Previewing the Olympic Marathon Trials Debutants: Paul Chelimo’s Coach Says They’re Targeting Sub-2:08:10

Plus a look at Puma Elite's Natosha Rogers and Fiona O'Keeffe and a homecoming for Jenny Simpson

The Olympic Marathon Trials are the most compelling spectacle in American marathoning. Primarily this is because of the stakes — the reward of being able to call yourself an Olympian is one of the sport’s ultimate honors and can never be taken away — but a number of other factors add to the intrigue. One of them is the unknown. For fans, that might be learning about someone like Christine Clark, the 37-year-old Alaskan doctor who stunningly won the 2000 Trials in South Carolina. For a few athletes, the unknown is the marathon distance itself: some big names, including a few genuine contenders, will be making their 26.2-mile debuts at the 2024 Olympic Marathon Trials in Orlando on February 3.

Each of the last two US Olympic teams has featured at least one athlete who debuted at the Trials. Galen Rupp qualified for the 2016 Olympic Trials by running 61:20 at the Foot Traffic Holiday Half Marathon in Portland, Ore., in December 2015, a race he won by more than 12 minutes. Two months later, he crushed all comers to win the Trials in Los Angeles. Four years later, Molly Seidel had been planning on debuting at the Houston Marathon in January 2020. But after running a Trials qualifier of 70:27 to win the Rock ‘n’ Roll San Antonio Half Marathon in December 2019, Seidel called an audible and debuted at the Olympic Trials in Atlanta in February. She finished 2nd in 2:27:31.

Rupp and Seidel’s success did not stop at the Trials. After making the Olympic teams in their debuts, each went on to earn a bronze medal at the Olympics.

“Being a debutant in a marathon, you almost don’t know what to be afraid of and that could be very valuable on race day,” says Alistair Cragg, who coaches Fiona O’Keeffe and Natosha Rogers, both of whom will be making their debuts in Orlando.

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Of course, debuts can go disastrously wrong as well. That wide range of outcomes is what makes them so fascinating. Paul Chelimo and Jenny Simpson, both Olympic medalists on the track, are the two highest-profile debutants at the 2024 Trials. O’Keeffe (67:42 half pb) and Rogers, who represented Team USA at the 2023 World Championships in the 5,000 and 10,000 meters, are two others who could contend for the Olympics team in their first marathon. Here’s what to know about each of them ahead of race day.

Can Chelimo translate Olympic track success to the roads?

Chelimo missed the Worlds team in the 10,000 last year but came back to make it in the 5,000 (Kevin Morris photo)

Chelimo, is, undoubtedly, one of the most talented athletes entered in the Trials. He owns track personal bests of 12:57 for 5,000 and 27:12 for 10,000, both of which rank him in the top eight all-time in the United States. He has also won two Olympic medals in the 5,000 meters which is pretty impressive when you consider that’s only one fewer than every other American in history combined (Ralph Hill earned silver in 1932, Bob Schul and Bill Dellinger earned gold and bronze in 1964). And at 33, Chelimo is certainly not “old” by marathon standards.

Chelimo dipped his toes into the longer distance waters in 2023 with mixed results. In April, he ran his first half marathon in four years in Berlin, and while his agent Riad Ouled said before the race he believed Chelimo could break 60:00, he wound up finishing 14th in 62:22. A month later, he ran a 10,000 on the track and that went much better as Chelimo clocked a pb of 27:12 to win the Night of the 10,000m PBs in London. He finished 5th in the 10,000 at USAs, then came back three days later to finish 2nd in the 5,000 and make the World Championship team.

While Chelimo has been listed among the Trials entries for weeks, the question of whether he would actually start in Orlando was a closely-guarded secret until Friday, when Chelimo confirmed he will be making his debut. Chelimo’s coach Scott Simmons tells LetsRun that they revisited the topic of the Trials after last year’s World Championships in Budapest, after which Chelimo told Simmons he was all-in on the marathon. Simmons’ reaction? All right. We’ve got some work to do.

Chelimo, who has been based in Kenya for this buildup, has made a few notable adjustments to his training. His weekly mileage is higher than when he was focused on the track — between 85 and 105 now compared to 70-80 in the past. Chelimo’s long runs are also longer — 40 kilometers (24.9 miles) every other week. Simmons says that Chelimo has adjusted well to the increased load and that his buildup has gone “better than I could have expected.”

“One of the things with our training group is our 5,000-meter runners train with our steeplers [who] train with our marathoners,” Simmons says. “So there’s always a lot of overlap…Paul had done some of these long runs that were pretty much close to marathon distance and marathon paces. So it wasn’t completely out of left field for him.”

Coach Simmons says Chelimo and his other runners will be trying to hit the 2:08:10 Olympic standard in Orlando

Chelimo has made two US Olympic teams — and won two Olympic medals — in the 5,000 (Kevin Morris photo)

One complicating factor about Chelimo: since the Trials is his debut marathon, he does not have the 2:11:30 quota replacement standard to be eligible for Olympic selection. That may prove academic since it will likely take faster than that to finish in the top three in Orlando.

Besides, Simmons and Chelimo are thinking bigger than that. If Chelimo runs 2:11:00 but finishes 3rd in Orlando, he would have a good shot to make the Olympics. But his spot would not be guaranteed, and he would have to wait three months to be sure. I ask Simmons: would Chelimo consider trying to run under the 2:08:10 Olympic standard at the Trials?

“That’s the only strategy for any of the four [American Distance Proejct] guys we have (Chelimo, Sam Chelanga, Leonard Korir, Shadrack Kipchirchir) to make the team,” Simmons says. “And we’re not the only ones in that boat.

“…There’s only two ways to make this team. Run under 2:08:10 and finish top 3. Or 2:11:30 and shoot for 1st or 2nd. But I don’t think [the second one] is a good strategy. And I don’t see any reason why someone like Paul Chelimo can’t debut at 2:07. Leonard debuted at 2:07. Zouhair Talbi (a Moroccan whom Simmons also coaches) in his third marathon [ran] 2:06:39 [in Houston and] they’re doing the same training. They’re talented athletes. 2:08:10 isn’t that high of a bar if you look at it from an international perspective.”

But what about weather in Orlando? If it’s 70 and sunny, would that stop your guys from going after it?

“No,” Simmons says. “We talked about that, too. We obviously have our strategies with regards to heat and humidity.”

Simmons’ philosophy on this is clear. His guys are in Orlando to make the team. And you make the team by running fast.

“It’s not a participation race,” Simmons says. “Not for us, anyway.”

Of course, it’s easy to say that now. We’ll have to wait until Saturday to see if Chelimo and the others actually back it up.

Rogers and O’Keeffe take different paths to debut

Rogers made it to the 2023 Worlds in two events but was unhappy with her performance in Budapest (Kevin Morris photo)

Natosha Rogers and Fiona O’Keeffe are both talented runners, both are debuting at the Trials, and both represent the Puma Elite Running Team based in North Carolina and coached by Alistair Cragg and his wife, 2016 Olympic Marathon Trials champion Amy Cragg. But that is about where the similarities stop. O’Keeffe ran her first half marathon at 23; now 25, she is among the youngest contenders in the Trials field. Rogers, 32, is moving up to the marathon after a decade as a pro. The transition to training for 26.2 miles went smoothly for O’Keeffe but Rogers found it rocky. And they did their final buildups separately, O’Keeffe in Albuquerque and Rogers in Chapel Hill. Yet each will line up in Orlando with at least an outside shot at making the Olympic team.

Rogers’ first interaction with Amy Cragg came in the 10,000-meter final of the 2012 Olympic Trials where Cragg won and Rogers, then a 21-year-old junior at Texas A&M, finished a surprising 2nd (Rogers did not go to the Olympics as she did not have the standard).

“Amy was like, Man that little college girl was a pain in the butt, she’s clipping, she’s getting in the way, she’s all over the place,” Alistair Cragg says. “Then [Rogers] fell. And she [still] finished 2nd!”

In the ensuing decade, Rogers had a few moments of relevance but found it hard to give running her full attention.

“I have to admit that in my 20s that I lived it up,” she told The Lap Count earlier this month.

In 2022, at 31, she made her first Worlds team on the track, finishing 15th in the 10,000 meters. Her intention upon signing with Puma at the start of the 2023 was to transition to the marathon and debut that fall, but after running pbs in the 5,000 (14:52) and 10,000 (30:48) and making Worlds in both events, she delayed that debut until the Trials.

Now, as she transitions to the marathon, Rogers says she is “all-in” on running. Still, she has had her growing pains during her first marathon buildup. Alistair Cragg says it has been difficult for Rogers to adjust from the track mindset and accept the fatigue that sets in during marathon training.

“I struggled the same [during my own career], so I can speak on it,” Cragg says. “You value fresh legs a lot and all of a sudden you’re being told you’re going to do these workouts on dead legs.”

Rogers and O’Keeffe did not train for the Trials together, by design. Rogers is naturally competitive, and Cragg knew she would not benefit by straining to keep up with O’Keeffe in workouts in Albuquerque before she was ready. It has taken a while, but Cragg says Rogers has had an excellent six weeks leading into the Trials.

O’Keeffe ran the fastest debut half (at the time) by a US woman at 2022 Houston © 2022 Kevin Morris

“Before that was good training, she was fit, but the mental side of it, I could see the true Natosha wasn’t coming through,” Cragg says. “But the last six weeks we’ve been able to see Natosha on the track in a road version.”

O’Keeffe has also run well on the track in recent years, finishing 6th at USAs in the 5,000 in 2022 and running 30:52 for 10,000 last spring before a foot infection caused her to miss USAs. But the marathon may end up as her best event. Cragg first noticed her potential in 2017, when O’Keeffe finished 5th in the NCAA 5,000 as a true freshman at Stanford. Once O’Keeffe she joined Puma Elite in 2021, Cragg noticed how easily she took to longer training in her first fall with the team.

“Amy and I looked at each other and said, okay, she has to run a half to see what’s in there,” Cragg says.

In January 2022, O’Keeffe demonstrated her potential by running 67:42 in Houston — the fastest half marathon debut by an American woman until Weini Kelati surpassed it two weeks ago. Since then, Cragg says they have done what he calls “dummy buildups” in the fall of 2022 and 2023, similar to marathon training but without the big race at the end. Orlando is the real thing, and while Cragg says there have not been any epic workouts to brag about, he says O’Keeffe has had “as smooth a buildup as we’ve ever seen.”

“If Amy had a buildup that Fiona just had, she’d be hugely confident coming into any race,” Cragg says. “…She’s going to have an honest, true shot at making the team. It’s going to be very hard to get rid of her…Fiona is a natural-born marathon runner. This is a calling.”

A homecoming for America’s greatest female miler

No American woman — and few women, period — is more accomplished in the 1500 meters than Jenny Simpson. The 2011 world champion and 2016 Olympic bronze medalist won a total of four global medals in that event during her decorated track career. Simpson made every US World/Olympic team from 2007 through 2019 in either the steeplechase or 1500 but moved to the roads after finishing 10th in the 1500 at the 2021 Trials.

Simpson ran 70:35 in her debut half at 2023 Houston © 2023 Kevin Morris

Now Simpson’s career comes full circle: she will make her marathon debut at an Olympic Trials being held just 20 miles from where she went to high school in Oviedo. Simpson bought her first pair of running shoes at Track Shack, an Orlando running store. Jon Hughes, who owns Track Shack with his wife Betsy, is serving as race director for the 2024 Trials.

(Barbara Huebner has a great story on Simpson’s homecoming here).

Simpson has repeatedly said that she wanted to move to the roads while she still had a few quality years remaining in her career. She does not want Orlando to serve as a victory lap for her career — she is there to race hard and finish as highly as possible.

The 37-year-old Simpson is a few years younger than Trials heavyweights Keira D’Amato and Sara Hall, but there has been little to suggest Simpson will be a serious contender to make the team. 2022 was the roughest year of Simpson’s career as she worked through the triple blow of a sports hernia injury, parting ways with sponsor New Balance (she’s now with Puma), and the aftereffects of a devastating fire that saw Jenny and her husband Jason relocated from their house for three months.

LRC Jenny Simpson Puts Her Most Challenging Year Behind Her as She Turns to the Roads in 2023

Simpson kicked off 2023 by running 70:35 at the Houston Half Marathon — a solid enough debut. But she’ll need to hold that pace for double the distance to contend in the marathon. And one of Simpson’s greatest assets — her incredible racing brain — may not be as much of an advantage in the marathon. Simpson has said racing on the roads vs the track is like competing in a different sport.

Still, the potential for the unknown cannot help but draw us in. What is Simpson capable of in her best marathon? And how high will that effort place her at the Trials? Check back in four days to find out for sure, but the Daily Camera’s Michael Sandrock has written a feature on her debut where her coach Mark Wetmore had the following quotes about her:

“This is all new to Jenny. She was primarily a 1500-meter runner in her track career, so this is completely different. I can think of no single workout that is instructive, but I have been impressed with her complete willingness to switch gears in her thinking; to marathon volumes, long runs, types of workouts. Zero hesitation…

“She has only raced half the distance, so we can only attempt objective speculation. I would imagine she can be in the top-10 if nothing goes wrong.”

What do you think of the debutants’ chances? Vote in the polls below.

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