I’ve run in the last 3 Olympic Marathon Trials, and I’m debating whether to take on the huge project of training and trying to qualify for a fourth. I was excited to learn last week that the 2020 Trials will be held in Atlanta. That news is a huge plus for me on the side of “try to qualify again.”
I think the Atlanta organizers will do a great job; in my experience, the location and background of the Marathon Trials host makes a big difference to the runners’ race experience. Let me explain.
This was my first Trials Marathon and the first year they paired the Trials with a major marathon. The women’s Trials Marathon was held in Boston and the men’s was held in New York City. Experiencing Boston Marathon Weekend added to the magic of running in my first Olympic Trials.
In addition, I felt like royalty all weekend. It didn’t matter if you were the #1 seed or the #150 seed, the organizers made us all feel special for being there, from the pre-race meetings to the post-race celebration. Because the Trials course was a loop course, I could watch the “real” race unfold as pre-race favorite Deena Kastor pulled off the win. Energized by the atmosphere, I met my goal of finishing higher than my entry seed (came in at 94, finished in 64th).
While I’ve never run the actual Boston Marathon, I could feel the support and love of running that the city has to offer as the fans cheered non-stop for us Trials contenders over the entire course. The poster they gave us as a souvenir ranks as one of my favorite things ever. Amazing day, amazing race, and an experience that left me wanting more.
This was the first year they held the men’s and women’s trials together the day before another major marathon. Although Houston is not what I would consider a running mecca, they put on the Trials in true Texas style: big, open, and welcoming.
Given the increased numbers of runners with the combined men’s and women’s races, it felt a little less special (granted, this may have also been because it wasn’t my first). But the organizers absolutely went out of their way to support the runners. Chevron hosted a lovely pre-race gala that included family and guests, and an athletes’ tent for all our meals.
The competitiveness of the race seemed to signify the resurgence of US women’s distance running with a Trials-record five women breaking 2:30. I walked away with my own PR. There were separate starts for the men and the women, so the finishers all got a chance to shine. At the post-race festivities, we celebrated the qualifiers in their gallon cowboy hats, and all the finishers for their achievements. With a nice course, nice support and easy logistics, Houston ran like a well-oiled machine (see what I did there?).
Los Angeles 2016
Things got off to a bad start with the procedure to award the Trials to a specific city. The USATF’s CEO overruled the unanimous decision of the USATF Long Distance Running Committee and awarded the Trials to L.A., even though the Committee had voted for Houston. Things got even more convoluted when the Trials standard changed just months before the race: the “B” standard for women was changed to 2:45:00 from 2:42:00, so a bunch of women who thought they’d missed out suddenly found they’d qualified. Surprise! Better get training!
Everything was off about this race. The pre-race logistics were sub-par, athletes were nickel-and-dimed for everything, there was no opportunity for athletes’ families to be involved, and no access for coaches. The race volunteers received Nike technical t-shirts and jackets; the athletes didn’t even get a t-shirt. After finishing the race, I was searching for a banana or anything at all to eat and I walked past a plush VIP tent full of executives enjoying a full and presumably complimentary catered meal. Fortunately I had paid $75 for a post-race finger-food table so I did eventually get to refuel. I could go on and on, but this has all been said before.
My race in L.A. went badly; unfortunately, my attitude and anger about the whole situation made for a whole lot of bad energy that came out during the race and kept me from performing my best. Granted, not all of the factors that led to this were controllable. First and foremost, I was pregnant, but I didn’t know it because it was too early for it to show up on a pregnancy test! The weather was hot and humid, which obviously nobody can control, but besides adding an inconveniently placed sponge station which ran out mid-race and encouraging athletes to drop out near aid stations, the organizers didn’t do much to deal with the weather. The course itself seemed like it had been designed without the runners in mind, full of tight turns, curbs to step over, and rough gravel patches. Crowd support was sparse and most people in the city didn’t even seem to know the race was happening, including those running the L.A. Marathon the following day.
When I finished 28 minutes after winner Amy Cragg, they were already tearing down and packing up the finish area. Too bad as well for the 47 women that finished after me. Can you tell I’m bitter? I don’t know a single athlete who considered this a good experience or well-organized race. Honestly, my disappointment about all aspects of this race certainly has affected my enthusiasm to go for another Trials.
The Atlanta Track Club (ATC) clearly listened to the feedback about the 2016 Trials and the organizers have already gone out of their way to make the athletes their top priority. Their press release included many points on how they will support the runners, from travel and hotel stipends to hospitality areas for family and friends. Atlanta Track Club Executive Director Rich Kenah said “The future is not just those six athletes who represent us in Tokyo, but all the athletes who qualify for the 2020 U.S. Olympic Team Trials-Marathon.” They get it. It wouldn’t be a very exciting race if it were limited to the dozen or so athletes who have a realistic chance of making the team! Running in the Olympic Trials Marathon is the experience and achievement of a lifetime for all of the hundred or so athletes who qualify.
The ATC is the second-largest running organization in the US and host to the Peachtree Road Race, the largest 10K in the world. They know their stuff. I have had personal contact with the ATC and can vouch that they are a professional group. (I was lucky to be on the ATC team for the Hood to Coast Relay back in 2011, when we won the women’s event, plus I used to regularly see some of their committee members at various championship races around the country.)
I have no doubt that Atlanta will pull off a Trials that is incredible for both runners and spectators. For me, learning that Atlanta will host the 2020 Trials swings the pendulum in favor of trying to qualify.
Have you run in previous Olympic Trials? How did it go, and how do you feel about Atlanta? Are you going for it??