Kara Goucher is free.

The 1996 Duluth East graduate didn’t come close to matching her 2012 course record in the Garry Bjorklund Half Marathon, nor did she win the race Saturday, but the 38-year-old Olympian did find freedom and fulfillment in her hometown race by finishing fifth in 1 hour, 15 minutes, 14 seconds.

Biruktayit Degefa, a 26-year-old from Ethiopia, won the women’s half-marathon in 1:11:26. Not being at the top of the podium might have bothered Goucher in her 20s, but not Saturday.

“I had so much fun today. I don’t know what place I was, but I had a blast,” said Goucher, who now resides in Boulder, Colo. “When I was in my 20s, I didn’t think I would find it that fulfilling. Now that I’m a little bit older, I’m finding fulfillment in different things.

“It’s really freeing because when I was younger, everything was performanced based. I can look back at my career and say I got third in New York and and third in Boston and ninth in the Olympics, and those were disappointments at the time. Now I’m like, ‘Wow, I was pretty good.’ I’ve just gained perspective, as most athletes do, as I age. I am slowing down. That’s the reality, but my love for it hasn’t gone away at all.”

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Since announcing she would return to her former home to run the Bjorklund at the end of May, Goucher has reined in expectations. Over and over again she told the masses she wasn’t coming back to run down her 2012 course record of 1:09:45 when she won the USA Half Marathon Championships.

Kara Goucher, formerly of Duluth, celebrates at the finish line of the Garry Bjorklund Half Marathon on Saturday morning in Duluth. Goucher finished fifth with a time of 1:15:12. Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com
Kara Goucher, formerly of Duluth, celebrates at the finish line of the Garry Bjorklund Half Marathon on Saturday morning in Duluth. Goucher finished fifth with a time of 1:15:12. Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com

She wasn’t running to win. She was here to run her own race.

“I knew that whatever happened, as long as I came off healthy I’d be fine with it,” she said.

Goucher has battled injuries since finishing fourth at the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials in February 2016 - one spot out of an Olympic berth. She had surgeries on her knee in June and July of last year. Then her hamstring flared up, bothering her up until two weeks ago.

Saturday was not only Goucher’s first race since the Olympic trials, but her first full workout since then. And she had a few early hiccups.

Goucher said driving over the course this morning, she realized she forgot her electrolyte-enhanced drink tablets, specifically the caffeinated ones. Once she was off and running, it took her four miles to get warmed up and comfortable. Goucher said she pressed early and battled some tightness in her hip and knee.

Goucher soon found herself clicking with a group of three men and two women on the course. Around the 6-mile mark, Goucher said she got a ‘welcome back’ flicker of uncomfortableness that comes with a good, hard run. It was something she said hadn’t felt in a while and from there on out, Goucher said she felt great.

“This is the first time I’ve ever gone into a race with no workouts under my belt,” Goucher said. “It was a new experience but it was great. I got everything I wanted out of it. Great time, I closed well. I felt good. It was a really, really good experience.

“I felt like this was a really good fit for me right now to just rip that Band Aid off of that first race.”

Goucher said she chose the Bjorklund for her comeback because there would be less pressure racing in the town where she was raised. It’s a safe place where people would be supportive no matter how she ran, she said.

In about five weeks, Goucher said she’d like to try something more aggressive. It could be a major race, it could not. At this point, Goucher said she’s more focused on doing races that are fun for her. She said she wants to run different races to freshen up her running.

She’s even opening up to the masters division as she approaches 40.

That’s something new for Goucher - especially talk of being a masters runner - who in the past felt like she was required to run the major events in New York and Boston to prove her worth as a professional athlete, she said.

“I’m just at a different place. I still want to race on that highest level, but I also want to do things that are fun and things that fit in with what I’m passionate about in the moment,” Goucher said.

“I still want to run under 2:28 again (in a marathon), I still would love to be named to the World Championship team one more time, but today was so worth it for me. This was an awesome experience that I think will spring me forward. When I was younger, I would have thought coming to do this was a waste of everyone’s time. Now, I’m like, ‘No, that was worth it.’ That was a great experience and that was totally worth it for me.”