It’s just before 9 o’clock on a Wednesday morning in Aptos, Calif., exactly one month before the U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon, and Brett Gotcher, who holds a 2:10:36 personal best for the distance, is pulling a large piece of rubber padding from Lane 1 of his high school track so he can start his workout.
“The thing with the marathon,” explains the 31-year-old Gotcher, pausing between pulls. “is that if you make everything a little harder on yourself, even mentally, it’s only going to help you. Somedays, you just have to treat it like it’s a job.”
Now six years removed from that personal best (and the fourth-fastest American debut marathon in history), Gotcher hasn’t had it easy since the 2012 marathon trials in Houston, where he finished fifth in 2:11:09 in what was one of the fastest and deepest American-only marathons ever. Officially, Gotcher was the alternate for the U.S. team at the London Games, where both Ryan Hall and Abdi Abdirahman dropped out mid-race with injuries.
Gotcher continued his strong running throughout 2012. He finished third at the U.S. 20K championship that fall and was preparing to run the New York City Marathon in November—“I was really pretty amped up for that one,” Gotcher says—but the race was canceled because of Hurricane Sandy. A nagging neuroma issue that fall didn’t go away and led to other injury problems, setting off a string of inconsistent training and racing that’s plagued him for the better part of the past three years. His last full marathon was in Boston in 2014—he placed 18th in 2:17:16 the day Meb Keflezighi won in 2:08:37 and three other Americans broke 2:13.
Despite a series of setbacks, or perhaps because of them, Gotcher has put himself back together and believes he has what it takes to be in the mix when he takes his place on the starting line in Los Angeles on Feb. 13. A year ago, he ran a solid half marathon at the U.S. half marathon championships in Houston, where he placed eighth in 1:02:49, and just this past December he was 15th at the stacked U.S. Club Cross Country Championships in San Francisco, where he ran 29:47—less than 10 seconds out of the top 10.
“I feel pretty similar to how I did before I ran 2:10,” says Gotcher, who has been running up to 130 miles a week during his Trials buildup. “But I’m not as stuck on the numbers as I was a couple years ago, and I’d like to think I’ve gotten smarter.”
On this mild day in mid-January, Gotcher is running 12 one-mile repeats—the most he’s ever done in a single session—at an assigned pace of 4:50 to 4:55 with a one-lap jog recovery between each four-lap effort. Counting the warmup and cooldown, the session will total close to 20 miles. He’ll tack on another 4 miles in the early evening before calling it a day’s work. Despite being unsponsored since the end of 2014—Gotcher warmed up for his workout in a Nike top, adidas windpants and pair of Hoka One One Bondi 4s—running is Gotcher’s only real job at the moment, and one he’s taking very seriously.
“He’s gone through a lot over the years and he’s still doing what he loves,” says Jacob (Evans) Petralia, a high school and college teammate of Gotcher who joined him at the track. “You can’t say that about a lot of people.”
Since graduating from Stanford in 2007, Gotcher has been coached by Greg McMillan, first in Flagstaff, Ariz., as an original member of the now-defunct McMillan Elite training group, and now mostly from a distance. McMillan lives about 100 miles north of Gotcher in Mill Valley, and the two communicate regularly throughout the week, usually after big workouts and long runs. Gotcher credits his nine-year relationship with McMillan as one of the elements that continues to give him the confidence that his best marathon is still ahead of him.
“I trust him completely,” Gotcher says of McMillan. “I just do what he tells me and don’t think too much about it.”
McMillan says Gotcher is built—and bred—to be a marathoner, and responds really well to regular doses of high-end aerobic running and long steady state runs at or around marathon pace. In an effort to overcome the injury frustrations of recent years, McMillan says during this buildup they’ve been working on developing consistency—and the confidence that results from it—more than anything else.
“You have to be able to train,” McMillan emphasizes. “Some of the stuff he dealt with, like the neuroma, was out of our control. It takes a lot of treatment and experts to take care of those things and he’s done a good job. Brett’s confidence comes from his training. He doesn’t always kill every workout but he hasn’t had any workouts where he’s failed. That’s a good sign for the marathon. He’s had some [workouts] that have been the best he’s run. It’s the marathon, so you never know but it’s a good sign when you see those things.”
The current approach to training isn’t much different than the one McMillan initially took with Gotcher when the two first began working together during Gotcher’s first year as a post-collegiate athlete.
“A lot of what we had to do [when he first came out of college] was to rebuild his confidence, get him some consistency,” McMillan recalls. “At Stanford, he had three coaches in five years. He was very good in high school, but he kind of lost his mojo with all the coaching changes. For him, a lot of it was reconnecting with the athlete that was use to doing really well.”
Gotcher clearly rediscovered his mojo after college, nabbing a national 20K title in 2009 ahead of his sterling marathon debut a few months later—“That first one was great but I don’t think it went perfect by any means,” Gotcher admits—and both he and McMillan believe that he’s back on track to being the type of athlete who can once again compete amongst America’s top marathoners when the stakes are highest.
The unassuming Gotcher, who has been taking real estate courses online between his twice-daily runs, doesn’t mind that he’s been able to fly under the radar in recent years. He feels relaxed while training at home in La Selva Beach, a sleepy beach town of less than 2,500 residents in Santa Cruz County not far from where he grew up in Watsonville. Since returning there permanently from Flagstaff in 2012, he’s taking comfort in running on the same roads and trails he’s logged literally thousands of miles on since he first took up the sport.
His wife, Valerie Panzich, who he first dated in high school and married in 2014, often drives alongside him during long runs to provide fluids and encouragement. His parents help out in a variety of ways, while his agent, J.T. Service, who placed 45th at the 2008 U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon (2:21:12), and friend, Scott McConville, a former high school teammate who ran collegiately for UC-Santa Barbara, also run with him on occasion.
“Both our families are here,” Gotcher says with a smile. “There’s no hassle and I’ve got a ton of support, especially on my long runs.”
Late last October, Gotcher returned to his old high-altitude stomping grounds of Flagstaff for a month to kick off his Olympic Trials training block, running with former training partners Nick Arciniaga and Andrew Lemoncello, among others in the community of top-tier distance runners. “I felt like it set me up really good before I began ramping it up,” Gotcher explains. “It’s nice having guys to run with again and I’ve really benefitted from those 4- or 5-week stints.”
“He has no limits,” says Arciniaga, a 2:11 marathoner in his own right. “He is so much faster than I am in the 10K and half. He also puts in the huge amounts of work (for the marathon). He’s calm and cool and he’s got the mental fortitude to get him through workouts and keep him going. He has a purpose for everything he does and he goes out and does it.”
Since returning to sea level, Gotcher has been working on honing his speed and efficiency, doing a lot of work to get economical at 2:09 marathon pace—something McMillan says is really difficult to do at altitude—and putting himself in a position to be competitive in a strategic championship-style race.
“If you’re in 2:09 shape, you’ve got flexibility if people start throwing in surges at 4:45 pace,” McMillan explains. “If you’re in 2:12 shape, you don’t have room to move. He’s really chomping at the bit to get out there and do his thing and that’s great going into the Trials.”
As Gotcher circles the track for his 12th and final mile, he smoothy and subtly shifts gears, breaking his metronomic 73-second-per-lap for the first time all morning to finish in a cool 4:47. After changing out of his adidas Adios racing flats, he pulls the rubber padding back into place on Lane 1 and sets off on his cooldown.
“I’d like to think that if I can close it out, I can run 2:09 flat or just under or somewhere in that range,” Gotcher says. “If you run fast, everything gets so much easier.”