A race that Soldotna’s Megan Youngren, 28, once described as a victory lap now is being viewed as a chance for the race of her life.
On Dec. 8, Youngren qualified for the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials by running 2 hours, 43 minutes, 52 seconds, at the California International Marathon in Sacramento, California. The “B” qualifying standard for the trials is 2:45:00 — a time that was hit by 511 women from across the United States.
After the CIM, Youngren said she viewed the trials, which are Saturday in Atlanta starting at 8 a.m. AKST, as a victory lap — a chance to race hard and have fun.
After putting in a tough training cycle on slippery roads and in frigid temperatures, Youngren is ready to call the trials more than a victory lap, though she doesn’t give herself a chance of finishing in the top three and making the Olympics.
“It’ll be the best race I’ve ever run if I do it right,” Youngren said. “I’m super excited to run hard and see what I gained over this cycle. I’m not saying it’ll be my fastest race because it’ll be a really hard course.”
Youngren also has gotten national attention for being the first openly transgender woman to compete at the trials. Youngren, who began transitioning in 2011, said being the first openly transgender woman to compete at the trials is not what’s driven her through training cycle after training cycle, but the distinction also is not something from which she’s backing down.
“I didn’t set out to be the face of this,” she said. “I think the direct quote I’ve given is, ‘I don’t want the next person to take the magnitude of crap I deal with.’ I credit the people who’ve come out before me for making this not so bad for me.”
Youngren sees her story as a running story — she got hooked on running as a way to take off weight and deal with shingles, put in a ton of miles and study, came up with the crazy idea to make the trials, and somehow pulled it off.
After a few years of running to lose weight, Youngren said she felt good enough in 2016 that she could go out and start running hard. She said that solidified in 2017.
She also found running to be the best way of dealing with shingles, a viral infection that causes a painful rash. Youngren said her doctor has told her there’s always a chance the painful rash can come back.
“Running is the best way of coping with it,” she said. “I’m driven to work hard because of that. I don’t get to take time off.”
By 2018, Youngren was tracking her runs and getting serious, but she still had no coach.
“It started to become a thing,” she said. “I went out and read books on marathon training. I found out what you’re supposed to do, instead of what’s fun, and started incorporating some of that.”
Youngren then made a big jump in the winter of 2018-19. As a runner who hates to set foot on a treadmill, she had been struggling with how to handle the long winter months. She’d tried skiing, but always lost fitness as the snow conditions waxed and waned.
Mainly using Ski Hill Road in Soldotna, Youngren put together a solid winter training cycle.
“Last winter, I came out of January and made big gains instead of trying to hold on to the fitness I’d had in December,” she said.
Youngren then ran 3:06:42 at the Los Angeles Marathon in March. She thought she could go a lot faster and, even though her first love is running trails and mountains, hatched the idea of running a fast enough road marathon to qualify for the trials.
An intense year of training followed. Youngren said she did 11 runs last year of 26 miles or longer, some official marathons and some not. She said she was not faithfully logging some of her runs early in 2019, but still managed to officially log 2,400 miles.
Those were not easy miles. Many came at the hilly Tsalteshi Trails just outside of Soldotna, which explains why the social media site Strava says Youngren gained and lost just over 174,000 feet during her runs last year.
A month before she qualified at CIM, Yougren ran 27 miles at Tsalteshi at a pace of 7:30 a mile.
Youngren was asked about her quick rise in marathoning and laughed.
“I don’t see it like that,” she said. “I’ve been working this hard a really long time, and I did something that showed it.
“Seeing a bunch of positive results has been great and insane, but it’s also just a product of having my nose to the grindstone for a really long time.”
Youngren has kept her nose to the grindstone, and her feet off a treadmill, in preparing for Atlanta.
“I really don’t like the treadmill and this tested my resolve,” Youngren said of the winter. “For most of January and part of February, I thought, ‘Wow, this is going to be really bad if I have to stop my long run. It’d be a survival situation. I don’t wear enough layers to stay safe.’”
Youngren said she would plan routes so she’d always be near enough to her car, her house or a friend’s house. The toughest run she did in the elements was a 22-miler that started with temperatures 15 below.
While this training cycle has been tough, Youngren said it has been made less stressful because she hired a coach.
“I know days ahead what I’m going to be doing, so I steel myself for it and prepare for it,” she said. “I don’t know that I’d appreciate it as much if I hadn’t been on my own for such a long time.
“I’m looking forward to this from here on out. When I’m not dealing with snow, I can really start pushing.”
This is the first time Youngren hasn’t done a marathon in training in the weeks leading up to the actual marathon.
“It’s the smart thing to do, but it leaves me feeling less prepared,” she said. “I feel better today than before other races I’ve done and that’s because I didn’t do anything crazy this cycle.”
In addition to the training cycle, Youngren’s knowledge of the course and a forecast for temperatures in the mid-40s have her feeling good.
She said the Atlanta course has 1,400 feet of loss and gain, which she said is significant. Youngren said she’s done a number of marathons that felt hilly that had about 1,000 feet of gain and loss. The notoriously tough Equinox Marathon in Fairbanks has about 3,200 feet of gain and loss.
“I’ve done more preparation for this course than any other race I’ve done, aside from maybe the Equinox,” Youngren said.
That preparation has led her to expect to run slower than the 2:43:52 at CIM, which is considered a fast course.
“My best estimate is hopefully below 2:45, but maybe as slow as 2:46,” Youngren said. “I wouldn’t be at all sad to run 2:46. That’s screaming fast on that course.”
After the trials, Youngren will take some down time, though her goal is still to run 3,600 miles this year, 470 of which are already behind her on the roads. She has plans to pace a friend for the Boston Marathon, the Mayor’s Marathon and the Res Pass 50-miler. She will run a 50-miler on Tsalteshi just to do it.
She will also put a great deal of focus on the Equinox, a race she’s long wanted to get right.
“My coach asked me to choose just a couple of races to focus on this year,” Youngren said.