For the first third of his preliminary race at the U.S. Olympic track and field trials, Sean McGorty ran comfortably, keeping pace near the front of a heap of 14 runners. He had started running the 3,000-meter steeplechase — a middle-distance event that requires competitors to hurdle high, hard barriers, sometimes over 2½-feet-deep pits of water — in May, but he already had achieved the qualifying standard.

McGorty, a Fairfax native and Chantilly High graduate, entered Oregon’s Hayward Field hopeful to reach the Tokyo Olympics. To secure his place in the final, he would need to finish in the top five. Everything was going to plan one kilometer in, until it wasn’t. A runner stepped on the back of McGorty’s right foot, ripping down the heel of his shoe.

“I got a flat tire,” McGorty said.

McGorty confronted a problem familiar to someone walking in front of an overzealous Metro rider, except it happened at the biggest meet of his life. McGorty faced the first of many decisions with multiple choices. He could keep running. He could stop to put his shoe back on. Or he could go the extreme route.

“Some people just flick the shoe off, and they just run,” McGorty said. “Especially with it being a prelim and the track being so hot, I was a little worried I was going to mess up my foot, especially with having to hurdle into the water jump. That wouldn’t have felt too good.”

With that option discarded, McGorty thought he could finish the race with the back of his shoe pressed down. He hurdled two barriers, jamming his foot into the front of his shoe as he ran. He realized it wouldn’t last — the spike would come all the way off if he kept running. He decided he would be more efficient leaping over the hurdles with a full shoe.

On the backstretch, McGorty peeled away from the pack, bent down and experienced the profound frustration any parent of a toddler knows too well: It can be hard to put on a shoe under duress.

“It was way harder than I thought it was going to be,” McGorty said. “I think just tying my shoe so tight for when I’m in the water. I was really confident. I was like, ‘Okay, you can stop; you’re just going to pull it right back up, and you’re going to be totally fine.’ I went to pull, and it was not coming. There was a little panic there. Thankfully, I put some Vaseline on the back of my heels. Because I don’t know if it would have come up as easily without that.”

It took three tries and about 10 seconds before McGorty wedged his foot into his white Nike. When he looked up, the pack had separated more than he expected.

“I had a lot of thoughts,” McGorty said.

McGorty faced a dilemma. He needed to hustle to make up ground, but if he sprinted to the back of the pack, he would expend too much energy and fade at the end. On the fly, in mid-90s heat, McGorty effectively had to calculate the most efficient way to run a 2,000-meter steeplechase.

“There absolutely is a risk” in panicking, McGorty said. “That was something I tried to tell myself on the backstretch. It’s such a fine line. You can’t be too patient, especially when it’s an honest race. I don’t think you can expect people to come back to you. If I had sprinted the next lap, I probably could have been fried.”

McGorty took solace in his entry in the 5,000 meters, which gave him a possible escape hatch to Tokyo. But he also entered the trials believing the steeplechase would be his likeliest path.

McGorty hatched a plan. He tried squeezing down the distance a little every lap. As runners fell off pace, he used them as targets to pass and build momentum. McGorty runs for the Bowerman Track Club, which is based in Oregon and had a sizable cheering section at Hayward Field. He credited those supporters for keeping him going.

Halfway home on the final lap, it became clear McGorty would run out of distance to qualify automatically. But he still had a chance. After the top five finishers of both heats, the four best times would reach the final, too. If he finished ninth, he still had hope. He ran his last lap in 1 minute 1.8 seconds, the fastest lap of anybody in either heat.

McGorty crossed the line in 8:25.95 — ninth place, about three seconds ahead of his closest pursuer.

He plopped down in NBC trackside reporter Lewis Johnson’s station for shade and watched the other heat. He needed his time to beat six runners. It seemed unlikely to a novice, but McGorty knew Isaac Updike had pushed the pace hard for a prelim, and the heat may slow the pace of the next race.

As he hoped, the pack bunched up. Around 1,200 meters to go, McGorty felt confident he would make it.

“But I don’t think you feel good until you see the times up on the screen,” McGorty said.

Bernard Keter crossed the line first. The time: 8:29.04.

McGorty had survived for Friday’s final, and his Olympic hope remained alive. He finished slower than the two steeplechases he ran back in May, by five and three seconds. Given what had happened, he was more than satisfied.

“I think I’ll take 8:25 with a shoe coming off,” McGorty said.