The 2020 Olympic Team Trials in the marathon, coming up this Saturday, February 29th, is a historic event for women. 511 women qualified for the race this year, the highest number ever and more than twice as many as qualified for the last Olympic Trials in 2016. Of those 511 qualifiers, 457 will start the race.
Women’s marathon running has exploded in the last four years: to put the number of qualifiers in perspective, 260 men qualified for this year’s Trials, or about 50 more than in 2016. How did we get here? What’s the history behind these numbers, and what are the trends? I was curious, so I took a deep dive into a whole bunch of data. Here’s what I learned.
Number of women qualifiers
Previously, 1984 was the year with the most women finishers in the Olympic Trials; this was also the first year that women were allowed to run the marathon in the Olympics. That year, there were 267 qualifiers and 196 finishers of the race held in Olympia, WA. Since then, the number of finishers hit a low of 65 in 1992, but finally started to see a slow, upward growth through the last four Olympic Trials races. This year, it is evident that women’s running has finally exploded, with 511 qualifiers for the Trials and 457 currently on the list to start despite the Trials standards remaining unchanged from the previous Olympic Trials.
Age of qualifiers
Analyzing the 457 Women Olympic Trials Marathon Qualifiers who are still assumed to be in the field was no small task. Most of the entrants have submitted their information to the Atlanta 2020 Trials website, but many are still missing from the site or were at the time of trying to find age data. I started with the USATF Status of Entries Page to begin my search and removed any runners that have scratched (if I saw the news) as I worked through this.
Of these women, I tried to find any name changes from and link anyone to results from previous U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials. I now have copies of all of the previous Trials results all the way back to 1984. With that, I found 102 women who have run in a previous Olympic Trials Marathon, assuming I found all of the name changes and found everyone in the previous results.
Four participants in this year’s race with the most Trials appearances have previously participated in 2008, 2012, and 2016: Desiree Linden, Dot McMahon, Laurie Knowles and Melissa Johnson-White.
The average age of qualifiers is 31.09 years, the median age being 30, with 38 qualifiers who are 30 years old.
We again see a teenage qualifier this year with Tierney Wolfgram. There was also one teenage runner in the 2016 Olympic Trials, but none in the years of 2012, 2008, and 2004. However, the results prior to 2004 lack complete age data. One famous teenage finisher was Cathy Schiro (now O’Brien), who ran 2:34:24 in the 1984 Trials to set a still-standing high school marathon record at age 16.
If we take a look at age groups, the largest group is the 25-29 age group with 159 women. In close second is the 30-34 age group with 148 women. After that, we find the 35-39 age group with 78 women, the 20-24 age group with 38 women, the 40-44 age group with 32 women, and the <20, 45-49, and >50 age groups with 1 woman each.
# Age 20-24: 38
# Age 25-29:159
# Age 30-34: 148
# Age 35-39: 78
# Age 40-44: 32
# Age 45-49: 1
# Age 50+: 1
Masters women are killing it
The oldest qualifier at 52, Molly Friel previously ran the Trials in 2016 and 2004, though she is no longer slated to run this year. The second oldest qualifier and oldest starter of this year’s race, Perry Reeves Shoemaker, is also the oldest first-time qualifier at 48. Shoemaker did not start training and competing seriously until she was in her 40s.
Of the 34 masters women, 18 of them have participated in a previous Trials race, seven of those in two or more previous marathon trials races, and two of those in three previous trials races (Dot McMahon and Laurie Knowles).
How and where they qualified
Of the women currently slated to start the Olympic Trials race, six of them qualified with the much tougher half marathon standard of sub-1:13. These six women may be running the marathon for the first time ever at the Trials. Talk about a huge stage to debut on! The other 452 qualified with the marathon standard.
By far the most popular race to chase the Olympic Trials Qualifier is the California International Marathon (CIM) with over 150 women qualifying there (my calculations came to 154 qualifiers whereas the Atlanta Trials Site has 163. This could be a discrepancy in qualifiers who ran multiple qualifying times). Next is the Chicago Marathon at 54 qualifiers. Then there is Grandma’s Marathon, Houston Marathon, and the Indianapolis Monumental Marathon. CIM is known for its net downhill, though hilly, course, great weather, and amazing course support. The start is at 366 ft elevation and the finish is at 26 ft. Grandma’s Marathon is also a net downhill course starting at 727 ft and going down to 603 ft. Chicago Marathon, Houston Marathon, and the Indianapolis Monumental Marathon are all known to be flat and fast with great elite athlete support. You can really geek out about which races these women qualified at here.
With as many women that have qualified for this year’s Olympic Trials Marathon, some things are sure to be missed. If you see any discrepancies, please let us know so that we can investigate and correct our information. If there are any other statistics you would like to see, mention them in the comments!