US Olympic Marathon Trials Preview
Most casual running fans, or fans of the Olympics, are probably vaguely aware that each country gets to send three athletes to compete for a chance at world glory in a given event. The Olympic Marathon can be unpredictable and, with it being run in the dead of summer, gives almost anyone who lines up a chance to compete for a medal. For whatever reason, World Athletics (T&F’s governing body) is reducing the field size for the 2020 Olympic Marathon to about 80 runners for both the men and women. For reference, that basically cuts the field in half from previous years. There are some at the top of the sport that think making events like this more exclusive will somehow grow the sport. We have traditionally selected Team USA in a pretty straightforward way. Line up anybody who has run a really fast marathon at the same race. Finish in the top-3 and you get to represent the US in the Olympic Marathon. Until a couple months ago, World Athletics had said individual governing bodies could send who they wanted to for the marathon but that those athletes needed to have run under their Olympic Marathon standard. World Athletics set their marathon standard at 2:11:30 for men and 2:29:30 for women. A top-10 finish at a World Marathon Major (think of the biggest marathons out there like Boston and New York) or a top-5 at an IAAF Gold Label Race (pretty well established races) would also count. With this wrinkle, you could theoretically have finished in the top-3 at the US Olympic Marathon Trials and would not go to the Olympics if you did not have the standard. Maybe the 8th place finisher gets to go to the Olympics because runners placing in front of them did not have the standard but they do. Confused yet? We did, however, receive some good news on this front. The United States was given an exemption and will get to send its top-3 finishers to the Olympic games. The United States Olympic Marathon Trials is now considered a Gold Label race which means the top-3 will get to go to the Olympics and that the next two finishers can serve as alternates if anybody gets hurt prior to the games. Hundreds will get to line up at the US Olympic Trials. The beauty of our sport is that everyone has a chance to finish in the top-3 and become an Olympian. Let’s take a closer look at some of the main contenders.
If you asked me, even just one year ago, I would have said that Shalane Flanagan, Amy Cragg, and Des Linden, looked poised to reclaim their spots on the 2016 Olympic Team. You might remember Cragg and Flanagan, Bowerman Track Club teammates, working together at the 2016 Trials in the LA heat. Cragg was handling the conditions better and was encouraging Flanagan to stay with her in the later stages of the race but eventually had to push forward and took the win. Des finished second, while Flanagan held onto third before collapsing at the finish. Flanagan, Cragg, and Des, all went on to finish in the top-10 at the Rio Games. Shalane went on to win the NYC Marathon in 2017 and placed 3rd there in 2018. Since then, however, she had surgery on her knee and announced her retirement from the sport. Cragg went on to take 3rd at the 2017 World Championships and then ran 2:21 at the Tokyo Marathon in 2018. Amy has been battling injuries since those terrific performances, having only managed a 1:13 half marathon and 34 minute 10k in recent months. Des, well Des, won the 2018 Boston Marathon in the rain, cold, and wind. She most recently finished as the top American at the NYC Marathon, placing 6th overall. She ran fearlessly in the race and briefly had the lead right before the halfway mark. Des has been America’s most consistent marathoner inthe last decade but seems to be leaving things up in the air as to if she wants to chase another Olympic berth. At this point, we do not know if Des will be on the start line in February. All three of the aforementioned women could have been seen as locks for the 2020 team at different times over the last couple of years. Could we see a 2020 Olympic Team without any of them on it?
One of the reasons that marathon team spots are not safe is that talent in female marathoning in the United States is getting better and better. There are more than 300 individual female Trials qualifiers. I’ll say it differently — more than 300 women have run under 2:45:00 (6:17 pace) for the 26.2 mile distance since September 1, 2017. There are more than a dozen women you can make a serious case for to finish in the top-3. Jordan Hasay burst onto the marathon scene with a 2:23 debut at Boston in 2017. She then dropped a 2:20-high at Chicago the following October. She battled some injuries but got back on track with a 3rd place finish at Boston last April. After talking about going for the American Record (Deena Kastor’s 2:19:36- 5:19/mile) at Chicago this fall, she made it only 5km before pulling off the course. Indications from her camp is that recovery is going well. Hasay is now being advised by Paula Radcliffe after the disbandment of the Nike Oregon Project. You have to wonder how this affects Jordan and her chances of making this team. Molly Huddle is perhaps the most decorated (multiple national titles & national records) female runner in American history. Based on her prowess at distances up to the half marathon, you would expect her marathon PR to be faster than the 2:26 she ran at London this past spring. London was her first attempt at a marathon on a truly fast course. There is not a ton of money in pro running. For a US marathoner, the bigger payday is going to come at domestic races like New York, Chicago and Boston, versus a faster European race. Huddle debuted in the marathon in NYC in 2:28 and ran 2:26 there last fall to finish just behind Shalane Flanagan. I would never count Molly out. On paper, she has faster PRs than everyone lining up at the Trials at half marathon and under. She had a strong spring and summer, returning to the 10k. Molly’s training partner, Emily Sisson, might be the one to stop Huddle from making this team. Sisson ran 2:23 to finish ahead of Huddle in London and beat Huddle at the Stanford 10k in April, where both women ran under-31:00. Huddle got the better of Sisson at the US 10k Champs and at Worlds. There are several more women knocking, if not trying to tear down the door to get on this team. We’re talking about the likes of Sara Hall, Sally Kipyego, Kellyn Taylor, Aliphine Tuliamuk, Nell Rojas, Allie Kieffer, Emma Bates, Roberta Groner, Stephanie Bruce, Sam Bluske, Lindsay Flanagan, Sam Roecker, Michele Lee, and Carrie Dimoff. All of these women have run under 2:31. From this list, I certainly would not count out anyone from NAZ Elite. Taylor has shown that she is fearless at the marathon, and at any distance for that matter. She almost beat Sisson at the US 10k Champs and then almost caught Des in NYC. Bruce grabbed a new PR in Chicago and can certainly hang with the top women. Tuliamuk popped a 2:26 in Rotterdam last spring and was the third American in NYC. Emma Bates and Sara Hall have been trading blows on the US road racing scene all year and both ran really strong fall races. Bates was 4th at Chicago in 2:25, while Hall ran 2:22 in Berlin. Hall tried to run NYC just a few weeks later but dropped out. 2:25 or so is probably the kind of fitness you are going to need to be in coming into this race to make the team. Times will likely be slower than that on the hilly Atlanta course but you will need to be in better shape to compete here. The course design may give good hill runners and runners who do their homework an advantage. I am very interested to see if team spots go to household names in US Women’s Marathoning or if we will see any first time Olympians emerge.
The top-4 entrants, Galen Rupp, Leonard Korir, Scott Fauble, and Jared Ward, are sitting atop US men’s marathoning. They are the only men to go under the 2:10 barrier during the qualifying time frame. Sub-2:10 is not what is used to be when World Marathon Majors are often won in 2:05 or better, or by someone who has that kind of potential in a more tactical race. American men are often criticized for running in the 2:10–2:14 range. I will say a few things on this. The first is that only 14 American men have run under 2:10 on record eligible courses according to data from World Athletics. That number does not include Fauble or Ward who both ran 2:09 at Boston this past spring. If you allow all courses to count, this number jumps up to 21. What I am trying to say is that very few American men have run that kind of a time. Sub-2:10 is still a very big deal. Yes, runners like Eluid Kipchoge are raising the bar in global marathoning, but a sub-2:10 American is still going to be very competitive at a World Marathon Major and at the Olympics. One other reason for a lack of sub-2:10 men is the decision for many US runners to run US majors. I mentioned this while talking about the women. The US Majors can be very unpredictable. While a course like Boston is deemed to be too downhill to be record eligible, you almost never catch a perfect weather day like in 2011 when Geoffrey Mutai ran 2:03 and Ryan Hall ran 2:04. It seems like it is more likely that you catch a hot/cold/windy day instead. There is still plenty of uphill in the second half of the race to keep things honest. New York City usually gets decent weather but can be a tough course. You have hills. You have bridges. You have an uphill finish in Central Park. The course record at New York is just a shade over 2:05 for men. That should tell you something about its difficulty. Chicago fits the flat and fast mold but, in early October, you know there is a good chance it will be too hot and/or humid for fast times. All of this is to say that I think American men are right where they should be. At the 2016 Olympics, Rupp took bronze and Ward took 6th. Ward had “only” a 2:12 personal best heading into the race. He beat a lot of people who had faster PRs. So instead of complaining about our runners and the financial choices they might need to make to stay home and run US majors, I’m going to highlight a number of guys who can threaten for a top-3 spot if any of the Big 4 fall off.
There are currently 63 men who have run sub-2:15 in the qualifying window. As previously mentioned, the hilly configuration of the Atlanta course might allow for more runners to stay in the race longer or runners who are good hill runners to stick around longer. Nobody is just going to go out and time trial a fast time on their own. There are a lot of guys to like in the sub-2:13 range. Remember, Ward was a 2:14 guy before the 2016 Trials. He ran 2:12 in the heat to make the team and then ran 2:11 in Rio. I can see anybody I mention below following a similar trajectory. The American men went HAM in Chicago this year! We saw a slew of guys run 2:10–2:11: Jacob Riley, Jerrell Mock, Parker Stinson, Andrew Bumbalough, Matthew McDonald, Scott Smith, Brendan Gregg, Noah Droddy, Wilkerson Given, Diego Estrada. Chicago finally had good weather and look what happened! Stinson put together a strong race after setting the US 25k record this past May. Droddy is the people’s champ and will have his fair share of fans lining the Atlanta streets. He is a Division 3 legend, has great hair, seems to really be working hard, and is one of the more relatable runners out there. Your guess is as good as mine as to who beats who from this list in Atlanta. I think any of these guys could wind up in the top-3. Other contenders include Elkaneh Kibet, who ran 2:11 in Chicago in 2015. A string of somewhat disappointing results followed but he regained form with another 2:11 in Boston this past spring. Tim Ritchie appears to be on the lower end of the mileage spectrum for elite runners, having been quoted as saying he trained in the 80–85 mile range before CIM in 2017. What happened at that race? He ran 2:11 and won after not leading for much of the race due to heroic front running by Matt Llano (who got his 2:11 in Berlin this year). After CIM, Ritchie fell victim at Boston, 2018, as many others did. He bounced back with a 15th place finish at NYC last fall but finished behind guys he needs to beat in order to make this team. I’m still not counting him out. His sweet spot seems to be the half marathon. He dropped a 1:01:23 in 2015 and has put together solid performances at the US 20k Champs, Half Marathon Champs, and 25k Champs, over the years.
Let’s talk about the master’s division: Abdi Abdirahman vs Bernard Lagat. You knew this was coming. Lagat is 44 years old and does not seem to be aging. He struggled in his first marathon attempt, but ran 2:12 this summer. In 2016, he won the Olympic Trials 5k at age 41, outkicking the likes of Hassan Mead, Paul Chelimo, Eric Jenkins, Ben True, and Ryan Hill. Abdi knocked out a 2:11 in NYC this year!!! You have got to be kidding me! Either man could run 2:12 and make this team or finish in 2:20 after going out with the leaders. Either way, they’re going to be in the thick of things and that is something I am definitely here for. Who do you like to claim the top Master’s spot?
Conner McMillan, Andrew Colley, Augustus Maiyo, and Tyler McCandless, are all 2:12 performers. McMillan ran his 2:12 most recently in NYC. That’s pretty dang impressive to say the least. Maiyo and Colley ran their 2:12s at the Pan American Games and at the Grandma’s marathon, respectively. McCandless’ 2:12 comes from CIM back in 2017. Brogan Austin won CIM in 2:12 in 2018 but has been struggling with some recent injuries. I refuse to count out veteran guys like Ryan Vail, Chris Derrick, Shadrack Biwott, and Kiya Dandena. They have all shown the kind of fitness or potential at some point in the past to be considered a contender for this team. A few more names that I just want to throw out in no particular order are Haron Lagat, Brian Shrader, Craig Leon, Martin Hehir, Fernando Cabada, and Tyler Pennel. Please do not @ me if I passed over someone. The point is, I think US marathoning is very strong right now and that so many people have the opportunity to make some noise at the Trials. You might remember Pennel from the huge move he made at the 2016 Trials to break up the lead pack. He wound up a hard fought 5th place. He was the 4th American in NYC in November. One more name to get people talking: Ritz. Ritz ran a somewhat under the radar 1:01 at the RNR New Orleans Half Marathon this past spring. Not many people I’ve written about can run that fast. Yes, he hasn’t put together a great or even a good marathon in a hot minute but it would be foolish to count someone with his talent out. He ran a 1:04 half marathon in Chicago in late July. Nobody sets a half marathon PR in Chicago in July — it was hot and humid for the race and it was supposed to be a Chicago tune-up. We, unfortunately, did not get to see him toe the line in Chicago. He was a DNS. Plenty of people made a hard move from more of a dark horse to being a legitimate contender after the fall marathon season. Now let’s see who can back it up.
One more thing to note is that Galen Rupp shook things up at the 2016 Trials by debuting in the marathon and winning the race. You can qualify for the Olympic Marathon Trials without running a marathon, but by running under the half marathon standard. There are some interesting names who have the half marathon standard. This is purely speculative, but anybody mentioned below should be watched closely if they choose to run. Paul Chelimo and Stanley Kebenei are the first two that jump out right towards the top of the half marathon list. Paul Chelimo is likely all in on the 5k/10k Olympic double but he does have the half standard. He makes any race he is in objectively more entertaining. I am 100% here for him treating the Marathon Trials like a fartlek workout and playing games with the entire field. It won’t happen but it would be amazing. Kebenei is a shade under 1:02 in the half which makes him a contender is he chooses to run. Reed Fischer has run 1:02-low but did not get to run his debut marathon in Chicago this fall after suffering an injury. Ben True has been a staple on the 5k and 10k racing circuit for years. He won his debut half marathon in NYC in 2018. He, however, finished 10th there last year. Last but not least, I will stoke the fire once more. Jim Walmsley, perhaps more of a hot button topic in the running world than a political conversation at the Thanksgiving dinner table, ran 1:04 on the nose to secure the half marathon standard. He is probably running over a mountain as you read this. Again, the course in Atlanta favors the strong. Jim is certainly that. I’m not saying he will finish top-3, or even top-10 or top-25, but you cannot tell me you aren’t a little curious where one of the best ultra marathoner/trail runners stacks up in a race like this with a field like this. Wherever you fall on this or on anything else that I’ve said, just try to relax and have some fun. I’m looking forward to the races and hope you are too!
***BUT WHAT ABOUT THE SHOES***
If you’ve made it this far, Strava kudos to you. I purposefully wanted to have a conversation about how good these runners are without focusing on shoes. I’ll say a couple of things on the Vaporfly’s. The first is that Nike is very good at marketing. Everybody is rocking the Vaporfly’s but nobody can say, with certainty, how much they really help. They probably do help but Nike loves how much their shoes are being talked about. Nike exists to make money. The shoes are good but we still don’t have any sort of ruling from World Athletics. There are some studies out there, but not enough. Molly Huddle expressed uncertainty about the shoes. My hope is that other companies have their version of the Vaporfly’s (which first debuted in May of 2017) ready to go or let their athletes wear the Vaporfly’s just so we can avoid the what-if games (which could be valid, I just don’t know). I don’t know if the non-Vaporfly 4th place runner that finished 30 seconds back of a Vaporfly runner got snubbed. This field is super talented and super deep. I want the runners to decide things. I’m in for anything that allows that to happen.