The 189 female elite runners who competed in the U.S. Olympic Team Trials for the marathon on Saturday, Jan. 14, in Houston included DMU physical therapy student Danna Kelly – much to her surprise. That reality struck her the Friday before the race, at the event’s technical meeting for the more than 300 competitors and their coaches.
“The names and faces I witnessed walk through the door for the meeting were the nation’s best of the best 26.2 [mile] athletes,” she wrote in her blog, SoleSisterRunning.blogspot.com. “Me, the small-town Iowa girl, who reads and envies the talent and abilities of these individuals in each month of Runner’s World…could barely take it all in at once.”
Kelly’s achievement in qualifying for the Trials is underscored by the fact it was just her third marathon. She qualified last June at Grandma’s Marathon in Duluth, MN, with a time of two hours, 43 minutes and 54 seconds, her “personal best.” While the self-described “tomboy” played sports in high school, she didn’t run seriously until she joined Truman State University’s track and cross country teams as an undergraduate. After enrolling at DMU, she used running as an “outlet” and began training with a group of women. They included Jenny Weber, a triathlon coach and executive director of the Wellness Council of Iowa.
“I always thought I had my whole life to run a marathon,” Kelly says. “Then I realized I was already doing all these marathon work-outs.”
Marathons require intense mental as well as physical preparation. Kelly’s blog describes how she views the four “loops” of the event, beginning as “fun and pure enjoyment” followed by reminders to “relax,” then “feel light” and finally “think smooth” during the final eight-mile loop’s “gut-check time.” At mile 23, she gave herself a pep talk.
“The four months of sub-4 a.m. alarms, the extra workouts at the YMCA, the treadmill speed work that I truly disliked, the soreness and fatigue coupled with school, whatever the sacrifice was – it was all for this day and this moment,” she recalled in her blog. “I would fail not only myself, but my family, training partners, friends, classmates and anyone I have ever inspired along the way if I did not give the last 3.2 miles all that I could give on this day.”
Kelly wasn’t among the three women who qualified that day to represent the U.S. in the marathon at the 2012 Olympic Games in London, but she didn’t expect to. She did achieve her goals, however: She finished in the top half of the field, 82nd out of 189, which beat her race rank – based on her original qualifying time – of 94th. Her top goal was to enjoy the entire experience in all its adrenalized glory, from participating in the Trials opening ceremonies to rubbing elbows with some of the biggest names in running. Crowds cheered her on by name and complimented her glittery red headband and pink Saucony shoes. Also cheering her on were her parents, Bob and Kathy Kelly; fiancé, Justin Herrick; and several friends who joined her in Houston.
Perhaps the most awesome moment occurred while she stood at the start line.
“Hearing the national anthem play before each sporting event has brought goose bumps…ever since I can remember hearing it as an eight-year-old playing Little League,” she wrote in her blog. “Standing on that street in Houston, watching the multiple American flags blow in the wind, scanning the blocks’ worth of red, white and blue Olympic signs and banners, while standing completely still with my competitors and the thousands that surrounded the start line…was like no other national anthem I had ever been a part of before.
“Listening to the beautiful words,” she added, “brought emotions of pride, gratitude, disbelief and pure honor, not only to have the ability, but the opportunity to have this unbelievable experience for our country.”