As the indoor collegiate track and field season was wrapping up in early March, Soldotna’s Allie Ostrander was preparing to embark on one of the most exciting times of her life.
Having set a time faster than the United States Olympic Trials qualifying standard in the women’s 5,000 meters on Jan. 30 — a mark of 15 minutes, 21.85 seconds, more than three seconds under the bar — Ostrander was preparing to live out a dream that many hold but most do not attain — a chance at the Olympics.
However, that dream took a devastating blow March 11 in Birmingham, Alabama, when the Boise State freshman toed the starting line at the women’s 5,000 meters at the NCAA Division I Indoor Track and Field Championships. Past the halfway point, the 2015 Kenai Central High School graduate was trailing the pack farther than her liking, and a familiar pain began to creep in.
“It just didn’t feel right … it didn’t feel like myself running,” Ostrander said via phone from Boise, Idaho. “I kept thinking the only way to feel normal again would be to stop running.”
Ostrander was forced to retire from the race, stepping off the track two-thirds of the way through with knee pain.
“It was really hard to pull out, especially because I had been feeling so strong up until that point,” she said.
The internet coverage of the race on ESPN3 explained the three-time Alaska state cross-country champ and Nike Cross nationals winner had entered the weekend with no training in the previous two weeks, and was essentially running cold.
“It was sad to not finish,” she said. “It was definitely a character-building experience.”
After indoor nationals, Ostrander took a week off, but the pain still lingered, so she decided it was time for an X-ray.
That’s when the troubling news hit. She was diagnosed with a fractured tibia, in addition to the lingering bout of tendinitis with which she was already dealing. At the time of the discovery, the stress fracture was already six weeks old, giving the running phenom a longer road to recovery.
“I didn’t realize it was a skeletal issue and tried training on it,” said Ostrander, who managed to keep an optimistic attitude about the ordeal. “I know now that ibuprofen does not heal bones.”
Now, finally back to full strength, Ostrander will be facing the steepest challenge of her life against the fastest women in the nation. Ostrander officially declared her intent to run at the Olympic Trials on June 27, and will be skipping the famed Mount Marathon race in Seward over the Fourth of July holiday in anticipation of a rocket run on July 7 in Eugene, Oregon. The first preliminary will be July 7 while the final is set for July 10, and both will be included in NBCSN’s ongoing Olympic coverage.
Following her sensational debut performance at the 5,000 meters in January, the trials run was previously in doubt due to her injury, but a careful build back to full health with the help of underwater treadmill, bicycling and other cross-training exercises gave Ostrander the confidence to make the decision she could not pass up.
“The last two or three weeks, I’ve had no pain at all,” she said.
However, the odds are stacked against her with a field that will have miles of experience at the 5,000-meter level.
Consider this. As the lone college runner in the women’s 5,000 meters, Ostrander is hoping to grab one of only three guaranteed spots to Rio de Janeiro for a race that she has only completed once in her life, and never before on a standard, outdoor, 400-meter track.
After her 15:21 debut, Ostrander got about 10 minutes into the Division I Indoor championship event in March before she bowed out. Both races were held on indoor tracks.
The thought of an athlete being qualified for the Olympic trials in an event that they have previously completed once is staggering, but the unassuming and mild-mannered Ostrander does not feel the pressure.
“Usually the strategy for any longer race is sit with the pack until some move is made, but it’s hard to say,” she said. “It’s just instinctual, it’s based off of how you feel.”
Having the opportunity to race with her sister, Taylor, and parents, Paul and Teri, to see it in person is an added bonus. Ostrander also credited the support of her coaches, Cory Ihmels and Travis Hartke, with helping her get back to full speed.
“Having this injury has helped put things in perspective,” she said. “It’s just great to have the opportunity to be there on the start line with no expectations and just get a good experience.”
Missing the outdoor track season was a difficult pill to swallow for the ultracompetitive Ostrander, but as a freshman with many bright years ahead of her, Thursday could be just the beginning.
“There were times I considered not running (the trials), and it just kept coming back to having frustrations with where I was at,” she said. “In the end, it was impossible to say no to it because I know I earned the right to be there and it’s the Olympic trials.”