Chanman's Blog

Olympic Marathon Trials

Posted in USA Track & FIeld by Andy Chan on March 29, 2010
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Culpepper and Meb at the end of the 2004 Olympic Marathon Trials in Birmingham

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. 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. 

  1. The qualifying window for the men began on January 1, 2009, one year earlier than the women.
  2. 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.


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