Olympic Marathon Trials Question of Day: Which “Longer” Shot Has the Best Shot? Kipyego, Bates, Thweatt, Bruce or Tuliamuk

By LetsRun.com
February 18, 2020

The 2020 US Olympic Marathon Trials are almost here. As we count down the days until the Trials (February 29 in Atlanta), the LetsRun.com braintrust — co-founders Weldon (Wejo) and Robert Johnson (Rojo) and staff writer Jonathan Gault — will be answering one pressing Trials-related question per day.

The question: Which of these “longer shots” has the best shot at the team: Sally Kipyego (2:25:10 PB, Olympic 10,000m silver), Emma (Bates) Ulmer (2:25:27 PB), Laura Thweatt (2:25:38 PB), Stephanie Bruce (2:27:47 PB), or Aliphine Tuliamuk (2:26:50 PB)?

Jonathan: I’m sure Rojo is going to argue that I’m insane to pick against Kipyego and her resume, with silvers at Worlds and the Olympics, but those were from 2011 and 2012 and this race is happening in 2020. If you look at what Kipyego has done the last three years, her best performance — by far — is 2:25 in Berlin last fall, where she got smoked by Sara Hall. And Sara Hall may not even make the team. Granted, 2:25 is a lot better than anything Kipyego did in 2017 or 2018 (she missed 2017 due to childbirth), so she’s moving in the right direction, but I’m not convinced she can return to her glory days.

Emma Bates wins the 2018 USATF Marathon Championships women’s title at the California International Marathon in Sacramento, Calif., on Sunday, December 2, in her debut at the distance in 2:28:18 (photo by David Monti for Race Results Weekly)

Instead, I’m going with Emma Ulmer (formerly Bates; she married her coach, Kameron, in October). Ulmer has always been great at the longer stuff, dating back to her NCAA 10k title in 2014, and looks to be made for the marathon. Her two attempts at 26.2 so far: a solo 2:28 debut win at 2018 CIM, followed by a 2:25 for 4th in Chicago last year. If she stays on that progression, she could make the team in Atlanta.

Also, it would be awesome if someone who lives off the grid in Idaho with no running water actually made the Olympic team. She’s the real-life Quenton Cassidy.

Wejo: I’m still in shock that Jon has allowed Kellyn Taylor to be in the “A” category and not the “long shot” category. He’s known for picking against her.

To the question at hand, without looking at recent results I would say for sure the answer is Sally Kipyego. Her “engine” and upside is much bigger than everyone else. She’s run 30:26 for 10,000m and has an Olympic medal at 10,000m. She’s not a proven marathoner, but she did run 2:25:10 last year in Berlin which is faster than any of the other long shots. I spoke to her in Boston last year in the spring after she dropped out, and she was adamant things were going in the right direction after childbirth. Berlin showed that.

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And now that I’ve looked at recent results, I see Sally has been training in Kenya and posted on Instagram that she ran the Discovery XC race there and placed 5th. That, to me, means things are going well. I like her upside the most.

After her, like Jon, I would pick Emma Ulmer. She started running really well last year after going back to Idaho to train and seems to have found what works for her as a person. Laura Thweatt has run 2:28 in New York and 2:25 in Chicago, but I really wonder if she should have given the last Trials a shot when she was new to the marathon as I think she’s not at her best. Aliphine Tuliamuk and Stephanie Bruce (whom I’ve said I’m allowed to root for) both have yet to have their marathon catch up to what they’ve done at shorter distances.

Only thing that makes me worry about Sally is I’m not sure how she’ll hold up on the Atlanta course.

Kellyn Taylor (left) and Laura Thweatt pose in front of The Thames three days before the 2017 Virgin Money London Marathon (photo by Jane Monti for Race Results Weekly)

Jonathan: Well I didn’t include Kellyn Taylor in this “longer shots” group because you guys always give me crap for not giving her enough respect. Maybe I should have. Back when I assessed the Trials field in November, I said Taylor, Bates, and Kipyego all had a 20% chance to make the team and nothing has really changed since then.

If you add Taylor into the “longer shots” category above, I’d probably give her a slight edge over Bates given her success on the track last summer (3rd at USAs in the 10k) and her run at the NYC Marathon last fall (2:26:52, just six seconds back of Des Linden). Taylor, Bates, and Kipyego are all very close. Thweatt, Bruce, and Tuliamuk are all another tier down, and something crazy would have to happen — either a massive breakout race from one of them or a string of disasters by the other contenders — for one of them to make the team.

Rojo: Can I chime in here?  I’m in shock about a lot of things. One, I didn’t know you were still allowed to marry your coach in the year 2020. Ok, I was trying to be funny. Bates is 27, Ulmer is 32 so their age gap is half that of me and my wife and they met while athletes at Boise State, but truth be told, when I read that I was like, “What’s going on here?”

But seriously I’m in shock now that Jon has overcompensated for his proclivity to ignore Kellyn Taylor to disrespect Sally Kipyego. We’re seriously debating this? Kipyego is not a not a long shot by any means. Do people not realize that the 2012 Olympic 10,000 medallist was the 2016 NYC Marathon runner-up? Then in her most recent marathon — on her way back from maternity leave — she ran 2:25:10 in Berlin. Since then, she was 2nd at Manchester on Thanksgiving, beating Molly Seidel, who was just one second behind Molly Huddle in Houston. Then she ran that XC race in Kenya in January at Weldon talked about where she finished just two seconds behind 2:21 marathoner Vivian Kiplagat (admittedly, Kiplagat ran that 2:21 just seven weeks before the XC race).

Kipyego has a really strong shot of ending up in my final top 3 predictions. I actually picked her 3rd trying to sound smart in my prediction for an article on Podium Runner.

Jonathan: Robert, you’re saying that Kipyego was still on her way back from maternity leave in September 2019? She gave birth in July 2017. Yes, everyone returns from childbirth on their own timeline, but clearly it took a long time for Kipyego to get back into that kind of fitness and I’m skeptical as to how much fitter she can get in the five months between September and the Trials.

The top-3 finishers from the 2019 NYRR New York Mini 10-K (left to right) Steph Bruce (2nd place), Sara Hall (1st place), Sally Kipyego (3rd place) (Photo by Jane Monti for Race Results Weekly

Also, I’m supposed to be impressed by some transitive property mumbo jumbo about Kipyego barely beating Molly Seidel at a turkey trot and then Seidel coming close to Huddle in a race Huddle was basically tempoing? Sorry, that’s not doing it for me. I prefer to live in the here and now, and I just haven’t seen enough from Kipyego lately to convince me she’s a much better marathoner than Taylor or Ulmer in the year 2020.

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