USATF Changes the Standards 9 Weeks Before the Trials

From left: Sara Polatas, Becki Spellman, Joanna Zeiger
From left: Sara Polatas, Becki Spellman, Joanna Zeiger

Just a few weeks shy of 44, Joanna Zieger lined up at the 2014 Shamrock Marathon with one goal: qualify for her third Olympic Marathon Trials. She gave that race everything she had, yet missed the mark by a mere 58 seconds. After a long world-class athletic career, including placing fourth in the triathlon at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, some recent health problems prevented another qualifying attempt. Joanna accepted that her Olympic Trials days were over.

This past October, just 15 months after the birth of her twins, Becki Spellman (who has contributed as Rocket here) ran a 2:44:44 at the Columbus Marathon. That’s an incredible performance, but Becki was heartbroken. Despite giving it her all, she came up short.

Sara Polatas, just 22 years-old and running her first marathon, also raced her heart out in Columbus, but missed the 2:43:00 standard by 41 seconds.

Yesterday, after a single tweet, all three became 2016 Olympic Trials Qualifiers!

To catch you up to speed, the USA Track and Field is the governing body that sets the standards for track and field Olympic Trials standards. For 2016, the USATF set the threshold for women’s marathon at 2:43:00. This meant that any American woman who ran a 2:43:00 or faster on a certified course in a sanctioned marathon during the qualifying window was eligible to run in the Olympic Marathon Trials in Los Angeles on February 13, 2016.

As of this writing, 157 women have met this standard. But other women, like Joanna, Becki, and Sara, have gone for it and narrowly missed the mark. Yesterday, just nine weeks before the trials, the USATF tweeted the announcement that it was changing the standard from 2:43:00 to 2:45:00. For these women, who believed they weren’t going to achieve the dream they had fought so hard for, the news was overwhelming!

The tweet that dreams are made of.

After almost two years of resigning herself to the disappointment of sitting on the sidelines in February, Joanna was in disbelief, “I hesitated to even believe it was true. It wasn’t until USATF put the announcement on their website that I truly let myself get excited.”

Becki’s reaction was raw emotion. “Holy Shit!” she said upon her discovery that she’ll likely be lining up in L.A. She found out at her grandmother’s house. “I think I scared my grandma! I just finished a tempo and came in to 38 texts and five missed calls! I burst into tears and she was so worried! But I couldn’t get the words out!” This reaction is completely understandable, especially when you know how hard Becki pushed herself even after she knew she wasn’t going to hit the standard.

Sara was ecstatic when she found out the her 2:43:41 from Columbus is now enough to get her to the trials starting line, but first she has to change her plans:

I was planning to race again at Houston to try and hit the time, but I’ve been struggling ever since trying to recover from Columbus. I am so excited that I now have an extra month to train and really get ready to run my best at trials!

Joanna also quickly realized she needed to move up the training she had planned for a late spring marathon, “I’m going to celebrate with a long run,” she said.

For Joanna, Becki, Sara and several other runners, the USATF’s change was an incredible gift, though others found the news bittersweet.

Our own Catnip (who races under her alter ego, Paige Biglin) is an active member of the USATF and has been following these developments closely. However, it’s more than just news for her. After missing the qualifier in 2012, she had hoped to bounce back after having her son to qualify for 2016, but again it didn’t happen. She said about it:

Last spring I think I was getting toward sub-2:50, maybe even 2:45 shape, before I injured my foot. I’m annoyed with myself that this is feeling a little personal, to be honest. This is super awesome news for those 2:43-2:45 women, but I kind of feel like I missed my shot again.

Similarly, Kate DeProsperis, who qualified for the 2012 trials, also planned to go for a 2016 OTQ after giving birth to her first child in 2013. She trained to qualify for the 2016 trials at the 2014 California International Marathon, but felt she wasn’t ready to run sub-2:43, so she ran a solid 2:46:02. She explained her decision:

I wanted to just do my best and get the first post-pregnancy marathon in. I ran a conservative 2:46:02, knowing full well on that day that a 2:42 and change was out of the question. Had the standard been 2:45, who knows if I could have willed myself a few seconds faster per mile.

Making matters more complicated, after this race, Kate felt she wasn’t likely to get fit enough for a sub-2:43, so she decided to have another baby instead:

Had the standard been 2:45, I may not have made that choice to keep trying for another child then given how close I was at CIM, but I cannot complain; looking at my son makes it worth it, but makes me wonder what could have been had I known the cut-off would be different.

Clockwise from top left: Catnip, Catnip's son, Kate DeProsperis, Kate's sons.
Clockwise from top left: Catnip, Catnip’s son, Kate DeProsperis, Kate’s sons.

Those two minutes make a huge difference for athletes at the margins. Each athlete plans her races and life choices based on the likelihood she might meet the standard. “If this news had come out even just two or three months ago, I would have changed my running plans and taken a shot at a December or January marathon,” Catnip said.

There is also the issue of those women who went for the 2:43:00, which was slightly overreaching for them and then finished just outside the 2:45:00. Would they have made the 2:45:00 standard if they hadn’t gone for the 2:43:00 instead? We’ll never know.

With so many now wondering what-if, this brings up the question of why the USATF made the change at all. Clear rules make these things simple; you qualify or you don’t. By messing with the standards it creates uncertainty and gray areas and diminishes trust in the USATF’s authority.

The reason may be to avoid a legal fight. Earlier in the week the IAAF, the governing body that sets the minimum standards for participation in the Olympic Games, set its marathon standards for the 2016 games. The time they chose for women? 2:45:00, which is two minutes slower than the 2:43:00 the USATF chose for the U.S. Olympic Trials. There is a federal law and a recent arbitration ruling that arguably requires the USATF’s standards to match the IAAF standards (you can get more details here). The USATF or any governing body isn’t going to change the rules this late in the game just to be nice, but the fact that it is so nice for so many runners is a great side effect.

Like any big change, there are always people who gain and others who are left disappointed; it’s never a one-size-fits-all outcome. While I understand the frustration of those runners who took the risk to make it and still came up short, or for those who calculated that the risk of hitting a 2:43 was too high when a 2:45 might have been just right, I’m also thrilled for these women who kept pushing as hard as they could even when that 2:43:00 slipped out of their grasp.

I’m incredibly happy for Joanna, Becki, and Sara and you bet I’ll be cheering for them in L.A.

Do you think the USATF made a good decision? How do you think this will impact the 2020 trials?

Salty Running boss and mother of 3 little ones with PRs of 3:10:15 (26.2), 1:25:59 (13.1) and 18:15 (5k). I love to write about running culture, mental training, and fitting in a serious running habit with the rest of a busy life.

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  1. Changing the times after most of the qualifying marathons have passed is rough (especially, as you pointed out, for those who went out too hard going for the 2:43 or those who passed an opportunity). I can’t imagine how it feels with an OTQ, but I know I might be a bit annoyed if my BQ or NYC time qualifier had been moved on me.

    That said, if IAAF didn’t create the standard until this week, I guess that’s where we’re at. Perhaps the IAAF needs to consider setting the mark earlier in the planning stages.

  2. It’s been a full 4 years since my last marathon. Yet, reading about Kate and Paige made me emotional. It’s hard for people who haven’t been there to understand, but you captured it perfectly (as always).

  3. Congratulations to those new OTQs but also understand the frustration of the change so close to the US trials. I believe it was 2008 that the trials were held very close to the Olympics making recovery/race difficult. This seems similar: even if you’d qualified knowing you have only two months to train is tough. We rely on consistency so bringing up the trust issue, understanding why IAAF standards changed, the impact on number of runners both here and in other countries would be helpful. What about number of men now eligible? Guess same issues and concerns. Can’t imagine being so close and then, either disappointment or “would of, could of, should of.”

    1. Yes, why the heck did the IAAF change their standards now? Is there a precedent for a change this close to the Oympics?

  4. Great overview of the effects of this change. I am curious to see the implications when it comes time to set the 2020 qualifying standards. Will they align again with IAAF or will we go with IAAF standard + X minutes?

    My heart breaks a little for the woman who ran 2:45:01 at CIM just days before this ruling.

    1. I agree I’ll be interested to see what they do going forward. I think the USATF was in a tricky situation, the IAAF changed last minute which they couldn’t have known would necessarily happen. If they didn’t adjust accordingly, there would be backlash. But I also understand the various implications that come from changing to the new standard. Sort of a Catch 22 if you ask me.

      Um, 2:45:01- If I were here I’d probably be 3 pints of Ben and Jerry’s deep within minutes of finding that out. BUT- I do wonder if she could petition for entry? I thought they stated if time is within short margin they might consider. There was a guy who ran/won Indy this year who was off by a second or two and I know he was planning on petitioning (well, I know based on what I read about it). Could be wrong.

  5. This article really opened my eyes to the incredible athleticism and dedication you ladies have for your chosen sport. I can’t even fathom knowing my abilities and body so well that I can plot an entire marathon to the minute. I’m impressed with all of you, no matter what the finishing time- you finish and that’s way more than I could ever do.

  6. I’m happy for them that they made the new cut-off. But I don’t think organizations should change the rules in the middle of the game, so to speak.
    Changes are good for some, but bad for others as you noted.