Does How a Runner Qualifies for the Trials Matter?

Runner Janet Bawcom
Does Janet Bawcom’s performance prove that half qualifiers can rock the Trials?

The U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials is the highest-profile marathon in this country before the Olympics themselves. For any athlete, even the most seasoned marathoner, running in the Trials with dozens of the country’s best distance runners is a big deal. No matter what some bitter LetsRun troll says, earning a spot on the Olympic Trials starting line is hard. To make it there, a woman had to qualify in one of the following ways:

  1. Run an “A” standard* 2:37:00 or faster marathon between October 2013  and January 17, 2016.
  2. Run an original “B” Standard 2:43:00 – 2:37:01 marathon between October 2013  and January 17, 2016.
  3. Run a half marathon in 1:15:00 or faster between October 2013  and January 17, 2016.
  4. As of December 11, 2015, have run a modified “B” Standard* 2:45:00-2:43:01 marathon since October 2013 or run one before January 17, 2016.

*Nine weeks before the Trials, on December 11, 2015, the USATF loosened the marathon “B” standard to 2:45:00, adding a new group of qualifiers who had run between 2:45:00 and 2:43:01 and enticing runners to make a last minute go of it. Many of those who benefitted from this rule change were not training for a marathon when they found out they could compete in L.A. and others who seized the opportunity to qualify after the rule change raced marathons as close as 27 days before the Trials.

With so many ways to qualify, we wondered whether how a runner qualified affected her likelihood to perform well. So we looked at the differences in outcomes between those who conventionally qualified with a full marathon in either the “A” standard or original “B” standard versus those who qualified with a half, and those who qualified with a new “B” standard time between 2:45 and 2:43.

Let’s start with the basics. Of those who started the Trials marathon:

  • 33 qualified with a “A” standard full marathon;
  • 102 with an original “B” standard full marathon;
  • 29 qualified with a 1:15:00 or faster half marathon; and
  • 34 qualified with a loosened “B” full marathon.

First let’s start with the half marathoners. Who were they?

Of the 29 women who qualified with a half, the top performer was Janet Bawcom, who finished in fifth place. Janet also placed fifth in the 2012 Trials Marathon, which was the last full marathon she’s raced. She qualified for the 2016 Trials with a blistering 1:10:46 in January of 2015. Jessica Odorcic, was the only other half qualifier to have raced a full marathon. She qualified for the Trials with a 1:14 half in 2014, but previously ran one marathon in 2:51. That left 27 women on the start line who were first time marathoners.

Runner Stephanie Dinius
Stephanie Dinius looked great through most of the race in spite of never having raced a marathon before.

Those 27 women lined up Saturday to challenge themselves, attempt something new, and to show those who questioned their right to be there that they were wrong. Of those 27 women, six of them ran faster than the (modified) 2:45 full marathon standard in the grueling conditions and only five of them dropped out, 17.2%, a much smaller DNF percentage for women half qualifiers than men half qualifiers and, as you will see, than women who qualified with full marathons under either the original or modified standards.

After Janet Bawcom, Erin Osment was the fastest finisher of the half-qualifiers, with a 2:40:42 and 18th place. Coming in behind her at 2:43:06 in 24th place was Keely Maguire, the 25 year old single mom who used her experience at other race distances to help her through. She started very conservatively, she stuck to her race plan, she adjusted her fueling mid race as necessary, and when she finished, she wondered what she could do with more experience. Successful first marathon, I’d say so! 

Half qualifier, Stephanie Dinius did everything she could to stay on track throughout the race. “The last 6 miles were mentally, emotionally and physically some of the toughest I’ve ever run in my life.” Yet, she finished and finished well, coming in 45th place with a 2:46.

Preview of your graph

Next, let’s look at the 34 Trials participants who qualified with a modified “B” standard. Some of these women, like Joanna Zeiger, ran her qualifying time in early 2014 and had long since resigned herself that she wasn’t going to be at the Trials race, but on December 11 2015, she discovered she had two months to get in marathon shape. Back in December we asked her how she celebrated the news and she succinctly nailed it by saying, “I’m going for a long run.” Others like Katie Scheimann who qualified with a 2:43 and change on the last day of the qualifying window, 27 days before the Trials, only went for it because of the standard change, but this meant she had 27 days in between running the best marathon of her life to recover and bounce back to race in the extreme conditions of L.A.

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With so many of this group of qualifiers finding themselves with less than ideal preparation for the race, how did they do? Of those 34 women, 22 of them successfully finished the race. Melissa Burkart, whose 2:43:40 at the Lakefront Marathon on October 14, 2015 became a qualifier on December 11, 2015, was the fastest of this group finishing in 2:50:20. On average, those who entered the race with a modified B standard fared the worst of all groups, with the finishers running slower times and with the most members dropping out, 35.3% of those who started did not finish and 36% of those who finished over three hours were from this group, including Amy Robillard (3:00:11), Alexandra Varanka (3:00:44), Lisa Baumert (3:03:59), Katie Schiemann (3:05:03), Nora Colligan (3:07:33), Connie Teague (3:07:39), Amanda Scott (3:09:08), Becki Spellman (3:11:32), and Joanna Zeiger who finished last in 3:23:28.

Becki Spellman qualified with a modified "B", but was well prepared and ready to roll. She just had a bad day in the heat. Images by Cinnamon (Kyle Gorjanc/SaltyRunning.com)
Becki Spellman qualified with a modified “B”, but was well prepared and ready to roll. She just had a bad day in the heat. Images by Cinnamon (Kyle Gorjanc/SaltyRunning.com)

Overall, almost a quarter of the entire women’s Trials field dropped out, 49 of the 199 who lined up. There’s no doubt the brutal conditions played a big role in this statistic. However, prior marathoning experience seemed to have no benefit. In fact, qualifying with a half marathon seemed to be a benefit. Was it the excitement of racing a first marathon that fueled marathon newbies to the finish? Maybe ignorance is bliss and they didn’t know what that last lap would be like until they were too far in it to turn back? Or maybe being able to meet the relatively tough 1:15:00 standard made this group particularly tough cookies.

While some argue the USATF should do away with the half standard for the marathon Trials, the results on the women’s side show that not only can it draw in contenders like Janet Bawcom, overall the half marathoners perform better than many of their more marathon-experienced counterparts. If anything, if the USATF wants a more competitive Trials field, the B standard should be tighter or at a minimum, don’t change the rules so late in the game when competitors do not have adequate time to prepare.

*The “A” standard applies only to the full marathon and was 2:37:00 or faster for 2016. The only significance was that the host race would offer some financial support to those qualifiers.

An Upstate, NY resident who loves the marathon, a good beer, and all of the numbers/nerdy things. I write about my journey to a sub-3:00 marathon, training tweaks for improvement, and finding that "running/life balance" unicorn. On tap Next: Training to be a first time mom, here we go 2nd Trimester!

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11 comments

  1. Love the stats! In the starting area, a lot of the marathoners (both modified B and original) were talking about how this race is the victory lap and it doesn’t matter how they do (even if they finish). I would guess the half marathoners had a different attitude: this was their chance to prove they could run a marathon (run it well or at least finish it). I think the conditions made a lot of marathoners say “To hell with this, I have nothing to prove.” (See Andrea Duke and her making peace with dropping at 14.)

    Of course, it’s probably a combination of all the things already mentioned! Great analysis!

    1. Data nerd over here;)

      I think the average finish times are really fascinating to me and can be interpreted so many ways. The fact that ALL “b” qualifiers including those who found out they were eligible late…were averaged so incredibly closely is interesting to me. Also, if you average all the marathon qualifiers together, their average is 2:54 which is actually slower than the 2:51 half marathon qualifier average. I could literally think about all the possibilities and reasons for these stats all day.

  2. You answered many of the questions I had after seeing the results especially with the change in B standard with little time to fully prepare for a marathon, let alone one with last Saturday’s conditions. Rebecca’s comment about “fresh legs” seems would also play into all this. Great analysis.

    1. Thanks Patricia, honestly I had a lot of questions and still do have even more questions. Maybe it’s the nerd in me but also the runner who looks at the potential of this, and what we can learn from it

  3. I love this analysis – so fascinating, and such a great idea to examine this data! I also wonder if most of the modified B qualifiers had raced marathons in closer time proximity to the trials as a “last ditch” effort to make it in, and were more physically tired and thus more prone to DNF as a result. Similarly, the half-marathon qualifiers may have been running on fresher legs having stuck to the shorter distance to qualify and possibly minimizing the cumulative toll on their bodies. Though race distance experience can certainly be extremely helpful, the recovery required to truly bounce back from the grueling effort of a marathon race has to come into play here.

    1. If I had some serious time to dedicate to the topic (I’m not ruling it out, I mean…data nerd here), I would LOVE to see stats on who qualified when, and what each runners last hard effort race was. The limited time to train for some definitely played a huge part in the number of DNF’s. I also think there is a lot to be said about the fresh legs!

  4. Really interesting. Thank you for taking the time to look at the statistics!!

    I think Janet Bawcom is a huge part of the story here. Also see Desi Davila and Tera Moody in 2008 who squeaked in with barely “B” standard times. The “B” standard always has to be a bit arbitrary but I think USATF needs to keep it fairly loose, like the 100-250 person field we’ve seen in order for development of young athletes and to allow for injured elites to have a chance.

    1. The progress and advancement for athletes such as Janet, Desi, et al. is huge. I mean, that right there in my opinion is a huge case to keep the standards as they are as they allow for experience, and growth in the sport. Looking at the half marathon, I mean… it’s a whole different beast than the marathon as you well know. So I can see arguments to not have a half standard, but I can also see how having it allows for cases such as Janet this year and others in the past. I do think it’s good they did away with the 10k qual time, I think that is too much of a jump but I could go into a whole other post about arguments for/against the half time!