Julia Lucas expected to be in London, preparing for her 5000-meter race in the Olympic Stadium in the glare of the world’s spotlight. Had things been just .04 of a second different, she would have been. Instead, the 28-year-old who lives and trains in Eugene, OR, was getting ready to run on the quiet roads along the rocky Maine coastline in the TD Beach to Beacon 10K.
“I wanted the summer to be about remembering just how fun running can be, and about getting rid of the weight of expectations, just remembering what it was like to be a teenager and throwing myself into the competition and disregarding everything else,” said Lucas, whose 5000-meter time of 15:08.52 was the fastest time of the field for 2012 coming into the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials in Eugene earlier this summer.
Because that time bettered the Olympic “A” standard, all Lucas needed to do to make her first Olympic team was finish in the top three at the Trials, and perhaps not even that. She was having the best year of her professional life, and came in a solid favorite to make the squad. But with three laps remaining, Lucas pushed to a 20-meter lead, only to fade and be nipped at the line by a persistently surging Kim Conley—who achieved the required “A” standard only because of Lucas’s surge— for the third and final Olympic spot.
“I gave that race away,” she said in a stoic interview soon after departing the track, leaving the victory lap to winner Julie Culley, runner-up Molly Huddle, and the little-known Conley. “I lost an Olympic place, and basically that means my Olympic season is pretty much a failure.”
There was sadness in her eyes, but no tears. None have fallen since, either.
Without a hint of self-pity, Lucas explained last Friday: “I cry over movies, things that are sad in a silly way. Something that profoundly sad for me, tears didn’t come. Tears just kind of aren’t enough.”
Four or five days after her Trials disaster, Lucas went out for her first post-race track workout. “I just couldn’t do it,” she said. Running on the same trials on which just weeks before she had been day-dreaming about the Olympics was painful. The hushed tones of people she ran into at the market and in the coffee shops were just too much.
“I needed to get out of town,” she said.
So she headed to North Carolina, where she had gone to high school and competed for North Carolina State, so speak at some high school cross country camps and run anonymously in the woods. That’s where she hatched her plan to hit the road-race circuit for the rest of the summer. On July 28, Lucas placed third at the Bix 7 in Davenport, IA, and last Saturday was sixth in huge personal best of 32:40 at the Maine race founded by Joan Samuelson. On Sunday, she will be on Cape Cod to run the Falmouth Road Race.
If the new scenery has refreshed her spirit, it hasn’t erased her memory. Even after replaying the race “a thousand times” in her head, she said she still has not absorbed the outcome; still believing that if she visualizes a different ending often enough that she can make it happen. Yet while Lucas readily acknowledges making a mistake in misjudging her fitness and believing that she could hold on to the lead long enough to prevail, she says she does not regret her strategy. Watching the women’s 10,000-meter race earlier in the Trials, in which athletes finishing first, fourth, and seventh earned spots on the Olympic team because the race was slow and they were the only runners with the “A” standard coming in, was disturbing.
“Running a safe race would have meant that I would be in London,” she said. “Of course I would rather be in London. I just got mad watching that race and I went into my own race saying that I wasn’t going to run in a tentative and what I considered dishonorable way. I was going to go after it. I think that for the top three women at the Trials to go is the right thing. And Kim Conley deserved to go because she got third. So do I wish I had run it differently? Yes, I wish I could have won the race. Do I wish I would have intentionally slowed the pace in order to get fourth and still go? No. That’s the opposite of what I love about the sport.”
On Tuesday morning, in the first round of the 5000 meters in London, Conley ran 15:14.48, a five-second personal best but not enough to make it into Friday’s final. Culley and Huddle both finished fifth in their heats, Culley in a personal best of 15:08.52 and Huddle in 15:02.26, respectively, to advance.
An internet debate raged for weeks over Lucas’s decision. In a column on the website Creative Loafing a few weeks after his daughter’s race in the Trials, Scott Lucas summed up the feelings of both himself and her supporters.
“Did crossing the line fourth make Julie a loser? For that day, yes. Would crossing the line a second sooner have made Julia a winner? Yes, for that day. What makes Julia a winner in the long-term—a lifetime—is her courage and resilience; her ability to rebound and reassemble and remake herself for all the many tomorrows left to come. I look forward to her next rising.”
“Our races are to our sport what Wimbledon and the Australian, U.S., and French Opens are to tennis, and what the Masters, U.S., and British Opens and PGA Championship are to golf. Each race has the history, the tradition, the honor roll of legendary champions, and a special place in the eyes of all to make them stand apart from the other events.” Mary Wittenberg