Monday, May 2, 2011

Caroline White 2011 Boston Marathon Race Report

In 2009, Caroline White shared her race report from her Olympic Trials qualifying effort at the Twin Cities Marathon. Since then, she has gone through Air Force training to become a fighter jet pilot and just lowered her marathon PR from 2:45 to 2:37 at the 2011 Boston Marathon.

Here is her story:

Family and friends,

As I have been informed by several of you, it has been entirely too long since I’ve sent out a race report. Although this is borderline more of a life update than a race report, I am happy to send out the race report for my fourth marathon, the 2011 Boston Marathon.

Where to even begin? I suppose it is best to pick up where I left off; Twin Cities 2009 Marathon. After qualifying for the Olympic Trials with a time of 2:45, I moved to Wichita Falls, TX to begin the next phase of my life, Pilot Training. Saying good-bye to all my Colorado ties and hitting the road to TX, I received a lot of, ‘what do you mean you’re going to pilot training? You qualified! I thought you were going to stay and train if you met the standard!’ After hearing this for the dozenth time, I started to think, hmmmm, do I really want to leave the Colorado utopia for a life I know little about, have no idea if I’ll be successful, and know essentially no one there from being an athlete, which I know I love?

It was an uncomfortable decision, but as my long trusted mentor explained, ‘Caroline, think about the conversation we are having, you are deciding between being a national caliber athlete and a pilot. Most people would dream to be in either situation. But the reality is, you have to close a door. You must make a decision; you can’t have optimum training and still become a pilot. Recognize that one choice will come at the expense of the other. Whatever you decide, go on that path, do it well, and stick with it.’

One of the two paths involved a lot of uncertainty, a lot of sacrifice, and a lot of Texas. But the decision was already made. At the age of twelve, I determined that flying would be the coolest disguise of a career anyone could have. As I matured, I recognized it would also be a fulfilling life, allowing me to use my talents while serving others. Although there were many unknowns, I had to pursue the chance of being a pilot. Otherwise I would always live my life wondering what could have been.

So I structured the next year around my mentor’s solid advice. I decided pilot training was my next endeavor, so I would do it the only way I knew; the best I could. This meant, however, that nothing would come between me and my goal. Including running. I committed to the mindset that flying was the new priority in my life and running was secondary.


It was necessary to embrace this change of priorities because pilot training would accept nothing less. I was not only starting pilot training, I was starting EURO-NATO Joint Jet Pilot Training (ENJJPT). Only the top candidates for pilot training who are selected by a special board go to ENJJPT. And that is not limited to the United States. Other NATO countries send their best candidates to ENJJPT as well, including Italy, Germany, Spain, and the Netherlands, to name a few. When a friend asked why I was anxious about pilot training I explained, I’m not any smarter than my peers, and they, like me, have dreamed of flying since a young age, so I’m not necessarily more motivated either. This leaves me little to work with.

ENJJPT is a 13 month long program that trains 250 students to become combat pilots for their respective country. Students are evaluated constantly throughout the program with academic events, simulators, and flights. Students fly the T-6 (a tubro-prop) the first half of the program and a T-38 (a dual jet trainer) the second half. At the end of the course, students fill out a ‘dream sheet’ where they list their preferences for aircraft. Between their rank in the class and what planes the Air Force has available, students are then given an assignment which they will fly or support the remainder of their career. Assignment trends change class to class, but the top third or half get fighters.

Although the statistics were intimidating, I tried not to let it phase me, and went in as confidently as possible. Hey, if I can swim 2.4 miles in the Hawaiian ocean, bike through 110 degree lava fields and top it off with a marathon, I can do this right? Bring on Pilot Training!

And having a good attitude goes a long way, which allowed me to excel in T-6’s. My assigned instructor, a Norwegian, and I got along great. He was strict and held me accountable for my mistakes, but at the same time was encouraging. Through definite ups and downs, T-6’s went pretty smoothly. Keep in mind smoothly doesn’t mean easy. It took an incredible amount of dedication. Students are bound by ‘crew rest’ where they are not allowed to be in the squadron more than 12 hours (as a safety rule to make sure they have enough rest to safely operate a million dollar aircraft). This 12 hour rule became a hindrance to me, as I wanted to work longer. The simulator technicians knew me by name as I was consistently practicing until closing. I sat in on every debrief I could, learning from others mistakes, and trying to get ahead of the game.

12 hour days also made running a challenge, but I seemed to fit it in (a typical wake up would be @ 4:00 AM to get a 10 mile run in before report time). I found running to be a necessary release from flying and was still averaging 60-90 miles a week. No matter how overwhelmed I was with pilot training, I had the roads to look forward to. My legs and the concrete would fight out my pilot training frustrations, and I was ready to face a new day’s challenge.

In January 2010, I ran the Houston half marathon and had a big PR; 1:16:58. In February, I competed in the Armed Forces and won for the second year in a row. It looked like I was able to handle both pilot training and being a national level athlete. All the while, pilot training was a challenge, but I loved it. I was feeling positive about the future of my running and my Air Force assignment.

However, in June, we made the switch to T-38’s and things changed. For the worse. The T-38 was twice as powerful as the T-6 and really, twice the challenge, with plenty of opportunities to mess up. I became incredibly frustrated that I was not doing as well as I wanted, despite coming close to breaking the crew rest rule and giving it my all. Also, I did not have my T-6 instructor, and found my new T-38 IP to be ambivalent to me and flying. Without my old instructor’s critiques and support, I became overly critical of my own mistakes. I grew overly apprehensive about my rank in the class and if I would be good enough to receive a favorable assignment.

There were nights I would lay awake in bed, beating myself over the errors I’d made that day. My parents would call weekly to check in, and at times I wouldn’t answer the phone because I could not bear to explain to them how I was not as successful as I wanted to be. I vividly remember going to Quiznos following a long day, and the cashier exclaimed ‘Oh my Goodness! A female pilot! You just must be SO PROUD of yourself!” A normal person would feel honored, but I felt like I was punched in the gut. I was falling short of my expectations and was not even close to proud of it. Still, I smiled and said “well, I do what I can.”

Running was also taking a turn for the worse. Texas summer temps were consistently over 100 degrees, making long distance training excruciating. When you combined this with being newly exposed to T-38 G forces, and being stressed over flying well, my performance suffered. I was feeling more and more like garbage on training runs. An easy tempo run of 6:15 miles transitioned to being very difficult, and eventually I was not even able to complete workouts at that pace. One day a friend asked me, so do you think you are faster now than you were at the Twin Cities Marathon? I laughed with disappointment, and honestly answered, I wish I was in the same ballpark as the Twin Cities Caroline, but I am not even close. In August, my coach brought up the idea of competing in the NYC marathon. I nearly broke down in tears because I so badly wanted to have a good race there, but it just wasn’t possible. Flying was overwhelming, my running was deteriorating, and things looked bleak, with no hope of relief. It seemed as though I had not closed one life door, but both.

But the race report doesn’t end here. Somehow I made it through. My coach supported me even though I wasn’t acting like the national caliber athlete he raised. He worked with me through my setbacks and was considerate that running was not number one on the priority list. Also, I was able to confide in Ben about my insecurities. I would explain my errors from the day and he assured me that no, I wasn’t the first person to make that error, he had made similar mistakes, and taught me to positively embrace my setbacks. So I kept at it, and continued the 12 hour days. In September, I was assigned a new IP and flying really became fun again, and surprise! I started performing better. I also found a running partner who was actually crazy enough to wake up before 5:00 to run.

I’d like to say time flew by and it was over before I knew it, but it felt like an eternity. Despite this, assignment night did in fact arrive in October. The prospect of my assignment through pilot training caused more anxiety that I can express, but assignment night was one of the greatest of my life. After a lifetime of dreaming of being a pilot, and a year of seemingly insurmountable challenges, I was assigned the F-15C. Not just ENJJPT, but out of the entire AF, twelve individuals are assigned this yearly. I was out of control happy. I even had a shot of alcohol for the first time in 3 years (which led me to lose my voice for 5 days, but that’s another story). It was an unreal moment. A vivid memory from that night was a woman walking up to me and genuinely stating “I don’t even know you, but I cried when you got your assignment. I am so happy for you.” Of 250 students, there are usually only 5 females in the program at a time, and I was the first female in a long, long time to be assigned a fighter. I was truly honored.

Although my anxieties about flying were alleviated after graduation in November, I still had major reservations with running. I hadn’t raced since February 2010 and never felt 100% recovered from the summer. My coach encouraged me to look at upcoming races, which I was very reluctant to do, but we have to get back on the horse sometime. Specifically, the Armed Forces cross country championship was coming up, and I was very hesitant to compete in it. Runners from other services had run better marathons than me since Twin Cities (multiple 2:42’s), and I did not think I had a prayer of winning again. Nonetheless, I took the title for the third year in a row. This was a big confidence boost and pushed me to believe in myself again.

Such a boost helped me set my sights on Boston. In my heart I was hoping for a PR; specifically a 2:42. It would be a stretch since I barely hit a 2:45 in Twin Cities, and that was preceded with 6 months of JUST RUNNING. Not running during pilot training, at sea level, in pancake flat TX.


So here comes the race portion, here is the 2011 Boston Marathon. (Finally, right?) Flying out to Boston is a special memory in and of itself. I arbitrarily bought a Runner’s World magazine at the airport, and was flipping through it on the plane. Much to my surprise, there was a picture of me plastered on a full page advertisement. All right, I made my way into Runner’s World. I think I’m ready for Boston.

Randy and I met up to go over the course and talk specific strategy. It was at this point he told me, I think you can break 2:40. WHAT??? Are you kidding me? I haven’t raced in a year, let alone run a marathon in 18 months, how could you think that?

Randy explained, “Twin Cities was different; you had to hit that time to qualify. But now you have nothing to lose. You are already going to the trials, so don’t be conservative. Give it everything and see what you can do. You need to be confident in yourself and your training.”

So we had a plan. Run 6-6:10’s for the first 16 miles, then bring it home with all I had. I was nervous about this plan because 2 years ago I ran Boston and the wheels fell off at the end as a result of going out to hard. I was skeptical that I could run 6:10’s and hold that pace throughout, but as Randy said, I had nothing to lose. When people asked what I wanted to run, I responded “I’m hoping for a PR” but I wouldn’t publicly admit I wanted to break 2:40. It was my own secret.

The gun for the elite women’s start (approx 50 women) went off @ 9:32. The rest of the competitors (24,000) started at 10:00. This gave us the advantage of setting our own pace without the masses interfering. But at the same time, you have Kara Goucher and the Kenyans right there enticing you. I was conscious to keep it slow.

1) 547--Get focused, slow down a touch
2) 5:58—little more
3) 6:02—good, keep it here.

And the plan went perfect, the miles rolled along at 6:00-6:05’s Pace wise, I was feeling really comfortable here. The strategy was working out. The miles flew by effortlessly. I passed the ‘half marathon’ point in 1:19:10. Awesome, if I can hold this pace I will break 2:40. But I can’t let the wheels fall off again. I’ve got to keep rolling.

Before I knew it, I passed the 16 mile mark holding 6:00-6:10’s. And this is where the real challenge begins.

Here we go!

The race doesn’t start until mile 17, where the course changes from a gentle slope into the unforgiving Newton hills. In retrospect I probably should have been more nervous given my complete lack of hill training. In the year preceding Boston I had run hills TWICE, once when I went home for Thanksgiving and once at Christmas. Otherwise, the only thing resembling a hill was the Texas version: a 20 foot overpass. I didn’t let that stop me and I blew through the Newton hills in 6:02, 5:44, and 6:01. Sweet! Now to deal with heartbreak.

Heartbreak hill is renowned for being associated with pain. With a reputation so daunting, it makes momma look down and spit on the ground every time its name gets mentioned. But this wouldn’t stop me, I was on fire. I powered through the Marathon’s climax feeling awesome.

Now it’s all downhill from here. Literally, after heartbreak it was a gentle downhill slope, and I pounded out the miles. I ran mile 22-24 in 5:41, 5:50, 5:48. The strategy worked. Randy was right. I could do it.

The final mile started to present some issues. It was as though my body calculated the perfect pace for a 25.2 mile race, but not a marathon. It was getting difficult to keep my speedy turnover. Also, following heartbreak, my stomach was giving me some problems. At this point though, quitting the race was obviously not an option and I had to block out my stomach’s complaints. Luckily, there was a girl in the distance I could see and I reeled her in. She was the perfect distraction from my rapidly deteriorating body, and I blew by her with a half mile to go. I ran mile 26 in 6:02, and the last .2 mile was filled with an overwhelming roar on Boylston street.

Approaching the finish line, I was confused by the clock, is that the normal start’s clock? Or does that 2:37 apply me? ??

It didn’t matter, I cranked it in.

I crossed the finish line, tried to put my hands on my knees for support, but just collapsed. And couldn’t get up. In fact, I was wheel chaired to the medical tent....yes, I undoubtedly had nothing left to give that day.

After being released from my capture in the medical tent, I met Randy and Whitney in the elite finisher area. We were all jumping out of our skin with excitement. In our wildest expectations, we had no idea I could have had that race. I ended up placing 20th overall and was the 5th American finisher. I also qualified to the Olympic Trials under the A standard, where the Olympic committee pays for your travel. The B standard mentality was, okay, your good enough to come play with the big leagues, but with the A standard it is, we are taking you seriously enough that we’ll pay your way to the trials. Ohhh, what a day.

So what do you do after a major life accomplishment? Move across the country of course! I flew out of Boston and immediately hit the road to move to OR. I checked into my new squadron yesterday and will start the next big adventure of life; F-15 training. I’m enthusiastic to start the next phase of life. When checking in, I was informed (repeatedly) that I am the first female to go through F-15 training here. (10 years ago, training was in FL, but it has since moved exclusively here). I’m honored to be given such opportunity, and to be blazing a new path.

It’s been a long road, it’s not even close to being over, and I’ve learned some very important life lessons along the way. First, words cannot speak to the importance of confidence. To do something amazing, I have to unwaveringly believe in myself and my abilities. Second, the past year and a half has showcased the importance of my loved ones support. The chances of getting through pilot training without Ben and my family is approximately zero. I likely would have stopped running over the past summer if my coach hadn’t encouraged me through the setbacks. When things get rough and I feel like I have nothing more to give, my loved ones are always willing to give me the strength to continue. Furthermore, I couldn’t do any of it on my own. On the flip side of the coin, I hope to provide that strength to others. Luckily for me, that often happens by mere circumstance. When doing errands down town in a flight suit, people stop me all the time to hear my story. It’s not unusual for a mother to point out ‘the lady pilot’ to her daughters. My first day in OR, I got a request to speak to a Girl Scout troop. Others have given me so much strength and support, I find it imperative to build that in others as well.

I honestly could not be more hopeful about future running. The top American marathoner in the country for this Olympic cycle (2:22), ran a PR of 2:37 at Boston 3 years ago. And I am one minute off Deena Kastor (two time Olympian and bronze medalist) best performance this Olympic cycle. Before I was honored to even compete at the national level, but now I’m starting to believe I can do more than just compete. These legs weren’t lying to me, they have a future. Now let’s go find it.


  1. Wow, that girl is BADASS! What an inspiration!

  2. GREAT story... WOW! Thanks for sharing!

  3. I glad that I read this . . . this Country needs inspiration, and she certainly provides it.


  4. This is certainly a great inspirational story - told perfectly. I always believed in myself and my athletic ability but during races I would leave a little back in fear of trying to accomplish great things but fall short - disappointing me and loved ones. I think its time to get my confidence back and really put myself out there.

    Thanks again for the story. I will use it for my upcoming races.

  5. Holy Cow! Great race recap! Way to pull the reigns back early and save it for after heartbreak hill. Impressive miles late especially the 5:41. Great stuff.
    My favorite.. "To do something amazing, I have to unwaveringly believe in myself and my abilities." - that sounds like a facebook status of the year!!

    Incredible. keep inspiring. I came in a few minutes behind in 2:50.. what a day! Boston!
    Gotta Run,

  6. I got here via dcrainmaker, but still inspiring!