How Julia Lucas found a way to love running again after she lost her shot to be an Olympian in 2012
The buildup to the Olympic Games is filled with stories of athletes at the peak of their careers doing incredible things, but sometimes the not-so-successful stories are just as inspirational—and more realistic. Take the story of runner Julia Lucas, who had a shot at going to the 2012 Olympics in the 5,000-meter race. She entered the U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Track and Field four years ago as a shoe-in to finish in the top three and advance on to London. (Speaking of the Olympics trials, Simone Biles' Flawless Floor Routine Will Get You Amped for Rio.)
But the difference between Olympian and Olympic hopeful is a mere one-hundredth of a second. During the trials, Lucas pushed herself to the front of the pack with only a few laps to go, but she couldn't hold the lead. She lost steam and crossed the finish line at 15:19.83, just .04 seconds behind the third-place finisher. The crowd of 20,000 people at Oregon's famous Hayward Field gasped all at once, realizing Lucas's Olympic dreams were slashed. "I lost it in dramatic fashion in the last step of the race," the 32-year-old recalls.
There was no time to feel sorry for herself. Lucas had to keep her chin up and go through the post-race routine, rehashing the heartbreaking finish in front of media and then heading to the drug-testing area along with the three Olympic qualifiers who were on cloud nine. It wasn't until she went home that reality began to set in. "When I was finally by myself and realized this was a real thing, that's when it was really sad, and the ho-hum everyday repercussions of the failure set in," she says.
She soon realized that Eugene, Oregon, where she'd been living and training for the big race, wasn't going to work anymore. She found her way back to the windy trails in the woods and mountains of North Carolina, where she first started running and later competed in college. "I went to the place where I could remember that I love this," she says. "And it worked out really well," she says. "I got myself to love running again rather than resent it."
Back in North Carolina, she still continued racing competitively for two years. "I wanted the story to be that I picked myself up by my bootstraps, and I overcame that loss, and it was redemption, and I would go on to the Olympics," she says. That's got the drama and happy ending that every great sports story needs, right? "But I am not living a Disney life," Lucas says. "The magic was sort of gone." (Learn more about these 5 Reasons Your Motivation Is Missing.) She couldn't get herself fired up anymore, so she gave up racing cold turkey, put her Olympic dreams behind her, and promised not to run a race for a full year. Somewhere along the way, Lucas realized she could have a bigger impact working with regular runners than she ever could as an Olympian. "I realized the moments when running lifted me up were when I saw real effort coming from humans," she says. "Seeing unapologetic effort coming down the track—there's something really lovely there that I want to attach myself to."
Lucas sees that effort now coming from everyday runners as a Nike+ Run Coach in New York City, where she coaches groups of local, non-elite athletes and doles out countless nuggets of real-life expertise. "I've basically had every injury or problem or self-doubt anyone can have in running, so if their knee hurts in a way I'm familiar with, I'll be able to help them," she says. ( New to Running? Get Motivated With These Minigoals.)
It's only fueled her love for the sport even more. "I think I love running more, but my love gets to be broader," she says. "I get to share it with everyone." Including the 10,000-plus people following her super-motivating Instagram account. "The thought of inspiring someone else inspires me," Lucas says. Mission accomplished.