One of the most celebrated elite runners of her generation, Kara Goucher faces her toughest challenge yet: being a beginner.
Kara Goucher is a two-time Olympian and World Championships silver medalist. She placed first at the 2008 U.S. Olympic Trials in the 5,000 meters (15:01.02), third in the New York City Marathon in 2008 (2:25.53), third in the 2009 Boston Marathon (2:32.25), and won the U.S. Half Marathon Championships in 2012 (1:09.26). And that’s only naming a few of her accomplishments.
With a résumé like that, she easily could have coasted. Thrown in the towel on competitive running and spent the next few decades collecting speaking engagements, sponsorships, and race appearances based on the woman she was: a highly decorated—and even more highly respected—elite track, cross-country, and road runner. Instead, on March 11, 2019, Goucher announced an ambitious pivot: She would be turning her sights to trail running, preparing first for the Leadville Trail Marathon in June.
To the unacquainted, that may not sound all that drastic. After all, she’s a seasoned elite marathoner. How different would 26.2 miles on a trail really be? But there were a number of challenges that made this far from a sure thing: Goucher had never trained, much less raced, at altitude before (this historic racecourse starts at 10,000 feet); she also hadn’t run on trails in more than 20 years. As an injury-prone track athlete, Goucher says she swore off trails decades ago. It simply wasn’t worth the risk.
“When I was training for the Olympic Trials, I would warm up two or three miles and meet [my coaches],” she said. “If there was even a tiny bit of water melt that had frozen on the roads, say maybe twice in a mile stretch, we would shut it down. They’d go back to work for a couple hours; I’d go home and eat a snack, nap, and meet them 3 hours later. That’s how afraid I was of falling or running on uneven surfaces.”
So just the act of signing up for the race was scary; Goucher felt vulnerable, and admittedly terrified. Even friends were surprised: “Jenny Simpson and I went for this run two years ago; it started to go up this trail, and all of a sudden she turned around and couldn’t even see me—that’s how slow I was moving,” Goucher said. “When I said I was running Leadville, she was like, ‘My mind is blown!’”
And yet, there was also a palpable curiosity she couldn’t ignore. “It reminds me of the first marathon I ever saw,” she said. “In 2007, I came off winning a medal in the World Championships, and all of a sudden I was in the spotlight, and the New York Road Runners invited me to come out and watch the marathon. I sat on the press truck and was equal parts terrified and inspired watching Paula [Radcliffe]. She was out there for two hours and the better side of 20 minutes, and she was running so hard the entire time. I remember thinking, ‘Oh my God, that’s so scary I can’t even imagine doing that—but then I was also like, But I really wish I could. I really want to be that tough. Could I?’”
Preparing for Leadville, however, would require a completely different mentality than what she was used to. On the roads, you train for a certain pace that you can handle for those two hours and the better side of 20 minutes. That mindset, Goucher very quickly learned, wasn’t going to translate to her off-road training.
With steep inclines and uneven terrain, jumping over rocks and letting your body go with the trail, this type of running demands a whole different level of physicality than that used on roads and tracks. At 41 years old, Goucher found herself a true beginner all over again.
But she was determined to succeed. So the first thing she did was let go of any pace-based runs. There was just no use for them on the trails. She focused much of her training on doing a lot of mile-long repeats—12-mile stretches of one mile hard uphill and an easy mile down, or vice versa. She was humble and honest about the process (“Took my first spill on the trails today so I think I’m officially a trail runner?!” she tweeted on April 20). And she found experienced training partners like pro ultrarunner Cat Bradley, who also lives in Boulder, Colorado, where Goucher is based.
“As much as I respect her and like her as a human, it wasn’t necessarily fun,” Goucher said about her time on the trail with Bradley. “It was just three hours of being so tense and so scared, and trying to be brave but really just being like, I don’t want to do this, I’m going to fall, I’m so scared right now. My shoulders would be so tense after.”
There was, however, something in her road-running toolbox that would translate well on the trails; something Goucher could definitely use to her advantage. “One of the things in my racing career was, once I got to college, Mark Wetmore really taught me about pacing,” she said.
“He taught me about how if you burn up all the fuel in the beginning you go anaerobic right away and it’s a sufferfest, but you can go so much faster if you’re willing to let other people go out harder.” Trusting him, she gave it a shot, and suddenly she was a breakout star, becoming the NCAA outdoor champion in 3,000 meters and 5,000 meters, and the NCAA Cross Country champion in 2000. “Every coach I’ve subsequently had has said, ‘This is something you’re good at: not getting excited early on; knowing it’s a full 10K, or knowing it’s a full 26.2 miles.’”
On June 15, 2019, Goucher toed the start line of the Leadville Trail Marathon…
She had a plan. She was going to start at 10:30 pace, knowing that 9:30–10:30 pace traditionally landed women on the podium. The revised course started with the first six miles uphill. She had to be smart. She had to hold back if she was going to feel strong the whole way.
During her training, Goucher’s coaches (Wetmore and Heather Burroughs) hadn’t been super involved. “Literally the only thing they said to me was: ‘Go out slow, and then when you think you’re going slow, go slower,’” she said. “And I did the exact opposite.” She ran her first mile in 7:50. At the 10K mark, she wanted to see something between 62–65 minutes on her watch. She saw 51. “I knew I was running fast, but so was everyone else,” she said. “Either I was going to blow up, or do something epic.”
On a steep incline a few miles later, she charged up it even though the men around her were walking. So much for not burning up all her fuel in the beginning. “I remember thinking this was the most pain I had ever been in in my life—more than giving birth—and then I looked down at my Garmin and it said 11.6 miles,” she said. “I thought, ‘Oh my God. I don’t know if I’m going to make it.’ I knew the race was over for me.”
Around mile 15, she started to see spots. She started to throw up. She started to walk. “I would have cried if I hadn’t felt so sick,” she said. “I started to wonder why I signed up for this. I started to think about how I’d never run again. I knew I wasn’t going to finish and I knew I’d never enter a race again.”
But just before mile 19, as the course turned around and started heading back down the mountain toward the finish line, it was like the winds suddenly shifted. “People started passing me, but unlike in my past races, they would give me words of encouragement. ‘Keep fighting,’ they would tell me. ‘This will pass.’ ‘You can do it.’ ‘Embrace the suck.’ People waited for me while I puked and then ran another half mile with me. People showed me acts of kindness like I have never, in my 40 years of life, been shown before,” Goucher said.
Their encouragement was like oxygen, each cheer delivering a desperate boost of energy that propelled Goucher forward—one slow and painful step at a time. By that point, there was no doubt in her mind: She had to finish. “I had been given the strength from strangers, and I was going to get there if it was the last thing I did.”
And she did. With a time of 3:54.06, Goucher finished the Leadville Trail Marathon—the fifth overall female, and the first in her 40–49 age group.
Goucher has pushed her pain threshold in plenty of races before….
There was her first half marathon in 2007—the Great North Run in England—where she beat then-marathon world record holder Paula Radcliffe. (“I really didn’t know what I was doing,” she said. “I ran 66:57, but I was sick for a good six hours afterwards.”) There was the New York Marathon in 2008, her debut at the distance, where she became the first American on the podium since 1994. (“I had never felt that sort of fatigue before.”) Yet none of them come close to Leadville.
“I can’t even put it into words,” she said. “It was so much harder. It was the darkest I’ve ever been. I can go back and look at my text messages with my family right after I finished and I told them ‘I wouldn’t wish that on my worst enemy.’”
As one of the most accomplished road athlete to make a competitive switch onto trails, Goucher was well aware of the attention and analysis that would follow. “I was on a panel with an ultrarunner leading up to the race,” she said. “He was like, ‘I feel so bad for you. You can’t just go and run. If you don’t win, they’re going to make fun of you.’” And I was like, “yeah, I know.”
But the fear of ridicule or criticism was not what pushed Goucher through those tough miles at Leadville. Instead, it was a simple-yet-poignant phrase penned on her left forearm in black marker: Brave Like Gabe.
Like so many in the running community, Goucher had been deeply inspired for years by fellow professional runner Gabriele Grunewald, who was diagnosed with adenoid cystic carcinoma 10 years ago, and passed away just days before the race. “I was really heavy that week. I couldn’t stop crying,” Goucher said. “We all want to leave the world having impacted it and leaving it a better place, but she really did it.”
“She just makes me want to face things, you know? Like do hard things,” Goucher continued. “One of the best quotes was her saying, ‘I want to be nervous to race again. I remember when I was nervous to race, and now I’m nervous about what’s the scan going to say.’ That just put so much into perspective for me. I’m afraid people are going to say bad things about me if I don’t run well in Leadville? Who effing cares?”
So yes, she ran Leadville like a total rookie (her words, not ours). She didn’t train as much as she should have and she probably underestimated the altitude (again, her words, not ours). But her head is not down in the slightest.
“Crossing that finish line was the most satisfactory of my career,” she said. “I have been on two Olympic teams, won a medal at the world championships, but nothing was more rewarding than that finish line in Leadville. I have never worked so hard to complete something in my life.”
Since the last Olympic Trials, Goucher has been on a hamster wheel…
It was an incredibly warm February day in Los Angeles, the hottest in U.S. trials history. Amy Cragg won the 2016 U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials in 2:28:20. Des Linden followed 34 seconds behind. Shalane Flanagan collapsed at the finish line in third place. And just one minute behind Flanagan, just one spot outside of making her third Olympic team, Goucher finished fourth in 2:30:24.
That race was a tough one to swallow. Goucher dove straight back into her training, determined to show the fitness she knew was there. But before long, she found herself in an unavailing grind that went something like this: Start building up to decent mileage. Start pushing to run the paces she ran back in 2015–2016. Get injured. Rest. Heal up. Repeat.
“I was in this space of trying to prove the impossible,” she said. “I just wanted so badly to have one last taste, because I knew had the Olympic Trials gone a hair differently,I would have gotten it.”
“I was so obsessed that it was actually holding me back,” Goucher continued. “I wasn’t running because I wanted to run, I was running because I wanted this goal that I thought was going to bring me closure on my career.”
The frustrating cycle continued until last fall, when she took a big, hard step back and acknowledged the thing no one seemed to want to talk about. “People don’t like it when I say it, but, I’m older. I’m 41,” she said. “People are always like, ‘No, age is nothing but a number!’ and to a certain extent that’s true, but there’s also science and physiology behind it—your body slows down.”
Goucher was ready to stop racing the runner she used to be. She was ready to look forward. “It’s no coincidence that I then stayed healthy for a full marathon buildup,” Goucher said. For the first time in years, she started to enjoy running again. She set her sights on the 2019 Houston Marathon in January.
She was excited and revived; still, it wasn’t easy. “There were times it was so humbling,” she said. “I’d be doing mile repeats at like 5:40 when before the trials I would be doing them in 5:15. So there were periods where it was hard to look in the mirror and think, I’m not who I used to be.”
When an old hamstring injury came out of nowhere during the marathon in January and forced her to drop out of the race, it was as if her past was haunting her all over again. “My coaches wanted me to sleep on it before making a decision,” Goucher said. “They wanted me to get out there and run a 2:35. But I was tired of comparing myself to the past.” She needed something that would test her in a totally different way. Which brought her to Leadville.
Goucher may never be the runner she once was…
“I’m never going to put on a USA kit again. I’m never going to make another team. I’m finally accepting that,” Goucher said. “But I still really like to prepare for something. I get so much out of a training block. It brings so much to my life. So now I’m at this crossroads: Do I give up something I love so much because I’m never going to be who people remember me as? Or do I say it doesn’t matter; I love this, I’m still able to do it, and maybe some people will be disappointed but this is my life. Obviously I chose the latter.”
This isn’t a redemption story. This isn’t about Goucher trying to stake her claim on the trails because she thinks it’s easier or can win more races. This is a story about presence; it’s about being able to hold space for the person you were, the person you are, and the person you could become.
“I love the process so much, and I do think if you don’t enjoy the process you’re missing out,” Goucher said. Sure, she learned something about herself at Leadville, but it was what she learned in the buildup—in those quiet moments on the trail, in falling and scraping her knees, in trying something completely new—that drive her. “I learned I was braver than I thought,” she said. “I can do tough things. I can do things I’m scared of. All these little things I’ve told myself—I want to face those things.”
Leadville was the first test, but it won’t be the last. “I mean, yeah, I would rather be Shalane, running [and winning] New York at 36, but that’s not my story,” Goucher says. “My body has been hit a little harder from my career, so I either embrace what I have or I don’t do what I love, right?”
Without a flinch of hesitation, she answers unequivocally: “I’d rather be dinged up Kara with the bad knee who’s a little bit older but who’s still getting out there than be Kara who’s too afraid to try.”