The Big Debate: Gwen Jorgensen Moves to the Marathon, How Will She Do?

November 13, 2017

Last week, just two days after Shalane Flanagan made history by becoming the first American woman in 40 years to win the New York City Marathon, the marathon world received another jolt. Olympic triathlon champion Gwen Jorgensen, 31, also of the United States, announced that she is transitioning from the triathlon to the marathon, with the goal of winning Olympic gold at Tokyo 2020. Jorgensen has not competed this year as she took 2017 off to give birth to a son, Stanley.

Running has traditionally been the strongest of Jorgensen’s three segments in the triathlon, and she has solid running chops. In college at Wisconsin, she ran 15:52 for 5,000 meters and placed 19th at NCAA XC in 2008; last year, she finished 3rd at the U.S. 10-mile champs and ran 2:41 at the NYC Marathon off of 40-50 miles per week.

Jorgensen has not announced details about a training group, but she lives in Portland and former triathlon rival Sarah True tweeted on Tuesday that Jorgensen will be joining Bowerman Track Club to be coached by Jerry Schumacher. We reached out to Jorgensen to confirm this but she did not respond. convened its braintrust — co-founders Robert (Rojo)and Weldon Johnson (Wejo), Employee 1.1 Steve Soprano, and staff writer Jonathan Gault — to discuss Jorgensen’s move and what it could mean for the future of the marathon in the U.S.

And for this discussion, we brought in a new member to the braintrust, ad sales guy and triathlon nut Lars Finanger (4:42 mile best, sub-6 beer miler, former c-level pro triathlete, 3x Kona finisher).

Jorgsensen at US 10 MIler Jorgsensen at US 10 MIler

Jonathan: First of all, props to Gwen Jorgensen. I’m not saying I would have made the same decision, but I understand the reasoning. She’s accomplished everything she wants to accomplish in the triathlon, and wants a new challenge. And winning Olympic marathon gold is certainly a challenge — no American has done it since Joan Benoit Samuelson in 1984.

Maybe this comes back to bite me, but I give her a zero percent chance of actually winning Olympic marathon gold. After all, look at Shalane Flanagan. She’s been a running phenom her entire life and has finished 9th and 6th in her two Olympic marathons. NBC Olympic Talk said Jorgensen knows she must drop about 15 minutes from her marathon PR to be competitive on the world level, but to actually win the Olympics, it’s more like 20+. And on top of all that, she has to run well on the day. And as NYC showed, even a legend like Mary Keitany isn’t 100% every time out. If Jorgensen wins Olympic marathon gold to go with her Olympic triathlon gold, it would go down as one of the greatest accomplishments in the history of sport.

I get why Jorgensen threw out the phrase Olympic gold — if she truly wants to be a world-class marathoner, that’s the ultimate goal — but the more interesting question is whether she has a chance to make the U.S. Olympic team in Tokyo. While this is the right time for Jorgensen to make the move personally (coming off Olympic gold and a pregnancy), she could not be entering into a more difficult period for U.S. female marathoners. Amy Cragg earned bronze at Worlds in August. Jordan Hasay just ran 2:20 in Chicago, #2 all-time among American women. Flanagan just won New York (though she may not make it to 2020). Desi Linden will be 36 at the 2020 Trials — the same age Flanagan is now. Molly Huddle is a full-time marathoner now. For Jorgensen to make the team, only two of those women (max) can beat her, and that doesn’t include athletes like Laura Thweatt, Emily Sisson, or others who have yet to emerge. What do you guys think?

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Weldon: As to whether she can win the Olympic gold, I think we should have learned from Meb winning Boston in 2014, let’s just say the odds are very, very, very  low and it would be one of the greatest accomplishments in sport. Since our motto is, “Where Your Dreams Become Reality” I’m implementing a policy of not squashing big dreams. I agree the more interesting question is can she make the US Olympic Marathon Team and I think if you make the US team that gives you a chance at a medal. From the last two Olympic cycles in the US, and with the current crop of women, I think you need to be capable of a 2:25 marathon to make the Olympic team. Do that and you’ve got a good shot at top 10 in the Olympics and possibly a medal. Become a 2:22 or better woman and the chances of medal increase. But getting 7th at the Olympics and winning gold are completely different things and I think that gap might get larger and larger because of the emergence of the Kenyan and Ethiopian women and the radical improvement we saw at the half-marathon this year on the roads. But the Kenyan and Ethiopians can only enter three at the Olympics and the results haven’t been tremendous the last two Olympics between the two countries, and if say for whatever reason a Mary Keitany or Tirunesh Dibaba doesn’t toe the line in Tokyo, maybe the gold isn’t that far from the bronze. Our sport should have some rule that voids all competitions within one year prior to a positive drug test, and if we had that rule in place for Rio to DQ drug cheat Jemima Sumgong, Eunice Kirwa would be your 2016 Olympic gold medallist. So I’m fine if you consider Eunice Kirwa the 2016 Olympic champion, yet I just don’t think of her as a world beater in the marathon. Hot weather marathons are a different beast, but I don’t think they favor Gwen who is bigger than a lot of African runners.

So can Gwen make the Olympic team? Yes, I think that’s not outside the realm of possibility. Will she? Someone start crunching the numbers on her 53:13 10 miler from last year. She was 3rd at the US 10 Mile Championships. That’s a very good run. I want to see what that equates to for a marathon.

Rojo: Ok. I’m going to re-post here what I wrote on the messageboard a few days ago. Warning, Rojo unfiltered.

I’m excited by this development but I’ll admit when I heard about this , I immediately thought, “This doesn’t end well.”

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She reminds me of myself about 15 years ago and basically every single athlete under the age of 30 (yes I know she’s 31 but since she’s changed sports so many times, she’s the equivalent of a 25-year-old athlete). When your only experience in sport is you go all-in and you work hard and you get better, you think that’s all you have to do. The concept of genetic limit doesn’t really exist. It likely will soon.

I then did some research however and became more optimistic. I forgot how much of a natural she was for running. Here is what we wrote about her before NY last year.

“Her primary athletic focus was always swimming until midway through college, but she quickly became very good (she ran a 4:21 1500 just months after joining the Wisconsin track team after the swimming season concluded during her junior year of college), making three NCAA finals for Wisconsin (15:52 5k pb) and finishing 19th at NCAA XC in 2008.”

That’s big-time talent. And Gwen is already a much better runner than people think.

People who point to her existing 2:41 marathon as some sort of indication of what her potential in the marathon don’t know what they’re talking about. I went and looked it up. Jack Daniels’ calculator says Gwen’s run for 10 miles is worth 2:28:36 for the marathon and 32:10 for 10k. the McMillan calculator says it’s worth 2:29:23 and 31:50. So if she can just become as good a marathoner as she now is for the 10 mile while training for the triathlon she conceivably could run 2:28. But THAT’S A LONG WAY FROM sub-2:20, which is what the top women in the world run.

And while I’m repeatedly trying not to make this about myself this week, it’s impossible not to. When I was training for my first marathon, I remember my sub-4-minute miler roommate asked me if I was training to break three hours. Remember, I didn’t run in college and had like a 16:20 something PB. Wait. I think I ran 15:30 that spring before I started a fall marathon buildup. Anyways, I was insulted. My goal was sub-2:30. I ran 2:29. And after taking a few weeks off, I remember talking to my coach John Kellogg about how I thought I’d break 2:22 the next time out and make the Olympic Trials no problem. I didn’t think it would be hard at all since I was running a marathon only about 25 seconds slower than my 5k pb from a few years earlier. I remember being stunned when John said it wouldn’t be so easy and I might not ever break it. He was right. You improve by leaps and bounds when you start training, but once you are training at a high level, it’s really hard to keep improving.

The motto of the website is “Where your dreams become reality” but I’ve always joked it should be “Where your dreams don’t become reality” as dreams most often don’t get realized. Like Jon said, the question should be can she make an Olympic team as a runner.

Of course, I’ve become jaded. Maybe she should print this up and use it as motivation like the Syracuse coaching staff did. When they got there, I asked them how would they ever win a Big East title over Georgetown, let alone a national title.

Wejo: The question is how much she can improve? I’m sort of just assuming if she runs full-time, she gets better at running and improves. I think for shorter distances that definitely would be the case, assuming she gets healthy. But how that applies to the marathon I’m not sure. What if she’s more of a 10k runner than a marathoner? We’re making a lot of assumptions that a) she’ll improve and b) the marathon is her distance. To get from 2:28 to 2:20 is roughly 20 seconds a mile for 26 miles. That’s a ridiculous ask. She’d have to be like Paula Radclifffe or Jordan Hasay for that to happen in my book, perfectly suited for the marathon. Seven to nine seconds a mile to get to 2:25 seems reasonable if she takes to this. But I’m sure there are a lot of people who think she won’t break 2:30.

I’m curious what the triathlon world is thinking of this. Lars, what do you have to say?

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Lars: As the lone triathlete on the LetsRun staff, I have had the privilege of seeing Gwen dominate the premier circuit in the sport since 2013 when she burst onto the scene winning the WTS San Diego by unleashing what would become her signature move, a soul-crushing finishing run leg. During this final 10k she would often find herself needing to overcome deficits upwards of two minutes on the leaders. While none of her competitors were elite professional runners, they were all world class triathletes, competing in a racing style that put a premium on fast running. Gwen made all the other women look like weekend warriors. Her stride was long, loping and gazelle-like, even after the typically rough 1.5k open water swim and 40k bike legs. Keep this theme in mind: in triathlon, Gwen always ran tired, never on fresh legs.

A few years ago, I interviewed Ben True and he said Gwen was the only woman in the triathlon world who tackled the closing 10k of a triathlon like a runner would. His observation was that the common practice for most triathletes in these draft-legal races is to blast out of transition in the early stages of the run and see which competitors could hang on as the race whittles down to the finish, strongest athlete left standing. Gwen was an outlier. She almost always ran conservatively out of transition and for the first half of the run leg and posted negative splits. This shows she is not only physically strong in the late stages of a two-hour-plus endurance effort, but she has trained herself mentally to negative-split these types of races. Is the final 10k of a marathon really THAT different?

From day one, Gwen’s run was the best the triathlon world had ever seen, but the most impressive aspect of her honing her craft was the considerable attention she put into making herself a front pack swimmer and a proficient cyclist. In order to do this, she moved away from her beloved Twin Cities and joined a squad under the guidance of legendary Australian coach, Jamie Turner, spending over half of every year living out of a suitcase in either Australia or Spain training with other elite men and women on the ITU circuit.

Sensing the only way she could be beaten was to drop her on the bike leg, Gwen worked tirelessly to make herself a better cyclist. She worked diligently with her husband, former pro cyclist Pat Lemieux, to become a proficient cyclist, so she would not be dropped when the other girls ganged up and attempted to attack and drop her from the peloton. It blew my mind to see her even able to play the role as the aggressor on the bike leg in Rio! But, that shows the level of preparation she went through in order to be the best at her craft.

Many age-group triathletes wanted to see what Gwen could do at Ironman even though she never hinted she was even remotely interested in pursuing long-distance racing. Long distance, including the most well-known race Ironman Hawaii, leans heavily on being a strong time-trial cyclist. Gwen has little to no experience at non-draft, time-trial cycling, so pursuing long-distance racing would be far outside of her wheelhouse. Most in the triathlon world figured she would make a run at Tokyo and a chance at defending her Olympic gold medal from Rio.

I do think Gwen will qualify for Team USA and earn a spot to Tokyo. The tougher the race, the bigger the stage, the brighter she will shine. Once on the starting line in Tokyo, there will only be a handful of other women with the experience she brings to the field as an Olympic gold medallist. She will be the best prepared for any condition the day throws at her and she will battle it out to finish as the top non-African woman in the field.

Does Gwen really believe she has what it takes to win an Olympic gold medal in the marathon? Absolutely. Does it mean she does not respect her fellow competitors and compatriots for what they have already achieved? Absolutely not. She will put her body through the training to give herself the best opportunity to succeed. Though this time around she will play the role of the hunter and not the hunted. As long as she remains healthy, I think she will find herself in the winner’s circle at a marathon major and, if all the stars align, maybe even in Tokyo. Running world, get ready to experience #gwensanity.

Wejo: OMG. I’m not sure what I just read, but I’m smiling. I love the enthusiasm. You make it sound like one can just will one’s way to an Olympic gold medal. But that’s not how it works, at least in the running world 🙂 Or the triathlon world. If it was all about will couldn’t Gwen will herself to an Ironman world title? Why do we think she’ll be a better marathoner runner than she would Ironman triathlete?  Having said that — and Robert disagrees with me on this — but I think there is a huge mental component to success in running, and being an Olympic champion I’m giving Gwen that intangible factor.

But I’ve been reading the thread where people predict how she’ll do and, like some of the posters, am open to the possibility the marathon isn’t even her distance. I’ll give a dose of reality for you on how hard I think the Olympic gold is. Amy Cragg won the US Olympic Marathon Trials, just won a bronze medal at the World Championships, and is mentally tough as nails, and I think she has pretty much no chance at an Olympic gold.

Where’s Steve in this debate? I’m pretty sure from seeing his text on this when the news broke about Gwen that he’s got even more of a dose of reality for Lars.

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Steve (on the Olympics): So I came here late to the party, but was riled up and ready to argue how Jorgensen had no real shot at making the US Olympic marathon team. (editor’s note: Steve’s initial text said, “does anyone actually think she can make the Olympics in the marathon?”) But now I’ve read your arguments and you have already convinced me that I was wrong. I didn’t remember her 10 mile time off the top of my head and didn’t realize it converted to a 2:28 for the marathon. And yes, of course she has a lot of room to improve on her 2:41 considering she ran it on NYC off 40-50 miles a week. It’s definitely conceivable that with focused distance training she improves to a 2:2x marathon and that puts her in the discussion for making the US Olympic team.

Does that mean I think she’ll do it? No way, for all the reasons stated above and more. As Jon mentioned, the depth of US women’s marathoning right now is incredible, Rojo asked how much she can improve, Weldon is questioning if the marathon is actually her distance, and even Jorgensen herself admits that she is short on time. She was quoted in USA Today saying, “We’re on a tight time schedule. It’s not that long until Tokyo. If you work back from Tokyo and the Olympic trials, I don’t have many opportunities to perform. There’s going to be this huge learning curve in a small amount of time, and I’m going to have to take risks in training and competing.”

That is so true and I’m glad she realizes it. This would be a different conversation if Jorgensen was 24 and we were talking about the 2024 Olympics, but that’s not the case. The situation is that Jorgensen has ran one off-the-cuff marathon, has no background in real marathon training, is 31 years old and is on the comeback from pregnancy. Overcoming all that in a short time is a tall order, forget about competing against what might be the deepest group of female marathoners in US history. I think it’s really cool that she’s switching to running full-time and it will add an interesting element to future marathons and the 2020 Olympic Trials, but I will be shocked and extremely impressed if she makes the team to Tokyo. Still, to steal the “inspirational” words Rojo said to me in college when I was trying to make the Cornell Heps team, “Weirder things have happened.”

Steve (on Olympic gold): Believe it or not, that was optimistic Steve speaking above. (I’m probably about as “jaded” as Rojo at this point.) But now I have to bring some reality to this discussion and address Jorgensen’s tweet about going for Olympic marathon gold. When I read it, I had mixed emotions as part of me admired her guts and part of me just rolled my eyes. But like Jon, I give this about a zero percent chance of happening. I give her props for putting a big goal out there, and that’s the attitude you need to have to be a world beater, but the fact that all the experts have turned the discussion into one about whether she can make the team rather than her chances at gold should tell you something.

It’s not even just about switching sports; it’s about the sport she’s switching to. Anyone who really thinks she will win marathon gold is not giving proper respect to the world’s best marathoners. If the world’s best distance runner said they wanted to go for gold at the triathlon, I would have to stop and give that some consideration. But no, the world’s best triathlete is not beating the world’s best marathoners. I’m showing off my running bias here, but the two sports are not equal in terms of depth of competition because one has a significant financial barrier to entry. Check out the 2016 Olympic triathlon results. Notice anything missing? Almost an entire continent perhaps? The East Africans aren’t there to kick butt at the triathlon, but they are at the marathon and I just can’t see Jorgensen beating them at their own game when she hasn’t even had to face them at hers.

To be clear, I love Jorgensen’s attitude even if I (like her parents) think her golden goal is crazy. And Lars, I really liked what you wrote; you’re turning me into a Gwen Jorgensen fan already. And I admit I don’t know the triathlon, but if you’re actually as confident as you sound that Jorgensen can win a WMM or an Olympic medal, then you don’t know the marathon. While all that grit and determination makes for a great profile piece, it doesn’t make up for East African genetics and altitude training. It doesn’t make up for the last decade plus that she’s been training for three sports while her competitors have been training for one. And it doesn’t make up for the thousands upon thousands of miles it takes over the course of a career to achieve your marathon potential. The LRC motto might be “Where Your Dreams Become Reality,” but this one is more of a fantasy.

Lars: Kristin Armstrong, Mari Holden, Emma Pooley and Lance Armstrong were all triathletes prior to winning their Olympic medals in cycling. Gwen would be the first to take her storied triathlon career to the running world.

As crazy as you think I am for suggesting if Gwen makes the team she will have an outsider’s shot at a medal I will leave you with one final thought. The greatest female marathoner was arguably Paula Radcliffe and despite entering each Olympic Games as the overwhelming favorite, she never won a medal. Shouldn’t that be reason enough to believe that anything is possible on a given day?

Weldon: Lars, I think we all agree with you on one thing, if she makes the US team, with the way things have been trending, there is a chance for a medal.

But NOT winning the gold medal is a lot easier than winning the gold as Paula shows, but Paula was injured heading into every Olympics she ran. But you are right, you don’t have to be the top marathoner in the world to win the Olympic gold. Hot-weather, tactical marathons are a completely different animal and we are in some ways analyzing this to say “will she be the fittest marathoner in the world” and that’s a definite no. She’s not going to approach what Keitany or Paula can do. But neither is Shalane and she just won New York.

Let’s change subject a bit.  Do any of you think Gwen may have been thinking about making this move all year? She was running 100 miles a week this year while pregnant and she happened to move to Portland, which is the base of two of the best running groups in the world. Now granted maybe it’s not that safe to bike a lot while pregnant — I’m a guy, I have no idea — but when I saw she had been running 100-mile weeks in Portland it got me wondering a bit more when she started thinking about this.

Lars: Wejo, you’re spot on with your assessment. At her level, every move is a calculated one. She and Pat are from Minnesota, where they were living after Rio, so why move unless this was her plan all along. I can tell you she showed no signs post-Rio indicating she was interested in pursuing triathlon following her baby.

Gwen’s foray into the marathons will be interesting. Tell us how you think she will do here: Gwen Jorgenson switching to marathon, how will she do?

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