76 Minutes in Jacksonville

Brianne Nelson with splits written on her hand
Post race, Brianne shows off a strong split plan, permanent marker completely smudged by the rain.

The plan was even 5:41 splits for 13.1 miles, delivering her pack as close to 1:14:30 as she could. If anyone could do it, it was Brianne Nelson, aka “the human metronome,” a woman reknowned for her even pacing. She’s also one of the few women for whom 5:41 pace is relatively pedestrian.

Brianne is also not someone who runs for glory; for her, it’s all about the pursuit of excellence.  Today it wasn’t even about the pursuit of her own, although getting in a good pre-trials half-marathon effort definitely helps her in that, today she braved chilly temperatures on the rainy streets of Jacksonville to lead others to excellence. Today it was about harnessing the Power of the Pack to help the 21 women who travelled to Jacksonville in hopes of qualifying for the Olympic Marathon Trials.

Did it work?

photographs by Kyle Gorjanc © 2016 Salty Running

Keeping warm in the chill at a rainy start. Left to Right: Rosie Edwards, Keely Maguire, Brianne Nelson and Esther Atkins
Keeping warm at the wet and chilly start. Left to Right: Rosie Edwards, Keely Maguire, Brianne Nelson and Laurie Knowles
Caroline Williams ties her shoe
Caroline Williams checking her laces

Salty watches through the rain and darkness for the first sign of the elites

7:00 a.m. looked like midnight. The rain was on the heavy side and the reflection of the lights on the wet pavement looked like fireworks on the ground. I crouched in the road waiting for the runners to come toward me. Behind several rows of men were those 21 women ready to push themselves to their limits for 13.1 miles, to cling to their pacer and earn entry to the Olympic Trials Marathon.  A feat which, in itself, is the goal for most amateur runners who qualify.

It was thirty seconds into the race, and it was electrifying.

Brianne and her pack just after the 5k mark
The 1:15 pace group emerges from the dark just after the 5k mark. From left: Nicole DiMercurio, Esther Atkins, Dylan Hassett, Brianne Nelson, Olivia Mickle, Bethany Sachtleben, Sara Slattery

The JAX Half elite race was a labor of love. Runners from all over the country paid their own way to Florida and the elite coordinator, Richard Fannin chipped in money from his own pocket to make it all happen. Resources were limited and, like at many races in this situation, there was only one press vehicle and it was in front of the men. That meant it was up to us to get the photos and video footage of the women, and with just two of us, our focus had to be on the finish.

We saw the huge pack of women all surrounding Brianne roar by shortly after the 5k: those a little more ambitious, the tight hub in the center, and those running a little more conservatively. We got a few shots, and in moments, they were gone. After that it was all about getting to that finish to see the magic.

I found a veteran sports photographer named Gary behind a barricade right behind the finish. He clearly knew what he was doing and was kind enough to allow me to scoot in next to him, which gave me a great shot and an earful of great advice. It also gave me a chance to explain to him what shots he would want, since this race wasn’t about who came in first, second, and third. The stakes were different and with luck, there would be many more winners than three men and three women.

Salty with photographer Gary McCullough
Salty with photographer Gary McCullough

Just past an hour we were signaled that the men were coming. They started filing in, 1:02, 1:03 and then we saw the huge cloud of runners barreling around the track. “Move out of the way!” we yelled to the volunteers ready to hand out medals. 1:04. They fell in, like a pile, elated runner after elated runner. There were tears of joy, arms raised triumphantly, and hugs abounded. As the clock ticked past 1:05:00 more came through with sad eyes, some heaving, and some tears of disappointment. The heartbreak was heavy. The triumph was heavy too. And then both floated away in their mylar and it was quiet again.

A man finished here and then another there. Suddenly, like de ja vu, the crowd roared and we knew what was coming.

At 1:13:00 I readied the camera but it did me no good, since I threw my arms up in the air to cheer for Stephanie Dinius making a seemingly effortless stride to the finish in first place, followed by Esther Atkins with her trademark heart hand gesture, and Laurie Knowles right behind Esther. All three were already qualified. Within seconds, the first new OTQ, Keely Maguire, came through completely spent; within a few seconds exhaustion became relief and soon relief became celebration.

Esther Atkins, Laurie Knowles and Keely Nelson on the track
Esther splashes onto the track with Laurie Knowles and first time OTQ Keely Maguire on her heels
Dylan Hasset, Olivia Mickle and Erin Osment
Dylan Hasset, Olivia Mickle and Erin Osment, 200m away from becoming Qualifiers
Brianne Nelson, Karen Roa and Nicole diMercurio
Brianne shouting to Karen Roa and Nicole DiMercurio as she leads them in
Sara Slattery on the track
Sara Slattery, focused and giving it her all, with less than 200m to go
Zoila Gomez and Bethany Sachtelben Running on the track
Zoila Gomez barrels toward the finish with Bethany Sachtelben on her heels

1:14:00 Dylan Hasset was next, crossing the line with her first half marathon, a trials qualifier, and a sunny smile. After Dylan came Olivia Mickle, who knew she nailed it, a huge smile and the happiest eyes I have ever seen; she finally made it under the 1:15:00 standard! Right behind Olivia, Erin Osment logged a huge PR and seemed almost stunned and Tera Moody, one of Brianne’s fellow pacers, came in right behind Erin. Eleven seconds later came the fifth new qualifier, Ashley Brasovan, followed almost immediately by Brianne with the newly qualified Karen Roa and Nicole diMercurio with her. Inches from the finish line Karen and Brianne embraced in triumph and then Brianne hugged Nicole, who was clearly excited to qualify for the Olympic Trials in her first half and both Karen and Nicole obviously thankful for Brianne’s help in getting them there.

1:14:40 Bridget Lyons and Wendy Thomas, also pacers who were qualified coming into JAX, flew into the chute for solid pre-trials efforts. After Wendy, I looked up and saw Sara Slattery rounding the track toward the finish. I looked at the clock. 1:14:55, 1:14:56. Sara was working as hard as she could and the finish just wasn’t getting there fast enough, 1:14:57, 1:14:58, 1:14:59, No! No! 1:15:00 and she just wasn’t there.

Seven seconds. 1:15:07. Sara finished and slumped on the barricade, crushed.

1:15:20. Beth Herndon, another previously qualified runner improved her personal best, a brief happy moment, which quickly morphed into the bittersweet.

1:15:27. Twenty-seven seconds. Three years ago, she thought it was over, that she might never run again, let alone compete. But two-time Olympic trials qualifier and alternate to the 2008 U.S. Olympic Marathon team, Zoila Gomez, just missed making her third trials. After crossing the finish line she found new qualifiers and congratulated them and then turned around to congratulate 23 year-old Bethany Sachtelban who she’d pulled to a huge sub 1:16 PR.

These 76 minutes were the entire reason we came to Jacksonville. But they don’t even begin to cover the whole story.

Salty Running boss and mother of 3 little ones with PRs of 3:10:15 (26.2), 1:25:59 (13.1) and 18:15 (5k). I love to write about running culture, mental training, and fitting in a serious running habit with the rest of a busy life.

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  1. So exciting. Wish I could have witnessed this. I love how so many people came together to make this happen. Can’t wait to hear more!!!

  2. Salty and Cinnamon: Thank you for this breath-taking report. Felt like I was there (except not the wet part). This project was inspiring from its creation. Can’t wait to hear all the back stories.

  3. Congrats to all! Bri – what an awesome thing you did for these other women. Keep killin it! So excited for you and your family

  4. That was a fantastic report on a remarkable event! So cool you guys could go down! And congrats to all the new qualifiers!!