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What It Feels Like to Qualify for Olympic Trials at Your First Marathon

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Kimberly Maloney was never going to run a marathon.

The 2012 Clemson graduate had always favored shorter distances like 10Ks and half marathons.

“I never wanted to do a marathon because it’s a distance you have to really want to do, and I just don’t have that fire right now,” said Maloney, 30, recently married and a full-time project manager at UNC Chapel Hill. 

But her teammates on Raleigh Distance Project were persistent. They wanted Maloney to join a few of them at the Houston Marathon. They saw her potential in their weekly long runs and knew she could do it. Eventually, she had to ask herself why she kept saying no.

“I had to be honest with myselfit was for no good reason,” she said. “I was scared of the distance. I had never done the training, just a lot of doubt and fear of not finishing.”

Then she started thinking about the reasons it would be a good idea: “It just all feels like a very rare opportunity, I think it’s one that might never come around again,” she said. “I have a coach; I have an incredible support group who have also done the marathon; it’s the last chance to qualify for the Olympic Trials and represent our team. When I started thinking about that I started to get more excited for the opportunity and the challenge.”

On January 19, Maloney finished the 2020 Houston Marathon—her debut at the 26.2-mile distance—as the 4th American woman with a time of 2:43:01, qualifying her for the Olympic Marathon Trials on February 29 in Atlanta. 

Maloney spoke to Women’s Running following the race. Here’s what she had to say about her experience, and how she plans to moves forward after such a huge accomplishment.  

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Wow, still surreal!! The past 2 months since @timmeigs and @shaebae_runs convinced me to run my first marathon and try for an OTQ have been a blur. The @raleighdistanceproject + @sjfurst + @baskingsunbear + #trianglewest injected confidence and encouragement into my veins and the excitement and anticipation was palpable. It felt like my @clemsontrackxc days when you have to perform on one day and have only one opportunity to progress to the next level race. The @chevronhoustonmarathon was incredible, the pacer @rjp1210 was perfect and the pack was powerful. Everything about my first marathon makes me understand why people love this race so much. I wouldn't call myself a marathoner just yet but this one (& the trials!) definitley won't be my last. . . #chevronhoustonmarathon #OTQ #Olympictrials #atlanta2020trials #marathon #raleighdistanceproject #oiselle #919spine #sothankful #race #raceday

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How did the day feel? Did the race go according to plan?

“I was very excited to race—more than usual. I felt ready and antsy to get on the line. 

The race did go according to plan, but I also think “ignorance is bliss” played a big role. I had no prior experience to hang anything on, so all I could go off was our plan—which, in a nutshell was to do what was minimally sufficient to qualify, with a 2:45:00 or faster. I was to focus on: 1. Fueling, 2. Being patient, and 3. Not panicking. Also, everyone told me mile 20 is when the race really starts so I told myself I was not going to do anything risky until after mile 20. When mile 20 came around, I felt really good so I dropped the pace and pushed the last 5-6 miles. I negative split by two minutes!” 

Has your mind changed around the marathon distance? 

“My mind has definitely changed about the marathon. I can’t remember the last time I had that much fun in a race! 

I was ecstatic afterward. It was so fun to share the experience with people I’m close with and finish the plan we started two months ago. Rita got a two-minute PR and another girl from Chapel Hill who I’m close with also OTQ’ed with me. All I could think was ‘we did it!!!’ I was proud of myself for facing my fears of embarking on this journey, and proud that I finished what we started (and knocked it out of the ballpark!).

I think I inspired friends and family back home, and I know I believe in myself a lot more than I did before committing to this journey. I don’t know if I can really call myself a marathoner, but I can see myself moving in that direction.” 

How are you feeling physically? What will your recovery plan look like over the next few weeks to get ready for Atlanta? 

“Monday and Tuesday [after the race] were pretty rough. Getting up and down stairs was really hard and my legs were super achy. I did aqua jogging on Tuesday, a short run on Wednesday, and by Thursday my legs were starting to feel a lot better. 

I’m hopeful that since my effort during the marathon wasn’t maxed out or strained that the recovery period will be shorter. I have another marathon in five weeks so there isn’t time to slow down!  

This week will be really low key, with a few days of light jogging, a few days of swimming, and a few days off. I will do some strength circuits too, probably three to four 30-minute sessions a week to maintain some muscular strength. 

Over the next few weeks, I will start to run more consecutive days and slowly ramp my mileage back up. I think by week 3 and 4, I’ll be able to sprinkle in some workouts and marathon long runs (around 20-23 miles) if I’m feeling fully recovered. Then it’s going to be taper week and the marathon will be here before I know it! 

Even though it’s a short turn around, I’m encouraged because I know my fitness is high right now, the race wasn’t too taxing, and I’m already starting to feel good again. I think the most important thing for me over the next five weeks is to get really good sleep and healthy nutrition so I can max out my ability to recover and get back to harder training.” 

[Click here to read more about the Raleigh Distance Project, and the running community they’re building in Raleigh, North Carolina.]