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Big Data Reveals Important Details about Marathon Trials

In hopes of holding the “best trials ever,” Atlanta Track Club has pulled together an impressive amount of marathon data.

In 2016, 456 runners (211 men, 246 women) qualified for the Olympic Marathon Trials. This year, 771 runners (261 men, 510 women) qualified. The big jump in U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials qualifiers has brought many challenges to race organizers at the hosting Atlanta Track Club (ATC).

Olympic trials qualifiers 2020
graphic: Holly Ortlund

Drink Deployment

To appreciate these challenges, consider the fluid tables and personal drink bottles.

Atlanta Track Club (ATC) will be staffing 60 personal-drink tables every 4 miles on the marathon’s primary 8-mile loop. The tables will be at the 2-mile and 6-mile points.

The first 23 tables will hold men’s drinks, the next 37 women’s drinks. There will be about 200 meters separating the men’s and women’s tables.

In each grouping, the first 15 tables will hold just 6 bottles apiece. The remaining tables will hold 12 bottles each. That’s because the 90 fastest runners in both marathons deserve a little easier time finding and retrieving their bottles.

There’s nothing random about the bottle-placement. Each and every bottle has a designated position. If you’re Galen Rupp or Jordan Hasay (the top qualifiers by time), you’ll find your bottle on table 1, position 1. If you’re Leonard Korir or Amy Cragg (the second qualifiers), your bottle will be on table 2, position A. This way, Rupp and Korir shouldn’t trip over each other at the fluid stops, because they’ll be angling for different tables.

elite fueling table Houston Marathon Trials
photo: 101 Degrees West

If you’re the seventh fastest runner in your race, your bottle goes on table 1 position 2. And so on. Prior to the event, all Trials participants will be emailed a “map” showing the exact location of their personal drink bottles. For example, “Your bottle will be on table 23, position 9.”

It’s worth noting that the Boston Marathon and New York City Marathon only supply personal drinks to 50 to 75 elite runners. The Olympics and World Championships might have a few more. The Marathon Trials will be supplying personal bottles to the 521 runners who requested the service (about 72 percent of the 690 declared starters). At additional fluid tables, they and everyone else will also be able to grab Dasani and Powerade—hey, this is Atlanta, where Coke reigns supreme. Besides, Coke is a U.S. and worldwide Olympic sponsor.

Digging into the Data

For much of the last year, the ATC’s Holly Ortlund has been digging into numbers like the above. Ortlund has a masters degree in exercise physiology, is the club’s manager of performance programs, and, most importantly, has a penchant for big data and little details. “Our goal is to put on the best Marathon Trials ever,” says Ortlund. “We want to approach everything the way NASA conducts its programs, with lots of detail, and lots of backup.”

When she first moved to Atlanta 20 years ago, Ortlund worked with famed marathon scientist-statistician-historian David Martin. A top runner herself, she placed 4th last summer in the USATF National 5K road championships in her age group, 45-49, with a clocking of 19:28.

It was Ortlund who argued that the original 6-mile loop should be expanded to 8 miles to avoid confusion and potential mishaps. She accurately predicted the final field size, by far the biggest ever and a surprise to many, by running “simulations” of qualifiers by date vs 2016 and 2012.

Graphic: Holly Ortlund

There’s little Ortlund doesn’t know about the Marathon Trials runners, and how they’re likely to perform on February 29. Her research feeds into many important race-organization plans, as well as NBC’s view of how they will fill a three-hour broadcast. She has plotted the challenging course more graphically than most, and predicts that the winners will run no faster than 2:10 and 2:26.

Ortlund has also estimated how many runners are going to drop out, because she’s gathered that data all the way back to the 2004 Trials. This is an important safety issue for the ATC, which wants to account for all starters, and bus the DNFs back to the start. For some reason, the women appear tougher than the guys. About 80 percent of them are expected to go the full 26.2 vs 75 percent for the men.

Of course it’s no surprise that California has produced the most qualifiers (84) among the states, followed by Colorado (74), and New York (37). The DNQ list includes four states: Mississippi, South Dakota, West Virginia and Wyoming.

graphic: Holly Ortlund

Also, you might have realized that the California International Marathon in Sacramento is a favorite for Trials qualifiers. Still, the number of OTQs achieved at CIM is impressive: 98. Chicago and Grandma’s place second and third, with 31 and 23 (marathon qualifiers only).

Here’s some more of the informative, fascinating, and unexpected data that Ortlund has gathered.

Yes, American marathoners are getting better. In 2008, only two women had qualifying times under 2:30. Now there are 18. The men had six under 2:12 in 2008; now there are 18. Men’s data. Women’s data. (Be sure to drag the slider bar at right to see all four years.)

The qualifiers attended some colleges that you’d expect to produce great marathoners, and some that will surprise you. Syracuse tops the list with 12, followed by Princeton (11) and the University of Colorado (10). The University of Oregon produced 7 qualifiers, which puts the Ducks well behind the 9 from Grand Valley State University in Allendale, MI. (And GVSU had a tenth qualifier who isn’t running.) The data.

Many of the men’s and women’s qualifiers made the cut-off times by just a couple of minutes. Ortlund produced a fantastic “hover over” graphic to show the “density” of qualifying marks. Here, you can see that the median (or middle) qualifying time for women is 2:42:48; for men, 2:17:28.

In the same graphic, you can also gauge the relative amount by which the frontrunners are, well, frontrunners—that is, separated from those behind them. But note, the scales are different for the two graphics. So Galen Rupp isn’t as far ahead of the other men, vs Jordan Hasay and her pursuers, as he appears to be. Note: Be sure to hover over the dots, which reveal each individual runner and his/her qualifying time.

Previous Marathon Trials have accumulated bits and pieces of important Trials data, but mostly haven’t preserved their findings for the future. That’s a mistake Ortlund intends to rectify. She’s saving all her data on public web pages where future Trials organizers, and marathon fans, can easily find it. And add to it.