Jan 6, 2020

With Late Father in Mind, Patrick Reaves Returns to Streets of Atlanta

By Amby Burfoot

Patrick Reaves is an Atlanta native, graduating from The Westminster School. His mother, stepfather and a brother still live in the city. Though now living in Portland, Oregon, his Southern roots run deep.

At Westminster, wrestling was Reaves’ first love. In ninth grade, a muscular 5-feet, 10 inches, he hit the scale at 171 pounds. But something also drew him to endurance challenges. He ran track and cross country at Westminster to stay fit, and at age 19 decided to tackle his first marathon – the 2003 Atlanta Marathon, finishing in 2:56:46.

In a description bordering on the poetic, the 35-year-old remembers: “I gained an enlightening understanding of the marathon’s discomfort.”

In the late, painful miles, Reaves wondered what attracted his father, Jerry, to marathon running. Jerry qualified for the Boston Marathon in 1986. Early the next January, he was out training for Boston when he was struck and killed by a car. The driver had fallen asleep at the wheel.

Just 2 years old at the time, Reaves has no memories of his dad. “I’ve spent a lot of years wondering what our relationship might have been like, what we might have done together,” Reaves said. “When I’m running, I know that’s something he did, too. I know we shared similar experiences. That’s one thing that makes running really important to me.”

After high school and then graduation from the University of Maryland, Reaves lived in the usual assortment of places – D.C., New York City, San Francisco, and then Portland. No matter what his address, he kept running. In fact, he figures he has averaged more than 80 miles a week for nearly 15 years.

Still, he was never a star. You might call him a “plugger.” He’s the type of guy you definitely want on your team, because he shows up every day, and always gets the job done. But he doesn’t make the headlines.

Pluggers do well in the marathon, where consistency and hard work count for a lot, and Reaves got steadily faster with the passing years. He improved from the 2:50s to the 2:40s, then dropped down into the rarefied 2:30s. And on a breakthrough day at Boston in 2014, he ran 2:29:31.

But Reaves wasn’t done. Once settled in Oregon, he began to focus on running a peak effort every year at the California International Marathon (CIM) in Sacramento – known for its top-notch organization, excellent weather and fast course.

And despite the old “rule” that marathoners stop improving after seven years, Reaves kept notching faster times. In 2016, he ran 2:25:51 at CIM. In 2017, he ran 2:23:13. He wasn’t taking big chunks of time off his personal record, but he kept plugging away.

Then came the news that changed everything. On April 23, 2018, Reaves learned that Atlanta had been chosen to host the 2020 U.S. Olympic Team Trials – Marathon. First thought: Party time! He called all his friends from the various places he had lived and suggested a reunion in Atlanta. Barbecue. Drinks. Fierce cheering for their favorites. What could be better?

A second idea formed more slowly, because it seemed distant, hazy, almost fantastical. What if he could run a sub-2:19 marathon and actually qualify to compete? “I thought, OK, I’m 34, and I work full time,” he remembers. “But when am I going to get another opportunity like this? It was a big kick in the pants.”

The California International Marathon is held in early December, so Reaves began his training block in September. For three months, he did little but run, work, eat and sleep. “It’s a good thing my wife, Valerie, is a runner, too,” he noted. “She gets me. She totally supports me.” (Valerie is aiming for a sub-1:40 half marathon this year.)

As a member of the Bowerman Track Club’s elite (but not professional) team, Reaves trained with a handful of dedicated marathoners. They kept pushing their boundaries. One weekend, the tight group completed a 20-miler at 5:29 pace, “talking all the way,” said Reaves. Another week, they did a 16-miler at 5:16 pace. No talking. He whittled his weight down to the low 160s, still considerably higher than many of his running peers

The success formula in marathon running, never easy to achieve, is nonetheless simple and well-known. Do the work, do the work, do the work. Stay patient, stay patient, stay patient. “By the time I got to Sacramento, I was quietly confident,” Reaves admitted. “I’d run enough marathons. I knew I was in shape.”

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He stayed confident through the first half, passing the 13.1 marker in 68:47. That’s when his friend and training/racing partner, Jared Carson, turned to him and announced, “Congratulations, you just set a PR.” That’s a sobering thought when you have another 13.1 miles still stretched out ahead.

Two miles later, Reaves noticed that Carson and several others were pulling ahead. Everyone was aiming for a Trials qualifier. He also felt the dull, blunt edge of fatigue. The first crack in his armor? Nope. Just a good time to double down. “I told myself, ‘OK, this is where you need to get tough,’” Reaves recalled. “You’ve got to hang in there with Jared.”

He did, running the second 13.1 miles just a few seconds slower than the first to finish in 2:17:40 – a nearly-six-minute PR. Carson, who also grew up in Atlanta, crossed the line just 10 seconds later. They were headed for Atlanta as racers not spectators. “We hugged immediately,” Reaves recalled. “We were so elated. It’s hard to describe. We were almost in a state of disbelief.”

Reaves credits his continuous development to the running communities he has belonged to through the years. “Without them, I might not be running now,” he observed, “and I probably wouldn’t have improved as much as I have. For sure, I wouldn’t have had as much fun.”

Carson said Reaves is a fierce-yet-humble competitor who gives more than he receives: “Running with a guy like him the last couple of years has allowed me and all our training partners to step up our game.”

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Reaves is no longer planning any big parties for Trials weekend, at least not until late Saturday afternoon after the race. While he has little to no shot at a top-three finish, he’s not thinking about limits. After all, that’s not what got him to the Trials.

“I want to be competitive,” he says. “This will probably be my only Olympic Trials, which makes it my Olympics. I want to run the absolute best I can, and finish as high as possible.”

Inevitably, when the going gets tough on February 29, he’ll muse about the marathoning father he never knew. He’ll wonder what his father might be thinking if he could watch and cheer for his son. “I’m pretty sure he’d be proud of me,” Reaves said. “And since he wasn’t very fast, he might be surprised to see me out there competing with the country’s best.”