Stories Behind the Statistics

Jay Wallace, March 26, 2021

On February 29, 2020, Jacob Riley took  2nd place at the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials in Atlanta with a time of 2:10:02.  He was 42 seconds behind the more familiar Galen Rupp, who has been an Olympic silver medalist for the U.S. in 10,000 (in 2012) and marathon (2016). Diligent data miners would know – or could quickly find – that Riley’s time was a PB, that he had taken 9th at the Chicago Marathon the previous October as the first American in 2:10:36, that he was an All-American XC and track athlete at Stanford and won the 2012 USATF National Club Cross Country Championship.  This is all a very impressive pedigree, of course. Nonetheless, all but the most intense running fans will not long remember his times and accomplishments as they stand on their own.  (Quick, name the other five members of the American marathon delegation at Rio in 2016..).  I am admittedly in the more forgetful group. But illustrating the result with some personal background can make the result stand out in our memories.  His is a glaring example. 

I try to follow track, cross country, and road racing but can’t consider myself one of the most highly informed running fans.  Prior to attending the GWTC watch party last year (Side note: that was the last social event before the pandemic shut everything down. It was an enjoyable time well organized by Vicky Droze; here’s to seeing a resumption of them soon!), I had to do a bit of prepping to gain better familiarity with the competitors.   Riley’s background was intriguing.  He had a biomechanical engineering degree and seemed to have suffered a number of setbacks in the prior 4 years, most notably surgery in 2018 to remove bone from his heel (Haglund’s deformity) that had plagued him with Achilles problems.  This is a major surgical procedure that requires months of recovery.  To get to the Trials less than two years later seemed a profound accomplishment.  My daughter Alex had this surgery in August 2019 and just graduated with an engineering degree, so not only was his background interesting, sharing these two features with her made him my pick on the men’s side.  He was among the 10 or so ones to watch but not considered one of the likely top three by most writers.  I felt like an insightful prognosticator as he gradually moved from a distant second pack up to 3rd then 2nd over the last 10K.  This was of course a lucky guess, but the added perspective lent some drama and excitement to the proceeding.  

My short synopsis doesn’t do justice to Riley’s story.  There was far more the ‘comeback kid’ and his coach Lee Troop came back from, well described in a March 13, 2020 Runners World article written by Taylor Dutch.  If you haven’t read it, I would highly recommend.  Jake Riley – How He Became a Surprise Second-Place Finisher at the Trials (

My point in bringing this up is that there are engaging human stories behind most all race results.  Club members can no doubt recollect much of Adriana Piekarewicz’s and Stanley Linton’s journey to their spot in that race, and Gary Droze did a fine job interviewing them for club members afterward.  I had also “picked” a couple women athletes to follow that ultimately didn’t qualify, but enjoyed learning about them regardless. 

Beyond the elite level, though, I am interested in hearing your ‘Stories behind the Numbers’ as we cautiously return to competition again.  They don’t have to be epic comebacks such as Riley’s.  Anything representative of a milestone or significant personal accomplishment would do.  For example, a return to racing after a long setback for one reason or another.  The journey leading to a first time under a milestone such as 20 or even 30 minutes for the 5K would be excellent.  An alternative example would be a description of the immediate battle within the race itself, such as Gary Griffin wrote a few years ago of his back and forth with Bill McGuire fighting for the Grandmaster title at Thomasville Road Baptist Church 5K.  There is no minimum length, a couple paragraphs will do.  You can send a Word file to Peg Griffin ( or send me some details ( and I’ll piece it together, making sure to run the draft by you before posting.  You could also send it in on behalf of a friend of family members’ result.  This sport in general – and GWTC in particular – is full of great human stories.  I hope we can make them a regular part of this web site. 

Postscript: Alex will be competing in her first marathon at the Hachie 50 distance event in Waxahachie, Texas May 1st, also less than 2 years after a peach-pit sized chunk of bone was removed from her heel.  There will be a result of some sort, a time and place on a web site.   For her and her biggest fan, there is a good story behind that number.  I might write a couple paragraphs on it.