The marathon began at Mile 20. Desiree Davila was prepared for that. Six years of training had taught her the race often comes down to the last 10K and a couple of crucial choices to make through the adrenaline and fatigue.
At last January's Olympic trials in Houston, four top women had distanced themselves from the field: Davila, fellow favorites Shalane Flanagan and Kara Goucher, and Amy Hastings, Davila's former college roommate and closest friend in the sport. Only the top three would make the cut for London.
Hastings had run bravely, falling off the pace at Mile 16, then fighting her way back to the lead trio. Davila watched her form with a practiced eye. No one knew Hastings better as an athlete, and Davila knew the moment her friend's surge ebbed, she needed to up the pace.
Davila increased her tempo. Hastings dropped back. Davila forged on with Flanagan and Goucher, her 5-foot-2, 98-pound frame dwarfed by her taller rivals. Then, with two miles to go, Flanagan kicked into a higher gear and Davila was faced with another decision: Should she try to match the surge and bid for the win, taking the chance that her cramping calves would betray her, or maintain her pace and protect her spot on the team?
It was tempting to test her limits. Davila had fallen just two seconds short of victory at the 2011 Boston Marathon in a stretch duel with Kenya's Caroline Kilel. But Houston called for different tactics.
Davila weighed the situation and decided not to risk it. Flanagan soloed to the line and Davila secured her Olympic spot by finishing second, 17 seconds back, in 2:25:55. It was a tough, savvy race, and the latest evidence that Davila's gradual climb to the top is peaking at an ideal juncture.
"That race is all about calculated risks," the 28-year-old Davila said two weeks later over breakfast at her training base in Rochester Hills, Mich. "You go to the front and push the pace, but not too much. You try to push the last 10K, but not too much. It just feels like everything's -- not half-assed, but just enough. I finished and I was like, 'I don't like that.'
"I know I'm ready. I know I should be on this team. A lot of what we did getting ready for the trials, whatever the result was, we were getting ready for something much faster than what we needed to do there."
That no longer sounds beyond the realm of possibility for this little engine.
So slight she seems to disappear inside a baggy sweatshirt, with striking, angular features Modigliani would have loved to paint and a low, throaty laugh that often punctuates a self-deprecating remark, Davila shows how deceiving appearances can be.
After a largely anonymous high school and college career in the arid heat of Southern California and Arizona, she migrated to Michigan to join the Hansons-Brooks Distance Project in 2005. The elite training environment in a harsher climate helped her transform herself into "a contender, not just someone who's on the line and might have a good day," as she put it.
Few on the outside took notice until Boston. The trials confirmed that result. On Aug. 5, Davila will line up at the Olympic marathon start within sight of Buckingham Palace on London's famous Mall as a marked woman and a bona fide medal candidate.
If you want to be an Olympian ...
The temperature hovered around freezing in suburban Detroit in late January on Davila's first day back in training as an official Olympian. The sky pressed in low and gray, and winter slop coated the streets as the Hansons-Brooks team gathered at its unofficial headquarters, The Hills Bar and Grille in Rochester Hills, for a meal and a round of meetings.
When Davila first reached out to Keith and Kevin Hanson to inquire about training in Michigan, they were dubious, not so much about her potential as her ability to deal with the weather.
"'There's no way I'm contacting this girl,"' Kevin Hanson said. "There's no way she's ever seen 50 degrees. But she was very persistent."
Davila's stubbornness-to-weight ratio has always been high. Her older sister Natalie remembers watching her win a pull-up contest in fifth grade "with those little stick arms." Both girls got involved in sports early; their father, Dennis, a contractor, coached youth softball and soccer in their hometown of Chula Vista, Calif., and Natalie would later go to Cal as a scholarship field hockey player.
Desiree played soccer through high school, deftly dishing the ball to bigger, stronger players. But she preferred the urban electricity she felt on the MLK Blasters track club in San Diego, where sprinter Monique Henderson was named to an Olympic team at age 17. It made that destination seem reachable to Davila, who had been smitten while watching the 1996 Summer Games.
One of the first people who took her vision seriously was Frank Browne, her coach at Hilltop High School. When she put her goals in writing at a running camp, he didn't bat an eye at her big dream. "It wasn't like, 'OK, that's cute, you're a little kid,'" Davila recalled. "He said, 'You're very talented. If you want to be an Olympian, this is how you get there."
Browne, now a teacher and administrator at a private school in Nevada, meant what he said. "I told her early on, 'If you keep doing this, you'll keep getting better,'" he said. "'The people who are beating you now will not beat you later.' I showed her the names of women who weren't brilliant in high school."
Davila was the 15th-best miler in the country her senior year, but with her natural reserve and wispy stature, she wasn't a buzz-generator. When she applied to Arizona State, Browne felt compelled to tell Sun Devils coach Walt Drenth not to mistake her shyness for a lack of drive.
Davila was motivated but didn't quite grasp how to get from point A to point B.
"College, from my sophomore to senior year, was kind of like this monster slump," she said. "Being in college and juggling school, I don't think I was consistent and trained the way I needed to all the time or thought like an athlete all the time. I wanted it so bad that I was trying to force something that wasn't there instead of letting it happen slowly." She quietly chafed at the consistent-but-not-sensational role where she seemed to be trapped.
The lasting bond she formed with Hastings was a bright spot. They met when Davila hosted Hastings on a recruiting trip, and discovered during many long runs together that they shared the same dry yet goofy sense of humor. Hastings loved Davila's deadpan cracks -- they riffed for months about forming an emo band to sing about their tribulations -- and envied her ability to crank out term papers at the last minute, fueled by gallons of coffee. She also admired her.
"Once she opens up, she's one of the most charismatic people ever, but she's kind of a silent leader, a smart, tactical racer," Hastings said. "She goes to practice every day with a mission."
When Davila graduated with a psychology degree and two All-America finishes, one in track, one in cross-country, "I wasn't ready to say that was it," she said. She fended off her parents' concerns about the faraway move and convinced the Hansons she was thick-skinned enough to cope with the weather. The brothers had a reputation for helping unheralded runners tap unused potential and she wanted to be their biggest success story.
'Do I have to run the marathon?'
American distance running was backsliding when the Hansons started their program in 1999. The country that had produced Bill Rodgers, Frank Shorter, Steve Prefontaine and Joan Benoit Samuelson -- who collectively inspired a generation of grass-roots runners -- qualified only one man and one woman for the 2000 Olympic marathon, and the times at the U.S. trials didn't give the rest of the world much to worry about.
The Hansons, both of whom had modest collegiate running careers, thought the trend had to do with the withering of club-based training groups like those formed by Rodgers and Shorter in the 1970s and '80s. Twenty years later, top distance runners had financial support from shoe companies but lacked a daily competitive training milieu. Those who left college without spectacular results struggled to make ends meet while training long hours. There wasn't enough of an infrastructure for athletes who tend not to peak until their late 20s.
"How do you get kids from 22 to 30 without living off of Mom, Dad or food stamps?" Kevin said the brothers asked themselves. They invested in a blue-collar approach, buying two ranch houses to serve as dorms and providing health insurance and gear for athletes in return for hours worked at the running shoe stores they owned in the area. Initially, the team was all-male. In 2003, when the Brooks shoe company signed on as a sponsor, the Hansons acquired another house and started a women's program. The team now counts 16 athletes and two assistant coaches.
The brothers also had a secret weapon in Rochester Hills: A hidden landscape of parkland laced with undulating dirt and crushed limestone trails. Densely populated areas give way to pastures and millionaires' mansions. It's good terrain for training and, surprisingly, rarely compromised by snow or ice. Brian Sell came out of the Hansons-Brooks group to qualify for the 2008 U.S. Olympic marathon team, and he finished 22nd in Beijing.
Most elite marathoners train in a group setting now (2008 and 2012 Olympic team member Ryan Hall, who went solo about 18 months ago, is a notable exception), including past track Olympians Flanagan and Goucher, who work with coach Jerry Schumacher at the Nike Oregon Project.
Davila was sidelined by a stress fracture early in her time in Michigan. That first fall, local runner Ryan Linden, who sometimes trained with the team, started quizzing her about her résumé. "I said, 'I was in the national meet a couple times. I'm not that bad,'" she recalled. "And he said, 'Can't pretty much anybody get to nationals out of the West region?'" He was serious. She thought he was a jerk.
Meanwhile, Davila was feeling increasingly attracted to a race she'd resisted at first. "Do I have to run the marathon?" she asked Kevin Hanson when she got to Michigan. But she was intrigued. In 2006, Davila began training for a 20K and did a lot of running with Melissa White, who was to make her marathon debut in Chicago that fall.
Davila went to the race, watched the elite athletes from close up and absorbed their whipsawing emotions. "At the finish, it's an incredible experience to watch different people respond to what happened out there," she said.
Marathoning is a choice for talented distance runners -- many have the physiology, but not everyone is willing to do the tedious training and front-load all their expectations on one or two days a year. Davila decided she wanted to find out what that was like.
The lesson learned from second place
Former Hansons-Brooks team member Sage Canaday described Davila as possessing "the fierceness and tenacity of a 500-pound tiger" in a 2011 book about his experiences with the team. One chapter is devoted to his effort to stay ahead of her on a 16-mile training run; the exertion cost Canaday his previous night's dinner. "She wanted some young blood, and if I had packed it in, she surely would have caught me," he wrote.
The Hansons didn't try to tame Davila's spirit, but they steered her toward focusing on incremental improvements so her big days would be more than the sum of all the small ones. "I learned to break things down a little bit and think of it in smaller steps," she said. "I still have these big goals, but I celebrate the little things in between."
Davila debuted at the marathon distance in Boston in 2007 and ran 2:44.56 in a raging Nor'easter. A year later on the same course, Davila thought she had progressed enough to make the Olympic team. At Mile 21, running fourth, it looked as if she'd been right. But Davila, who hadn't hydrated and eaten enough before the race, ran out of gas and faded to 13th.
She was devastated. Hastings was there to comfort her, and so was Natalie. "If I'm investing my money in someone right now, it's you," the older sister said. "You're going in the right direction, you're going up."
Or down, in stopwatch terms. Davila worked at mastering the right balance of food and fluids on race day. She ran 2:31:33 in Chicago in 2008 and 2:27:53 in 2009 -- breaking the important 2:30 barrier -- at the world championships in Berlin. She also kept training and racing on the track to stay fresh and build confidence for those critical last six miles.
In 2011, Davila not only ran an American course record in the Boston Marathon (2:22.38), but also set set personal records at three other distances: The 5,000, the 10,000 and the half-marathon. She was aiming for 33:20 in the last 10K in Boston and hit 33:19. That was easier mentally, Kevin Hanson noted, because she knew she could run it almost two minutes faster on the track.
"Boston was the closest to perfect in terms of getting the most out of myself and my race plan," she said. "But if you look at it in terms of how fit I can be, I think there's a lot left."
In Boston, Davila traded leads with Kenya's Kilel in a scintillating stretch run. When Kilel collapsed just past the finish line, Davila couldn't help but wonder if she had done all she could.
"I don't think I hurt enough," she told Kevin Hanson an hour later. She kept churning inwardly even as the accolades rained down. As she and the coach drove away from a television interview a few days later, she said, "Did anyone realize I finished second?"
"Most people would be ecstatic about being that close [to winning], but for her, it was, 'I didn't get the job done. I'm just a footnote,"' Hanson said. He welcomes that attitude. He never has to worry about her drive.
The road ahead ...
Davila brought that appetite to Houston.
"Going into the last mile, it was kind of this internal conflict where I really wanted to make a push and see what I had left," she said after the race. "Ultimately it was just like, 'Finish it up, get the job done.' I didn't really have enough confidence in being able to catch Shalane and then make another surge, and I didn't want to lose the position that I had."
She crossed the finish line feeling an odd mixture of satisfaction and restraint. The podium awaited her. There was an oversized flag to drape around the newly minted Olympic team, a big white cowboy hat to don, embraces to fall into. But first, there was the sagging figure of Hastings, who had crossed the line in fourth place.
Davila hugged her. "You've got it on the track," she said firmly before she was whisked off, meaning Hastings would make it to London by qualifying in either the 5,000 or 10,000.
At the press conference an hour later, Hastings, whose finish made her the Olympic alternate, smiled stoically while Davila wore the wide-eyed, wary expression she often has when faced with a phalanx of cameras and reporters. As she described her tactics in the final miles, she glanced at Hastings. "You had to break people like Amy, unfortunately," Davila said.
"I knew what she meant," Hastings said recently. "It was a respect thing. I would have said the same thing. If I gave it to her, she would kill me. If she gave it to me, I would never forgive her. We work too hard."
Whether or not the two walk into the Opening Ceremony together on July 27, they'll stand together in Northern Michigan next year when Hastings is a bridesmaid at Davila's wedding to Ryan Linden, the local runner Davila found so obnoxious when their paths first crossed. Linden, who works for an industrial supply company, said he was drawn to Davila by her "drive and dedication."
She bettered his marathon PR in Chicago a couple years ago. He proposed last year anyway. They've moved into a house surrounded by woods and wetlands a few miles from the rancher where Davila lived when she first joined the team, and settled in with their two dogs. Like a born Michigander, Davila now raises her right hand to mimic the state's mitten shape and points to locations with her left.
Despite her clear upward trajectory, Davila still self-identifies as an underdog. "I'll always kind of have that," she said before racing the New York City Half-Marathon in March. "I'm used to it. I'm not trying to compare myself to being the top American; now it's 'How can I be the best in the world?' I'm not quite there."
Natalie Davila smiled at the notion. "I think that ship has sailed," she said. "It's a comfort thing. It's what she prefers to feel."
Davila relishes the ability to surprise people, and that requires a level of preparedness that keeps climbing even as her times drop. Meeting her own standards and living up to her inner belief is a never-ending job.
Davila is almost as voracious a reader as she is a runner, with tastes that run to contemporary novelists such as Will Self and Dave Eggers. In a 2010 Q&A with Runner's World, Davila said that given her choice of famous training partners, she'd pick a woman named Joan -- not marathon pioneer Benoit Samuelson, but author Joan Didion, whose frank, elegant style she loves: "I'd thank her for her essay 'On Self-Respect.'"
Presented with a copy of the essay in New York, Davila took a pen and made a small, careful 'X' next to her favorite passages, murmuring them almost from memory. She finds this one especially relevant:
However long we postpone it, we eventually lie down alone in that notoriously uncomfortable bed, the one we make ourselves. Whether or not we sleep in it depends, of course, on whether we respect ourselves.
"There are no shortcuts," Davila said. "There's no way to fool yourself. You know when you've put in the work."
She won't rest until she's guaranteed herself that sense of peace.