A Different Kind of Road to Rio

It was exactly 20 years ago this summer that I inadvertently made a life-changing decision. Like most choices of that sort, when you’re young and blissfully unaware of the long-term repercussions of you choices, I had no idea it would lead anywhere in particular.

I arrived in Washington, D.C., for a summer reporting internship with U.S. News & World Report, back when a weekly news magazine was an actual thing you received in your mailbox and read devoutly. I moved into a Foggy Bottom house with six other unpaid collegiate super stars with positions ranging from Clinton-Gore Re-elect (yup—I’m that old. Do the math…) to the D.C. district attorney’s office. And then there was me, who was absolutely positive I was destined to become the nation’s next ace political reporter.

In two weeks in D.C., I learned two things. First, how to walk to my office without getting lost. Second, that I was not made for politics. These are the reasons why one should always intern, kids—it’s just as valuable to understand what you don’t want to do as much as figuring out what you think you might want to spend you life pursuing.

As it happened, the Atlanta Summer Games were going on, too, and they needed help with the Olympics double issue. I was charged with researching the “unsung sports” of the Games—the off-beat, little-known events that nobody hears about except for a quick mention (and sometimes mockery) once every four years. This was before we had Google. I had to go to the library. And call people. ON THE PHONE. (Side note: I didn’t intend to make myself sound like I’m 100 years old in this post, but here we are.)

So I put my heart into doing whatever the associate editors wanted me to do. It was a group of guys who probably were not much older than me at the time, but because they had college degrees and proper full-time jobs, they somehow seemed more adult. After many late nights (and company-paid dinners, which are not to be undervalued when you spend three months doing a job for free), we closed the issue just in time to take our proper July Fourth holiday.

Like all good interns, we threw a party in our backyard with multiple kegs and no food, which ended in dozens not-sober 20somethings going to the midnight premiere of the movie Independence Day. By coincidence, guess who ended up in the row in back of me in that theater? A few not-sober U.S. News editors, who had truly done the hard part in putting that Olympics issue to bed. They started heckling me, whispering something about “an Erin Strout byline.”

Sure enough, when the magazine came off the press a day later, they had given me my first byline in a national publication. It was a complete surprise and a thrill. It stirred something inside, of course, though I ultimately took a long and twisted path to end up where I am.

Where am I, exactly? Currently, I’m sitting in the Houston airport about to board a plane bound for Rio de Janeiro to cover my first Olympics for Runner’s World. I think back 20 years ago and become acutely aware that had I not experienced that summer in D.C., I could well be on a plane bound for the next Donald Trump rally.

The Olympics may not be live up to the fantasy, I realize. A lot has changed—or at least been realized—since the days I wanted to be Mary Lou Retton. The Games claim to “contribute to a peaceful world” and the organization throws around ideals like the “spirit of friendship, solidarity, and fair play.” But there’s plenty of evidence to the contrary—doping, corruption at the highest levels, and Rio’s poorest population left devastatingly behind in the “movement,” just for starters. My Olympic spirit is alive, but tempered by the realities, too.

I hope to have the time (and energy) to document my own experiences here along the way. Follow along here and read our daily track and field coverage at Runnersworld.com. It all promises to be a big adventure.

With that, as they say, let the Games begin.

 

The Third Monday in April

Tomorrow, the sun will rise over Boston...this special place. This state of grace.
— Barack Obama, April 2013

The last time I watched the Boston Marathon from my couch, 2,552 miles away from the action, I screamed and cheered so loud that my dog cowered under the kitchen table until the entire ordeal was over.

It was 2011 and Desiree Linden was surging through the final miles, giving every U.S. distance-running fan a tease of what it might feel like for an American woman to win the coveted title for the first time since 1985. In front of the Walgreens on Boylston Street, Linden pushed to the lead for a few tantalizing steps, but Caroline Kilel, of Kenya, beat her to the tape just 300 or so meters later—by a mere two seconds. Two seconds.

Linden’s race was bold and fierce. Her grit that day has stuck with me—it epitomized what Boston is all about; everything a runner wants to be, illustrated.

You see, on the third Monday in April, every year since 1897—for better or worse—history is made. And, on the third Monday in April, there’s nowhere that feels more like home than Boston, Massachusetts.

It’s a four-day running family reunion, where a city embraces and uplifts a sport that otherwise gets little attention. A spot on the starting line is earned, and tradition is revered, and the 26.2 miles from Hopkinton to Copley Square is hallowed ground. To be part of this race is nothing short of magical. It’s the 120-year-old marathon that never gets old.

I ran my one-and-only Boston in 2010. At the time, it was my fastest 26.2 miles ever. And although I’ve surpassed that mark since, it remains my best marathon in ways that matter much more. It was the only one that I genuinely enjoyed from start to finish, that I executed nearly perfectly, that I fully absorbed all its prestige and legend and lore. I was the jerk who asked, “When do we get to Heartbreak Hill?” after we had already passed it.

The camaraderie, the boisterous spirit, the fellowship—the beer, the chowdah, and the lobstah rolls…I fell in love. The city and the marathon have officially owned a meaningful piece of me ever since.

In more recent years, I’ve attended Boston as a reporter. I experienced the horrific events of 2013 in the company of colleagues, friends, athletes, and race officials. And like all of them, I was wrecked and devastated in a way that still defies words.

“You will run again. Because that’s what the people of Boston are made of,” Barack Obama said, in the days after those bombs went off.

He was, of course, correct. Unfathomable grief gradually gave way to resolve. And suddenly everybody wanted a chance to reclaim Boylston Street in his or her own triumph and celebration.

No less determined was Shalane Flanagan, Boston’s hometown girl whose mission became giving her city something to cheer about. Her preparation for that 2014 race was meticulous—I had the fortune to witness snapshots of it in Flagstaff along the way. Her desire was electrifying. And while she didn’t win that day, she played a critical part in bringing Boston back and giving the running community hope.

Reporting a feature on Shalane Flanagan's preparation for the 2014 Boston Marathon. (Photo by Steve Flanagan)

Reporting a feature on Shalane Flanagan's preparation for the 2014 Boston Marathon. (Photo by Steve Flanagan)

It turned out to be Meb’s big day, of course. For all the darkness, terror, and heartbreak of the year before, there was awe and laughter and somewhat restrained (objective, journalism-style) jubilation. A man who few had talked about as a podium contender became the first American to win in 31 years, with the names of those who had died in the bombings written on his bib. What more could a room full of sports reporters hope for? The stories basically wrote themselves.

Perks of the press room? You get to greet the newly minted Boston Marathon champion—in 2014 it was Meb Keflezighi.

Perks of the press room? You get to greet the newly minted Boston Marathon champion—in 2014 it was Meb Keflezighi.

The event has come to represent so much more than running. Obama called it “a 26.2 mile test of dedication, and grit, and the human spirit.”

“There’s a piece of Boston in all of us,” he said.

Tomorrow, another Marathon Monday is upon us. And although I’ll be watching from thousands of miles away, I’ll hold my piece of Boston close. On every third Monday in April, it will always feel like home.