Culture

Notes and Quotes: Final Reflections on the Olympic Marathon Trials

The Olympic Marathon Trials proved why you have to run the race, and those who made the podium revealed similarities in strategy, training and resilience.

Surprises: The Marathon Trials always produce one or two surprises among the six podium runners. Saturday’s race in Atlanta did more than that: it had five, of varying degrees—Aliphine Tuliamuk, Molly Seidel, Sally Kipyego, Jacob Riley, and Abdi Abdirahman. None of these five featured prominently in an expert-heavy poll that we published two weeks before the trials. (We show how badly our experts missed the mark at the end of this article.)

Negative charge: Both races featured strong negative-split running by all six qualifiers, proving that present-day runners are super smart or that they are racing in super-leg-protective shoes (or both). Rupp ran 1:05:41/1:03:39 and Tuliamuk 1:14:38/1:12:45.

Comebacks are part of the game: Amazingly, five of the six qualifiers had serious injuries or surgeries in the past year. Rupp and Riley had the same one, a surgery to correct their Haglund’s deformity at the back of the heel. Tuliamuk had a femoral stress fracture last summer. Seidel needed hip surgery.

There’s a modest message here, one visible through decades of Marathon Trials history. It’s not easy to be on top two years before the trials, and still there on trials day. Conversely, setbacks don’t spell the end of the dream. You need lots of tools to make it to the Olympics. Patience is one of the most important.

Altitude assist: Except for Rupp, the other five Olympic qualifiers trained at altitude. Abdirahman spent three months in Ethiopia. Tuliamuk lives in Flagstaff, AZ, where Seidel also did a training stint. Riley lives in Boulder, CO. And Kipyego prepared in Kenya, where she was born—she has lived in the U.S. for 15 years, and gained her citizenship in 2017.

True to form: Galen Rupp always rises to the occasion, and did so again in Atlanta. And Des Linden ran tough, as she always does, though she couldn’t battle any higher than fourth.

Double-digit champions: The trials also served as the 2020 USATF Marathon Championships. Rupp notched his 11th lifetime USATF title, with nine coming on the Road. Although a U.S. citizen only since 2016, Tuliamuk is closing in on Rupp. With her Atlanta win, she now has 10 USATF titles—one in cross country, the rest on the roads.

Aliphine Tuliamuk on her way to winning the women's race during the U.S. Olympic marathon team trials
Aliphine Tuliamuk on her way to winning the U.S. Olympic marathon team trials / Photo by Andy Kiss/Getty Images

The shocker: For the second Trials in a row, a first-time marathoner made the Olympic team, this time, Molly Seidel. Her second-place was a much bigger shocker than Rupp’s win in 2016, however. He was already an established two-time Olympian. This was by far Seidel’s best competitive effort.

Looking to this summer: Rupp ran 2:11:12 in Los Angeles four years ago, and took the bronze medal in Rio. In Atlanta, he ran 2:09:20, the third fastest ever in the trials, behind Ryan Hall’s 2:09:02 in 2008, and Meb Keflezighi’s 2:09:08 in 2012. With a personal best of 2:06:07, and vast experience, Rupp could be a factor in this summer’s Olympic Marathon.

Forty ain’t what it used to be: For the second Men’s Trials in a row, an over-40 runner made the Olympic Team. Meb Keflezighi was 40 in Los Angeles four years ago, and finished second. Abdi is 43, making him the oldest U.S. Olympic marathoner of all time. His 2:10:03 also established a new American record for masters, handily besting the 2:11:40 he ran last November in New York.

Nike AlphaFly
Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

Fly-ing shoes: Four years ago in the Los Angeles Trials, three Nike runners claimed Olympic spots with strange-looking new shoes. They didn’t even get a name for another year when they were christened the Vaporfly 4%. In Atlanta, updates to the L.A. shoe—either the Next % or Alphafly, recently approved by World Athletics—were worn by four qualifiers: Rupp, Riley, Abdirahman, and Kipyego. Tuliamuk wore a new carbon-plated Hoka One One shoe, and Seidel a carbon-plate Saucony shoe.

Apples and oranges: Much was made of the large women’s field with 511 qualifiers vs 261 for the men, but few pointed out the significantly tougher standard for men. At 2:19, the men’s OQT was 10 percent slower than the fastest qualifying time, Rupp’s 2:06:07. The women’s OQT of 2:45 was 17% slower than Hasay’s 2:20:57. If set at 10%, the women’s OQT would have been 2:35:20.

That said, racers, spectators, and media in Atlanta all voiced support for the large women’s field. The size of future Marathon Trials will be decided by logistical factors. Organizers are focused on safety and quality, especially access to personal fluid bottles mid-race.

(Note: The men’s and women’s OQTs are different because they are established by different national committees, one for men, the other for women.)

Quote—Laura Thweatt (5th, 2:29:08): “I probably ran too aggressive, but, hey, this is the Olympic Trials. I wanted to go all in and risk it all. I had a good day, just not good enough. I knew it was going to be a dogfight. So many tough women really brought it today.”

Bump-bump: At least one top woman racer, Kaitlin Goodman (2:32:08 qualifying time), tripped and got trampled on the first turn, continued to the half-marathon, then dropped out. Two men also went down. Reed Fischer tripped and fell at the 2-mile mark, but got up to finish 97th in 2:24:47. Ryan Vail injured his foot on some rough road at 13 miles, and dropped out at the half-marathon.

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Today wasn’t what I expected, and I did my best to adjust, for as long as I could until I couldn’t anymore. I went down in the first half mile of the race – it was so crowded because the pace was slow, too many people, too many potholes in the road. I went down, hard, with a scream; it was terrifying. I got trampled, just like Simba in the Lion King when he’s caught in the wildebeest stampede in the gorge – that’s the only way to describe it. One second I was smiling my way to the start of what I felt would be my best marathon yet – and then in an instant, I was on the ground, in pain, feet everywhere, the crowd of 500 women swallowing me up, the front pack I was supposed to be with pulling away.⁣⁣ ⁣⁣ I got back up, bruised and bloody and in a bit of shock, trying to weave through a hundred women to make my way back to the front pack. I saw the yellow of my teammates and latched on to them, drawing strength as they urged me forward. I heard a few other women tell me, “It’s ok Kaitlin, you’ve got this.” (To those women – thank you 🙏) I tried to regain composure, force away the pain I felt in my quad and my ankle, ignore the blood, and keep moving up. I did, back to the front, next to my friend @obbirru who was so encouraging and supportive and kept me in it. I heard my friends, my family, the amazing crowds, and that propelled me forward.⁣⁣ ⁣⁣ I ran as long as I could until the adrenaline started to wear off, and once it did, I was acutely aware of all the pain I was in. My ankle was throbbing, and I was concerned I was doing more damage by continuing to run on it. My head kept saying, “you’re causing damage, you need to stop” but my heart was screaming “keep going, you can adjust, keep saying “yes!” The other women on the course with me urged me on, sharing their energy and bringing me with them – and for that I’m so grateful. ⁣ ⁣ But just before halfway, I knew it was the right call to pull the plug. I tried every mantra, I smiled, I tapped into my joy, but ultimately it came down to concern that I was risking too much with injury, and I stepped off the course. I went to the med tent and was there for quite a while… (continued in comments)

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Speaking of logistics: The Atlanta Track Club did an incredible job analyzing the fluid tables and special drinks. Apparently, the effort paid off. “The tables worked amazingly well. It was unbelievable to see them in action,” said the Atlanta Track Club’s Holly Ortun. She reported just one minor issue: On the first lap, as the thick women’s pack was approaching a table, a strong wind gust blew a cardboard box into the road from under the table. It didn’t interfere with anyone.

So how would Orton feel about the next Trials handling just as many qualifiers, or even more? “USATF would have to take a hard look at the numbers and the infrastructure to pull off an even larger Trials,” she said.

Abdi runs like a crab: Just sayin’. If they held a race on a beach, with everyone on hands and knees, he’d easily scuttle away to the win. But hey, it works. You can’t argue with five Olympic teams.

Abdi Abdirahman celebrating making his fifth Olympic team
Abdi Abdirahman celebrating making his fifth Olympic team / Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Quote—Scott Fauble (12th, 2:12:39): “I’m disappointed not to make the team. The others were just better prepared than me, or just better. I ran well but maybe wasted too much energy the first lap getting my bottles and going back to the pack.”

Sapporo what? At the post-race press conference, all six Olympic qualifiers were asked how they felt about an Olympic Marathon in Sapporo, not Tokyo. “All I know about Sapporo is that they make a famous Japanese beer,” quipped Rupp. Riley had a more sober view (pun intended). “When I dreamed about getting to the Olympic Marathon, I always imagined running into the Olympic Stadium at the end,” he said. “I’m a bit disappointed that I won’t get to do that.”

Quote—Jim Walmsley (22nd, 2:15:05): “It was too windy out there to go to the front, and the pack was running a good pace anyway. I thought the course would be three minutes slower than Chicago. For Jacob Riley to run a PR today, that’s insane. Once you were off the back of the pack, it was really hard to get back in the race.”

Young and old alike: The women’s race included the youngest and oldest runners, and both finished. Tierney Wolfgram, 16, ran 2:42:47; Perry Shoemaker, 48, ran 3:11:08. Among the men, 45-year-old Bernard Lagat finished in 2:14:23. “We were running like a 2:08 effort out there much of the time,” he said. “I know I can knock minutes off my time today. I’m going to find another marathon this spring. I’m looking forward to it.”

When injured last summer, Aliphine Tuliamuk learned how to crochet. She figured it was a good way to fill her idle, nonrunning hours. She wore one of her creations in the Trials—a red, white and blue beanie cap. You might be able to buy an “Allie Resiliency” beanie at her Etsy shop. (Note: She’s currently sold out, and she might be too busy training at this time to do much crochet work.)

Quote—Jared Ward (27th, 2:15:55): “I really thought this was my best buildup, but sometimes it’s just not your day. My quads felt heavy all the way. I thought 2:11 would make the team on this course. At about 19 miles, I was running with Tyler Pennel and Jacob Riley, and I almost said to them, ‘One of us is going to make the team.’”

Best kept secret: One of the Trials qualifiers, Linsay Carrick, notched her Trials qualifier last Oct. 27 in Wuhan, China. The first coronavirus reports surfaced there two months later, and Carrick’s obviously strong and healthy. She finished in 2:44:22.

Don’t ask us for stock market picks: Two weeks ago, we asked more than 30 marathon experts to pick their favorites in the Marathon Trials. Here’s another look at that poll, now with the actual results filled in.

Men

Runner

Pre-Race Poll Vote Total

(5 points for 1st, 4 for second, etc.) 

Race Day Finish Position

Jared Ward

137

27

Leonard Korir

131

4

Galen Rupp

117

1

Scott Fauble

63

12

Parker Stinson

18

DNS

Andrew Bumbalough

17

DNF, 16 miles

Jerrell Mock

11

DNF, 16 miles

Sam Chelanga

8

21

Chris Derrick

6

DNF, 21 miles

Matt Llano

6

38

Bernard Lagat

5

18

Jacob Riley

5

2

Abdi Abdirahman

4

3

Reid Fischer

4

97

Scott Smyth

4

19

Stanley Biwott

3

DNF, 21 miles

Brogan Austin

2

48

Elkanah Kibet

2

16

Dathan Ritzenhein

2

DNF, 22 miles

Ryan Vail

2

DNF, 13 miles

CJ Albertson

1

7

Reid Fischer

1

97

Stanley Kebenei

1

DNF, 21 miles

Tyler Pennel

1

11

Women

Runner

Pre-Race Poll Vote Total

(5 points for 1st, 4 for second, etc.) 

Race Day Finish Position

Emily Sisson

124

DNF, 21 miles

Molly Huddle

92

DNF, 21 miles

Sara Hall

79

DNF, 22 miles

Des Linden

67

4

Jordan Hasay

63

27

Amy Cragg

47

DNS

Kellyn Taylor

24

8

Sally Kipyego

19

3

Emma Bates

13

7

Stephanie Bruce

5

6

Aliphine Tuliamuk

4

1

Lindsay Flanagan

2

12

Laura Thweatt

2

5

Roberta Groner

1

DNF, 15 miles

Molly Seidel

1

2

Anna Weber

1

DNF, 16 miles