work, Tateishi has a countdown to February 29, 2020.
She runs in the morning, before heading to her job as a legal operations business analyst at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in Chevy Chase, MD. Her training peaked at just over 100 miles a week. She runs hills in northwest D.C. to prep for Atlanta’s hilly course and credits her Wednesday morning workouts with the “Track Pack” for helping find her speedy gear.
“I thought my best running days were over after college,” she says. “It’s a great time to be part of the running community.”