Amy Cragg faced a battle on all fronts as the marathon wound down at the IAAF World Championships this week.
Falling into fourth place in the final miles, Cragg was up against an elite field and fighting back pain and fatigue.
But in the last half mile, Cragg surged ahead, earning a spot on the podium and in marathon history for one of the all-time gutsiest finishes.
With her bronze, Cragg became the first American woman to medal in the marathon at the World Championships since 1983. More than that, she set an example in grit for all runners.
In a post-race interview, with her bronze medal draped around her neck, Cragg reflected on her training and race strategy — and how she found the courage to battle back. Here are four lessons to learn:
Cragg was in the best shape of her life going into the race, she said afterward, but against the top runners in the world, that only means so much.
"It's the World Championships,” she said. "It could be a great day, and I could finish eighth."
But the race unfolded slowly, with a pack of more than a dozen runners still in contention two hours into the race. That played right into Cragg’s strength.
Over the past year, Cragg and her coach, Jerry Schumacher, have had been developing a late-race kick that would turn out to be her secret weapon. Cragg hasn’t run a marathon since last year, when she placed ninth at the Rio Olympics. Instead, she’s been focusing on shorter distances for her training leading up to the World Championships.
"Jerry's been putting it in my head that I can be competitive if I’m there with a mile to go," she said. "So I decided to go for it, and he was right."
With under a mile to go and still about 20 yards back from Kenya’s Flomena Daniel, Cragg gritted her teeth and dug in. Despite the pleas from her own body, she chased down the bronze and only managed to pass Daniel when they were in sight of finish line.
"It was pretty late in the game when I knew I had a medal."
Cragg not only worked through pain and fatigue to earn a spot on the podium, she had to overcome her own nagging doubts.
"I would swing between, like, 'I can do this. I can do this' [and] 'What am I thinking? That's so hard,'" she said. "Looking at the women who were in the field, I knew it was going to be really tough."
The alarm bells were ringing from rom the final water stop to the finish, she said, when she really started to feel pain. But it didn't slow her down.
“Then it was just a grind to the finish.”
Despite elite training and full-time preparation, things can go wrong right before the race, even for world-class athletes like Cragg.
After arriving in London two weeks before the marathon, Cragg came down with a sore throat. It was stressful, she said, but she let it run its course.
“I knew it was going to be one of those things,” she said. “I felt it coming around, coming around and getting better. But this morning I woke up and I feel like — I feel normal. So it was just in the nick of time.”
Cragg knew the gameplan for the final stage of the race, but she didn’t put it into action until she got the nod from her support team. On the final lap of the marathon course, she caught her husband, Olympian Alistair Cragg, and her coach on the sidelines.
"With probably about a mile to go, I think he said, 'If you can close the gap a little bit, you’re better than her over the last 800 meters,'" she recalled. "That's when I started focusing on the next person. I was just like 'fight,' just be as close as you can with a mile to go, and then you’ll be able to dig deep enough at that point."
With Daniel doing everything she could to hold on to third, Cragg knew she'd have to give every effort.
"It was just, 'stay as you possibly can, just don’t give her an inch, try and get one inch closer.'"
It wasn’t just her roadside crew that gave Cragg the motivation she needed. After the race, she recalled the support she received her long-time training partner Shalane Flanagan.
Flanagan and Cragg are teammates at Bowerman Track Club, and last year they trained together for the U.S. Olympic Time Trials and then the Rio Olympics. Cragg finished first at those U.S. trials in 2016, but she held back long enough to help a hurting Flanagan stay in place to qualify for the Olympic team. The lasting image of the trials is Cragg breaking away in the final miles, all while looking over her shoulder and shouting back to urge on her training parter.
Going into the World Championships, Cragg trained without Flanagan, and it made for a long, lonely build up, she said. But she still had support from Flanagan while she was cruising through the London streets last weekend.
"There's something she told me, she was like, 'Listen you can do anything even if I’m not there,'" Cragg said. "Just everyday, just tell yourself you can do anything."