The Olympic Trials are just around the corner and the buzz is building. Many of my family and friends are excited for me but don’t follow running so they have lots of questions. Plus, watching a marathon for you may be like watching golf for me: better done with a strong drink in hand. It is hard to get excited about something if you don’t know the rules, the players and what it all means. Based on that, I decided to write the Olympic Marathon Trials cheat sheet so you have some idea what to expect, who to cheer for and why it matters. Or in other words, why you should watch a parade of half dressed, sweaty anorexics looking runners!
How far is that?
Yup, one of my most common questions! 26.2 miles to be exact. But it hasn’t always been that long. Ancient history is that after an important battle in Marathon, Greece, a soldier ran back to Athens to announce “Niki!” (Victory!) and died. So the original course was 40 kilometers (24.85m). However, in 1908 for the London Olympic games the marathon was lengthened to accommodate the course running by Buckingham palace so Her Majesty might watch from her balcony. For this reason we suffer an extra 2000 meters.
Who gets to run in the trials?
Not just anyone can sign up to run. A runner must meet the qualifying standard during the qualifying window. The qualifying window opens about 2 years before the trials and closes about 30 days before the trials. For women they must run a marathon faster than 2:45 (6:18 per mile) or a half marathon faster than 1:15 (5:44 per mile). For men they have to run faster than 2:19 (5:18 per mile) or faster than 1:05 for a half marathon (4:58 per mile). 211 men and 244 women met the qualifying standard during the qualifying window for 2016. For comparison, the qualifying standard for the Boston Marathon is age dependent but for women 18-34 years old the qualifying time is 3:35 and for men it is 3:05. Over 30,000 people register to run Boston. The Trials are composed of an elite crowd and there are no exceptions!
The marathon course –
The Olympic Trials marathon is held in a different spot each time. They have made an effort to put it the day before a major marathon to attract a larger number of spectators. The course is arranged in multiple loops for the benefit of you, the spectator! You could stand in one spot on the course and see me 8 times without having to do anything more than refresh your drink. This is a unique experience in marathoning, as my parents will attest. They rode the Washington DC metro like rock stars in order to see me 4 times during the Marine Corp Marathon and we were excited that they got to see “a lot” of the marathon. The course does one out and back to the north and then 4 out and backs to the south. This is the link to the course map if you want to stake out a place to watch: http://www.latrials2016.com/race/race-course
Out of 400 runners, only the first three women and men make the Olympic team. So here is the time to be honest: it is unlikely that I will be one of them. That’s okay. As I pointed out above, qualifying for the trials puts me in the most elite company in the US running community. This race is a celebration of that achievement for most of us. So raise your glass and join the party! Here is a run down on the contenders:
Shalane Flanagan is considered the top contender for the women. She won the Olympic trials in 2012 and currently is the fastest female marathoner in the US with a qualifying time of 2:21. She has a bronze medal in the 5000m from the 2008 Olympics.
Desi Linden is also considered to be a shoe in for the team. Her qualifying time is a 2:22. She was second at the 2012 trials. She has had multiple solid finishes at Boston that make her a gritty contender. She is looking to make her this her first national crown.
The fight for third will likely be fierce:
Amy Cragg is currently training with Shalane Flanagan. She finished a heartbreaking fourth at the trials in 2012 but was able to make the Olympic team in the 10,000. She has a lot of motivation to redeem herself.
Kara Goucher is looking to make her third Olympic team. She ran the 10,000 and 5,000 in the 2008 Olympics and ran the marathon in 2012. She has struggled with injuries the last couple of years as well as changed coaches so it is unclear if she has the fitness to pull it off.
Deena Kastor is the sentimental choice. Deena is a veteran of three Olympics, which included a bronze medal in the marathon in 2004. At the age of 42 she just set a masters record for the marathon and half marathon showing that she still has some fight left in her to mix it up with the young ones.
There is much more speculation about this race:
Meb Keflezighi is the sentimental choice for the men. He is also going for his 4th Olympics as the age of 41. He too has an Olympic medal from 2004. While father time is against him, he has proven himself to be a very consistent runner and does well at championship races such as this where strategy is critical. He won the Olympic trials in 2012.
Danthan Ritzenhein is going for his third Olympic team. In 2012 also placed a heartbreaking 4th at the marathon trials but was able to fight back and race the 10,000 in the London Olympics. He raced well this fall and is healthy so he will be primed for a fight.
Luke Puskedra is the new kid on the block with break out performances at the Chicago marathon and Houston half Marathon this fall. The question will be is if he left it all out there this fall and can he still be sharp in February.
Jeffery Eggleston, Ryan Vail and Bobby Curtis will be the wild card picks. They are tightly bunched in terms of qualifying times but anything can happen on race day.
The real talk has been around Galen Rupp. Galen is going for his third Olympic team. The reason this is so interesting is that the trials will be his debut marathon. Historically, debut marathons have not faired well at the trials but will he break the curse?
What to expect
Like golf, a marathon unfolds slowly. It is a prolonged suspense. The top men will finish about 2:10 and the top women will finish in 2:25. Early on the strategy will be to run in packs. This allows runners to keep an eye on each other and also takes off some of the pressure of having to keep track of the pace on your own. As people fatigue look at how the people that fall out of the pack tend to lose ground quickly. Expect some break aways. After mile 18 the difficulty of the marathon starts to really rear its head. This is when we talk about “the wall”. Runners are reduced to a painful shuffle. The marathon is a fickle beast. The best prepared and the most talented runners can still be brought to their knees without any clear reason.
The weather is always a major factor when running a marathon. While golf is pleasant at 60-70 degrees, running is not. Ideally, it would be 40 degrees but these are things out of our control. Fortunately, everyone gets the same conditions but it is definitely a game changer.
What is your job?
Make some noise! Clap, whistle or ring a cowbell. Nothing is more motivating than having an energetic crowd. If you can’t be there in person, it will be shown live on Saturday, February 13 at 10AM PST. Don’t miss it!