Growing up on a dirt road in rural West Virginia in a house with no TV, Clara Grandt was up and out early every summer morning with her five brothers and sisters to bike, hike to the tops of nearby hills, or swim in the creek. The only thing that would lure them back inside was their mother’s healthy home-cooking at mealtime.
As an early base for marathon training, it seems to have done the job. Grandt, 24, ran 2:29:54 in this spring’s Boston Marathon to finish as third American woman, running impressively even splits of 1:14:54/1:15, and breaking the 2:30 barrier in her debut at the distance. Her time was the fifth-fastest run by an American woman in 2011, and the fastest ever run by an American woman of her age.
And to think, all she was hoping for was a good first experience.
“I wasn’t setting my goal for a sub 2:30,” Grandt said. “I don’t think I expected to do that even while I was running the race. I remember turning the corner [from Hereford onto Boylston Street] and seeing I was close to under 2:30. I knew that was a big barrier. I pushed as hard as I could to get under that 2:30 mark. When I crossed that line I was happy. Exhausted, but really, really happy.”
Her Boston time makes Grandt the seventh-fastest Trials qualifier, but she remains largely under the running-world radar, a long way from the training hotbeds of Portland or Mammoth Lakes or Flagstaff. After winning state track titles at Doddridge High School in tiny West Union, WV (pop. 806), she went on to become a four-time All-American at the University of West Virginia who twice finished fourth at 10,000 meters in the NCAA Championships and still trains in Morgantown under her college coach, Sean Cleary.
Had it been solely up to Cleary, she wouldn’t be on the radar screen at all. When they first started discussing the Trials, he suggested to Grandt that she qualify and enter on a 10K or half-marathon time. He had a feeling, he said, that the first marathon she ran would be awesome, and the Trials would be a great place to launch a surprise.
“There would be no expectations,” Cleary said he told her. “No one would whisper your name.”
It was tempting. Grandt – always the one who loved the long runs and thrived on distance – has been looking toward the marathon since high school, and Cleary had her doing long, hard tempo runs at what he thought would be her marathon pace for her last 18 months of college. Showing up in Houston as a complete unknown and then catching her rivals unawares might have been the perfect way to grab a spot on the team. But doing that would take supreme nerve and the confidence to run like she knew who she was, even if no one else did.
“He wanted me to go into it with no experience so I wouldn’t know how it felt,” said Grandt. “Maybe being oblivious to the feeling of a marathon would take away the fear. But I wasn’t that confident to go into the Trials as my first marathon.”
Cleary got behind her choice 100 percent, and they came up with a plan for Boston.
“I think it was a good decision to run one beforehand,” Grandt said. “Now I know I can do it. I mean, I know it hurts. I never felt that way in a race before. But I’m not afraid to feel it again.”
Although Boston gave Grandt the confidence she was seeking, the Trials are likely to shape up much differently. Running much of her first marathon alone in a race that went out at course-record pace, she never really felt in touch with the leaders. In Houston, she expects a more-conservative pace will put her much closer to the action, and her coach says she’s “as good or better” than she was in April.
Still, she acknowledges that she’s a long-shot to make the team. “I put myself as an outside chance, but still a chance. There would probably have to be somebody who didn’t perform at the level they should have and I would hopefully jump into that spot.”
If she does, the little girl who always dreamed of doing something out of the ordinary won’t be forgetting where she came from any time soon. Proud of her parents (her father is a carpenter and construction worker who now co-owns a roofing business; her mother is a teachers’ aide in elementary special education) and proud of West Union (a hard-working town of folks in oil, gas, farming, and timber with neither a chain restaurant nor a stoplight) – she is equally proud of hailing from her down-to-earth state.
In 2009, when the West Virginia Sports Writers Association voted her its McCoy Female Athlete of the Year for her NCAA successes, she told the Parkersburg News and Sentinel: “It means a lot. It’s a West Virginia award and I’ve always tried to represent the state well.
“I’m a West Virginian and everybody knows that.”
If all goes well on January 14, “everybody” will include a lot more people.
By Barbara Huebner