Zoila Gomez, Khalid Khannouchi, Blake Russell, Trent Briney. What do those four runners have in common? They were the fourth place finishers at the 2008 and 2004 US Olympic Marathon Trials. Fourth place. When talking about Olympic spots, fourth place is the most painful place….in essence, the first loser. The top three go on to compete in the Olympics. Fourth place just leads the hundreds of others who must wait four more years for another chance.
For Dathan Ritzenhein (aka “Ritz,” who was a 2008 Olympian) and Amy Hastings (no Olympics yet), they reluctantly add their name to the Gomez, Khannouchi, Russell, and Briney list. If it’s any consolation, four years after her fourth place finish, Russell qualified for the next Olympics in the marathon. In addition, both Ritzenhein and Hastings can still race at the 2012 US Olympic Track & Field Trials in June to try to make the Olympic team on the track. Both of them have pretty solid chances of making the team in either the 10,000 meters or 5,000 meters. Ritzenhein is a former American record holder at 5,000 meters and was sixth at the 2009 World Championships in the 10,000 meters. Hastings is coming off a season in which she made the World Championship final in the 5,000 meters in Daegu.
“Trying out for the olympics (sic) is being willing to serve your heart on a platter along with a knife and carving instructions.” That was US professional runner, Lauren Fleshman’s Facebook status the other day. Fleshman would know. Although she has been the USA Champion for 5,000 meters twice (2006 and 2010) and competed at three IAAF World Championships (2003, 2005, and 2011), she has endured two disappointing “tryouts for the Olympics” (also known as the Olympic Trials). In 2004 she was injured and unable to compete. In 2008, she faded to a non-Olympic team qualifying fifth place.
The US has a very objective system to qualify for the Olympics. Four years of training comes down to one race. It’s all or nothing. It insures that the US Olympic marathon and track & field athletes have earned their spot on the team, having endured the pressure that accompanies the Olympic Trials. Before the 2012 US Olympic Marathon Trials, I read a line that stuck with me, “trying to add the word Olympian to their name.” By placing in the top three, one qualifies for the Olympics and does have the word Olympian associated with their name for the rest of their life. That’s quite the reward, but with such a mighty reward comes pressure and the potential for disappointment – thus “serving your heart on a platter with a knife and carving instructions.”
As it turned out, of the six qualifiers (three men and three women), only one truly added Olympian to their name. That would be Desiree Davilla. For the other five, this is a return trip to the Olympics. This will be Meb Keflezighi’s third Olympics, Ryan Hall’s second, Abdi Abdirahman’s fourth, Shalane Flanagan’s third, and Kara Goucher’s second.
It is no wonder that Ritzenhein and Hastings were so distraught at the finish line of the Olympic Marathon Trials. Both of them shed tears as the reality that they did not miscount, they were fourth, set in.
Ritzenhein, who was only eight seconds behind Abdirahman for the coveted third place spot, was described as disconsolate at the finish by bloggers covering the race. Despite running a PR, in post race interviews he said things like “Obviously being fourth is the worst place to be, and I’m trying not to react in the completely negative, but the marathon has been a continued problem. I’m not saying that I will never run another marathon but I am going to shift my focus back to the track. I am really going to focus on the disciplines and distances that I am good at.”
Hastings, who finished over 70 seconds behind Goucher, said in a Runners World interview that she had known for the last two miles that she was not going to finish in the top three but that she held back tears for miles 25 and 26 because crying then would affect her breathing. But the tears rained down when she finished. Still, she composed herself to attend the post-race press conference as the official USA Olympic Marathon alternate. That takes some class.
There’s something noble about being fourth at the Olympic Trials. I wish I were the fourth best at something out of everyone in the USA. If that something happened to be an Olympic event, all the better, but I’d settle for being fourth American at anything. The sting of fourth place will be there for a while for Ritz and Hastings but hopefully over time they will be proud that they gave it their best and they will rebound to battle for an Olympic spot in the future.
Attached here is a table of the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials results (Olympic Marathon Trials chart). You’ll find the date and location of the trials, the winner and their time, the qualifying standard for the race, and the date of the Olympic marathon. MarathonGuide.com has great historical data on the men’s trials and the women’s trials.
The women’s qualifying standards have not changed from the 2008 marathon trials. The “A” standard, which means you qualify for funding support, is 2:39:00. The “B” standard, which means you qualify to race but you have to get there on your own dime is 2:46:00. You can also achieve the “B” standard by running 1:15:00 for a half marathon or 33:00.00 for a 10,000 meters on the track. The qualifying window began on January 1, 2010 and goes until one month before the trials, with the exception that qualifying performances at the October 4, 2009 USA Marathon Championships in Minnesota could also qualify you. As of February 26, 2010, fifty-eight women are already qualified for the marathon trials.
Automatic entry into the trials is granted to both men and women who between 2008 and 2012:
- Earned an individual medal in an Olympic Games marathon or in an IAAF World Championship marathon.
- Won an individual USA Marathon Championship.
- Won a US Olympic Marathon Trials race.
Automatic entry is also granted to members of past US Olympic Marathon teams.
The men’s qualifying standards have changed. To run in the marathon trials you must achieve a 2:19:00 marathon, a 1:05:00 half marathon, or a 28:30 10,000 meters on the track. The qualifying window for the men began on January 1, 2009, one year before the women’s qualifying began. There are also ways to qualify for the marathon trials at the 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2011 USA Marathon Championships, place in the top ten and run faster than 2:22. As of February 26, 2010 seventy-six men are already qualified for the marathon trials.
The goal of both the men’s and women’s trials is to select the best three marathoners to represent the U.S. at the Olympics. Separate men’s and women’s committees are charged with coming up with a system that best achieves this. Committee considerations include whether or not to allow qualifying with a non-marathon time (e.g. from a half marathon, 10,000 meter or 5,000 meter race) and how many runners should be on the starting line. The women’s committee must believe that the system used for the Beijing Olympics was effective and thus did not make a change.
The men’s committee, however, made two big changes: they eliminated the “B” standard and allowed qualification with a half marathon time. The change in the qualifying standards was announced in December 2007, but now that the Marathon Trials location has been set the trials seem more real and the qualifying procedure is coming under some scrutiny.
Some reasons for the changes in the men’s qualifying rules have been explained by Glenn Latimer, the chair of USATF’s Men’s Long Distance Running Committee. He and his executive committee were responsible for establishing the qualifying standards for the 2012 U.S. Men’s Olympic Marathon Trials. Latimer described the change as a positive reflection of the US runners having success. When asked in a Runners’ World interview what the primary goal of the marathon trials was he answered:
“To pick the best U.S. runners for the Olympics, and to give them a chance to run their best in the Olympics. I know there’s a counter argument about Trials qualifying. I know there are some people who think we should let in a lot of 2:30 runners in the hope that they’ll be inspired to run 2:12 in a few years. But that’s ridiculous. Anyone who studies the sport knows that things don’t happen that way. When someone runs a 2:15 at London or the Olympics these days, they’re finishing two miles behind the winner. Our job is to raise the standards, to raise the bar. If you set it high enough, the serious athletes will find a way to get there. It’s like with the 4-minute mile.”
In the past, some men and women at the trials were “A” qualifiers and these were your “stars.” The “B” qualifiers were the “second class citizens” because they did not have their travel covered. Eliminating the “B” standard does put all athletes at the trials on equal footing. Latimer also intimates that the committee doesn’t want runners who run 2:20 to 2:22 because, while it’s nice that they qualified, they do not represent the population of runners who have realistic Olympic potential. It is worth noting that since the creation of the “B” standard in 1996, no US athlete with the “B” standard has ever qualified for the Olympic team. The slowest trials qualifier to ever make the Olympic team was Christine Clark in 2000. Clark entered the trials with a marathon best of 2:40:38 (1 minute, 22 seconds better than the “A” standard of 2:42:00). Clark ran the race of her life to set a seven minute PR and win the race in 2:33:31.
One would expect that the number of men’s trials qualifiers would be less due to the changes and that the committee would be pleased with this. So it seems like a contradiction that they do two things different than the women’s committee that helps to increase the number of qualifiers.
- The qualifying window for the men began on January 1, 2009, one year earlier than the women.
- Men can qualify by placing in the top 10 at the USA Marathon Championships in 2009, 2010, or 2011 as long as they run under 2:22 in the race. (Only the women automatically qualify the winner of the USA Marathon Championships, who is likely to have run at least a “B” standard anyway.)
To encourage runners to go after the qualifying time at their marathon, the race director of the California International Marathon (CIM) is offering bonus money to American runners who achieve the Olympic Marathon Trials qualifying standard – $1,000 to men under 2:19, $1,000 to women under 2:39, and $500 to women under 2:46. The KeyBank Vermont City Marathon is also offering trials qualifying bonus money, $750 for an Olympic Marathon Trials qualifying mark.
By scouring the internet I learned to other things about US Olympic Marathon Trials qualifying. First, qualifying times are based on “gun” times. Chip timing is not accepted. Although there is a line in the rules that says chip times may be considered if the gun time is extremely close to the standard. Way to leave some wiggle room!
There are also rules concerning the allowable net elevation drop of a course. USATF has set 3.25 m/km as the allowable drop for a legal Olympic Marathon Trials qualifying. CIM is a legal course to qualify for the Olympic Trials, with a net elevation drop of 2.49 meters/kilometer. The Boston Marathon, with a net drop of 3.23 m/km just barely meets the allowable standard. However, to qualify for the Olympics or World Championships the qualifying time must have been run on a course with an elevation drop of no more than 1.00 m/km. Although the actual U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials race course has yet to be determined, the criterium course that has been mentioned will likely be legal for Olympic and World Championships qualifying.
The US Olympic Marathon Trials are very exciting races. Unlike other countries, where a committee selects the Olympic marathoners who will compete, the USA uses performances from one day, at one race, to determine the team. No politics come into play when selecting the athletes who will compete. The formula is simple: qualify for the trials, show up and race at the trials, place in the top three and you will go to the Olympics. This creates a lot of drama.
In my last blog I wrote about Houston winning the bid to host the 2012 Olympic Marathon Trials. Even though the marathon trials are almost two years away it is interesting to consider the logistics of the race start times.
I’ve read that one idea is to start the men and women together, keeping them on opposite sides of the road for a couple miles until the men get ahead of the women and then have them share the course, and that another is to start the men first, wait fifteen minutes and then start the women.
A concern is that the media and spectators will want to be able to follow both races simultaneously. At the men’s trials in Birmingham in 2004 I was able to run all around the criterium course watching the drama unfold. In New York in 2007 spectators ran all over Central Park watching the men’s trials race. It will be nearly impossible to run around the course and follow both the men’s and women’s races if they start at the same time or with a fifteen minute gap between race start times. On television or for those following on the internet, it may be difficult because exciting moments could happen simultaneously.
At the last US Olympic Marathon Trials most of the drama in both races occurred between mile 20 and the end, which is approximately one hour, 40 minutes to two hours, 30 minutes into the race. In the women’s race, Magdalena Lewy-Boulet built a big lead over Deena Kastor and everyone was checking the mile splits to see if the lead was staying the same or shrinking. At one hour, 42 minutes into the race, Lewy-Boulet’s lead was 1:35. At this same point in the race, around mile 20 and about one hour, 40 minutes into the men’s race, the men were battling for the final qualifying spots. The biggest drama in the men’s race took place one hour, 51 minutes into the race when Brian Sell passed Dan Browne to move into 3rd place. There are always great shows of emotion when the qualifiers cross the finish line, which for the men is likely to be around two hours, 10 minutes. But the camera may not be able to follow the celebrations because out on the course could be a crucial moment in the women race, such as when Kastor passed Lewy-Boulet between mile 23 and 24, two hours, 14 minutes into the race. Even with a split screen the announcer can only talk about one thing at a time and some of the excitement of one moment will be diluted if you are watching two things at once. At an exciting event, like the Olympic Marathon Trials, the spectators almost need time to take in everything that’s happening. There may not be time for that if both races are going on simultaneously.
Even with a fifteen minute gap between the men and women’s start, there is a huge potential for overlapping action. There is just no telling when a breakaway by one of the runners, a surge by the pack leaving a key contender “going out the back door,” or some other race changing moment will occur. Neither race will get its deserved full audience attention if the races happen at the same time. A one hour gap between race starts could avoid “drama overlap.” But since the men are running 5:00-5:10 per mile and the women are running 5:40-6:00 per mile, the men could lap the women on the course, which would also be problematic.
I am sure that the race management will consider every possibility and will have come up with the best possible solution to this dilemma by January 14, 2012.
At a press conference on Monday, March 1, 2010, USATF CEO Doug Logan announced that Houston would host the men’s and women’s US Olympic Marathon Trials on Saturday, January 14, 2012. This is the first time in history that the men’s and women’s marathon trials will take place at the same venue. The races will take place on a spectator friendly rectangular criterium-style course that is yet to be determined but likely will take place on the outskirts of downtown Houston. Each race will offer $250,000 in prize money.
The announcement came as a bit of a surprise after the successful marathon trials for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. New York (which hosted the men’s marathon trials in November 2007 one day before the NYC Marathon) and Boston (which hosted the women’s marathon trials in April 2008 one day before the Boston Marathon) were thought to be the front runners to host again.
Indications are that Houston won the bid due to finances. Boston bid for the women’s race and New York bid for the men’s race. Houston bid for both and also indicated that it would be willing to host just one race if that was the decision of the committee. The Houston Chronicle reported that Houston bid $1.7 million to host both and $1.4 million to host just one. This money covers event logistics, prize money and athlete travel. The Houston Marathon’s Managing Director, Steven Karpas, indicated that fixed costs like permits, police coverage, course preparation and support made it not much more expensive to bid for both races as opposed to just one.
Ed Torres, one of two athlete representatives on the committee that selected the host site, stated in a LetsRun.com interview that one of his jobs was to solicit athlete feedback. Apparently a major drawback to Boston was timing. In 2008 there were just 119 days between the women’s trials in Boston and the women’s Olympic marathon. That’s borderline not enough time to properly recover from the trials and train for the Olympics. The schedule in 2012, with the London Olympic marathon scheduled for two weeks earlier than it was in Beijing would have made it close to 100 days between the trials and the Olympics.
Money was another consideration. Boston Marathon Executive Director Guy Morris said in an interview about the finances, “…and we paid them last time. But this time, even though we were just as enthusiastic about holding a Marathon Trials race in Boston, we wanted more support. In the end, obviously, money talks.”
Winning the bid is huge for Houston and the Houston running community. Kapras has already stated, “We want to treat the athletes like rock stars. 2012 is our 40th anniversary and we wanted to do something big. What’s bigger than holding both Trials events the same day?”
Houston is no stranger to strong marathon running. From 1981 (when Bill Rodgers won the race) until 1996, the men’s winning time was always between 2:10 and 2:12. It was the host to the 1992 women’s marathon trials. In 2000, the winning men’s time was 2:11:28. But then in 2001, the race changed and did not offer prize money, it appeared that it would drop off the national scene. However, the race reintroduced prize money in 2004 and in 2005 the Houston Aramco Half Marathon hosted the men’s US half marathon championship. In 2006, Chevron came on board as the marathon title sponsor, thus the official name of the race is the Chevron Houston Marathon. Included among the big-time performances in Houston over the last three years are Ryan Hall’s American record of 59:43 in the half marathon (2007), Deriba Merga running 2:07:52 (2009, between placing 4th at the 2008 Olympics Marathon and winning the 2009 Boston Marathon), Meb Keflezighi’s return to the national scene with a US half marathon championship and PR (2009), Teshome Gelana setting a course record with a 2:07:36 and leading six men to sub-2:10 races (2010), Shalane Flanagan running 1:09:41, the fifth fastest women’s half marathon in US history in her debut at the distance (2010), a 2:10:35 marathon debut by Brett Gotcher, the latest runner to break on to the US marathon scene (2010), and Teyba Erkesso’s 2:23:53 for a second straight win and the course record (2010).
While most of the comments from elite athletes about Houston winning both bids have been very positive, some have pointed out the financial impact that a winter marathon trials race will have on them. Any runner of Ryan Hall or Dathan Ritzenheim’s caliber receives appearance fees just for competing in a major marathon. They can also supplement their income by earning prize money based on their performance in the race. Runners often run a fall and a spring marathon for the appearance fees. For Olympic qualifying these runners usually give up a payday to run the marathon trials, which has prize money but no appearance fees. For example, Ryan Hall ran the November 2007 Olympic Trials in New York, the April 2008 London Marathon, and then the August 2008 Beijing Olympics. With the marathon trials in January American athletes are likely to skip appearing at both a fall and a spring marathon in order to be properly trained and recovered for the trials and the Olympics.
Adam Goucher may have put it best when he said, “From what I’ve heard, the biggest issue is the financial side of it for the athletes. When you’re marathoning, you’re not really doing very much else. When you run these marathons is when you make your money. So if you missed out on Chicago or New York and then you can’t run Boston because you’re not recovered enough (from trials in January), that’s the only thing.”
Another issue is whether it is good or bad for the sport to have both the men’s and women’s trials taking place at the same time. Separate races means two opportunities to get the sport in the news. A single race may possibly generate more interest than normal, but it may also be that one race will “steal” some attention from the other.
Pamakid runner Adrian Jue ventured to Houston in January 2010 to run the Houston Chevron Marathon. He had very positive things to say about the race management.
“The post-race events inside the convention hall were amazing. I got my medal, breakfast buffet, souvenir beer glass, finisher’s shirt, and sweat-bag in less than 10 minutes. The volunteers at the sweat bag area were on rollerblades to retrieve bags quickly. The post-race food was pretty good too; I wish I had the appetite. All you can eat scrambled eggs, potatoes, sausages, bagels, cookies, chocolate milk, soft drinks, and beer.”
It certainly seems that Houston has the necessary history, financial backing and race infrastructure in place to put on a world class event in 2012.