Soldotna’s Youngren qualifies for US Olympic marathon trials

Megan Youngren’s watch wasn’t working Sunday. Her will was.

Despite a malfunctioning timepiece that left her without a true idea of her pace throughout the race, Youngren, 28, qualified for the U.S. Olympic Trials for marathon by clocking 2 hours, 43 minutes, 52 seconds, at the California International Marathon in Sacramento, California.

The effort put Youngren comfortably under the “B” qualifying standard of 2:45:00, gaining her entrance to the trials on Feb. 29, 2020, in Atlanta.

The CIM put two athletes with strong Kenai Peninsula ties among the best Alaska women marathoners ever.

According to a list compiled by the Alaska Sports Hall of Fame, Youngren is now fourth on the all-time list of Alaska women’s marathon times, which is topped by the 2:31:35 Chris Clark ran at the 2000 Summer Olympics. The runner must have grown up in Alaska or have been living in Alaska when running the fast marathon.

Anchorage’s Julianne Dickerson, who was raised in Kenai, finished 119th among women at 2:49:52, averaging 6:29 per mile. That effort put her ninth on the all-time Alaska list.

“I’m still kind of shocked,” Youngren said in a cellphone interview Monday. “I haven’t even fully processed it yet. I can’t believe it worked.

“It was a really hard race from the beginning and it never got any easier. I felt like for most of it, there was a chance I would fall apart. It was one of those races where I left everything on the course.”

According to Matias Saari of the Alaska Sports Hall of Fame, Youngren is the fifth Alaskan to qualify for the upcoming marathon trials. Also going are Anchorage’s Anna Dalton, Fairbanks’ Keri McEntee, Anchorage’s Aaron Fletcher and Tony Tomsich, formerly of Fairbanks.

The California International Marathon, a fast course that draws fast runners, is considered an ideal place to run a fast marathon. Youngren, averaging 6:15 per mile, finished 40th among women, with California’s Jane Kibii taking the victory at 2:29:31.

Going into the race, Youngren had heard how fast the CIM course was. She found out quickly that a marathon under 2:45 is going to hurt, no matter where it is done.

“Every elevation graph shows it downhill from start to finish,” Youngren said. “There was only one spot where I felt like it was a true downhill, where it felt like my legs were getting a rest. Every other part of it was uphill or flat.”

Youngren was not getting accurate splits off her watch at the beginning of the race and later learned she went out at a pace that would have given her a 2:40 marathon. There was a pace group for a 2:45 marathon, but there were so many fast runners Youngren wasn’t sure where that pace group was.

“I always had roughly an idea of how fast I was going and where I was at,” Youngren said. “Luckily, I have a thing on my foot that tells me how much power I’m putting out, and I knew my target for the race. I ended up going off that and it was great.”

There were still lingering doubts. With about four miles to go, a couple of guys passed Youngren and she asked them if they were part of the 2:45 group.

One initially said, “Yes,” inducing panic, because Youngren knew she couldn’t hold that pace. Then the two corrected themselves and said the 2:45 group was about a minute behind. That gave Youngren a nice mental boost.

“I was in so much pain for the whole race,” she said. “It was just me and the road and some people around me.”

Running on the edge, Youngren wrote in a Reddit race report that it didn’t help that so many started dropping from the marathon after mile 18. CIM is the place to get a PR, and for many it’s PR or bust.

Youngren always thought she had a sub-2:45 in her, but she’d gone into two previous marathons this year thinking the same thing and failed to qualify. In another marathon, she thought she had at least a shot and failed.

“I made it through this one,” she said. “It’s a sense of relief more than celebration.”

Youngren said the qualifying time is more about the journey that got her here than the Atlanta destination.

“I started from nothing five years ago and trained to get to this point,” she said. “It’s not like I went from zero to here, but it was a long process.

“I got more organized and read more, talked to people and honed everything in.”

During the winter of 2018-19, Youngren put in a solid training cycle then ran 3:06:42 at the Los Angeles Marathon in March. That went so well Youngren started to wonder whether it was possible to qualify for the trials.

Now that she’s done it, she must figure out a way to train for a February marathon — a marathon for which the Atlanta Track Club will pay some of her travel costs.

“I’m going to run Ski Hill Road a lot,” she said. “I don’t like the treadmill at all. Things hurt that should not hurt.”

Youngren said the Atlanta course has rolling hills that make it difficult, but Youngren’s regular training ground of Tsalteshi Trails should make that palatable, although Tsalteshi is not available in the winter. She has no illusions about finishing in the top three and making the Olympics.

“2:44 exactly is the goal,” she said. “It’s like when people qualify for (the Boston Marathon). That’s the hard part and Boston itself is the victory lap. I don’t have thoughts of the top three, I’m going to do the best I can and have fun.

“The whole thing is more about the journey than the destination and that’s why I have a weird feeling now.”

After the trails, Youngren will move her focus from pavement marathons to things more in her wheelhouse, like ultramarathons and trail races.

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