2018 CIM/USATF Marathon Champs Preview: What To Watch For In The Deepest Marathon In America

By Jonathan Gault
November 30, 2018

Fall marathon season isn’t over quite yet. Though the World Marathon Majors have passed, there are a few notable marathons left before the end of 2018 — Fukuoka and Valencia are this weekend, while Abu Dhabi and Honolulu next weekend. For US fans, however, the biggest race may be Sunday’s Sunday’s California International Marathon in Sacramento, which will serve as the U.S. Marathon Champs for the second consecutive year.

Without the deep pockets of majors such as Boston, Chicago, and New York, CIM often doesn’t attract the very top-tier of American marathoners. But the downhill course (340-foot net elevation loss, which means it’s not eligible for record purposes but is eligible for Trials qualifying purposes), traditionally good weather, and a USATF championships prize structure that pays out to the top 10 American finishers makes CIM an appealing option for Americans not quite good enough to garner an appearance fee from WMM events.

Last year, CIM produced the fastest marathon by an American not named Galen Rupp when Tim Ritchie ran 2:11:55 FTW. Eight American men broke 2:14 in CIM last year (no other marathon had more than three), while five American women broke 2:33, also the most of any marathon in 2017. Admittedly these are arbitrary cutoffs, so how about we go by the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials standards (2:19:00 for the men, 2:45:00 for the women)?

For both genders, no marathon produced more Trials qualifiers in 2017 than CIM*. In fact, CIM produced more Trials qualifiers in 2017 than the three American WMM events combined:

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Race Men’s Trials qualifiers Women’s Trials qualifiers Total
CIM 37 53 90
Chicago 11 21 32
Boston 9 16 25
New York 4 8 12

*The Trials qualifying window did not open until 9/1/17, but for the purpose of this exercise, we counted times run at Boston 2017 as “Trials qualifiers”

Okay, so depth is great, but we’re not going to write a race preview just to gush about how fast the 10th finisher runs in a race. Let’s take a look at the major storylines of the 2018 U.S. Marathon Champs, which you can watch live on USATF.TV+ (requires subscription) on Sunday morning (10 a.m. ET start).

Men’s Race: Matt Llano is back (and being coached by Ryan Hall) & a pair of intriguing debuts

CIM represents one of the last chances for an American man not named Galen Rupp to break 2:12 in 2018 — a feat so far accomplished only by Rupp (twice). It’s the same situation as last year, in fact, where Ritchie used a big negative split to just dip under 2:12.

Could anyone break 2:12 in Sacramento this year?

Only one guy on the start listNick Arciniaga, has ever broken 2:12, but it’s been over four years since he did it and Arcianaga has failed to break 2:16 in his last nine marathons. After that, the next fastest PRs belong to Matt Llano and Daniel Tapia, both of whom have run 2:12:28. Of the two, we’re more bullish on Llano’s chances, even though Tapia’s PR (2016 CIM) came more recently than Llano’s (2015 Berlin). Tapia ran just 2:16:44 at CIM last year, while Llano ran 2:13:42 in Frankfurt. Now Llano says he’s finally healthy after an injury-plagued last few years — he had to have pelvic surgery in 2016 and then, after running New York that fall, had surgery to repair a torn labrum. After leaving the Hoka NAZ Elite team in June, he’s now training under U.S. marathon legend Ryan Hall in Flagstaff and, after battling respiratory issues in the first half of 2018, he sounds optimistic ahead of Sunday’s race (for more, check out this Q&A with Llano conducted by the Sacramento Running Association’s Kevin Liao).

Lagat at the 2009 Healthy Kidney 10K Lagat at the 2009 Healthy Kidney 10K

But for Llano to come back and run a PR after the last few years would be a surprise. If someone is going to break 2:12 in Sacramento, it very well might be debutante Haron Lagat. A long-time steeplechaser (8:15 pb), the 35-year-old Lagat, who started representing the US in October of 2016, ran 61:01 in his half marathon debut in Houston in January. His road results since then have been up and down. He could only manage 65:13 and 65:17 in his next two half marathons (Gasparilla in February and NYC in March) before rebounding with runner-up finishes at the USATF 10k and 20k champs. His most recent race, 48:07 for 14th at the US 10-mile champs in October, did not go well, but his coach Scott Simmons says that is due to an Achilles issue that has since been resolved. Simmons says Lagat has bumped his mileage from the 90-110 mpw range he did as a steepler to 130-150 mpw as a marathoner and says that Lagat’s buildup has gone “very well.”

“He thinks he has a great potential at [the marathon],” Simmons says. “Training for steeplechase, in long runs and long tempos we saw that potential for sure. He believes he can do very well and he thinks he can make the Olympic team. The other side of the coin too is, making the team in the steeplechase, just with Evan Jager and [Lagat’s training partners] Stanley [Kebenei] and Hillary [Bor], makes it really a tough team to make. You’ve gotta be an 8:10 guy or faster to make that team.”

Simmons says that, ideally, Lagat would come through halfway somewhere in the 65-to-66-minute range.

“Somewhere around 2:10, give or take, would be a very, very good result,” Simmons says.

2:10 seems like a stretch. Even though Lagat’s half PR of 61:01 is worth around 2:09:44 using John Kellogg‘s conversion table, the chances of Lagat doing that, on his own, in his debut, are very slim. But somewhere in the 2:11-2:13 range could be possible. Assuming his body holds up, Lagat should contend to win the race. But he could just as easily blow up and wind up a DNF. That’s what makes Lagat a compelling figure in this race.

One more debutant worth noting: Syracuse alum Marty Hehir, who is currently balancing marathon training with medical school. As Sarah Lorge Butler detailed for Runner’s World, Hehir’s training has hardly been ideal. He is coached remotely by his former college coach Chris Fox (now heading up the Reebok Boston Track Club, of which Hehir is a member despite living in Philadelphia) and, because of his demanding academic schedule, typically runs back-to-back hard days on the weekend (tempo and long run) in addition to a speed session on Wednesdays. Despite all that, Hehir, who owns a 28:08 10k PR from last year, ran an impressive 46:49 to win the Pittsburgh 10-Miler on November 4, which equates to roughly a 2:11 marathon. Hehir’s main goal on Sunday is to knock out his Trials qualifier, but don’t be surprised if he’s running near the very front of the pack.

The top returning finisher from last year is Anthony Costales, who clocked 2:13:13 for fourth in 2017.

Women’s Race: Stephanie Bruce & Sarah Crouch try to bounce back from fall marathons as former NCAA champ Emma Bates debuts

The winner of women’s race at 2018 CIM could very well be a woman who ran another marathon less than two months ago. Which, we suppose, isn’t exactly unheard of, considering Sara Hall won CIM last year just five weeks after running a PR of 2:27:21 in Frankfurt. One of those women is Sarah Crouch, who ran 2:32:37 on October 7 to finish as the top American (sixth) in Chicago. When we spoke to her mere hours after finishing Chicago, Crouch said she was already contemplating the double.

“Watching Sara Hall do that last year and perform so well, it’s been really inspiring to see all these women who are able to run back-to-back marathons,” Crouch said.

The Steve Magness-coached Crouch, who is based in Flagstaff and trains with her two sisters, has a 2:32:37 PR, which is fourth-best in this field, though she said she was on 2:30 pace through 22 or 23 miles in Chicago.

“I know I’m faster than that,” Crouch said. “I’m sure of it.”

Photo by Jane Monti for Race Results Weekly Bruce before this year’s London Marathon (photo by Jane Monti for Race Results Weekly)

Stephanie Bruce will be attempting an even tougher double: she’s running CIM just 28 days after clocking 2:30:59 to finish 11th in New York. Bruce is no stranger to doubling back — last year she finished 22nd at World XC in Kampala, Uganda, on March 25 and ran a 10k PR in Palo Alto, California, just six days later — but running 10ks six days apart is a lot different from running marathons less than a month apart.

“I don’t think that we would do it for anyone else on the team,” says Bruce’s coach Ben Rosario. “But reality is what it is, she’s closer to the end of her career than the beginning (Bruce turns 35 in January) and she has plans for possibly a bigger family down the road. And so she wanted to get two marathons in before the Trials but she didn’t want to miss all the cool things that she might be able to do this spring because she’s been running so well at shorter distances and there’s so many opportunities, racing-wise, in the spring at those shorter distances. And so she just felt like, hey, what if I just do this one now, get one out of the way and then I’ll do another one next fall. Once it seemed like her body was okay, I was in agreement, I was totally behind her.”

Rosario said that they haven’t tried to improve upon Bruce’s NYC fitness, but merely maintain it: Bruce took one week off after New York, followed by one week of very easy running, and has done a total of four workouts between the two races. Goal #1 is simply to win the race; if Bruce could challenge her 2:29:35 PR (set back in 2011) on the fast CIM course, that would be a bonus.

Rosario believes that it’s not a coincidence that women like Hall, Crouch, and Bruce are trying two marathons with a quick turnaround. His logic: female runners are smaller than male runners, which means they’re carrying less weight and, as a result, there is less pounding on their bodies, making it easier for them than it is for men to double back for long, hard efforts like a marathon.

“I think if they’re full-grown adults — so we’re not talking about high school or college women — but when you’re talking about professional women who are doing all the work in the weight room and are really, really strong, then I think yes, they bounce back quicker than men,” Rosario says.

Emma Bates won’t have to worry about bouncing back because this is her marathon debut. The 2014 NCAA 10k champ for Boise State, Bates spent a spell in Boston with the B.A.A. High Performance Team but is now back in Idaho where she’s being coached by her fiancé and 2:21 marathoner Kameron Ulmer (for more on Bates, read this story by Kevin Liao). So far, the results have been promising. She was second at the US 25k champs in May, third at the 20k champs in September, and third at the 10-mile champs in October, four seconds behind Hall and just three seconds back of Molly Huddle, who went on to run 2:26 in New York a month later. We’re not saying Bates is Huddle, or that she’ll run 2:26 at CIM, but it was further proof that Bates is doing something right.

“I wasn’t expecting to be that close to them in the race…it was something incredibly special,” Bates told Liao. “It was a turning point for my training…The workouts mesh well with the type of runner I am. I can go for a long ways. I had a goal of being in the top three of my first marathon, but now we’re actually thinking about time goals and even winning.”

Who will prevail in Sacramento? The vets bouncing back, the marathon rookie, or someone else entirely? Tune in on Sunday to find out.

Discuss the 2018 USATF Marathon Champs on the messageboard: MB: Official 2018 CIM Prediction/Discussion Thread

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