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Sarah Graves

Billings runner Sarah Graves will be competing in the Olympic trials marathon in Houston.

When you consider that Sarah Graves has already raced along high-altitude trails in the Colorado Rockies -- covering 120 miles in six days as part of the TransRockies run -- or completed a couple of arduous 50-kilometer jaunts, it's hard to believe her greatest challenge is still in front of her.

The 34-year-old distance runner from Ballantine will enhance her ever-growing feats of endurance early Saturday morning by running for the first time in the women's portion of the 26.2-mile U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials in Houston.

That's an impressive achievement given the event's rigid qualifying standards -- and how hard she has worked to get to the starting line.

"I'm very excited," said Graves, who will be the lone Montanan in the running for the men and women. "This has been a goal of mine for years. It has taken a lot of work." 

Graves, along with close to 223 other women, will be looking to race off with one of the three berths to represent the U.S. at the 2012 Olympic Games in London this summer.

While anything can happen in a marathon -- little-known runner Christine (Hoth) Clark, a Billings West and Montana State University graduate, was the surprise winner of the 2000 trials in Columbia, S.C. -- Graves realizes she is among the longest of long shots.

"I'm just happy to be there," she said. "This means a lot to me." 

Same-day television coverage of the men's and women's trials will be carried on NBC from 1-3 p.m. (Mountain).

Graves, a graduate of Roundup High School and Montana State Billings, gained her spot at the trials by posting a personal-record clocking of two hours, 44 minutes, 25 seconds in early December at the California International Marathon in Sacramento.

She placed 16th for the women, but her time beat the automatic qualifying standard of 2:46.

Graves had been pursuing a berth to the trials since 2007, just missing out by 20 seconds and 24 seconds in her two previous marathons in Eugene, Ore., and Philadelphia in 2011.

"There was definitely a sense of relief," she said of eventually making the cut.

By being included in the field of of world-class athletes, led by Desiree Davila's top qualifying mark of 2:22.38, Graves, with 20 marathons to her credit since 1998, has already defied some hefty odds.

According to the Running USA website, there were more than 500,000 finishers at U.S. marathons last year, but only 381 of them (158 men and 223 women) qualified for the trials.

And Graves made it by a nose by running in two marathons in a two-week stretch in late fall.

After missing by 24 seconds in Philadelphia on Nov. 19, she ran in Sacramento on Dec. 4.

"It probably wasn't the safest thing to do, but that was the last chance," she said.

In preparation for the trials, and aided by a mild winter, Graves has been getting her body back in tune with training runs totaling 70 miles per week and speed work on the treadmill.

For starters, she's shooting for a PR performance in Houston, but didn't specify a time.

"I'm feeling really good," she said. "No injuries to speak of, which is always a good sign."  

Graves will be cheered on by her parents, Alan and Maryanna Graves of Ballantine, sister Liana Susott and brother Jay Graves, along with a dozen friends.

She said their support will help her get through all of the miles.

"That's going to be a big challenge for me," Graves said of going up against all of the elite athletes. "I like challenges." 

In what already rates as a remarkable showing, she bettered her PR by almost two minutes in Sacramento.

Graves is hoping to build on that in Houston.

"I believe in staying focused," she said. "I want to run my own race."

That means avoiding the temptation of getting in too big of a hurry at the start.

"You know your limit," she said. "You know how far you can push yourself. Twenty minutes is a little difficult (to make up on the top runners). You have to set reasonable goals and just do the best you can."

Graves, who has Brooks as a sponsor for her racing gear, said she has received encouragement from Karen Sanford Gall, Kathy Aragon and MSUB teammate Heidi Schuette, other local runners who have competed in past trials, along with friend Tony Banovich.

"They all said 'just run your own race. You can run with these women,'" Graves said. "I know I will be very nervous (at the start). It's just an honor to be there."

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