Galen Rupp celebrates at the Olympic Games Rio 2016 on Aug. 21, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
ATLANTA – While the 1996 Olympic host city has been dubbed “Running City USA” by the local track club, the nearly 800 runners competing Saturday in the 2020 U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Marathon may have a different name for it: “Hilly City USA.”
“There’s not a flat spot out here,” said Des Linden, the 2018 Boston Marathon champion who is attempting to become the first American woman to qualify for three Olympic marathon teams. “It’s unlike anything anyone’s been on before. You can’t find a major (marathon) that matches this.
“If you ran your (qualifying) time in Berlin or London or something like that, this is not going to be comparable. You have to be used to changes in rhythm and understand effort versus just a time on your watch.
The 26.2-mile course includes 1,389 feet of climbing (compare that to the Boston Marathon, known for Heartbreak Hill, which has only 924 feet) and 1,382 feet of downhill running. There are also many, many turns, some quite tight.
“I was surprised that it was going to be that hilly,” said Scott Fauble, 28, one of the top male contenders. “It’s twice as hilly as New York, which is a difficult course, but I was excited for it. It’s going to be really hard. I made peace with that. It’s going to hurt a lot. I’ve made peace with that. And I think those are two things that I’m good at.”
About 450 women and 235 men from 46 states will toe the line with three men and three women qualifying for the Olympic team for Tokyo, er, Sapporo. The marathons and race walks were moved to the northern Japanese city in hopes the weather would be cooler.
This is the largest marathon trials field in history. In Los Angeles four years ago, there were 457 qualifiers – 211 men and 246 women.
The 1996 Olympic marathon was a point-to-point race, but this course is comprised of three loops. The last loop includes an additional – and very challenging – 3- to 4-mile stretch that takes runners past the Olympic cauldron before they arrive at the finish line in Centennial Olympic Park.
For the first time since Muhammad Ali ignited the flame at the Opening Ceremony for the Olympic Games Atlanta 1996, the cauldron will be relit at noon Saturday for the duration of the races.
The temperature is expected to be only about 50 degrees when the men start at 12:08 p.m. and the women 12 minutes later. In Sapporo, historically, the temperature in August is in the 80s.
“Running’s running,” said Fauble, who ran 2:09:09 at Boston last year and just missed qualifying for Rio when he placed fourth in the 10,000 at the 2016 trials. “I trust that anyone who makes the team will understand that they have to prepare for the conditions of the race (in Sapporo).”
Exceptionally Strong Fields
With athletes running their qualifying times on various courses in different years, it’s harder to predict favorites than it is on the track.
Some competitors have also contended with illness and injury in the run-up to the trials.
Linden, 36, came down with the flu but missed only one day of training.
“I think I have a great shot, but there’s so much depth,” she said. “You could run a really good day and just be on the outside because people are better. Really good people are going to be left home watching it and not just one or two, but a handful of them. It’s a great field.”
Linden was second in the trials in 2012 and 2016. At the Games, she did not finish in London due to injury and then was seventh in Rio.
Galen Rupp, 33, has the top qualifying time among the men, clocking 2:06:07 in Prague in 2018. Rupp, who won the trials in 2016, went on to earn bronze at the Olympic Games Rio 2016. He also won a silver medal in the 10,000-meter in London in 2012.
Rupp underwent surgery in late 2018 to correct Haglund’s Deformity (a condition where a bony enlargement on the back of the heel forms) and has not finished a marathon since Chicago in 2018. He dropped out of the 2019 Chicago race just before the 23-mile mark. However, he won a half marathon on Feb. 8 with a time of 1:01:19.
Leonard Korir, 33, has the second-fastest qualifying time, 2:07:56 from Amsterdam in 2019, which was the fastest marathon debut by an American. He has won before on the Atlanta hills, claiming the Peachtree Road Race 10K title in 2017. (With the 60,000-runner Peachtree the largest 10K in the world and the Atlanta Track Club the second-largest running organization in the country, the city claimed the Running City USA title in 2018).
Like Rupp, Jared Ward, 31, is attempting to make his second straight marathon team. He was third in the 2016 trials and placed sixth in Rio. Ward qualified with a time of 2:09.25 in Boston.
Jacob Riley, 31, was the top American in the 2019 Chicago Marathon (2:10:36) in October after not running a marathon since the 2016 trials (where he placed 15th).
Jordan Hasay, 28, has the top time among the women’s entrants, posting 2:20:57 at the 2017 Chicago Marathon. She is the second-fastest American woman in history in the marathon and ran the fastest debut marathon by an American woman in 2017 when she placed third in Boston (2:23:00).
Sara Hall, a 36-year-old mother of four daughters adopted from Ethiopia, ran 2:22:16 in Berlin last year. She is coached by her husband Ryan, who became the fastest U.S. marathoner in history prior to his retirement. This is Hall’s fifth Olympic trials dating back to 2004 when she was 11th in the 5,000-meter. She was ninth in the 1,500 in 2008, eighth in the steeplechase in 2012 and did not finish the 2016 marathon.
Emily Sisson, 28, is running only her second marathon after a fantastic debut in the 2019 London Marathon, where she clocked 2:23.08. On the track, Sisson has won U.S. titles in the 5,000- and 10,000-meter. Sisson trains with Molly Huddle, another contender who is a two-time Olympian (5,000 in 2012 and 10,000 in 2016, where she finished sixth).
Kellyn Taylor, 33, set a course record of 2:24.29 in winning Grandma’s Marathon in 2018. She was sixth in the 2016 marathon trials and fourth in the 10,000 in 2016.
Not only will racers be scrutinized, but also their footwear, as shoe manufacturers compete to help their athletes get a leg up on their rivals.
The technology includes carbon fiber plates and thicker soles, with World Athletics, the international governing body stipulating limits on each.
“I’m a little worried about the future of the sport,” said Hall, “ and just the way things are going where people want to see the fastest person from Point A to Point B and not have the gear make such a massive quantum difference in the race.
“It’s one thing if there’s a quantum leap in innovation that affects everyone, like an all-weather track, but if it’s only certain brands then it’s going to affect really getting to see the strongest athletes, which is the point of sports.”
The Old And The New
At age 45, Bernard Lagat will be the oldest man in the race and the only athlete attempting to make his sixth Olympic team.
Yet he calls himself the “new guy in this sport,” having raced only two marathons, including the Gold Coast Marathon in Australia last July (2:12:10).
Lagat represented his native Kenya in 2000 and 2004, winning bronze and silver medals in the 1,500-meter. In 2008 he competed for Team USA in the 1,500 and 5,000, with his best finish ninth in the longer race. In 2012, he was fourth in the 5,000. At age 41, he placed fifth in the 5,000 in Rio.
Lagat was one of the pacers for reigning Olympic champion Eliud Kipchoge of Kenya when he became the first athlete to break the 2-hour barrier, clocking 1:59.40 in Vienna last October and trained for six weeks with Kipchoge in Kenya earlier this year.
“I’m coming here, not selling myself short, like ‘I’m old, I’m inexperienced,’” Lagat said. “Just run hard.”
And, he added, “I’m wiser than all of these guys.”
However, Lagat still needs to learn how to drink while he runs, a problem he never had on the track where there are no water stops.
“I see these guys and they just get this bottle and they drink it like this,” he said, holding an imaginary bottle as he tilted his head, “and then they throw it away and I tried that. I choked so many times. I still do. I hope guys don’t say, ‘Let’s run hard when he’s starting to get a drink,’ because they know that’s my struggle.”
However, Lagat said he takes to heart the words of Meb Keflezighi, who won the silver medal for Team USA at the 2004 Olympic marathon. “When you cross the line you’re a winner, doesn’t matter the position.”
But top three would be nice.