None of the runners NAZ Elite is sending to the Olympic Trials starting next week started their preparation segments in the same direction, but they all knew where they were heading.
The team is expecting to send four athletes to the Trials at Hayward Field in Eugene, Oregon, and the group is starting to click and reach their training goals all at about the same time -- despite a disjointed start that saw some runners staying on a smooth path and others battle a more twisted trail.
"It's weird, but I think they will all feel pretty good by the time the meet rolls around," NAZ Elite head coach Ben Rosario said during a recent phone interview.
Lauren Paquette will be the first NAZ Elite athlete to toe the start line at the Trials when she takes on the first round of the women's 5,000-meter race on Friday, June 18. She will possibly be joined by teammate Kellyn Taylor, who is also looking to make noise in the 10,000m event that's set to take place Saturday, June 26.
Paquette's start to her segment was "choppy," Rosario said, but she's found momentum since. She posted a stunning 15:10.01 in August as she mostly floated around the 15:30s at the distance for the team at the distance. Paquette finished 11th of 12 total competitors at the U.S. 1-Mile Road Championships in April and then was last three days later at the Drake Relays in the 1500m at 4:18.15.
The struggles continued for Paquette into May as she searched for speed, placing 21st at the The Track Meet 5000m in 15:33.77. But she turned things around with hard training and a solid outing at the Festival of Miles, finishing with a third-place result and a time of 4:35.21 -- missing a PR by five seconds.
The heat sheet for the women's 5000m lists six declared runners who all will enter with sub-15 5000m times.
“Everybody who’s going to the Olympic Trials, hey, you always have a chance," Rosario said.
Meanwhile, Ryan Hill is set to race the men's 5000m, which is set for a first-round race on Thursday, June 24, and Stephanie Bruce will be in the women's 10,000m, an event loaded with distance talent that includes names such as Molly Huddle, Emily Sisson and Sara Hall on the heat sheets.
Bruce has had the smoothest segment of the four. She had a strong and uninterrupted training block for the last three months or so, and she took first at the Valley O.NE Half Marathon in late April before running a 15:20.87 at The Track Meet 5000m.
Taylor is coming off a foot injury, but has trained fiercely and will look to get over the hurdle this Olympic year after just missing the cut to the 2016 Games in the 10,000m. In order to stay fit while missing time putting in miles during her injury recovery, she had cross-trained with urgency.
Hill struggled to get things going after joining the team to start 2021. After a few rough outings and issues with training, Rosario and staff made the decision to send him back to training at sea level, and the head coach said that has helped the seasoned athlete get back into a better groove.
And while a large chuck of the roster is gearing up for the fall marathon season, a few other athletes still have Tokyo on the brain as well.
Aliphine Tuliamuk, for instance, is training in Flagstaff again with the NAZ Elite women as she gets fit for the Olympic marathon event.
Matt Baxter has put in the work to make sure he stays on his country's radar as a possible representative for his team at the Tokyo Games.
“Over a time period of 20 days, he ran three really quality 5000s before he’s even done that much training, and now we have three weeks or so to train before his next race, and that will be his last race before they pick their team," Rosario said of the New Zealand native who has been tearing up the trails at Buffalo Park while getting fit and prepping for races. "If I were the selectors, I would love to have this guy represent our country. He’s everything you want in an Olympian. He’s willing to do whatever it takes to get himself in the best shape as possible to represent his country.”
Mike Hartman can be reached at 556-2255 or at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @AZDS_Hartman.