Joe Niemiec and Katie Ruhlman will compete in the trials on Feb. 29.
By Abigail Hintz
Most people participating in the Olympic trials have been pursuing such a dream since childhood.
For marathoners Katie (Lanphier) Ruhlman and Joe Niemiec, the dream is a recent one. These Cedarville alumni both qualified for the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials at the Chevron Houston Marathon on Jan. 19.
Ruhlman, a 2012 graduate of the university, didn’t run her first marathon until fall of 2015, while Niemiec, a 2014 graduate, didn’t run his first until 2019.
Men must run a sub-2:19:00 to qualify for the trials while women have to run a sub-2:45:00. Niemiec qualified with a time of 2:17:18, placing ninth overall and ninth in the men’s division. Ruhlman’s time was 2:44:15, putting her at 31st in the women’s division.
For Ruhlman, marathoning was not appealing at first.
“It was horrible,” she said in response to her first marathon. “I hated it, and I said I’m never doing this again.”
Regardless, she qualified for the Boston Marathon in 2016. Knowing what to expect allowed her to change things about her diet, training and lifestyle that improved her racing. This led to a far better experience.
“I’ve been marathoning ever since,” she said.
The idea of working toward qualifying for the trials came to Ruhlman for the first time shortly after she ran at Boston. It was a seemingly impossible thought, and she didn’t mention it to anyone. She was far from where she needed to be in order to qualify and couldn’t picture herself in the same light in which she sees runners who qualify for the Olympic trials.
When the idea became more serious and she finally mentioned it to her husband Kevin, she was still hesitant. He was supportive and encouraged her to embrace the idea. When she did, he began telling others and encouraged her to do the same. That’s when she said it began to feel real.
Niemiec felt similar hesitations when his wife, the dreamer of the two, first approached him with the idea in 2016. It wasn’t for another two years that Niemiec believed he could actually do it. His first marathon was the Chicago Marathon in October 2019. He qualified for the trials at the Houston Marathon just three months later.
“I can’t believe it actually happened,” said Niemiec.
Ruhlman’s journey getting to the trials was not as quick.
“This past fall I ended up running three marathons in four months, because I had hoped to hit it at the Columbus marathon in October,” said Ruhlman. “I did not have a good race at all, and I was very frustrated about it.”
Three weeks later she ran the Indianapolis Marathon, coming in a minute and a half short of qualifying for the trials. This was devastating following the results of the Columbus race.
Then came Houston — the race where she qualified — which she calls her “best executed marathon ever.” When she was on her last mile, the realization that she was on pace to qualify hit her.
“I was really excited, not just because I was making it but because it represented such a journey. It represented all of the hard work and races that didn’t go well and just everything that brought me there,” she said. “The finish line pictures are horrible because I’m literally crying.”
Niemiec called crossing the finish line at Houston — where he also qualified — euphoric. After a career full of injuries, including one that forced him to forego his first marathon in 2018, it was a relief.
However, qualifying so close to the trials has some downsides.
“Since I qualified at Houston, which is only six weeks away from the trials, it’s not an ideal circumstance. Typically for a marathon you want a solid four-to-five-month build up. So, it’s not ideal but it’s definitely possible,” he said.
Ruhlman is in the same boat. Until the trials she will be training three hard days a week, which includes between two and a half and three hours of running time, along with easy days throughout the rest of the week that entail one and a half hours of running time. She emphasized the importance of balancing the heavy mileage with other training and recovery.
She does all of this while working as a nurse and assistant track and cross country coach for Cedarville. This makes it difficult to find time to get the miles in, but she makes it work with the support of three important people.
Coach Jeff Bolender, who is the head track and field coach for the university, has had a big impact on Ruhlman’s running career. While she was at Cedarville, he taught her how to run, something she wasn’t exposed to in high school. He also showed her training theories and has been very involved in her pursuit of qualifying for the Olympic trials.
Ruhlman’s husband has also been incredibly influential, getting up early to run with her and encouraging her to pursue what may seem to some like unrealistic dreams.
However, Ruhlman feels most indebted to her father. When she first verbalized the idea that had been floating around in her head, her dad immediately said, “I think that’s a great goal. I think you should go for it.”
For a goal-oriented person like Ruhlman, his sincerity meant everything, especially considering she was still close to 20 minutes off the mark to qualify.
“That was very influential in my pursuit of this goal,” she said.
In the last mile of the Indianapolis Marathon, she knew she wasn’t going to hit the time she needed to, so she struggled both mentally and physically to finish the race. She didn’t know her dad was there, but all of a sudden she heard his voice saying, “Go Katie girl! I’m so proud of you!”
“I lost it,” she said.
Niemiec is a husband, a father and an engineer. Finding time to train is hard for him just like it is for Ruhlman, but it also brings great joy being able to do so with his kids.
“I think it’s cool that I get to kind of share my passion with them,” he said. “Running doesn’t make sense on paper; it’s not the most lucrative thing to be doing with my time, but God’s put these dreams and desires in my heart and if I follow through and act out on those, I’m living my life to its fullest and my kids get to see me do that.”
He is also thankful for his time at Cedarville and the coaching he received during his career as a distance runner.
“I’ve got to give a shout out to Coach O [Paul Orchard] because he kind of started it for me, turning me from a guy that kind of had a little bit of natural talent into someone that knew how to run and actually loved it,” said Niemiec.
The trials will take place Feb. 29, in Atlanta. Only the top three men and women will move on to represent Team USA in the Olympic Games in Tokyo this summer.
Niemiec is just looking to have a successful race and place well with such a small margin.
In response to the possibility of making it to the Olympics Ruhlman said, “Realistically, it’s not going to happen. I’m just racing to have a good race. Place well, soak it up, enjoy the process, and then see where, four years from now, I am.”
Abigail Hintz is a sophomore Journalism major and digital editor for Cedars. She loves reading, playing Spikeball with her friends and watching soccer 24/7.