When Kara Grgas-Wheeler Goucher (Psych’01) crossed the finish line of the New York City Marathon last fall, she wept.
It was her first 26.2 mile race, but she finished in 2 hours, 25 minutes and 53 seconds, the fastest debut marathon by an American woman ever. Her joy was overshadowed only by the tragic loss of her father who was killed by a drunk driver near the course when she was 4.
And there was something else. After 18 years of running, mostly at an elite level, Goucher, 30, felt she’d chanced upon her true distance. She placed third, the best finish by an American woman in 14 years. Just four months earlier, she had placed ninth and 10th in the 5-kilometer and 10-kilometer races during the Beijing Olympics.
“To win a marathon takes extreme dedication,” Goucher says. “The most rewarding aspect of it all for me is seeing what I can get my body to do. I train so hard and ask so much of myself. The result of finishing the marathon and running a good race is just so rewarding. It feels amazing to test your body at such extreme limits.”
At the 2009 Boston Marathon in April she proved herself again, placing third after leading the race going into the final mile.
But 17 years ago, crossing a finish line was just a means to another end for the talented runner. As a seventh grader in Duluth, Minn., the outdoorsy college town where she and her family moved after her father died, a spindly Goucher stumbled across the sport of cross country.
“I wanted to win a ‘Triple A’ award — for arts, athletics and academics — and my school only had cross country and volleyball,” she says. “I went to volleyball tryouts and I thought it looked like bumping the ball on your wrists hurt. Also, I didn’t want to be told that I wasn’t good enough. I left and went to join the cross country team.”
Goucher stuck with the sport because it was fun and she was good at it. Meanwhile, other runners across the state were already taking notice of their new competitor.
“Had it not been for that [Triple A] award, I don’t know if I would have done it,” she says. “I was already in dance and soccer. So I feel really lucky.”
When she started running with the high school track team, she developed a passion for the sport — despite the exhaustion from running several miles per workout. In high school, she met her future husband, Adam Goucher (Comm’98), at a national cross country meet.
The two hooked up again at CU where she ultimately established herself as one of the top collegiate cross country runners. Adam Goucher, arguably the best runner to wear CU’s black and gold as an NCAA track and cross country champion, graduated and started helping out with the women’s team in 1999. He recognized a talent and a kindred spirit in her: the two fell in love in a matter of months.
“Even before her breakthrough, I remember watching her race as a freshman and noticing she was just naturally gifted,” says the 2000 Olympic competitor. “When she struggled, I tried to remind her that the “studliness” was still in her.”
At first, those struggles seemed endless: injuries, broken bones, surgeries, illness, severe anemia, a body that wouldn’t heal and loss of faith.
“Colorado was my first real taste of running on a bigger stage,” she says. “I learned from all of the challenges. And sitting out (while injured) made me realize how much I really loved the sport.”
Then came her collegiate breakthrough: She was undefeated for the entire 1999 cross country season until the NCAA Championships, where she finished ninth. She returned in 2000 to win both the 3,000 and 5,000m at the NCAA Championships. The following fall, she won the cross country championship.
Three years after she graduated, Goucher stumbled upon the second critical piece to her career: meeting coach Alberto Salazar, who won the New York City Marathon three consecutive years in the early 1980s and in 2006 received media attention for helping Tour de France champion Lance Armstrong run the New York City race. Salazar works as coach for the Nike Oregon Project running club for developing American elite runners.
The first time Salazar remembers seeing her, she was bawling after a disappointing finish. But there haven’t been many disappointing finishes since the Gouchers teamed up with Cuban-born Salazar in Portland, Ore.
“He has changed my life dramatically,” she says. “He has helped me to see all of the positive aspects of life and to embrace them. My personal life and my career have blossomed since he came into my life. I trust him completely.”
That trust helps her manage a rigorous training regimen. She asks Salazar what she needs to do and does it. But Salazar downplays his role in her successes.
“I don’t think a coach or a sports psychologist makes someone tough,” he says. “You know how Michelangelo said he just frees a sculpture? Athletes have that, too. You can’t teach toughness — you help them to find it.”
The marathon, Salazar continues, requires acute mental toughness. It was Goucher’s keen sense of it — and her ability to bounce back after tough workouts and to surpass expectations based on her training — that led him to think the distance might suit her.
“You have to be willing to make a lot of sacrifices and be extremely disciplined,” Goucher says. “In a way, training for the marathon is like saving money for your future retirement. You have to take a long-term approach to it all. There are no quick fixes, no quick results. You must have patience.”
Looking to the future, Goucher plans on taking a short detour. She and her husband are hoping to start a family. If all goes as planned, she’ll come back from the birth of a child stronger and in “plenty of time to get in some marathons before the [2012 London] Olympics.”