Like boxing, distance running has always been a sport that propagates hard-working underdogs.
At the U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon on Feb. 13 in Los Angeles, maybe a dozen runners in both the men’s and women’s races have a legitimate shot at finishing in the top three and making the U.S. Olympic team bound for Rio de Janeiro later this summer. But with the exception of those top few professionals who can manage to make a living through sponsorships and prize money, the starting line in the City of Angels will be filled with hundreds of runners who work full-time and fit their passion into the bookends of the day and night. In our sport, we call them blue-collar runners, and they are as about as tough as they come.
For them, it’s all about the love of running, the passion to pursue excellence amid considerable sacrifice. They’re the dreamers. They can run fast enough to enter a race that determines the American Olympic team, but most are not nearly fast enough to actually don a USA singlet and pass beneath the Olympic flame. And yet they carry on, training just as diligently as their more polished professional contemporaries.
That’s just fine with Louis Serafini, a 24-year-old Bostonian who is the epitome of the blue-collar grinder.
“I’m still young and as far as I’m concerned, just being able to toe the line with America’s greatest distance runners is an honor,” says Serafini, who works 9 to 5 as a sales associate Heartbreak Hill Running Company. “For me, the Trials are an opportunity for me to have a great running experience and hopefully turn some heads in the process.”
Every day, Serafini hits the streets of Boston early in the morning after a lot of coffee for his first run. Like the fictional boxer, Rocky, he attributes some of his speed to the protein he gets from eating eggs, albeit not raw ones like the movie character ingested on a regular basis.
“I’ve been favoring the egg quesadilla—it’s been a bit of a game-changer for me,” he notes.
After a day of selling shoes and gear—and occasionally dishing out bits of advice to recreational runners—he heads home for his second run. At 7 p.m., a time when most of us are ready for dinner, PJs and some binge TV watching, Serafini hits the roads with this roommate for 5 to 7 miles. He’s back by 8:30, stretches a bit and then hits the sack at 10.
The next day, he does it all over again. Day after day, for weeks on end. It’s that monotonous consistency, that hardened discipline, that earned him a place in the U.S. Olympic Trials. He punched his ticket to Los Angeles at the Rock ‘n’ Roll Philadelphia Half Marathon on Oct. 31, finishing 13th in 1 hour, 4 minutes and 31 seconds—just 29 seconds faster than the 1:05:00 cutoff.
Matt Sonnenfeldt also got his Olympic Trials qualifier in Philadelphia last fall, but by the narrowest of margins—a mere 2 seconds. His 1:04:58 effort makes him one of the slowest runners in the men’s race, but it doesn’t matter because he’s in. He, too, works close to the sport as a marketing assistant and promotions coordinator for Flynn Sports Management in Gray, Tenn., the athlete agency operated by legendary miler Ray Flynn.
“When your boss has run 3:49 for a mile, he is one of few bosses who understands the time and dedication that goes into training for something like this,” Sonnenfeldt admits.
When it comes to the reality of making the team, Sonnenfeldt doesn’t mince words.
“I think I can speak for a lot of the people that are in my position in that making the Olympic Trials is kind of like our Olympics, and a lot of the motivation came in the months, maybe years, leading up to trying to qualify for the race,” he says. “I was one of the last qualifiers to make it in, so for me, the motivation for the Olympic Trials is to finish in the first half of the field.”
Maintaining a full-time job while trying to compete against pros that get the luxury of naps and personal massages could be grist for the mill. But Sonnenfeldt won’t have any of that.
“Not everyone can have it as a job,” he says of the elite pros. “Just like not every college football player can make it on a NFL roster or to the Major Leagues from the minors. Yes, there are runners that probably are good enough to merit a contract, but I believe the majority of the pros that do this for a living have earned the right to do nothing but train, and I’m fine with that.”
Along with his full-time job, Sonnenfeldt manages to fit in triple-digit weekly mileage, two hard workouts (typically Tuesday and Friday) and a long run of 20 miles or longer on Sundays.
“It’s probably the best jobs one could have, if they wanted to juggle training and work,” he says. “I’m very fortunate and I’m very much an outlier. There are many who have it much worse than me.”
Lauren Smith, of Lake Jackson, Texas, doesn’t have it much worse than Serafini, but she does have to get up pretty early to get her miles in. Smith, who works as a fitness coordinator at the Angleton Recreation Center, earned her qualifier at Rock ‘n’ Roll San Antonio Half Marathon on Dec. 6, finishing in 1:14:53—just 7 seconds ahead of the cut-off time.
She got there by waking up at 5 a.m., and often running twice a day, sometimes at lunch, sometimes late at night. Despite these challenges, Smith isn’t bitter about her full-time professional rivals come marathon day.
“We all have 24 hours in the day and that’s plenty of time to get in the training I need to get in,” she says. “I don’t have a lot of perks most runners have. I don’t have a massage therapist, chiropractor, altitude tent or a coach, but I do all the hard work and put in the miles, and I think that’s the most important part.”