3-Time Winter Olympian Eva Vrabcova Finds Joy In Running Prague Marathon
She had just finished fifth in the 30-kilometer cross-country skiing race at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, the breakthrough she strove for since making her Games debut for the Czech Republic in Torino at the tender age of 18.
But there was no huge celebration.
"My husband was with me in Sochi but he was staying in some other place so I couldn't make it back to celebrate with him," Vrabcova recalled while shifting her eyes toward the ground. "So I was a little bit sad from that. After, we came home and he made a small party but that was it."
As is typical at the upper echelon of sport, seasons bleed together, and in seemingly an instant 2014's success gave way to the 2015 winter and with it elevated performance expectations on the FIS World Cup Tour and the prestigious Tour de Ski, a grueling six-race event contested in five countries over nine days.
Once again, the season was a success, punctuated by a ninth-place finish at the World Championships and sixth-place finish at Tour de Ski.
But again, Vrabcova felt like something was missing.
"For me, skiing lately became a duty," Vrancova said. "I needed to prove that I was actually worth the ranking. For the first time, skiing became more like a job and I didn't like it."
Looking to snap out of her funk and find herself athletically again, Vrabcova turned back to running, a pursuit she began as a young teen but one which eventually ceded to skiing.
"I liked running from when I was 13 years old," Vrabcova said. "I remember that after my very first season, I saw a marathon on television and said, 'I want to start that.' My coach said, 'No, you can't do that. You are so young. You have to wait. And now I am here'"
Last month, Vrabcova completed just her second half marathon, finishing 10th in the Sportisimo Prague Half Marathon in 71:06, a minute and five seconds ahead of her previous best. On Sunday, the 30-year-old will make her marathon debut in the Volkswagen Prague Marathon, where she will be seeking to achieve the Czech qualifying standard of 2:35 for the Rio Games.
Should she finish under that time, she would become the 133rd athlete and third Czech woman ever to compete in both the Summer and Winter Olympics. Katerina Neumannova competed in five Winter Olympics as a cross country skier and one Summer Olympics as a cyclist and Katerina Nash competed twice in cross-country skiing and once in mountain bike.
"It's my first time to start in a marathon so I don't know what I have to expect," Vrabova said. "But to be able to maybe start in the Olympics in the summer is a big dream."
Although she has extensive experience running on the track, competing in 17 races over 1500m, 3000m, the 3000m steeplechase, 5000m and 10,000m since 2010, Vrabcova said the dream of competing in the Rio Olympic Marathon began to take shape last fall when she finished fifth at the Usti nad Labem Half Marathon in her first attempt at the distance.
Hard-wired to be a driven athlete, she of course started thinking lofty, but she was more enraptured by euphoria that had been missing from her skiing than the idea of becoming one of the rare Summer and Winter Olympians.
"After my third Olympics, when I was fifth for 30-kilometers, and the next season I (was expected) to make only results, there was a lot of pressure on me and I was not enjoying the races," Vrabcova said. "Through skiing, maybe my face was such that enough people know who I am, but it became some kind of stereotype. I had no fun in my life. I really enjoy running. For me, it is fun and I like it. It is liberating!"
Those feelings of joy multiplied exponentially after her masterful run at the Prague Half in April. She said that, for a moment, it enabled her to forget that she is a cross-country skier.
"It was the first time I had the idea that I was only going to be a runner," Vrabcova said. "It was amazing and my time was really good. Everything was perfect."
Although achieving an Olympic qualifying standard is not outside the realm of possibility, Vrabcova is not focusing exclusively on that carrot dangling in front of her marathon debut.
"A marathon is a marathon, and I have to respect the distance," Vrabcova said. "I will be thinking about the qualifying time, but I'm not afraid. I don't know. Only my feelings are the most important. I will enjoy the race. If I feel good and don't get the time, that feeling for me is most important.
"Whether I qualify for the Olympic Games or not, my life is happy."
The Prague Marathon will be live-streamed and archived on FloTrack Sunday April 8.