When Molly Friel was a high school runner, competing in the Olympic Marathon Team Trials wasn’t even on her radar.
Like many former high school athletes, the northeast Fresno runner stopped competing in college. She started running again in her mid-20s, she said, after falling in love with a boy from a big Italian family.
“I put on some weight, so what do you do?” she asked. “You go back to what you know best.”
At the time, Friel lived in Tucson, Arizona. She began working out with a running group whose members, she said, were always chasing the next challenge, a new personal record or race to qualify for.
For many distance runners, qualifying to run the Boston Marathon is the pinnacle of running achievements. Friel realized shooting for Boston might be selling herself short when a fellow runner suggested she might be fast enough to run in the Olympic Marathon Team Trials.
Friel eventually qualified for and ran in the 2004 Olympic Marathon Team Trials, held in St. Louis, Missouri, where she placed 87th out of a field of 107 elite runners.
“I started back running in my mid-20s and ran the Olympic [Marathon Team] Trials when I was 36,” Friel said. “It took me a good ten years to find the groove, I guess.”
Friel didn’t return to the Olympic Marathon Team Trials in 2008 or 2012 — “life happens,” she said.
She relocated to Fresno, ended a relationship and battled various injuries. Now, at age 48, Friel is preparing to make her second trip to the Olympic Marathon Team Trials.
“Back in 2013,” she said, “I started training again, started training hard and running a lot farther and racing better, racing faster. I think with age you know what kind of works, what doesn’t work. It kind of takes a long time for some people to figure that out; me in particular.”
Although she’s affiliated with the Sacramento-based SRA Elite training team, Fresno and surrounding areas are Friel’s main training grounds. Multi-use trails like the Eaton Trail, which is accessed from Woodward Park, are preferred over off-road trails with challenging terrain.
“I’d like to say I was a trail runner and I run in these beautiful, gorgeous places,” she laughed, “but I’m a total road runner. I could trip over a twig if it’s in my way and I’ll be down on the ground.”
To prepare for the 2016 Olympic Marathon Team Trials, she has been putting in three to four high-mileage long runs (between 12 and 18 miles) and two speed workouts each week. She frequently runs with one of her Dalmatians for companionship.
Runners qualified for the Olympic Marathon Team Trials by meeting the time standard in either the marathon (26.2 miles) or half marathon (13.1 miles) distance within the qualifying window (Aug. 1, 2013 to Jan. 17, 2016).
Friel posted a time of 2:41:30 at California International Marathon in 2014.
Friel has suffered health setbacks since then — hamstring problems she developed after the Twin Cities Marathon in October and a foot injury incurred after a fall off a wet curb — but she still plans to travel to Los Angeles for the Feb. 13 race.
“I’m just trying to keep moving forward,” she said. “I think if training had gone differently, I’d like to run a 2:40:00 or sub-2:40:00. I’d be hesitant to say it’s going to happen at the Trials or in February. I think it’s going to happen this year, I just don’t see it happening right now. I think right now it’s just to enjoy the experience ... it’s just another day, just another run.”
“It’s been a different experience,” she added, comparing the lead-up to the 2004 Olympic Marathon Team Trials. “I didn’t really know anybody. There was another girl from Tucson who I knew. I remember sitting next to Deena Kastor (who went on to win the bronze medal in the 2004 Olympic Marathon) putting water bottles together and was like, ‘Oh my gosh, this is so cool.’”
This time, Friel will be competing against runners she considers part of her extended running family. SRA Elite has produced a few qualifiers.
Oiselle (pronounced “wa-zelle”), the women’s athletic apparel company that sponsors Friel and other elite-level runners, will also see several of its athletes competing. Friel knows many of them, mostly through social media. She’s active on Twitter, where Oiselle athletes routinely encourage each other and share motivational inspiration.
“You have to have this whole social media presence,” she said. “It’s weird on the one hand, it’s cool on the other. [I’m] talking with people who I think, my gosh, I would never have thought a year ago I’d be talking to. But you never meet them, that’s the interesting part.”
With the 2016 Olympic Marathon Team Trials being held in L.A., she will have the support of family and friends from California and Arizona.
“This just seems a lot more special,” she said. “With the Oiselle group it’s kind of like the mini family’s going to be there, I have friends who are going to go watch. Then, I still didn’t understand what the whole thing meant. Now, it’s cool I actually did this again.”
NBC will air coverage of the 2016 men’s and women’s Olympic Marathon Team Trials at 10 a.m., Saturday, Feb. 13. It will also stream live on NBC Sports Live Extra.