By Doug Binder
I had an opportunity to sit down with Kara Goucher a few weeks ago at her neighborhood Starbucks for a small newspaper story I was writing related to her participation (as a speaker) in the Oregon Wine Country Half Marathon.
So I asked her about wine (pinot noir is her favorite) and what she planned to talk about (she prefers fielding audience questions to writing speeches).
And the interview moved to a variety of other subjects because my curiosity took me there. Kara, I’ve learned over the years, rarely shies away from a question. That’s an important part of her appeal. She is a runner-turned-public-figure, with more than 40,000 Twitter followers, and people gravitate to her because she is authentic and puts her heart into her running and her family.
I asked her about Boston because it had been more than three months since the April 15 bombings at the marathon. The public’s attention, by and large, had moved on to other things. But I wondered what impact the bombings had on her.
Kara was a block and a half away from the finish line, in her hotel room, when the first of the two pressure-cooker bombs exploded. She had finished the race, been through drug testing, spoken to the media, and was waiting on an appointment to have a massage. Her mom, sister and other family were in her room and they were talking about the race. She was specifically talking about her teammate, Shalane Flanagan, and the weight of expectations when you are the most visible American in the race.
And then the explosion happened.
Kara and her visitors not only heard it, they felt it in her their chests. Her son, Colt, was down for a nap. He heard it too. (Adam, if I have the story straight, was out finding food for Kara and her relatives).
“If I could go back in time, I would react to it differently,” Kara said.
But who can ever plan how they will react in a moment of terror?
Kara said she knew in an instant something was horribly wrong and she began to have a panic attack.
Then, a second, more distant explosion.
Her mom and sister went moved to open the hotel room windows to see what was going on. Kara pleaded with them to keep the windows shut in case there was gas.
She was terrified and suddenly overwhelmed with guilt. Her family had gathered around her for this race and now they were all in danger.
“It sounds ridiculous now, but I thought we were going to die,” Kara said. “It was awaful.”
Kara’s younger sister called on the phone to relay that she had heard the news of a bombing at the race. In the hotel room, they switched on the TV news. Outside, they saw vanloads of police officers parked in front of the hotel, passing automatic rifles and bullet-proof vests to one another.
The hotel went into lockdown. Later in the evening, Kara actually went down into the lobby and gave a brief interview to Flotrack.
She kept watching the news. They made their flights out of Boston. She kept watching the news.
“I was actually unhealthily obsessed with it,” she said.
In the days that followed she avoided interview requests. She didn’t want to draw attention to herself and away from the important things going on to save victims and apprehend the suspects.
But she also couldn’t turn away.
“I couldn’t function. It totally consumed my family for a while,” Kara said. Even though she hadn’t been out there, on the street, the sound and the feeling of the blast was imprinted on her – just like it was for everyone else who was there.
The drama that played out on the TV news, as police began to tighten the net on the Tsarnaev brothers, Kara felt a personal stake in the outcome.
Did you celebrate when they finally arrested the suspect?
“Oh yeah,” Kara said. “I was so pumped. I couldn’t let go of it. When they caught (him) I was so exhausted but so happy. It was bizarre. I hate violence. But when they got that guy, I was like ‘Good!’”
Flanagan had a different reaction to the experience.
“We’re just different,” Kara said. “Some people were scared and terrified. Others were pissed. She was never scared. Her thing was anger, like, ‘Watch me, I’m going to go back and win next year.’ For me, it was Oh my God, we’re all so vulnerable.”
In the past nine months, Kara’s two favorite running events – the New York Marathon and the Boston Marathon – have been severely impacted by unforeseen forces. A hurricane shut down the NYC Marathon and caused major political fallout. And a criminal act ruined the day in Boston, with three people dead and hundreds of others wounded.
Kara knows so many others had it much worse. But she and her family weren’t untouched. They carried it with them, back to Duluth, and to Portland. Little Colt spoke of “the boom” and “the bad people” afterward and saw how deeply it frightened his mom. (Colt went to a couple of therapy sessions. “He’s doing great now,” Kara said.)
Kara is adamant that she will run at the next NYC and Boston marathons.
“I just love them both,” she said.
Boston, in particular, will be an event no doubt filled with emotion next spring. Kara intends to do all she can to stand in support of the race and running community that it serves.
“We’re moving forward, but we’ll always think about those people,” she said, referring to the victims.
Kara also told me that she is developing a new web site. She knows that finding ways to interact with the running community is an important thing to do, particularly at this stage of her career.
Adam and his long-time friend Tim Catalano have released a self-published book “Run the Edge,” and have recently released a workouts guide. Those projects have helped Adam ease out of a competitive career and into business pursuits.
Kara is still drafting ideas in her head about what she’d like to do when her elite running days are over.
She’d like to organize retreats for women, built around running. She’d like to continue to offer her army of followers some access into her day-to-day life as a runner, perhaps as a sort of lifestyle expert.
She wants to be more active in her community while she’s still on top of her game.
“I actually do think it’s important to go and do the local things when you can,” she said. “I used to never think that way, but now as I’m getting older and I have a child in the community, I think it is important to do the fun run with the elementary school that’s trying to raise money, do the local 5K, do the Rock and Roll (Half) when it’s in town. You don’t have to rest and taper, but I am more and more believing I should take part in those things more.”
On the subject of turning her running career into a brand, Kara already does it as well as anyone in the country, with the possible exception of Lauren Fleshman.
Fleshman won a Track and Field Writers of America award for her blog, asklaurenfleshman.com, has a line of nutritional bars, and recently got a piece of Oiselle as part of an endorsement deal.
“I do know Lauren. I’ve known her for years,” Kara said. “She’s done a really good job of transitioning into the place where she can stand alone without being an athlete any more. I’m not there yet.
“Lauren’s still obviously hoping to compete. So there’s still Lauren the athlete, and Lauren the business. I’m not ready yet, it’s still in the future.”
I asked Kara whether her marathon training made her feel a closer kinship to ultra runners, mountain trail runners and triathletes.
And her answer surprised me. She said, “Yes.”
Would you ever imagine doing an ultramarathon?
“I would,” Kara said. “I definitely want to do an ultra. I would be willing to go really far (with it). Now, I’m not going to as long as I keep making (U.S.) teams and podiums, but if in the next three marathons I’m 10th in every one … I would consider it.”
How crazy-far would you go?
“A 50-miler, that might be interesting to me. I’ve been reading books about ultras and watching movies about it. Those are awesome amazing athletes. I can’t wait to try one. Eventually, yes, I’d like to try it.”
And what about an Ironman Triathlon (or any triathlon)?
“I can’t swim. I know my limits. But I could see (competing) in a trail championship or something like that.”
Final thing, I have this left over quote from Kara. I probably should use it. I don’t even remember the question.
“I raced on skis when I was younger (biathlon, in Minnesota). I had this fantasy that I would medal in the 2012 Olympics and then I would go all-out training for the 2014 Winter Olympics (for cross-country skiing). I mean, there’s no shot, really, that could ever happen, but it was a little thing in my head that was just, ‘This is the ultimate!”