Local Marathoner Grayson Hough Prepares for the 2024 US Olympic Trials

Davis native Grayson Hough will soon set foot on Orlando asphalt to run in the 2024 U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials. Long-dedicated to distance running, the Sacramento Running Association (SRA) athlete has propelled himself to the high-stakes 26.2-mile event for the second time.

Hough began running in junior high, but started getting serious in his freshman year of high school. At Davis High, he competed under the notorious Coach Bill Gregg. “Bill Gregg’s a legend,” said Hough. “The atmosphere and environment that he builds there is pretty incredible.” Upon his graduation in 2009, Hough stayed local and competed for the UC Davis Aggies.

During his adolescent running days, Hough was simultaneously drawn to other sports in the same way figures in Greek mythology attract to sharp rocks when sung to by sultry fish ladies. In addition to playing soccer like almost every Davis kid, Hough took to a less frequented sport. “I played a bunch of roller hockey. If I could, I still would,” said Hough. “Roller hockey is kind of dying.” Hough is not sure if this vague sport contributed to his running success, but refuses to rule it out as a possibility.

At UC Davis, Hough worked with Coach Drew Wartenburg, also known for coaching his wife and two-time Olympian, Kim Conley. Led by Jon Peterson, UC Davis men won the Big Sky Conference title in 2010, narrowly out-scoring UC Riverside by two points. He had run well his freshman year, scoring for the Aggies in multiple meets. He did not score at Conference, but the future looked bright for him and his team.

But looks can be misleading, and UC Davis struggled those next few years. Hough’s college highlight came his senior year when the team came in third at Big Sky Conference and Hough won All-Conference honors. “You go to college and you think you’re going to break 14 (in the 5k), and do all these things. It didn’t quite pan out that way, but there were a lot of good moments along the way,” said Hough.

After college, Hough’s running seemed to lack concrete direction. He occasionally trained with Wartenburg’s NorCal Distance Project, a temporary elite running group that included Olympians Conley and Kate Grace. The Sacramento-based group thrived for several years, but ultimately disbanded in 2017. During this period, Hough moved to Los Angeles where he ran consistently but did not plug his fitness into a competitive outlet. Said Hough, “I don’t think I raced the entire time I was down there. I remember doing workouts wondering, ‘why am I doing this?” In 2018, he joined SRA and began to do something with all that fitness.

Shortly thereafter, Hough unexpectedly qualified for the Olympic Trials in the marathon, cutting it as close as humanly possible. At the time, the standard required athletes to run under 2:19. Hough’s time? 2:18:59 at the 2019 Modesto Marathon, making him the slowest seed time at the Trials. “I didn’t think I had that in me, and I just went out and did it,” said Hough. He was second place that day, to the Fresno Frontrunner C.J. Albertson.

Then came one of the biggest disappointments in Hough’s running career–dropping out of that Olympic Trials race in Atlanta. One of the most prestigious races in American distance running, he had hoped to at least finish and felt he dropped out prematurely. But Hough chooses to look past his regrets. “If you obsess too much over what your training was supposed to be… that’s not helpful,” said Hough. “Don’t worry about it. Stay relaxed, stay flexible with your training and you’ll feel better about everything.”

Several years later, Hough ran his best marathon to date, breaking the 49-year-old course record at the Avenue of the Giants Marathon. His time of 2:17:04 at the 2022 edition of the race shaved almost two minutes off his previous best and qualified him for his second Olympic Trials. It also marked his third time winning the Humboldt County-based marathon. The race contains several out and backs, usually a negative factor to running a fast race. “I was feeling pretty rough by 21 or 22 miles, but I would pass people and they would say, ‘you got this!’” said Hough. “It was just really encouraging and inspiring.”

Hough’s two best marathons have curiously been held on courses that lacked much direct competition. While excellent races, Avenue of the Giants and Modesto are not bastions of fierce opposition. “I get kind of stressed out when there’s a lot of people that I’m racing against in the marathon,” said Hough. “When I’m in a race by myself and I know there’s nobody within 10 minutes behind me, I just feel less pressure and I’m able to roll a bit better.” Hough acknowledges this as an area ripe for improvement.

There seems to be plenty of low-hanging fruit when it comes to a faster marathon time for Hough. Avenue of the Giants is a moderately hilly course without special aid for elite runners. For anyone who hasn’t watched a televised marathon, elite runners prepare bottles with their drink of choice and have them placed on the course. Which means they don’t have to drink out of flimsy paper cups while trying to run 5-minute miles. “I just put GUs in my running shorts’ pockets, and that’s all I’ll have,” said Hough. “I didn’t hydrate at all at Avenue or Modesto.” In fact, Hough had an energy gel crusted to his hand for half the race at Avenue of the Giants. This tactic has not caught on with the rest of the running community, despite its stunning success in this instance.

During these past years, Hough has coached himself. He does standard interval work and tempo runs seen in most competitive distance runners’ arsenals. The oddest element to his training is his peculiar long-run formula. He often logs 28 to 30-mile runs during his marathon builds. Having attempted to join him on one of these days, I can attest these are no jogs in the park. In August 2023, Hough ran 30 miles at 5:48 per mile, preceding a marathon in Santa Rosa.

Hough regularly averages 100 miles a week and operates on a typical seven-day cycle for marathon training. He works full-time for the government in audits and has a family to spend time with, so running is not atop his priority list.

Hough’s family always comes first. No matter what staggering pressures his SRA teammates apply to get Hough on the cross country course, his wife Shannon (also a runner) and recently born daughter Lucy get top billing. “I have a super incredible support system,” says Hough. “Shannon is so good about making sure I’m able to go on my runs and my mom comes over twice a week so Shannon and I can do our morning workouts. We just wouldn’t be able to run without that. That’s probably the most critical part, because without that, there is no running.” According to Hough, his dog Baxter is more of a stress inducer, but warrants a mention regardless.

When I asked him about training partners, Hough named Trevor Halstead–a talented teammate at both Davis High and UC Davis–without a second thought. Even though the two runners now compete for opposing clubs (Halstead is with Peninsula Distance Club), something about sharing thousands of miles over an eight-year span forges an unbreakable bond between two people. Hough calls Halstead his toughest rival, but it is a friendly rivalry. He saves the majority of his animosity for the Hoka Aggies, the scourge of the Northern California club running scene.

So what drives Hough to keep working hard at the marathon? “I just like to get faster… when it gets tough, it’s just… this is what you need to do to run that goal you set for yourself,” said Hough. He focuses on maintaining a positive headspace and uses affirmations when things get tough. Hough’s signature move when the race becomes gritty is sticking his tongue out, kind of like a golden retriever on a hot day. “That’s patented,” said Hough with a chuckle.

I asked Hough if he considers himself talented, or if he solely attributes his results to innumerable hours of blue-collar pavement pounding. “It’s been a huge amount of work and I do feel vindicated when I run fast because I know I earned it. But I don’t think you can run a sub-2:20 (marathon) if you’re not innately a good distance runner,” said Hough.

He further nods to talent as a factor by referencing all the people trying for Boston qualifiers. “I’m not working that much harder than those people,” said Hough. “That’s part of the reason I like running so much. Every person gets to have their goal based on who they are. And when they’re able to achieve it, it’s just as worthy of celebration.”

Hough prepares now to join SRA teammates Brendan Gregg, Shadrack Biwott, and Tyler Sickler at the Olympic Marathon Trials in Orlando on Feb. 3. He accepts that barring some sort of disruption of the time space continuum (or an immense clerical error by USATF), he will not make the 2024 U.S. Olympic Team. Not only would he need to beat about 130 men with faster times, he would also have to run 2:11:30 to meet the Olympic standard. In other words, knock almost 6 minutes off his personal best. But after seeing the chaos warm races can inflict on overzealous runners, he knows a conservative start could pay dividends in the end.

You can see the Olympic Marathon Trials live on Peacock (7 a.m. PST) or later on NBC (9 a.m. PST).

–Written by Garrett Gardner