THOSE MULTI-COLORED OLYMPIC RINGS rise up to be grabbed in just one of every four years. Chris Derrick is poised to take his shot because the time will be now in Saturday’s Olympic Marathon Trial despite potholes—metaphorical and physical—in the past year and tribulations in the last two Olympic seasons.
After placing 4th in the OT track 10,000 as a Stanford senior in ’12, Derrick, now 29, thought ’16 and Rio would be his opportunity. He had missed the cut for the London team by less than 5 seconds even though plantar fasciitis had hampered his training after the Pac-12 that year. He says, “I was kind of limping into the Trials there and I ended up 4th and was actually reasonably happy with that at the time. I thought, ‘OK, you know, I ran 27:40 and I kinda thought it was going to be a disaster and it wasn’t a disaster. And then, you know, whatever, in 4 years, I’ll be a completely different athlete.’”
Although Derrick ran 13:08.04 for 5000 in ’13 and excelled as a harrier winning three USATF cross country crowns 2013–15 with the Bowerman TC’s Jerry Schumacher coaching him, injury scratched a plan to make the ’16 Marathon OT his debut at the distance (he had qualified with a half-marathon mark two months before) and came to the track OT before Rio physically compromised again.
“I’d actually had a rather long season of injury,” he says, “and didn’t have any fitness basically at all. So I remember being in the warmup tent and just thinking, ‘Man, it’s pretty ironic. I would do a lot to get that 2012 body, put that right here, take that fitness, even with the hurt foot and everything into this race.’ And, you know, I was 5th there, but it wasn’t as good as that. It was kind of a war of attrition and a lot of guys decided to bag it in for the 5K and I just kind of kept going for pride’s sake. Then obviously it’s like, ‘OK, well then in 2020 I’ll really be ready.’”
Derrick heads to Atlanta this week with two career marathons under his belt: 2:12:50 for 9th at Chicago ’17 and 2:13:08 for 10th on the fast-times-averse New York course in ’18. “I don’t think I ran the last 3 miles in either race the way I wanted to,” he says. But before Derrick could address that the ’19 season brought injury frustration. Again. “In the spring, I was trying to run London and kind of pushed the envelope and training a little bit and ended up with some plantar fascia troubles,” he says. “And then in the summer I felt like I was coming back decently well and I was trying to not push the envelope and be a little more prudent. And then we were running the Crim 10M in Flint, Michigan. I was in a pack, didn’t see the road in front of me and stepped in a pothole and fractured a bone in my ankle. So that was not ideal.” No, it was not.
“I mean I went down, like I tore my jersey and everything,” he says. “I fell pretty hard and I knew, I knew pretty immediately that it was definitely a really bad sprain. But I was able to walk back about a mile and I thought, ‘OK, it’ll be maybe a week or so. But then when they took my shoe off…” Derrick had fractured his fibula. Luckily, he was able to jog after 4 weeks.
Derrick explains that the fall season in Schumacher’s training plan for his track runners is “kind of the pure base phase time. So I was able to just try to jump on that train as best I could and do the grass workouts and the tempos, all that kind of stuff, with the rest of the squad, which was energizing for me.”
Since then Derrick has prepared for Atlanta at altitude in Flagstaff alongside Bowerman teammate Andrew Bumbalough. In early February the duo ran the New Orleans Half-Marathon as a controlled effort: “Jerry just told us he wanted us to run between 4:55 and 5:00 pace and try to make it feel pretty good. We kind of wound down just a touch at the end, like high 4:40s or whatever. But, yeah, we were just trying to kind of run marathon pace after coming down from the mountains and I think it went pretty well. Ideally I’d like to be like, ‘Yeah, man, 2:08 [shape] for sure.’ But I think in terms of where we’re at it was good. It was good to be in a race type environment, especially after spending so much time training and so much time on the shelf. I would say it was certainly more of a workout and I would say we were pleased with it.”
Like all his competitors, Derrick will step to the line on Saturday with the fitness he’s got. It’s all anyone accomplished and lucky enough to have qualified can do. Derrick says, “I’m just appreciative, given everything my body’s been through, for the opportunity to train. I’ve put together, I guess since the middle of October, uninterrupted training. You know, without a longer runway, I don’t know if I’m going to be in the best shape of my life or whatever, but I’m just happy that I’ve kinda gotten to go for it.
“My body feels good and the training’s gone decently well. I guess my perspective is that I just want to enjoy that opportunity. And I guess try not to write the narrative before it happens. Just hopefully enjoy being out there and being in the lead pack as long as I can be and enjoy competing and try to find that vibe again as opposed to making this life or death.”
Derrick harbors no intent to overthink strategy. “If I have a super-secret plan, obviously, you know, I can’t reveal it—like a like a Bond villain or whatever—before I execute it. But I would say that we’ll see, we’ll see how the race plays out. If someone goes completely nuts and there isn’t a pack so much as a splintering, then maybe I’ll find myself in a different spot, but if it’s something reasonable and there’s a large group, then I would plan to try to be in that group for as long as I can. I do think in the marathon there’s more opportunity to make a smart tactical decision and kind of run your own pace. But it’s always a bit hard to know that in the moment. So I mean my plan is to kind of just feel it out and hopefully be in a competitive situation where in the last half, last third, last few miles of the race, the fitness can tell.”
The course—hill-turn-hill-turn-hill for 2-plus hours—will have its say, Derrick agrees: “Yeah, I think it’ll be quite hard. I think that the 8M loop [repeated 3 times to comprise the first 24M] is going to be tough but reasonable. And I think the last 2.2 is going to be very hard. There’s a really, really steep downhill that goes into a really steep uphill and I kinda think someone’s going to tank it going down the downhill at mile 25 or whatever. I presume that someone will just have their legs go completely to jelly and fall over. Especially given that most of the shoes everyone’s got now have got a pretty big toe spring in them. Someone’s going to just be thrown forward and completely eat it.”
Come what may in Atlanta, Derrick aims for better days than he has slogged through in the down times. “I haven’t run the way I want to the past few years,” he says. “Even the marathon performances that were OK, they’re not what I envisioned for myself. I have, I think a sense of pride and belief that the guy who ran 27:31 and 13:08 when he was 21, 22 years old is still there and I want to bring that confidence and that athlete back.”
He unabashedly “loves training and racing” and even the setbacks have provided perspective. “I think through the injuries I’ve come to love the sport more and just the process of it. I’ve just kind of learned to appreciate the days when it’s hard but nothing hurts, if you know what I mean—the feeling of working really hard but having the body work well and finding out your limits in a purely sort of physical and mental place as opposed to a ‘tendon’ place.”