March 3, 2020
The 2020 US Olympic Marathon Trials were three days ago, and the running world is coming down from the collective high that was race day in Atlanta. It’s not just the runners who put a lot of effort into the Trials; coaches, sponsors, family, and yes, even media, invest a lot for one 26.2-mile race.
But before we leave the Trials behind completely, we decided to take one more crack at analyzing Saturday’s results. Because three days later, they still don’t make any sense. Molly Seidel really made the team in her debut? Molly Huddle, Emily Sisson, and Sara Hall all DNF’d? What exactly happened in Atlanta? Below, eight more observations on the 2020 Trials:
1) Putting Saturday’s surprising results in context
How unpredictable were the results in Atlanta? Of the top six men’s and women’s vote-getters in LetsRun’s Olympic Trials prediction contest, Galen Rupp was the only athlete to make the Olympic team. How the others fared:
Top men’s vote-getters
- Galen Rupp — 1st, 2:09:20
- Jared Ward — 27th, 2:15:55
- Leonard Korir — 4th, 2:10:06
- Scott Fauble — 12th, 2:12:39
- Bernard Lagat — 18th, 2:14:23
- Jim Walmsley — 22nd, 2:15:05
(Jake Riley was 7th in voting, Abdi Abdirahman 8th)
Top women’s vote-getters
- Emily Sisson — DNF
- Des Linden — 4th, 2:29:03
- Sara Hall — DNF
- Jordan Hasay — 26th, 2:37:57
- Molly Huddle — DNF
- Kellyn Taylor — 8th, 2:29:55
(Sally Kipyego was 7th in voting, Aliphine Tuliamuk 8th, Molly Seidel 11th).
2) Why did so many favorites bomb?
Even the best runners have bad days in the marathon (okay — the best runners except for Eliud Kipchoge). In a 2+ hour race, many things can go wrong. But it’s rare for so many of the top runners to struggle as mightily as they did in Atlanta. What were the odds that Jared Ward, Emily Sisson, Molly Huddle, Sara Hall, Jordan Hasay, and Scott Fauble would all either drop out or finish outside of the top 10?
So what happened? We’re now two days after the race, and answers are starting to trickle out. Hasay said she battled a hamstring injury throughout her buildup and developed a back issue the week of the race. Fauble actually ran okay — it wasn’t his best result, but 2:12 on that course, on that day, is a pretty solid run.
The other four — Ward, Sisson, Huddle, and Hall — were victims of the course.
For months, all we heard about the Atlanta course was hills, hills, hills: 1,389 feet of climbing and 1,382 feet of descending. The course lived up to its challenging reputation on Saturday.
“It was freakin’ hard,” said fourth-placer Des Linden, one of the few favorites who actually ran well.
Ward said he tried to do the same thing as Jake Riley — remain conservative and make a late push to run down the leaders. Ward was with Riley at 19 miles, but when Riley made his move, Ward had nothing left and could not respond.
Huddle told Runner’s World her legs “just got beat up really early and I was going backwards around [mile] 19.”
Sisson and Hall both admitted on Instagram that the course got the best of them.
“Today was rough for sure—calling this course ‘hilly’ is an understatement,” Sisson wrote. “Aerobically, felt great, body-wise I really felt the toll of the course.”
“For the last 6 months I’ve done every crazy thing I could think of to prepare for the extreme course in Atlanta,” Hall wrote. “But today, it still obliterated my legs. Nothing injured I don’t think, but my heart will be broken from this one for a while. I really believed today would be the day.”
Ray Treacy, coach of Sisson and Huddle, said while he’s still trying to analyze what went wrong, the course was definitely a factor.
“I would imagine the course obviously didn’t suit either of the two of them,” Treacy said. “And you’re only going to find that out when you get on the line and start running. They were uncomfortable. And I don’t think you can really prepare for those type of courses unless you’re that kind of runner.”
3) Should the Trials have been held on such a hilly course?
Atlanta did a fabulous job staging the Trials — far better than LA four years ago. But the hot, sunny conditions in LA, though challenging for runners, also did a great job replicating the conditions of a typical Olympic marathon, and the teams the US sent to Rio ran incredibly well.
This year’s Trials had little in common with what the Olympians will face in Sapporo in August. The weather was far cooler (with temps in the high 40s/low 50s versus versus high 60s/low 70s in Sapporo) and the course far hillier than what one gets in an Olympic marathon.
Whether the Trials should be contested on a hilly course is a question that will remain up for debate — and perhaps should not be judged until after the Olympics. But there can be no complaints about fairness; all the athletes raced the same course on the same day, and the three best athletes in each race earned their spots on the Olympic team.
And the hills clearly provided something running needs more of — variability of results. In team sports like soccer or American football, the 10th-best team can take down the best team in a one-off event as there are things like own goals, interceptions, fumbles, etc. Crazy results like what we saw in Atlanta are much rarer in running.
4) How did so many men run so fast on this course?
One of the bigger shocks was how fast the men ran in Atlanta. With all the hills and turns, the course was estimated to be up to three minutes slower than a flat marathon course. Then on top of that, it was very windy on race day. Yet it was one of the deepest races in the history of American marathoning.
There are only four marathons in history in which five or more Americans have broken 2:12. Two have taken place in the last five months. Here’s how they compare:
|2012 Olympic Trials||4||4||8||11|
|2020 Olympic Trials||1||5||7||12|
So the 2020 Trials saw the most sub-2:11s (five) and the most sub-2:13s (12) ever by Americans in one race.
HOKA NAZ Elite coach Ben Rosario couldn’t make sense of the fast times in Atlanta.
“I can’t believe how fast the men’s race was,” Rosario said. “If you told me beforehand [Scott Fauble] runs 2:12 and beats Jared Ward, I’d say absolutely he’s on the team.”
Instead, Fauble was 12th in 2:12:39.
We’ve got a hunch as to why the men’s times were so fast, and we can sum it up in one word. It starts with a V and ends with a Y, but we’re saving a full explanation for another article. But please realize that 9 of the top 10 men in Atlanta were wearing one of the new Nike shoes.
5) The women’s results were horrific news for Olympic 10k hopefuls
Molly Huddle and Emily Sisson made the US World Championship team at 10,000 meters in both 2017 and 2019, and Huddle has won the last five US titles at that distance. Because of that, they entered the Marathon Trials with a backup plan: if their races turned south and they had no shot to make the team, they would drop out to speed their recovery for the 10,000 at the track trials in June.
Now that Huddle and Sisson will be in the 10k in Eugene, the road to the Olympics just got a lot harder for anyone trying to make the women’s 10k team. (With Leonard Korir missing out as well, the news wasn’t great for American 10k men, either).
However, in some ways things haven’t changed all that much. Outside of Huddle and Sisson, the US only has one woman with the Olympic standard: Marielle Hall. And right now, no Americans are in position to earn a bid based on World Ranking (that, obviously, is subject to change and someone like Kelly Taylor is pretty close). Only 16 Americans have ever run under the Olympic standard of 31:25.
Emily Infeld (31:20 pb), who just ran a 14:51 5k pb in Boston, will have a good shot to break 31:25 if she stays healthy (always a big question with her). Kellyn Taylor (31:40 pb), who was 3rd at USAs last year, will have a shot too, but turning around from the Marathon Trials to get the standard in the spring will be tough. Other active women who have run 31:40 or faster include Amy Cragg (31:10), Kim Conley (31:35), Des Linden (31:37), Jordan Hasay (31:39), but there’s a good chance Cragg, Linden, and Hasay don’t even run the track trials and Conley has not been in great form the last few years.
6) Molly Seidel’s coach is 25 years old and works part-time at his parents’ hardware store on the Boston Marathon course
There is so much about Molly Seidel that makes her journey to the Olympics incredible. She spent last fall in Boston working at a coffee shop and babysitting for Tracksmith founder Matt Taylor. Though she was a four-time NCAA champion at Notre Dame, she turned down contract offers to leave school early in order to receive treatment for an eating disorder. As recently as three months ago, Seidel wasn’t planning on running the Trials at all (she was supposed to debut at the Houston Marathon).
Seidel told Runner’s World before the race that “Tenth to 20th range would be a good day for me. All of these women are really good and have the times [to back it up]. I want to go out and be realistic, but not count myself out.”
And then there’s hear coach, Jon Green. Seidel, at 25, became the youngest American woman to make an Olympic marathon team since 1992. Yet she’s seven months older than Green, a two-time top-10 finisher at NCAA XC for Georgetown who graduated in 2018. Green and Seidel met as teammates at the Saucony Freedom Track Club, but both left last fall, with Green picking up shifts at his parents hardware store — located on the Boston Marathon course in Wellesley — to help pay the bills.
Seidel turned to Green as her coach in November, and he guided her training from afar (Seidel spent built up for the Trials in Flagstaff), at times seeking advice from NAU coach Mike Smith, whom Green knew from his time at Georgetown. Now, at 25, Green has done what many coaches spend decades attempting to do: coach someone to the Olympics.
The national media is loving Seidel making the Olympic team as a barista in her first marathon as she was featured on NBC Nightly News on Monday. Speaking of being a barista, Green said he thought Molly standing on her feet a few hours a day was good for her (though she took time off from her job before the Trials to train in Flagstaff). It seems unlikely Seidel continues her barista job, but her tips might go through the roof now.
7) Abdi broke the US masters record (again)
Between Meb Keflezighi, Bernard Lagat, and Abdi Abdirahman, the US masters’ record (40+ in the marathon has undergone some serious revision in recent years. Not even five years ago, the mark stood at 2:13:52, set by Mbarak Hussein in 2006. But in the last five years, the record has been broken five times: twice each by Meb and Abdi, and once by Lagat.
US masters marathon record progression (age in parentheses)
2:13:32 Meb Keflezighi (40), 2015 NYC
2:12:21 Meb Keflezighi (40), 2016 Olympic Trials
2:12:10 Bernard Lagat (44), 2019 Gold Coast
2:11:34 Abdi Abdirahman (42), 2019 New York
2:10:03 Abdi Abdirahman (43), 2020 Olympic Trials
8) Julia Kohnen got more than a surprising 10th-place result in Atlanta
During the qualifying window, former DII runner Julia Kohnen put up the 24th-best qualifying time (2:31:29) but she managed to PR on the hilly Atlanta course to finish 10th (2:30:43). She left Atlanta with more than just a top-10 finish, however.