Chula-Maguire gets red-carpet treatment at U.S. Olympic Trials

Chula-Maguire gets red-carpet treatment at U.S. Olympic Trials

Cumberland’s Kim Chula-Maguire, right, takes the lead on Tania Fischer during the Masters 1,500-meter exhibition race that took place at last month’s U.S. Olympic Trials at the University of Oregon’s Hayward Field. Chula-Maguire claimed ninth place in a time of 4:56.53.
Cumberland track and field runner takes ninth place in exhibition 1,500-meter Masters race

CUMBERLAND – For someone who’s a track and field junkie, Kim Chula-Maguire saw more than her fair share of events on television during the 10 days her favorite sport took center stage at the Olympic Games that ended last weekend in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

The 41-year-old Cumberland resident was particularly interested in the middle and long distance events, not just because she competes in them during the winter at indoor track meets at Boston University, but also because she got a taste of the Olympics herself at last month’s U.S. Olympic Trials in Eugene, Ore., a city that’s best known throughout the sport as TrackTown USA.

One of a dozen Masters (ages 40-49) women across the country who earned an invite to compete in an exhibition 1,500-meter race at the University of Oregon’s legendary Hayward Field, Chula-Maguire took ninth place in a time of 4:56:53 that brought a smile to her face.

“My only goals were to not finish in last and not do something really stupid,” she admitted with a laugh. “And I achieved my goals.”

But more importantly, Chula-Maguire achieved memories that will last a lifetime, and it was the thrill of running in the same meet with the country’s best track and field athletes, in front of more than 22,000 fans, and in one of the sport’s most famous venues that brought a touch of zeal and excitement to her voice on Monday when she recalled her four days in Eugene.

“It was awesome,” noted Chula-Maguire. “Everything about Eugene, TrackTown USA, was just amazing. Everyone coming to see the Olympic Trials is interested, knowledgeable, and excited about track, so having those people around you is like a runner’s dream. It was just an awesome, awesome environment.

“Even though we were just running in an exhibition race, everyone still treated us like the ‘real’ athletes, as I liked to call them,” she added with a chuckle. “We had credentials, and I was able to go into the athletes’ warmup area, where I was hobnobbing with the likes of Allyson Felix. All these famous people were back there, and I was like, ‘Okay, I’m in the same warmup area as you guys. This is crazy!’”

The times that the field recorded during the 1,500 were also crazy. Five runners finished the race with times under 4:46, and the winner, Kris Paaso of Menlo Park, Calif., blew away the field in a time of 4:36.34 that was nearly seven seconds faster than the runner-up finisher, Jennifer St. Jean of Darien, Conn.

Chula-Maguire, who runs for the Ronald McDonald House of Providence Running Club, had qualified for the exhibition race at Boston University’s Scarlet & White Meet on Feb. 6 by posting a 5:13.96 time in the mile, which was converted into a 4:51 clocking for the 1,500 for qualifying purposes.

But while Chula-Maguire was thrilled to see her name online with the other top Masters runners in the country, she also grew somewhat anxious when she saw some of the other qualifying times that creeped onto the top-12 list.

“That became the most nervewracking part of the whole experience,” confessed Chula-Maguire. “I kept asking myself, ‘Am I going to stay on the list or not?’ I was afraid someone was going to bump me off it because I kept seeing all these women posting their times and I couldn’t believe they were that fast.”

But when the deadline to earn an invitation passed, Chula-Maguire found herself still on the list and eventually flying across the country for arguably the biggest race of her decade-old running career.

“The men’s 400-meter final was the race on the track immediately before the 1,500,” she said. “That’s a popular event to watch, so going out for my event, the stands were basically full. It was pretty intense walking out there, and they had an official leading us onto the track, in a line, so they treated it just like any other race, which was nice.”

What was also nice were the well-wishes Chula-Maguire received in the warmup area before her race from a Rhode Island connection at the meet, Providence’s Molly Huddle, who captured the 5,000 and 10,000 meters at the trials.

Huddle’s husband, Kurt Benneger, worked with Chula-Maguire at some of her workouts with the Ronald McDonald team and knew her coach very well, Bob Rothenberg, who was a former cross country and track coach at Brown University and the founder of the Ronald McDonald team.

“Kurt was encouraging me the entire way,” added Chula-Maguire. “It was great to have that kind of support, and it was awesome when Molly came up to me and personally wished me good luck in my race.”

While Huddle and almost all the athletes at the meet were former collegiate stars who had been involved in their sport for more than half of their lifetimes, Chula-Maguire didn’t become serious about running until 2006.

In the 1990s, she was a standout soccer player at Windsor High in Windsor, Conn., who went on to continue her career an hour away at Fairfield University. After she graduated in 1998, Chula-Maguire decided to start running on her own to stay in shape, but eight years later, she upped her interest by joining the Ronald McDonald House of Providence Running Club.

“I started off doing primarily road races, mostly 5Ks, a couple of 10Ks, and one half marathon,” said Chula-Maguire, who was the top female finisher at the Arnold Mills Road Race in 2013. “I then got involved in track because there are a lot of indoor races in Boston in the winter. I prefer that kind of running, and I focus more on that, but I’ll still do road races here or there.”