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Matt McDonald: "I belonged in this group"

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APRIL 16, 2020 - ATLANTA --Matt McDonald, a 26-year-old member of Atlanta Track Club Elite, finished an impressive 10th in the 2020 U.S. Olympic Team Trails - Marathon. Here, he shares the story of his race.

My coaches, Amy and Andrew Begley, did a phenomenal job of getting me to believe that I would be a contender. We discussed how the race was likely to play out, envisioning two scenarios: the more-likely case that other runners would be conservative knowing the course had twice as much climbing as hilly Boston, and the unlikely alternative that a small group of top contenders would break away early. Most importantly we discussed making sure that when it looked like a clear Top 3 had broken away, I was right with them, because the odds of making an Olympic team without ever being in the Top 3 are precisely zero. By the night before the race I had internalized what needed to be done to make the team, and I was confident that I had trained as hard as anyone else in the field - something I still believe.

Saturday morning was different because the race would start at noon; most marathons start before 8 a.m., leaving no time to think, only time to wake up and start the pre-race routine. That morning, from my ninth-floor room in the Omni, I had time to ponder what was about to happen. Sharing the start line with some of the best runners in the world would have been incredible except that I could see them only as people standing between me and Tokyo.

First Loop

When the race started, the first thing I noticed was the crowds, both on the road and on the sidewalk, where spectators filled every available space. The large field definitely made for a bumpy start; the first mile was slow and you had to run at the same pace as the guys to your left and right. That would have made me nervous if the guys to my left and right hadn't been Olympians, who I figured knew what they were doing. After the first water stop it was time to turn off the brain and let the training take care of the running. However, the crowd noise was so intense, this proved impossible. Especially as a local, I had people I knew cheering me on all through Midtown and people I have never met cheering me on along every inch of the course. By the time the spectators had thinned out along Edgewood I already knew from the huge changes in pace that this was going to be a racer's race, not a time trial. Climbing Edgewood back into downtown, I was hoping the hill would thin the pack. It did not.

Second Loop

I remember thinking "there are still way too many people here." I was angry that people I felt had no business being in the lead pack were still hanging around, but that's what the fatigue of long distance running does: It makes even the most innocent offense seem like the biggest aggravation possible. Again I had to fight to get to the water stop, because the pace had slowed and the pack was, to my frustration, growing larger. Coming back up Peachtree into Midtown from the High Museum, the crowd once again got me going. As I passed by a dozen or so of my closest friends and family on the corner of Fourth and Peachtree, I briefly took the lead out of sheer excitement. I immediately fell back into the pack when my brain took control back from my heart; leading now would surely end poorly. By the time we were climbing Edgewood for the second time, Galen Rupp had taken to the front and was pushing the pace up the hill and I couldn't have been happier. I've always considered myself a strong hill runner, so a hard push uphill would thin the field without exhausting me too much.

Third Loop

Between the bottom and top of Edgewood the pack went from dozens to just eight. And I was feeling fantastic: I belonged in this group. The group continued to shed runners, and by the time I was passing through Midtown the hometown-crowd noise was drowning out any pain! There were only four of us now. I was certain that three of those four would be going to Tokyo; there were only (only, eyeroll) eight miles left.

At Mile 19 I felt the first muscle cramp, in my bicep of all places. At that point the first bit of doubt crept in, but it seemed like Abdi was also falling behind us up the hill past 14th Street and I was still confident I could make the team. The crowd through Midtown drowned out the pain of the cramps, now in both calves. Flying by the last water stop, I was in 4th, with Leonard Korir hot on my heels, but Amy and Andrew were at this water stop and the excitement on their faces kept me going up and over the Jackson Street bridge - a massive hill after 22 miles of running - despite the doubts.

Olympic Rings

The third loop had an extra out-and-back to the Olympic rings and cauldron. On the way out, Jake Riley, who was obviously feeling amazing, flew by me. That was the nail in the coffin for my 2020 Olympic dreams. I knew it, the field knew it, the spectators knew it. The final two miles were brutal rolling hills into the wind, and at this point all I cared about was finishing. A blister on my heel was also making it impossible to run. By the last quarter mile I was defeated, but knew that in a minute it would all be over. And then it was, just like that: Over. It felt so surreal.

The first people I saw were Amy and Andrew. They were incredibly proud because I had stuck with the race plan: I put myself in the race to be a contender. Their pride meant everything at that point. When I got ushered in front of the press, it hit me that everything I had been working for - for months, if not years - was over. A reporter asked if I regretted my race plan, seeing as Jake Riley had taken it easier through those middle miles (16-20) and had a great finish and made the team. That question really broke me, and I choked up. Based on where I was, I felt I made the best decisions possible, but obviously I would have done a million things differently now knowing how it would turn out. Next I saw my teammate Yolanda Ngarambe and teammate and roommate Brandon Lasater. Only they could know how I felt, that it's hard to cope with putting everything you can toward something and still coming up short.

Now, I look back with fondness. Despite not making the team, I grew a lot that day. And I am excited to see where my career will go from here.

Read more from April's digital Wingfoot Magazine here.

Photos: Dan McCauley