On February 29th, a historically large field of runners will meet in Atlanta, GA to decide the six members of the United States’ Olympic marathon team. The competitors will come from every corner of the country, differing in both their backgrounds and training. But one thing they’ll share as they stand on the start line is the task in front of them: 26.2 miles on a course unlike any other big-time marathon.

“Atlanta-Flat” Loops (Read, Hilly!) 

The course is primarily a multi-loop circuit. The main loop is roughly 8 miles long, and the runners will complete it almost three full times. Just after mile 23, they will branch off to a final loop that crosses under the Olympic Rings and Cauldron from the 1996 games before finishing in Centennial Olympic Park.

Fox Theatre, on the course / photo: Carl Leivers

Showing off Atlanta’s Olympic heritage was a primary goal of the Atlanta Track Club as they worked to design the course, says Jay Holder, the director of communications for the ATC. Holder says the course also showcases some of the city’s most famous landmarks, including the Fox Theatre, Margaret Mitchell House (where Gone with the Wind was written), Ebenezer Baptist Church, and the Georgia State Capitol.

The course is also designed to be athlete-friendly—at least given the terrain they had to work with. “We tried to find the flattest course that we could in the city of Atlanta,” Holder says. “The course ended up being ‘Atlanta flat,’ which means hilly.”

A Cross-Country -Style Marathon Course

Geography professor Sean Hartnett, Ph.D., has studied and mapped marathon courses for decades. “I’ve mapped hilly courses, but the hills here are relentless” Hartnett says. “In most races, if you have a 50 foot hill it stands out. Here you have a big hill and a big downhill before the runners are breaking a sweat.”

Andrew Kastor, the head coach of the Mammoth Track Club, can think of no marathon course that he would compare it to. “It’s hillier than Boston,” Kastor says. “The closest comparison is your local high school cross country course.”

Atlanta Olympic Marathon Trials course
Map: Sean Hartnett

Hartnett agrees the course most closely resembles a cross country course and has no comparison among large marathons. However, he says a course like this isn’t unprecedented in Olympic Marathon Trials history, comparing it to the courses for 2008 Olympic Trials held in New York City and the 1996 Olympic Trials held in Charlotte.

Since the race has been granted “gold label” status by the IAAF, the top three runners in the race will be eligible to compete at the Olympics whether or not they have run the official Olympic qualifying time. Kastor says that fact came as a relief, but it will likely combine with the terrain to produce a slower, more tactical race.

“Times are out the window— like on most cross country courses,” says Hartnett. “The question is, will it be slow or will it be real slow?”

Key Sections of the Course

Peachtree portion of Olympic Trials Marathon course
Start of Peachtree out and back / photo: Carl Leivers

Peachtree Street Out and Back

Almost 4.5 miles of the main loop is an out and back on the famed Peachtree Street (some of which overlaps the Peachtree Road Race course). Like the rest of the course, this stretch includes rolling hills, but overall it is a net downhill on the way out and a net uphill on the way back.

Holder says the hills may not be obvious on television, but the runners will definitely feel it—especially the third time around. Kastor says the first time through, this out and back may well be a feeling-out period as some of the runners who haven’t trained or competed on the course get familiar with it.

If the pace picks up as the runners head back towards downtown on the second or third loop, it could signal the runners are confident in their ability to handle the hills that come later on the course.

Baker-Highland Hill / photo: Carl Leivers

Baker-Highland Connector Hill

Shortly after completing the out and back on Peachtree, runners will turn onto the Baker-Highland Connector and will have to contend with a more pronounced climb. Starting at the 6 mile mark (and then again at the 14 mile and 22 mile marks), runners will climb a total of 73 feet in a half mile.

Holder, who estimates he has run the main loop of the course at least 75 times during the planning for the trials, says he expects this hill to be a key point to watch. He says, “The first time I think is going to be tough, the second time is going to be not great, and the third time I think some athletes are really going to feel it.”

Although not as steep as Heartbreak Hill, the placement of this hill, the third time up at mile 22, should similarly test the resolve of the contenders as they enter the final stretch of the race.

Near the finish / photo: Carl Leivers

A Fast Finish … Maybe

After working through 25 and a half miles of rolling hills, the runners will have just over a kilometer of downhill running into the finish line—dropping 44 feet. Hartnett notes that not only is this stretch downhill, but it is also “engineered surfaces,” built several stories up from the ground, unlike the roads on the rest of the course that follow the topography of the landscape. That means the curves and the slope of the road are gentler and more conducive to fast running.

Someone with a big kick and good speed in the final mile would be able to make a decisive move or make up a lot of ground here. The question is, after more than 25 miles of pounding up and down hills, will anyone’s legs be fresh enough to take advantage?

Potential Pitfalls

 Kastor says that like any big city marathon, runners will have to contend with potholes and occasional uneven footing. It’s possible that the large field size will make it harder to spot those obstacles and lead to missteps, especially early when runners are expected to still be in large packs.

Those large packs may also be an issue when it comes to dealing with the fluid stations. Holder says that each water stop will be close to a mile long to accommodate the large number of bottles necessary for the field size. Still, Kastor says “If it’s slow, it’s going to be a big pack of guys and good luck getting your bottle.” If missed bottles become an issue for the runners, Kastor thinks it will benefit more seasoned, experienced marathoners who can adjust without panicking.

Any hydration miscues will be amplified if the weather turns hot and humid for race day. Two weeks out from the race, the forecast calls for a high of 53 F and a 25% chance of rain, which is a bit cooler than average temperatures for Atlanta in late February. The high temp for March 1 the last five years has been 69, 73, 79, 71, and 46—meaning it’s anyone’s guess how much of a role weather will play in the race.

Atlanta's Olympic Cauldron
The Olympic Cauldron / photo: Carl Leivers

Fortune Favors the Strong

Finally, the course will have an impact on how the race is run, and who will succeed. Hartnett says that someone who is dealing with lingering injuries won’t find much reprieve on this course. “If you come in dinged up at all, chances are this marathon is going to smell it out,” he says.

Hartnett also expects the energy expenditure of the race to be closer to a 28-mile race than 26.2, given the rolling nature of the hills. Someone with a strong cross country background who is a good downhill runner may well have the advantage.

Holder agrees the makeup of the course will play a part in determining who finishes in the top three places. But in a year when high temperatures and high humidity are expected at the Olympic Marathon, he doesn’t view that as a bad thing. “We are going to send a tough team to Japan, that is for sure,” Holder says, in the understatement of the year.