Sage talks about the plight of the 2:14 to 2:18 marathoner. I would say the same plight exists for the 2:18-2:30 marathoner. They do it for the love of the sport and to see what the true capability is of their athletic prowness. Am I, the 2:30 marathoner ever going to pull on a red, white and blue singlet and represent the USA at Worlds or the Olympics? NO. But what I do believe is that I'm a part of the "depth" of American distance running. I believe that I play a critical role in the success of the US at the international level of competition. I believe that the more 4 hour marathoners there are, the more 3 hour marathoners there will be. I think the more 3 hour marathoners there are, the more 2:30 marathoners there will be and the more 2:20 marathoners there will be. I think that model follows through until you reach the 1 or 2 individuals capable of running in the world leading 2:03-2:04 range. If you don't believe me, then take a look at Kenya. They have more people running per capita than any other country on Earth. Guess what? They also have the best marathoners on the planet. A 2:05 guy will be left of the Kenyan Olympic marathon team this year and the USA doesn't have 3 guys that can beat their number #4 guy. The point of the story is that the bigger the base, the higher the peak, and I feel as though the more people we can get running at any pace or any finishing time, the more guys there will be to emerge at the top tier of US and world marathoning.
If you accept the idea that "the bigger the base, the higher the peak" then your next logical question should be: "how do we get more people running?" There are a lot of answers to this question, starting with creating successful running/training programs in elementary, secondary and high schools, colleges, running clubs, and other organizations. I also think that there needs to be graduated levels of measurement in which to measure running success. Let's take a quick look at the high school system. In high school, a kid can join his school's team, compete weekly in open xc races and have the time of his life. He/she can also race at the conference meet, then the district meet, then the sectional meet and then the state meet. After state there are even more levels; nationals (footlocker or NXN), and then worlds. At each of those events the number and geographic range of runners grows, making each next level bigger, better, and more selective than the one before. To make it through each of those events and to move on to the next speaks volumes to a high schooler or to a running fan. Although this system is not without its flaws it is well developed and it works in developing high-school level talent. I think there is an under developed system of "graduated levels of measurement" for post collegiate athletes, and that gap is what we need to work on to continue developing the best runners in the US. What graduated levels of measurement exist for a US marathoner? What is pushing me (the 2:30 marathoner) to keep going? Finishing the race? Boston Qualifier? Olympic Trials? I need to run 3:10 to qualify for Boston and a 2:18 to qualify for the OT. Doesn't that 3:10-2:18 range seem like a pretty big gap with no real mark in between? I think the Olympic Trials (OT) could serve as a continuation of the high school and collegiate systems. That system is the carrot dangled out in front of a runner that keeps them driving for fulfilling their potential as Sage suggests, while playing a critical role in the depth of American distance running.
The mission of the USATF is "USA Track & Field drives competitive excellence and popular engagement in our sport." The mission of the USATF OT is to select the best US marathoners to represent the US at the Olympics and then for those athletes to bring home hardware from the Olympics. I also feel as though another purpose exists for the USATF OT. That purpose is to "drive competitive excellence and popular engagement in our sport." It's not that crazy of an idea as it's the actual mission of the USATF, the same governing body that is putting on the race. I think the trials race, regardless of the standards or number of entries is going to select the best Americans to represent the US in the Olympics. I also think that in addition to selecting the US's best, the trials race could get more bang for its buck in terms of meeting the mission statement of the USATF and their goal of "USA Track & Field drives competitive excellence and popular engagement in our sport."
Here is how I think the gap between the high-school and collegiate systems and the elite world of marathoning can be narrowed while at the same time creating an event which fulfills the true mission of the USATF. I think it makes sense to put the A standard at whatever the Olympic A standard is for that cycle. If it's good enough to compete at the Games, it's good enough to get your expenses covered to run in the USATF OT selection race. I'm also suggesting a B standard somewhere in the 2:22-2:26 range or so. This mark would still keep the field pretty limited, would give sub-elite guys something to shoot for, and if those 2:22+ guys would like to put up the money to go and race in the OT the more power to them and the USATF for hosting an event. Think too about how many friends, teammates, co-workers and family members would go and be a part of that race if it had 150-200 people instead of 20-30. Wouldn't that add interest and increase the popularity in the sport of running? (In reality I would like to see the B Standard guys also have their way 100% paid for by the USATF, but I don't think that is economical within the current state of US Economy and the state of the USATF). One other thing that including 2:22+ guys does is it creates story lines all over the country for the media to get a hold of and run with. These stories of guys working full time, raising families, dreaming big and running fast are what inspires me and the next generation of runners. I relate more to the 2:24 guy in my running club that is not sponsored, working full time and has a family than I do Ryan Hall who has corporate sponsorships and is only concerned with running full-time. A B Standard in the 2:22-2:26 range also narrows the canyon of a gap that exists in US marathoning (that 3:10 to 2:20's range) while taking nothing away from the true contenders (the Ryans, Mebs, Dathan's, and Sell's) of the Trials race. Who does it hurt to have a 2:24 guy in the same race as the eventual top 3?
The more people racing in conference, district, sectional, state, national events the more that will continue to rise to the challenge posed at each subsequent level of competition. That system should continue post college with graduated levels of achievement upon which we can compare ourselves. An A and B standard at the times suggested accomplishes that goal. The more people we get out, training, racing and shooting for these levels, the higher the likelihood is that people will hit each standard and will push into the upper echelons of marathon racing ultimately being able to compete against the world's best in the 2:03, 2:04 range. The USATF needs to give me and the thousands of other guys like me the opportunity to increase the depth American Distance Running, to push the limits of human potential and to give the US it's best shot at medaling at the Olympic Games. If the OT was not only used as the race to select the best that America has to offer, but as an incentive for the thousands of runners looking for that next challenge and that next time to train and race for, then the USATF will fail in its mission, and thousands of aspiring runners will never take the steps needed to make their dreams a reality.