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Greencastle runner to compete in Olympic Trials

Neither age nor being legally blind has slowed Graham-Gray

Neither age nor being legally blind has slowed Graham-Gray

April 19, 2008|By ANDREW MASON

GREENCASTLE, Pa. -- Susan Graham-Gray is so fast that even life has had trouble catching up to her.

Neither her age (she will turn 40 in a few weeks), nor her family duties (she's the mother of three boys), nor even her 20/500 vision (she's legally blind) has slowed her.

Graham-Gray, a lifelong distance runner from Greencastle who has won nearly every local running event in her career, has never been more physically fit.

On Sunday in Boston, she will compete in the race of her life - the 2008 U.S. Olympic Women's Marathon Trials. The top three finishers earn berths to the Olympic Games in Beijing in August.

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"I think (a top-three finish) seems a little far-fetched, being realistic," said Graham-Gray, who ranks 109th of the 161 women who officially have registered for Sunday's 26.2-mile race. "I'm just happy to be a part of the Olympic Trials. I want to take in the whole experience, but at the same time, I want to take it head-on.

"I want to be better than 109th. I want to do better than I've ever done before."

To enter the Trials, Graham-Gray had to meet a marathon-qualifying standard of 2 hours, 47 minutes. She did that last May with a personal-best performance of 2:45:32 at the Pocono Mountain Run for the Red Marathon. She won the race, set a course record and achieved her longtime dream of joining the elite list of Olympic Trials qualifiers.

"One thing I'm not is a quitter," said Graham-Gray, whose previous marathon best was 2:52:57 in a fourth-place finish at the 2004 Baltimore Marathon. "I don't give up easily."

She has made steady improvements since joining Hagerstown's Cumberland Valley Athletic Club in 2002. For the past six years, she has been coached by former standout runner Mike Spinnler, the club's president.

Before she began working with Spinnler, she said she couldn't even fantasize about the Olympic Trials.

"Mike is the first person in my life, besides my father, who said it's OK to dream and have bigger goals," Graham-Gray said. "He's so inspirational, and his program has really worked for me. But I'm not going to say it's been easy."

Graham-Gray runs seven days a week, sometimes twice a day, logging as many as 85 miles per week. She also swims and lifts weights twice a week at either the Waynesboro YMCA or Hagerstown YMCA.

"I just take it a week at a time," she said. "I'm like, 'OK, this was a good week, let's try to make next week better.' That's how I get better. I just take it one step at a time. And I don't like to lose."

Because of her impaired vision, Graham-Gray can't run freely on the roads and trails. She has to do most of her training on the treadmill in her house - usually early in the morning, while her husband, Bob, and sons, Carlan, 8, Dereck, 6, and Dwight, 6, are sleeping.

When she does her weekly track workouts and long runs on the C&O Canal towpath, she is assisted by some of the area's better male runners. Those same men often guide her through her races, during which Spinnler also helps by riding a bicycle nearby.

On Sunday, however, no special assistance will be available, aside from friends and family shouting to her from various points on the course.

"I'm just going to have to go on instincts," she said. "We're going to go over the course a few times before the race."

"I think she'll be OK," Spinnler said. "She can just focus on the bodies in front of her. If she falls down, she'll get up."

Graham-Gray's game plan is to start conservatively, then pass as many people as possible in the second half of the race.

Her final tuneup race couldn't have been more promising. She placed fifth in an extremely competitive women's field March 29 at the National Half Marathon in Washington, D.C., clocking a personal best of 1:19:07. The sixth-place finisher was Emily LeVan of Maine, who is seeded 11th for Sunday's Olympic Trials with a qualifying time of 2:37:01.

"It's the best performance she's ever produced in her career, which is exactly what you want to springboard you into the Trials," Spinnler said. "She's starting to feel like she belongs with these girls, that she can run with them."

The field of 161 elite women features nine past Olympians, including Deena Kastor, who won a bronze medal in the marathon at the 2004 Olympics in Athens.

But the three spots for Beijing are very much up for grabs. Anything can happen in a 26.2-mile race.

"You have to go into it thinking it's possible," Spinnler said. "They're not just going to give Deena Kastor an Olympic singlet based on what she's done in the past."

"You never know," Graham-Gray said. "Weirder things have happened."

Olympic Trials



The 2008 U.S. Olympic Women's Marathon Trials race is Sunday, one day before the 112th Boston Marathon, but on a different course. The Trials will start and end at the traditional Boston Marathon finish line. In between, the women will run a six-mile loop four times.

The Trials begin at 8 a.m. Live coverage will be available at NBColympics.com/marathon. A 60-minute highlights show of the race will air April 27 at noon on MSNBC.

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