There once was a time when Kara Goucher could not fathom why anyone would want to run 26.2 miles. During her childhood in Duluth, she handed out water to the staggering hordes who made it to the 23-mile mark of Grandma's Marathon, and she remembered seeing her aunt and uncle limping for days after finishing the race.
It seemed crazy, Goucher recalled Friday -- and she felt certain she never would try it herself. She still has not run Grandma's, but she returned to her hometown this week to prepare for the ultimate race at the distance: the Olympic marathon. After making the Olympic team in January, Goucher chose to run Saturday's USA half-marathon championships -- which begin 90 minutes before Grandma's Marathon -- as her final tuneup for the London Games.
Nearly 16,000 runners will participate in Grandma's Marathon, the Garry Bjorklund Half-Marathon and the USA championships, which follow the final 13.1 miles of the Grandma's course from Two Harbors to downtown Duluth. Goucher could have competed instead at the U.S. Olympic track and field trials at the end of this month, but she could not resist the allure of coming home.
"I wrote a letter on behalf of Grandma's Marathon a couple of years ago to help them get this championship,'' said Goucher, who competed in the 2008 Olympics in the 5,000 and 10,000 meters. "I promised my family if I made the Olympic team, I would race here.
"In the last two weeks, my speed has been starting to come back, and my coach said he thought I would be tough to beat at the Olympic trials. But there really was no choice. This is a chance I didn't know if I'd ever see in my career."
Goucher, 33, arrived in Duluth on Wednesday. She has been staying with her mom, Patty Wheeler, and hanging out with family and friends. Her husband, Adam Goucher, and their 21-month-old son Colt also made the trip to her hometown, where she will compete for the first time since her senior year at Duluth East.
Thursday night, she ran the last 4 miles of the Grandma's course, feeling fit and strong over that familiar path. She has recovered from the hip injury that hampered her last year and is flourishing in her new training group in Portland, Ore. Last October, Goucher joined forces with coach Jerry Schumacher and training partner Shalane Flanagan, a longtime rival and fellow 2012 Olympian in the marathon.
Though she doubted her fitness before the Olympic trials, she finished third in a time of 2 hours, 26 minutes, six seconds to make the team. Since then, her continued improvement has made her feel like her old self. That's given Goucher confidence, considering what she's achieved in her short marathon career. In 2008, she finished third in the New York City Marathon in 2:25:53, the fastest debut ever by an American woman, and she set a personal record of 2:24:52 in a fifth-place finish at the 2011 Boston Marathon.
Goucher isn't expecting to beat her personal best of 1:06:57 in the half-marathon Saturday. She said she is nervous for two reasons: She wants to prepare herself properly for London, and she wants to perform well for the hometown crowd.
That means her head will be fixed firmly on business, even though her heart could not be happier.
"There's a part of me that wants to wave to everybody on the course and shout out to my grandparents,'' she said. "But I'm not. I'm going to wear my sunglasses and shut everybody out, because this is really important.
"The next time I lace up will be in London, so I need to make it count. I feel super nervous. But there's no place I'd rather be right now than right here in Duluth."
Christopher Kipyego of Kenya, who won Grandma's Marathon last year and finished second in 2010, withdrew from the race Friday morning. Kipyego sent an e-mail to race officials citing "unavoidable reasons."
Five of the top 12 seeds in the men's field will not compete because of injuries, travel difficulties or training setbacks.