Six years ago, if someone told Grace Gonzales that she would be running at an elite level and preparing for the 2020 U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials in Atlanta later this month, she would have laughed. 

She thought her competitive running days were over after graduating from Cal State Fullerton. At the tail end of her collegiate career, she sustained her first injury and couldn’t bounce back. So, she hung up her running shoes and pursued a graduate degree in teaching. 

But after a six-year hiatus from serious training, Gonzales noticed her drive to challenge herself began to resurface. She missed waking up at 6am for long runs. “I realized how much I enjoy it. It’s more than a sport. It’s a way of life,” she tells Women’s Running in a phone interview. 

In 2017, Gonzales committed to her comeback. She began setting goals for herself. Things kept clicking, so she kept setting new ones. She continued to show up for herself all while working full-time as a primary school teacher, and logging training runs regularly at 4:30am.

With each training cycle, Gonzales began to understand the training process better and what works best for her. After only two years back to competitive running, she earned her Olympic Trials-qualifying (OTQ) time. She finished the 2018 California International Marathon in 2:41:56, a moment she describes as “pure bliss.”

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It’s more than just competing that drives Gonzales, who was raised in Chino, California. Gonzales, now 30, grew up watching her father prepare for the LA Marathon, which he has run every year since it began in 1986.

“We’ve all jumped in and out of [the race] growing up. My first marathon was in the fourth grade. There were no age restrictions back then,” she says, laughing. “It’s a family tradition and a life experience.” The yearly ritual showed her the value of committing to something you love and marveling at what your body can do. 

Lacing up and placing one foot in front of the other is also a way for Gonzales to unite with her culture and roots too. “As an indigenous person, running was introduced to me as a form of prayer and community,” she says. “It’s always been a balance of something that’s competitive and something that’s meditation.”

Every run has a spiritual aspect for Gonzales. It’s a form of connection—to the environment and landscape when she moves along river trails, to community from the ripple effect of people coming together to run, and to herself when she tunes into her breath.

“You have these thoughts, which in a sense hold power and prayer. That gets reflected in how you’re running,” she says. 

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Counting down & Building up . . When I think about what got me to this point, it has been continuously showing up in life through the highs and lows, being brave/taking risks, and being open to possibilities. . . Of course accompanied by unconditional support of family & friends. . . 100 days until Olympic Trials . #2020olympictrials #olympicmarathontrials #nativewomenrunning #adrenalinerunning #tracksmith #tracksmithrunning #mybestself #showupforyourself

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Recently, Gonzales stepped back from full-time teaching. She still teaches part-time and is working to bring yoga to community spaces and into the education system. 

In the past, Gonzales has trained alone, but she moved back to Chino a year ago, which she says it’s a more supportive environment for her and she gets to run with other women who will be competing in Atlanta. She still logs miles early in the morning and feels like she’s peaking just at the right time. 

And her coach Andres De La Cruz thinks she’s ready. “Grace has overcome many obstacles while preparing for the Olympic Trials and each obstacle has made her stronger and more prepared,” he says.

“I’m showing up for myself [in Atlanta],” she says.

Regardless of what happens, Gonzales will be back in LA the following weekend with her family for the LA Marathon—and likely running too.