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Islander qualifies for Olympic Trials: Empey achieves qualifying time, Hill places fourth in Oregon marathon
April 29 was a big day for Susan Empey and her daughter, Megan. Megan had her seventh birthday. Empey ran an Olympic Trial qualifying time and placed third in the Eugene Marathon in Oregon.
While her mom’s accomplishment may not have been the highlight of Megan’s birthday, it was the culmination of years of training and fulfilled a major goal for Empey.
Empey, 38, of Mercer Island, began running in college to keep off the dreaded “Freshman 15.” At that time she told herself, “If I break three hours (in a marathon) I would be satisfied as a runner.”
It worked in the opposite way. After achieving that goal at the 2003 Chicago Marathon, she felt compelled to set a higher goal — to run 26.2 miles within the Olympic Trial time of 2:47.
Wearing bright yellow shoes with sparkly laces, she beat that time by 33 seconds on April 29. Empey attributes much of her outstanding time to the group of eight women she ran with the first half of the race. She felt little competition from the women, just support. They shared Gatorade and together kept the pace fast.
“There is a strong sense of community in a pack,” she said.
At the 13-mile mark, Empey’s Island neighbor Robinson Howell, serial winner of the Rotary Run half-marathon, jumped into the race to set the pace for the grueling last half.
“I tucked in behind him and let him find the shortest way through the course,” she said. “My wheels were about to fall off. Zero to 20 (miles) is one race, 20 to 26 is a different race.”
Howell’s entry into the race was planned.
His instructions from the women were precise — keep a pace of 6:20 (six minutes and 20 seconds) per mile.
“If I began going too slow, say 6:26 or 6:27, I’d hear about it from them,” he laughed.
Empey and Erica Hill, a Mercer Island High School English teacher and highly regarded cross-country coach, ran together until the last two or three miles.
“She is one of the most inspirational people,” Empey said about her friend.
Hill completed the race in fourth place with 2 hours, 48 minutes and 19 seconds, just 79 seconds short of the Olympic qualifying time.
Hill, who has a 15-month-old daughter, Zia, had only praise for Empey.
“She was a mother hen, making sure everyone was together — sharing her jelly beans and Gatorade. She did an amazing job beforehand of including me in training and putting out extra energy to get involved,” said Hill.
Empey began training seriously in January, running between 60 and 85 miles a week in stormy weather.
“If it meant hurtling trees or ice skating down the street, I had to get those miles,” she said.
Running is important to her as a person and a mother.
“I am a better and more effective mother if I have that outlet,” she said.
Each time she returns from a race her daughter asks if she won. Usually, Empey tells her “No, but I am so happy,” she said.
To her, showing her daughter and 4-year-old son, Peter, that there is more to life than just winning is an important lesson.
Support from her husband, Gordon, and her coach Tom Cotner was essential, she said.
Since she qualified for the Olympic Trials in the Eugene Marathon, she will compete in the Olympic qualifying marathon in Boston next April, one day before the Boston Marathon.
Empey is currently ranked 95th out of more than 100 runners. She is excited to compete, but thinks she has zero chance of being one of the three Olympic contenders. She will participate, however, because the marathon is a celebration of women’s running.
“Just standing on the finish line will be a thrill,” she said.
Justus Hyatt is a senior in the University of Washington Department of Communication News Laboratory.