Julia Lucas had it all figured out.
But she never figured on being the most forlorn figure at the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials.
Lucas gave up the thing she loves most last summer. She quit running.
She had finished ninth in the second heat of the 1500 meter run at the U.S. Championships, and decided that she’d had enough.
After running for 15 years, she had suffered seven stress fractures in her legs and feet. Her body was worn out. So she packed it in, and went the rest of the summer without hitting the track.
And then she realized how much she missed it. So she decided to give herself just one more chance, one more year "to make it work."
Lucas returned to her roots. She returned to train with her college coaches at NC State. Under the tutelage of Rollie Geiger and Laurie Henes, she had won the ACC 5000 meter championship in 2005 and 2006, and finished fourth at the NCAAs in 2007.
"I felt like it could work," Lucas told David Monti of NBC. "Just being around my college teammates that are truly supportive. I went back to North Carolina, and left beating my chest in warrior mode. It was an emotional rebirth."
The six weeks spent training in Raleigh last fall proved invaluable to Lucas. "Having teammates," she told Monti, "it’s not that they are my reason, but they remind me of my reasons that I do this."
Refreshed and rejuvenated, Lucas returned to Eugene — she lives just a mile from Hayward Field — and resumed training with the Oregon Track Club Elite.
The results were staggering. On April 29, she ran a 5000 in 15:08.52, the fastest time by an American woman this year. "Right after that, I went back to my hotel room, and did not sleep," she told Monti. "I got really excited."
That set up Lucas as the favorite to win the 5000 at the Trials. Beside the fast time, she was also in the right frame of mind. "I think it’s too big of a thing to fit in my mind, to digest that it all comes down to now," she told Monti. "You can’t think like that. The idea of funneling all that energy for the past decade plus into this race is unreal. That’s not how it works.
"To be in the moment and run as well as you can on that day, to run with wild, animalistic instinct, and not attach all that emotional weight to it, is how you run fast. You can’t put them together and perform optimally."
That’s the mindset that Lucas took with her to the starting line for the 5000 final last Thursday night, seeking a spot on her first Olympic team.
For nine laps, she stayed right with the leaders through a dreadfully slow pace. With three laps to go, she bolted into the lead. "A drastic move," competitor Molly Huddle told Paul Buker of The Oregonian.
"I felt I was the best athlete in the race," Lucas told Tim Layden of Sports Illustrated. "So, I wanted to put in a long grind to the finish."
Her initial surge earned a 10-meter lead; it slowly melted down to five. Another surge forged a bigger lead; it, too, melted down. But most of the pack had fallen out of contention. On the backstretch of the final lap, Huddle and Julie Culley passed Lucas, securing two spots on the Olympic team.
But Lucas still held the third spot as she lurched down the homestretch to the finish line, tying up and slowing with each step. "I completely went under water and ran out of steam," Lucas told Buker. "I didn’t feel great throughout the race, and I thought a long, extended push would be the way to go. It came back to bite me."
As Lucas kept slowing, Kim Conley kept coming. Blasting down the homestretch, cutting the deficit with each stride until, incredibly, she drew even with Lucas right at the finish line.
"I didn’t sense her," Lucas told Adam Jude of The Register-Guard. "Even when I crossed the line, I thought I had her. I thought I was a 10th ahead. Turns out, that wasn’t the case. I screwed up."
Big time. Conley is an Olympian only because of Lucas. In order to run in the Olympics, Conley also needed to achieve the Olympic "A" standard time of 15:20. She hit the line in 15:19.79. She made it by 21 hundredths of a second — only because Lucas stepped up the pedestrian pace with three laps to go.
"I hadn’t thought about that," Lucas told Layden after the race. "Until just this second."
Agony and ecstasy. "This is beyond a dream come true," Conley told Buker. "In 2008, I was sitting at home, watching the Olympic Trials, thinking it would be really cool to run at the Olympic trials one day. Four years later, I’m an Olympian. I can’t wrap my arms around it yet."
Lucas can. "I think, running that race 10 different ways, I would have won eight of them, at least," she told Buker. "I screwed that up. That’s my fault. Basically, it means my season is pretty much a failure.
"It’s a cutthroat sport. It’s not five games. This is the one. The best athletes show up on the line and deliver, and I didn’t."
"In an Olympic year," Lucas told Jude, "the standard of success is whether you make the team. And I didn’t. I gave that race away."