The man dressed like Jesus was holding a sign about a half-mile from the finish line.
"The end is near," it read.
Hayley Sutter, her body near a breaking point, looked at the man, and was thinking "end" all right.
"This might be the end right here," the 29-year-old recalls thinking. "I might not be able to finish."
Sutter found the last ounce of strength to finish the race. But last December's California International Marathon was not a finishing point. It was the next point for Sutter and her quest to reach a big goal: to qualify for the U.S. Olympic Trials.
In the time between spotting the man dressed like Jesus and this coming Sunday, Sutter will have crawled to a finish line (literally), petitioned to compete in the Olympic Trials and taken aim at a victory in her hometown Lincoln Marathon.
"I refer to it like coming home for the holiday, my homecoming parade" said Sutter, who has lived in the Boston area since 2015. "I'm just excited."
Sutter, who earned her master's degree at Boston University, has competed in several half-marathons in Lincoln. This will be her first full Lincoln Marathon, and fifth overall.
The first attempt at a full marathon came in 2017 in Houston. It couldn't have gone much better for Sutter, who ran track at Lincoln Southeast and later at Nebraska Wesleyan. The time: 2 hours, 52 minutes, 36 seconds.
For a first attempt, that's pretty darn good. Cloud nine, Sutter said.
That's when a friend told Sutter that she's not far off the typical qualifying standards for the Olympic Trials, which is 2:45:00. That's when a big goal popped into Sutter's head.
"Looking back on my running career, I was a good runner but I was never a great runner," Sutter said. "It's really nice to have this audacious goal to be an Olympic Trials qualifier, to hit this elite time."
Sutter took aim at 2:45:00 at Grandma's Marathon in Duluth, Minnesota, and "really fell apart," she said. So the next try came last December at the California International Marathon, which finishes in Sacramento.
Temperatures in the 50s. Overcast skies. Perfect weather. And a perfect start to the race for Sutter.
In fact, by Mile 2, the Lincoln Southeast graduate was thinking, "Holy (crap), this is going to happen."
To hit 2:45:00, a marathon runner needs to run at a 6:18 pace per mile. In the early going, Sutter's pace was 6:12.
By Mile 20, Sutter was starting to feel it a bit. But this is a marathon. Nothing unusual. She considered finding a new gear for the final stretch, but settled on a pace that would be enough to finish in less than 2:45:00.
"In retrospect, it definitely saved me because I think if I had tried to push there — because I was still feeling OK at Mile 20 — I think I would have completely fallen apart," Sutter said.
The situation got challenging quickly. Sutter's pace fell to 6:18, then 6:38. By the last mile, her pace was at 7:09. She was closing in on the finish and could hear the PA announcer near the finish line say, "30 seconds to go." She looked for strength.
"'You didn't come this far not to make it,'" Sutter was thinking. "I'm trying to sprint, but at this point my legs essentially have nothing in them. I'm trying to sprint and these women are blasting past me."
That's when Sutter's legs gave out and she fell to the asphalt surface, about 12 feet from the finish line.
Hayley Sutter was feet from finishing within the Olympic Trials standard before she collapsed to the ground. pic.twitter.com/mRMQM8IiyQ— Runner's World (@runnersworld) January 3, 2019
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Sutter's not sure what caused her next course of action to take place. Maybe instincts. Maybe survival techniques. Maybe, and likely, the thought she ingrained in her head for the 2½ hours prior to falling: "Just get there."
She started crawling on all fours toward the finish line.
Sutter's chip time: 2:45:00.
Sutter's gun time: 2:45:07.
Shortly after the race, Sutter learned that USA Track and Field uses the gun times. Mike Morgan, another accomplished runner from Lincoln, told Sutter to immediately file a petition.
The good news came two weeks later in the form of an email. She had qualified for the Trials.
"I was elated," said Sutter, who immediately called her father and boyfriend Sam Singer (he's running the half-marathon Sunday).
The U.S. Olympic Trials will take place next February in Atlanta. But first, Sutter has another big goal in mind, and she's hopeful of reaching it Sunday at Memorial Stadium.
"My goal, I've not been shy about it, I want to win," the 29-year-old says of the Lincoln Marathon. "This might be my only time running the full marathon (in Lincoln) so I want to go for the win.
"Even if I don't win, it's going to be in front of all my friends and family and road that I've seen since I first started running. I've been running these roads since I was 14."
When talking of her journey as a runner, Sutter references "stages."
The first stage began in the seventh grade. That's when, after Sutter severed her Achilles in a freak accident, a doctor told her she would never walk normally again.
"I remember sitting there (cast up to her thigh) thinking, 'Don't tell me what I can't do. I'll show you,'" said Sutter, who still has the scar on her ankle.
She called that the defiance stage.
The led to the second stage, falling in love in running during her high school and college days.
The third stage, the one Sutter is currently in, is the competitive stage. She sees herself in this stage for maybe another seven years, and she wants to take aim at the 2024 Olympic Trials as well.
Sutter likes reaching for "audacious" goals — just like the goal she set for herself after Houston and just like those final few miles in Sacramento. What kept Sutter from shutting it down on that California course?
"I think part of it was I wanted all of that hard work to come together for that moment that I've been waiting for," she said. "But also, my mindset was just of being really positive going into it. I kind of adopted a life motto of being relentlessly positive after Grandma's. My mind definitely went to some dark places because my body was essentially shutting down, but even the whole time, it was, 'OK, you can still do this.'"
Sutter also credited Ann Ringlein with Lincoln Running Company. She currently coaches Sutter from afar and has been offering workouts and support.
Sutter said she has only cried twice after races. Once, after a college track meet when she fell short of reaching nationals, then after Grandma's Marathon in Duluth. She'd welcome happy tears Sunday in her hometown.
"One of the things I work on in my training is visualizing stuff," she said. "A lot of my workouts, I'll visualize the ending of a workout as the end of a race. I actually visualize myself coming into Memorial Stadium as the first woman, so I've had those ideas and I've played that moment in mind. I've never cried at the end of a race for happy reasons. It might be the only time I cry out of pure happiness and joy.
"I think it would be absolutely phenomenal."
Reach the writer at 402-473-2639 or email@example.com. On Twitter @LJSSportsGrell.