Trials and Tribulations

Jenn Shelton had a goal when she toed the line at the California International Marathon on Dec. 4: break 2 hours, 46 minutes.

If she finished under that time, she would qualify to run in the Olympic Marathon Trials on Jan. 14, an opportunity that comes once every four years — or perhaps once in a lifetime.

The California race earlier this month was the final chance for all runners to qualify but would require Shelton to run more than eight minutes faster than her personal best, a 2:54:23 effort last year at the Desert News Marathon in Utah.

"We had a pace group leader for 2:46," Shelton said of the race 2 1/2 weeks ago. "It was crowded with so many of us trying to qualify. Usually it's spread out when you're under three hours. This time there were so many of us trying to get under that mark, you couldn't even get to the water at the tables."

Late in the race, she looked at her watch.

"At 22 miles, I knew we had been under pace, a minute under pace — I knew pace was 6:19 (per mile), so I was like, 'Don't do anything crazy, you can do 6:19 for the next four miles, back off a little, get the marks.'"

And even though several women in her pace group surged at that point, Shelton stuck to her game plan. She finished in 2:45:01, under the qualifying standard by 59 seconds.

She was in.

The jump in performance capped a big racing season for Shelton, including commanding victories at the Siskiyou Out Back 50-kilometer race on Mount Ashland and the Dead Sea 50K in the Middle East in Amman, Jordan. Her final race before her road marathon was a 110K race in Japan, eight weeks before the California International Marathon.

"Japan was a really big mountain race, so I had to figure out if it was possible to translate mountain strength into road fitness," Shelton said.

To prepare for the marathon, she tweaked her training regimen.

"I ran more roads," she said. "I still ran mountains but added speed work and tempos. I've been averaging 110 to 120 miles a week."

Up until this month, fast road-marathon times eluded Shelton. Her forte has been strength, not speed. Her biggest victories have been in ultramarathons and on the trails. Shelton owns the fastest time run in the U.S. by a woman at the 100 miles.

That's not to say she lacks experience on the roads. She's won Medford's Pear Blossom 10-miler and many other local road races, setting several course records in the process.

But it is exactly that "run everything" approach that has attracted critics in the national press, accusing her of lacking focus.

Her recent 2:45:01 marathon was not, however, run for the critics.

"I was proving it to myself," Shelton said. "As runners, by nature, we're this weird breed. We're obviously very confident and believe in ourselves, at the same time we're very insecure."

With less than six weeks between her qualifying race and Olympic Trials, there's not much time for recovery and training.

She's not worried.

For Shelton, the Olympic Trials race is the icing on the cake. Receiving an invitation to this exclusive party is the hard part.

"I'll run the way I feel," she said, "and right now, that feels like a miracle if I even finish that race."

For the moment, Shelton doesn't want to plan beyond the Trials, or choose between roads and trails.

"I don't think you have to choose, they're both running," she said. "You put on shoes and run. I don't think it matters if it's asphalt or trails."

Daniel Newberry is a freelance writer living in the Applegate Valley. You can reach him at

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