Not long ago, Kari Hamilton lounged in the living quarters of her Cheney digs, sharing daydreams with her fellow Eastern Washington runners.

Sponsorships, earning a spot at the NCAAs and qualifying for the Olympic Trials were passing subjects, although the group understood these as starry-eyed aspirations.

At the time, Hamilton (nee Scharnhorst), a 2013 Clarkston High grad, was just glad to be on the Eagles’ traveling squads for track and cross country, a goal she’d set early, then met while juggling a wearing training schedule and a mechanical engineering major.

“We sat around and talked, ‘Yeah, that’d be cool, but you know, it’s just out of our league,’” said the 24-year-old Hamilton, a long-distance runner at heart.

“Now that I’ve done it, it’s still hard to believe.”

She’s referencing one of those apartment talking points, the one that seemed perhaps most unrealistic.

After her five-year career at EWU — and a couple of fine-tuning marathons — Hamilton was prompted in November by her husband, Vincent, to try her hand at Grandma’s Marathon, a U.S. Olympic Trials qualifier in Duluth, Minn., which was staged late last month and featured about 7,000 entrants (not counting the half-marathon runners).

“I thought it’d be a dream to do, but realistically not a good chance that I’ll get it,” said Hamilton of the event, picturesque among its Lake-Superior surroundings. “Other than the jaw-dropping amount of people, there were also some really fast runners, professional runners that I follow on Instagram, ones I was awe-struck to be standing on the starting line with.”

But a solid start and unwavering mindset served well. After all, Hamilton said, the name of the game at these 26.2-mile long hauls is “mental capacity,” the nerve to will herself past that Mile-22 medical tent when a rest sounds better than all else, for instance.

Hamilton broke that proverbial runner’s wall with four miles to go, gaining three minutes over the last stretch to cross the finish at 2:44:14, claiming her place at the 2020 Atlanta-based U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials by 46 seconds.

Vincent — who also participated, but missed the men’s mark by three minutes — had been waiting anxiously for 22 minutes. In “the blink of an eye,” he recalled, she appeared, and his pre-race conjecture was correct: She’d captured the lofty goal she once considered fantasy.

“On about Mile 15, I think I’d even said audibly, ‘Oh my gosh,’ because I was starting to realize that I could actually do this,” said Hamilton, who even twisted her ankle a few steps before the finish. “I snuck in by the skin of my teeth. Once I crossed the finish line, I was in shock; I hadn’t registered what I’d done. Vince was freaking out, ‘Kari, you made it!’ Thinking about it now, I still go, ‘Oh, wow, I guess I did do it.’”

Not too shabby a way for the two to celebrate their three-year anniversary, which corresponded with the race.

“In my mind, I was like, ‘OK, I don’t think I wanna go to Duluth, Minn., for my anniversary,’” Hamilton said, laughing. “When we got there, I was blown away. It wasn’t what I was expecting at all. We made a nice little trip out of it.”

To say the least.

Now, Hamilton’s set to “ramp up my mileage,” beginning this week in Spokane, where the self-described “math nerd” resides with Vincent and interns at Schweitzer Engineering in the Valley while completing her Eastern degree — she drives to Cheney and back almost daily, goes to a near-full-time job and still finds time to run, usually with a 5 a.m. jaunt and a post-work session.

The struggle’s easily been worth it. Hamilton has a post-EWU spot lined up at Schweitzer, so she can fix her mind on that Feb. 29 “big show” in Atlanta, a “gnarly,” hilly, humid, eight-mile loop. Hamilton could join Team USA for the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics if she places top-three and scratches a time under 2:28.

“It’s a one-in-a-million shot, and I’m OK with that,” Hamilton said. “They want it to be a pain fest … so the top-three spots aren’t automatically going to the fastest in America. It’ll open up the field a little bit for some Joe Schmo.”

At one point a decade ago, Hamilton didn’t finish her first run as a freshman Bantam, but ended up as a four-time State competitor via a rigorous offseason regimen including a great deal of laps around the Clarkston Heights’ “Poop Loop” (by the dump) and the “Tour de Clarkston” (the city’s bike path), and ample support from CHS cross-country coach Brian Denton.

Six years back, Hamilton was dubious about her odds of getting to the Division-I level, and then especially doubtful that she’d reach NCAA Regionals, which she did as a senior last year in the 10K.

“I wasn’t a top recruit for any type of college, so it was phenomenal that I was able to be on the team,” she said. “I didn’t know what was next; I didn’t think I could make it to regionals, that was out of the question.”

In Cheney, Hamilton met her future husband — now a student services specialist at Gonzaga, who happened to transfer from Boise State’s team in 2013 — battled through untimely injuries and found her groove, medaling a few times and honing her performances under the direction of former coach Chris Shane and Vincent (who’ll try again to qualify for the Trials in December at Sacramento).

“As our relationship grew, my relationship with running grew as well, which is cool how it’s parallel,” said Hamilton, who was married to Vincent in 2016. “He turned me on to the culture and history behind running, and I might not still be doing it if it wasn’t for him.”

Vincent, a Spokane product, signed Hamilton up for the USATF’s Spokane-based Club Cross event last winter and “I got the itch again,” she said. Since then, Hamilton’s won the Corvallis Half Marathon this spring and placed in the top 25 in May at Spokane’s Bloomsday 12K (where she was second in the women’s group). Vincent placed first overall.

“It’s weird to look back on my goals. I always had this dream, but knew my chances were slim,” Hamilton said from a Schweitzer conference room. “I didn’t think the Trials were in my scope of possibilities, but now, (I’ve) made it. I don’t know what’s next — I guess we’ll see.”

Clark may be reached at cclark@lmtribune.com, on Twitter @ClarkTrib or by phone at (208) 848-2260.

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