Vahe Gregorian

Olympic marathoner says the race may be lonely, but the training is all about teamwork

Amy Cragg (then Amy Hastings) crossed the finish line during the Chicago Marathon in 2014.
Amy Cragg (then Amy Hastings) crossed the finish line during the Chicago Marathon in 2014. The Associated Press

If Amy Hastings had had it her way growing up in Leavenworth, she probably would have dedicated herself to sports requiring a different skill set than running does.

Trouble was …

“I pretty much was terrible at all of them,” she said, laughing. “I loved being part of teams, but I was always the benchwarmer who would get, like, the ‘spark-plug’ award at the end of the season.”

So she was searching for something that suited her more in fifth grade when her father, Scott, a now-retired U.S. Navy lieutenant commander, took her to Fort Leavenworth to try a 5K run.

Even if she was “kind of annoyed” at him then, she still took it seriously.

That’s why by her recollection she finished second ... in a field that included adults and military officers.

It’s also why over the next few years, you might have seen her running a loop that took her around 20th Street or out along County Road 5 and about anywhere else you could think of.

“I’ve run every road in Leavenworth a million times,” she said, recalling long Sunday runs with friends as well as on her own.

Sure, it was her own aptitude and attitude that enabled Hastings, now Amy Cragg, to emerge as a 2012 Olympian in the 10,000-meter run and now to run the marathon in the Rio Olympics on Sunday morning.

But it turns out that wasn’t mutually exclusive from being part of teams, from a storied career at Leavenworth High (Class of 2002) to Arizona State (10-time All-America) to a post-college journey around the nation to work with different coaches and training partners and enjoying the support of husband Alistair, a former Olympian himself.

“People always talk about the loneliness of it and everything,” said Cragg, 32, who still considers Leavenworth home but lives in Portland, Ore., and trains with the Bowerman Track Club. “And it is lonely when you’re out there by yourself, especially by yourself in a race scenario.

“But if people could just see the months of work that go into it ahead of time. There are sooooo many people behind that one person who’s out there that have to work together. Every person is vital. If one thing falls, then the whole thing doesn’t work.”

This helps explain the extraordinary circumstances of what took place at the U.S. Olympic marathon trials in February between Cragg and the training partner and dear friend Shalane Flanagan she had admired as a competitor and sought to learn from.

The duo had become “reliant” on each other, running virtually every day together whether in the cold or heat or at altitude or when one needed coaxing from the other.

Together, they learned even more how to manage and cope with the grind and pitfalls of distance running.

Their bond intensified through the grueling work and unpredictable adventures that taught them more about their capabilities.

Like when a bear suddenly appeared less than 50 yards away during a November run in Flagstaff, Ariz.

On that particular day, as it happened, the pair was at a low ebb, uncharacteristically grousing about the run and how they had nothing left and that if someone came after them then that there’d be no way they could get away.

So then here is this black bear, and at first they are paralyzed by the sight. It seemed to move away down a hill, but it was a blind spot so who knew if it was moving closer or not?

In case it came toward them, they picked up a rock ... and put down a rock ... then picked it back up. They wondered if you were supposed to play dead or try to scare it off.

Then they figured they’d just do what they do — run for a mile or so at a pace neither of them knew they had left.

The shared fear, not to mention getting to laugh about it later, ratcheted up their relationship even tighter.

So they went together into the trials in Los Angeles, where Flanagan was seeking her fourth Olympic berth and Cragg was intent on a top-three finish to qualify for the Games after the devastation of finishing fourth in 2012.

At the 2012 track trials, she would say it was “crazy and awesome and ridiculous” to qualify for the Olympics in the 10,000, yes.

But the marathon is what had driven her most.

For much of the 2016 trials in scalding heat, Cragg and Flanagan were well in front of the field.

Cragg felt great into the final 10K but realized Flanagan was struggling when she couldn’t take a water cap off at one of the last bottle stops.

So as they moved into the final two miles or so, Cragg stayed with her to urge her along as Flanagan got redder.

Into the final mile, Cragg reluctantly had to kick with pursuit closing behind them.

“It was hard to leave her,” she said.

It felt great to cross the finish line first, but it also felt incomplete.

So much so that it didn’t sink in until Flanagan crossed the line and Cragg was there to catch her.

“She’s the epitome of what a friend is,” Flanagan said afterward before receiving treatment that included intravenous fluids, according to the Los Angeles Times. “There was a point where I thought, ‘I’m dying. I can’t do this,’ and she talked me through it.”

Because, it turns out, you can be on a team and in a solitary sport all at the same time.

Vahe Gregorian: 816-234-4868, @vgregorian

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