Analyzing the “Big Five” Women at the 2020 US Olympic Marathon Trials

By Jonathan Gault
February 28, 2020

So far, we’ve previewed the men’s and women’s underdogs and the men’s favorites at this weekend’s US Olympic Marathon Trials in Atlanta. That leaves just one group: the five women in the field most likely to make the 2020 Olympic team. That would be Jordan HasayEmily SissonDes LindenSara Hall, and Molly Huddle (reigning champ Amy Cragg would have been in this group before she withdrew).

Those women account for the four fastest personal bests in the field; the odd one out is Huddle, who has “only” run 2:26 but owns American records in the 10,000 meters (30:13) and half marathon (67:25). And while it’s a good bet that the Olympic team consists of three of the five women above, none of them are locks; there are questions surrounding each, some larger than others. So let’s examine each woman in detail and try to suss out who will make the team to Sapporo.

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Jordan Hasay — 28 years old, Nike, 2:20:57 pb (2017 Chicago), 67:55 half
Last two marathons: 3rd 2019 Boston (2:25:20), 3rd 2017 Chicago (2:20:57)

HasayHasay has run three terrific marathons, starting with her debut in Boston in 2017, but she has also failed to finish three others — she withdrew from Boston and Chicago in 2018 and, most worryingly, made it barely 5k at Chicago in October before dropping out with a torn hamstring.

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That doesn’t sound good, and it’s still not clear four-and-a-half months later where Hasay stands. She told Runner’s World she’s “feeling great” going into the Trials, but also that she’s been dealing with pain in her lower back and glute after hard workouts. After Chicago, she visited fabled German doctor Hans-Wilhelm Müller-Wohlfahrt, who works with FC Bayern Munich and kept Usain Bolt in one piece as he battled hamstring injuries during the second half of his career. She made a return trip to Germany in January — a good sign, because she received top-of-the-line treatment? Or bad, because she needed treatment so desperately that she had to fly to Germany? Hasay didn’t run a tuneup half marathon either — something she normally likes to do before she races over 26.2.

One other big change: Hasay, known for pushing her body to its limits and long, grueling workouts, told Runner’s World she’s been more cautious in this buildup and is taking every eighth day off. She knows that, unlike her withdrawals or DNFs in Boston and Chicago, if she gets this wrong, she’ll have to wait another four years for another shot.

Hasay is the biggest wild card in the women’s field. If she runs like the woman who ran 2:20 in Chicago (or even the one who twice finished 3rd in Boston), she’s on the team. But she could just as easily drop out if her body’s not up to the task.

Emily Sisson — 28 years old, New Balance, 2:23:08 pb (2019 London), 67:30 half
Last marathon: 6th 2019 London (2:23:08)

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Of all of the women in this group, Sisson has the fewest among of questions around her. The biggest knock? She’s only run one marathon, and it was nothing like the one she’ll face on Saturday.

That’s about it, though. She’s young, her coach Ray Treacy says she’s healthy, she has excelled in the 5k (two-time NCAA champ), 10k (two-time Worlds team member), and half (67:30 pb, #2 all-time US), and she knocked her marathon debut out of the park, running 2:23:08 (#2 US debut ever) in London last April. That’s why the LRC braintrust unanimously agreed Sisson is the safest bet to make the team.

And according to Treacy, she her training before the Trials has been even better than her London buildup.

“Her workouts have been better, she’s recovering better,” Treacy told LetsRun. “Her long runs have been better, tempo runs are better.”

Sisson didn’t run a tuneup race as she did before London, but Treacy says that was by design — in essence, to save herself for the race that matters most.

“I didn’t want her to get carried away by going in there and running too hard,” Treacy says.

While 2:23 in London is very good, that type of performance isn’t untouchable by the other women in this field. But if Sisson is even better than she was in London, she’s going to be seriously hard to beat in Atlanta.

Molly Huddle — 35 years old, Saucony, 2:26:33 pb (2019 London), 67:25 half (American record)
Last two marathons: 12th 2019 London (2:26:33), 4th 2018 New York (2:26:44)
Tuneup race: 69:34 for 12th (2nd American) at Houston Half on January 19

The numbers say Molly Huddle should be a marathon star. She’s faster in the 10k and the half marathon than Deena KastorShalane FlanaganJoan Benoit Samuelson — heck, she’s faster than any American, ever, because she has the American records in both events. And her front-running, grind-them-down style on the track suggests a skillset perfectly suited to excelling in marathon training.

And yet, Huddle’s returns, four races into her marathon career, have been underwhelming. She ran two solid races in New York — 2:28:13 for 3rd in her debut in 2016, and 2:26:44 for 4th, 22 seconds behind Flanagan who was 3rd, in 2018 (her best marathon). Her 2018 Boston race doesn’t count — the weather killed everyone that day — but last year, with a prime opportunity to run fast in London, Huddle couldn’t do it. Though her 2:26:33 was a small PB, she left that race disappointed — and well-beaten by Sisson, who finished over three minutes ahead of her.

The optimistic way to look at that is Huddle was supposedly in great shape before 2018 Boston, but was derailed by the weather. Treacy thought she was as fit as Sisson before 2019 London, but for whatever reason, Huddle didn’t feel great in the days leading up to the race or during the race itself.

Unfortunately for Huddle, her Trials buildup hasn’t been incredible. She missed some time in December with an ankle injury, and though her run at the Houston Half — 69:34 in a very controlled effort — was a good sign, she hasn’t been able to work out with Sisson (both were based in Phoenix during this segment) because Sisson was farther along in her buildup and in better shape.

Treacy isn’t counting Huddle out, however.

“I think all the other buildups will ultimately help her, the years of mileage that she has behind her, it probably wouldn’t take her as long to get ready for a marathon as it would people just starting up running the marathon,” Treacy says. “She’s come along nicely in the time she’s had.”

And even if her buildup has been abbreviated and not 100% to plan, Treacy doesn’t think that will change Huddle’s mindset.

“With every one of her USA titles she won, she would always have some fear that she might lose,” Treacy says. “And that’s what drove her. That’s what always drives her.

“It’s okay for Molly to feel that she’s not 100% going in because she never feels like she’s 100%. She probably didn’t feel 100% going into Rio when she ran 30:13. That’s her mentality.

“But when the day of the race comes though, she’s a completely different person. She’s gone through all her fears about the race and she’s ready to go. That’s the great thing about Molly, is she is just a great racer.”

Des Linden — 36 years old, Brooks, 2:22:38 pb (2011 Boston), 70:34 half
Last two marathons: 6th 2019 New York (2:26:46), 5th 2019 Boston (2:27:00)

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Eventually, one assumes, Linden will run a bad marathon. But it hasn’t happened yet. Yes, a few of Linden’s early marathons (she’s finished 18 — or the same number as every other woman in this group combined) weren’t great by her current standards, but for that stage of her career, they were solid performances. And over the last decade, no American has been more consistent — Linden’s sole blemish was a DNF at the 2012 Olympics, when she toed the line at far less than 100% health.

So when Linden says, as she did at Thursday’s press conference, that some “posture stuff” prevented her from hitting her workout splits early in the segment, or that she dealt with the flu midway through, I’m not as worried about her as I would be with a less-experienced athlete. And everyone in the Linden camp — her coach Walt Drenth, her agent Josh Cox, and Des herself — has said her fitness has progressed nicely over the last few weeks.

“Certainly ups and downs through the segment, but that’s pretty traditional of any buildup,” Linden says. “So I think it’s all trending in the right direction.”

That instills confidence that Linden should be able to knock out her usual solid performance. But solid may not be enough on Saturday. Linden was solid in New York in November, and that put her just six seconds in front of Kellyn Taylor, whom, you may notice, does not even appear in this preview. Linden was solid in Boston in April and finished 1:40 behind Hasay.

And that’s when the doubts start seeping in. Is Linden going to be able to summon a better performance than she did in Boston or New York off of a shakier buildup?

Linden has risen to the occasion time and again, and the challenging Atlanta course can only help her as Linden rarely makes tactical blunders and always paces herself well (see: 2016 Olympic Trials). But age catches up to us all at some point, and the competition at the 2020 Trials is deeper than ever. Can Linden’s experience carry her to a top-three finish on Saturday? If she does it, she’ll make history: no American woman has ever made three Olympic marathon teams.

Sara Hall — 36 years old, Asics, 2:22:16 pb (2019 Berlin), 68:58 half
Last two marathons: DNF 2019 New York, 5th 2019 Berlin (2:22:16)
Tuneup race: 68:58 for 9th (1st American) at Houston Half on January 19

Hall en route to her PR in Ottawa in 2018

Six months ago, Hall would not have been on this list. Though she finished eight marathons from her debut in 2015 through the middle of 2019, and some of them were strong runs — a 2:28 win at CIM in 2017 and a 2:26 pb in Ottawa in 2018 — none of them screamed OLYMPIC CONTENDER. From afar, it looked like more proof that Hall was a jack of all trades, master of none.

2019 Berlin changed all that. Hall unleashed a 2:22:16 pb, which made two things clear: her best distance is the marathon, and she is a serious contender to make the 2020 Olympic team. Only five Americans have ever run faster, and only one of them (Hasay) is running on Saturday.

Hall’s biggest concern is consistency. In her last four marathons, she’s gone 1-for-4: DNF-15th Boston (2:35)-5th Berlin (2:22:16)-DNF. Hall may deserve some leeway on the last one, however: it came in New York, just five weeks after she ran Berlin, and was derailed by stomach issues.

If Hall is in 2:22 shape, watch out. And according to Ryan Hall — Sara’s husband/coach and a two-time Olympic marathoner, that is the case once again.

“She’s had a picture-perfect buildup,” Ryan says. “That obviously gives me some peace, when you’ve hit every workout really well. She’s PR’d obviously in Houston leading up to the race. She’s in the best shape I’ve ever seen her in.”

Indeed, Hall blitzed a 68:58 to finish as the top American at the Houston Half in January. And Ryan thinks that, with the additional hill work Sara has put in during this buildup, she’s very prepared for the challenging Atlanta course.

“She’s run some pretty impressive stuff [in training] over some very grueling, tough courses,” Ryan says. “She’s in a different kind of shape…She’s in a gritty, cross country kind of shape more than in a ready-to-go-time-trial-a-personal-record-in-Berlin kind of shape. She’s never been this fit on hills, that’s for sure.”

JG prediction: This is an even tougher call than the men’s race. There are strong cases to be made for all five of these women to be on the team, and it really wouldn’t be a huge surprise if someone like Kellyn Taylor or Sally Kipyego made the team, either.

But only three women can make it. I’m rolling with Hasay, because I think she’s healthy enough for her talent to shine through. I’m picking Sisson because she ran great in London and only seems to have improved. And I’m picking Linden because her consistency has earned her “Meb” status at this point: keep picking her until she proves you wrong.

One thing I am certain about: this is going to be a hell of a race. Enjoy it, everyone.

More: The Women’s Underdogs at the Trials  Sally KipyegoKellyn TaylorEmma Ulmer — née Bates, Roberta GronerAliphine Tuliamuk, Stephanie Bruce.

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