84 Olympic Trials Marathoners Sign Petition Asking Max Siegel to Move 2024 Trials Start Time to 6 A.M.
The group's representatives will have a Zoom call with Siegel and USATF brass on ThursdayBy Jonathan Gault
Top American marathoners Jared Ward, Sara Hall, and Emily Sisson will be part of a Zoom call on Thursday with USATF CEO Max Siegel to discuss the start time of the 2024 US Olympic Marathon Trials. They were among 84 athletes who signed a letter to Siegel on September 15 petitioning USATF to move the start times of the Trials, which will be held on February 3 in Orlando. USATF announced in August that the races would start at 12:10 p.m. for men and 12:20 p.m. for women. The athletes requested that the Trials start at “preferably 6:00 a.m., but no later than 7:00 a.m.”
The group cited four reasons for moving the start time of the Trials:
1) Holding the Trials in the midday heat in Orlando would create an unsafe environment for athletes.
2) Zero American men have the Olympic standard in the marathon and efforts must be made to allow athletes to hit the 2:08:10 Olympic standard of 2:11:30 quota reallocation standard in Orlando (the letter was submitted before Conner Mantz and Clayton Young hit the standard in Chicago).
3) The athletes “care about the integrity of the event” and wanted conditions to mimic the Olympic marathons, which will start at 8 a.m.
4) Casual running fans will still watch a tape-delayed Trials if it is broadcast on NBC at noon (with the races streamed live for diehards on Peacock).
Ward said that after USATF announced the start time of the Trials, he and Emma Grace Hurley, who serve as the men’s and women’s road racing and cross country representatives on the USATF Athlete Advisory Committee (AAC), began hearing from athletes who were concerned about the potential for hot weather in Orlando. Sara Hall, whose 2:20:32 personal best makes her the fourth-fastest US female marathoner in history, has been a vocal critic of the noon start time from the beginning and Ward described her as the “heartbeat” behind the efforts to move up the start time.
Hall, Ward, Hurley, and 2016 steeplechase Olympian Colleen Quigley drafted a letter to Siegel (the full contents of which can be found here) requesting that the times be pushed forward. Ward said he could not publicly reveal the names of every athlete who signed, but the list includes four Olympians who will be competing at the Trials — two of whom are Ward and Sisson. Two-time marathon Olympian Ryan Hall (Sara’s husband) and 2004 Olympic marathon bronze medalist Deena Kastor, who will not be competing at the Trials, also signed the letter.
Ward said that he, Hurley, and Hall reached out to qualified athletes via email or Instagram DM to solicit signatures. A couple declined to sign because they felt warm conditions would work to their advantage. One felt USATF should keep the Trials at noon to capitalize on the television exposure offered by a later start time. But Ward said the vast majority signed the petition.
“We have more women’s signatures and that’s because Sara and Emma did such a great job of outreach to the women,” Ward said. “…94% of the athletes that we heard a response from wanted their name on the letter. My expectation is that as this word continues to get out, we have additional support trickle in.”
Hot conditions cited as main reason for requesting a change in start time
When Ward made his Olympic team in 2016, the Trials were held in Los Angeles with a 10 a.m. start time. Conditions were sunny with temperatures hitting the low-70s by the finish, and only 64% of the men’s field finished the race (75% of the women finished). Ward said he felt early-onset signs of overheating during the final eight miles and that he had to drink two gallons of water before he was able to produce a urine sample for drug testing.
“It was the toughest marathon of my life and the hardest one to recover from,” Ward said.
But while Ward said holding the Trials in Orlando “feels unprecedented and risky,” he emphasized that his support for the letter stems primarily from his role as AAC representative.
“I feel very strongly that when there’s a consensus that is this strong among the athletes that we need to do something,” Ward said.
The letter noted that this year in Orlando, every day in February had a high temperature of at least 70 degrees Fahrenheit, all with high humidity. It included a statement from Dr. William Roberts, Chief Medical Officer for the American College of Sports Medicine, who recommended a start at sunrise, in part to avoid the effects of the midday sun.
“As a marathon road race medical director with over 40 years of experience, I have seen the effects of heat on runners,” Roberts wrote. “Runners who experience heat stroke can have long term consequences, including kidney and liver failure, that can affect their racing for several months and some may never return to their pre heat stroke performances. You, the race organizers, could get lucky and have a record cool day, or more likely you will see the results of bad decision making that does not incorporate what we have learned about heat stress, heat safety, and runner outcomes. A sunrise start will also allow the heat accumulated in the pavement the previous day to dissipate overnight and improve the safety profile of the race.”
A LetsRun analysis found that from 2012-2022, the average temperature at 2 p.m. in Orlando on February 3 was 72.5 degrees. The average temperature during the same span in Paris at 10 a.m. on August 10 (when the men’s marathon will finish) was 66.5 degrees.
Zoom meeting to be held on Thursday
In response to the letter, USATF officials — including Siegel, COO Renee Washington, and Managing Director of Entertainment Properties and Events Adam Schmenk — will meet with the athlete representatives in a call on Thursday afternoon. Ward said the call is an opportunity not just to speak with USATF brass, but to listen. USATF has yet to provide any official explanation for the later start time, though the assumption is the choice was made so that the races can be shown live in their entirety on NBC.
“I expect there to be listening on both sides of the call,” Ward said. “I want to hear about media and about other challenges of moving the start time earlier so that we can have all the information that we can gather and work together on a decision.”
Will USATF actually make any changes? When it comes to the Olympic Marathon Trials, Siegel and the national office have historically elected to do things their own way. During the bidding process for the 2016 Trials, a USATF committee charged with recommending a site voted unanimously in favor of Houston; Siegel awarded the Trials to Los Angeles anyway. For the 2024 Trials, the USATF board unanimously recommended Chattanooga as host; Siegel ultimately DQ’d the Chattanooga bid, citing a conflict of interest involving USATF board member Jim Estes (who is now suing Siegel and USATF for defamation and negligence) and awarded the Trials to Orlando.
But when it comes to the start time of the 2024 Trials, Ward said he is optimistic that Siegel and the national office will work with the athletes to find a solution.
“I’ve gone to USATF annual meetings every year for the last almost 10 years,” Ward said. “I have participated in AAC meetings through various AAC leadership. And Max has always been a part of those meetings. He comes in, he talks to the AAC, he gives athletes time to ask his questions and see what’s going on…This is an opportunity to work with him directly and see if rubber hits the road. But I’m confident that he will work on this and hopeful that we can make change.”
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Full letter to USATF from the athletes