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Benefield: El Molino grad Nicole Lane makes Olympic trials in marathon

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And then there were three.

Nicole Lane, a 2012 El Molino graduate named The Press Democrat’s Cross Country All-Empire Runner of the Year as a senior before she went on to run for UC Davis, just ran her way into the 2020 Olympic trials in the marathon.

Lane, running in just her second 26.2-mile race, clocked in at 2:42:26 in the Bank of America Chicago Marathon Sunday. The Olympic trials qualifying time is 2:45. With the feat, Lane joins the ranks of other local standouts: Sara (Bei) Hall, a Montgomery grad who on Sept. 29 ran the sixth-fastest marathon ever for an American woman with a 2:22:16 at the Berlin Marathon to qualify for the trials; and 2007 Maria Carrillo grad Alia Gray, who hit her qualifying time at the 2017 Chicago Marathon with a 2:34:25 finish.

“I don’t think words can describe it,” Lane said of crossing the line well ahead of the Olympic standard threshold. “Everything just fell into place. It felt super surreal and magical.”

Lane only has one other marathon experience to compare it to and Sunday certainly didn’t feel like her first-ever attempt, when she raced the California International Marathon in Sacramento last December.

In that race, she was cruising and on pace to beat 2:45 — until she wasn’t. The final three miles were the opposite of magical and surreal.

“I just kind of fell apart,” she said. “My teammates had to catch me at the finish line.”

And still, even in a race in which the wheels fell off, she was still tantalizingly close to the qualifying mark. She finished in 2:46:11.

So Lane regrouped. After all, she has had a lot of practice regrouping and bouncing back in this running gig.

After a stellar prep career in which she finished seventh at the CIF state cross country championship as a senior and missed the finals of the CIF state track and field meet her senior year in the 1,600 meters by just one place, she went on to run for the Aggies of UC Davis.

But her resume there has some holes.

“I was injured almost every single year, so I never felt like I got where I wanted,” she said. “I didn’t ever really have a full track season of being healthy.”

So when her collegiate career wrapped up, she considered hanging up her trainers.

“I didn’t imagine running post-college at all. I thought maybe my body couldn’t handle it,” she said. “I had a lot of stress fractures. I was getting frustrated. I’m so injury-prone.”

So when podiatrist and running coach Steve Palladino — who is based in Santa Rosa — called at the close of her senior year for the Aggies to see if she was interested in pursuing running post-collegiately, Lane wasn’t so sure. But she came around.

“I gave it some thought,” she said. “I said yes and I started getting excited.”

And for the most part, she has stopped getting injured.

Palladino runs a program based on a power meter for running, much the same way that cyclists use it to track power and watts in training. It was completely foreign to Lane, and not a little unnerving.

It was like learning a new language.

“It was completely different,” she said. “I was so big on pace and times. I would kind of freak out.”

Palladino, who made the 1980 Olympic trials in the marathon and whose daughter Shannon is a senior runner at the University of Nevada-Reno, knew Lane from prep running circles. And he knew she was good.

“I just knew her as a superstar,” he said. “She was one of the all-time greats on the Spring Lake course.”

Lane clocked a 17:30 on the 3.05-mile course in high school, putting her 11th on the all-time list along with names like Julia Stamps, Amber Trotter, Hall and Sarah Sumpter. Behind her on that list you will find two-time Olympian Kim Conley, four-time North Bay League champ Delaney White and CIF state champ Rylee Bowen.

She has the goods. The key seemed to be keeping Lane healthy. And that meant doing less, not more.

“Nicole is like a race horse that you have to pull back on the reins more than you have to go to the whip to make the horse run faster,” Palladino said. “It’s not getting her to do stuff, particularly on the recovery days; it’s, ‘Hey, let’s ease back.’”

Lane, who lives in Sacramento and trains with the Sacramento Running Association’s elite team, admits as much.

“I have a tendency to over-run everything,” she said. “On my easy days, I would go out hard.”

And she also had to get used to the longer distances that were now fair game post-college.

Turns out that suited her.

“The longer I run, I feel like the better I am at holding it,” she said. “I’m really good at sustaining. I just like the grind.”

But that doesn’t mean she has abandoned 5K and 10K-type races. But these days she mostly uses those as a means to an end — for speed — rather than a goal unto themselves.

She’s clocked a 4:39 in the 1,500 meters, a 17:07 in the 5,000 meters and a 34:51 in the 10,000 meters. At a 10-mile road race in St. Paul, Minnesota in 2017, she clocked a 59:32.

“That was her first experience in a big, national-class race that was a bit on the longer side,” Palladino said. “She got a little taste of that and it’s just a matter of branching out and learning.”

And of course, she won the Santa Rosa Half Marathon in August, coming in at 1:17:07.

“It was something I had been wanting to race,” she said. “It was huge. It was a huge confidence booster.”

And the timing was perfect for Chicago, which had been the target all along.

When Lane put down her personal best on the “pancake-flat” Chicago course, history was being made elsewhere on the road. It was the same race where Kenya’s Brigid Kosgei broke the 16-year-old world marathon record by 81 seconds, finishing in 2:14:04.

But Lane wasn’t likely concerned with Kosgei or anyone else. She was trying to hit her target and book her ticket to Atlanta in February.

For perspective, there are 352 names on the USATF’s latest qualifying list (that actually does not include Lane’s time because it is only through Oct. 8). But also for perspective, this was Lane’s second marathon. Ever. And she ran her way to the Olympic trials.

Making the trials is a long way from being one of the top three who will race in Tokyo next summer. But for a runner who just a short time ago didn’t know if she had a post-college career, it seems like movement in the right direction.

“I don’t know if I’m quite there yet,” she said. “I think this is a first step.”

You can reach staff columnist Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or kerry.benefield@pressdemocrat.com, on Twitter @benefield and on Instagram at kerry.benefield. Podcasting on iTunes and SoundCloud, “Overtime with Kerry Benefield.”

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