By Brian Nicholson, GOAL Foundation
November 13, 2015 – When Merrilee Blackham of Ogden, Ut. first started running, qualifying for the 2016 U.S. Olympic Marathon Team Trials was the furthest thing from her mind. She was only in sixth grade at the time, yet decades later, that’s exactly what happened.
Blackham attended Viewmont High School in Bountiful Ut. and ran for the school. “I feel like I had a lot of unfulfilled potential in high school,” she said.
After high school she ran for Southern Utah University in Cedar City where she met her husband Jason, who was also on the cross country team. Jason would eventually attend medical school at the University of Utah and complete his residency at the University of Iowa.
“I took about an 8-9 year break from competitive running while Jason went to medical school,” she said. However, nine years and three children later, she completed the Ogden Marathon with a time of 3:11, the same time she got at the St. George Marathon in 2000. That got the wheels turning.
She then completed the 2010 Boston Marathon with a time of 3:08 and started thinking about trying to break the three hour mark. But there was another set back, she had to stop training with the arrival of her fourth child.
It wasn’t long after that she broke three hours. In 2013, she ran the Ogden Marathon in 2:55 and improved that time later in the year at St. George with a time of 2:46, only three minutes off the Olympic marathon qualifying time.
Somewhere along the way, she contacted coach Paul Pilkington, head coach of men’s and women’s cross country at Weber State University in Ogden. “I had a lot of friends being coached by him,” she said. That meeting has helped her improve her time and running form.
Her husband, Jason has been by her side the whole time. “It has definitely been hard to train (for the trials) because with four kids, there is such limited time to train,” she said.
At first, she was afraid to tell people she was training to compete for the Olympic trials. “I would make excuses why not to go,” she said. Many times, it came as a shock to her friends that despite having four kids she would want to put in the training.
“In the end, I felt like if I never tried, I would regret it. I would rather fail trying, than not try at all and wonder,” she said.
That training and trying eventually paid off. At the Chicago Marathon in October of 2014, she made the qualifying standard (2:43) with a time of 2:41:59, and will join 150-200 of the fastest marathoners at the February trials.
One thing is for sure, her age and busy schedule as a mother, wife and community volunteer hasn’t slowed her down. “The older I get, the stronger I feel at the longer distances,” she said.
As far as her chances for competing for the U.S. in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, it would be a long shot. Only the top three women in the field will earn a shot at Olympic fame. “I’m just excited about going to compete against the best runners in the country,” she said. “To go to the Olympics, I would probably need to be around 2:30 or better. That’s a PR (personal record) of about 12 minutes.”
The trials are scheduled for February 13, 2016 and for now, she’s just focusing on performing her best. “I hope being registered for the trials will keep me motivated through the winter,” she said.