The Destructive Allure of the Olympic Marathon Trials

The date for the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials in Atlanta next February draws ever nearer. Olympic fever has started to take hold. It’s every serious runner’s dream to be an Olympian. To be chosen to your country’s team means you’ve made it to the pinnacle of your profession as a marathoner; a re-affirming moment that justifies the miles, the injuries, the miles, the sacrifices, the miles, the anguish, and all those miles. Just think of it. The pomp, the circumstance, the glory, the prestige, the endorsements are now yours for the taking. You will forever be called an Olympian. It will be featured prominently in your obituary. Like the sweet Sirens’ song burning the ears of Odysseus as he sailed by the rocky coast of Anthemoessa on his way home from the Trojan War, I get the allure. But, like the brave Odysseus, you must resist.

You need a reality check. Unless you are one of the top marathoners in the U.S. you have almost no chance of making the team. It’s not sabermetrics, but numbers don’t lie.

On the men’s side according to MarathonGuide.com, 181 athletes have qualified for the Trials. Of those 181, 26 have run sub 2:13:30. Eleven of those 26 have posted their fastest time at the California International Marathon, an outlier course. Although Atlanta is not Sacramento, realistically, you have very little chance of finishing in the top 3 and making the team unless you’ve run sub 2:13:30. No matter how difficult the course, and Atlanta will be difficult, it would be odd if one of the 154 other guys who were not among the top 26 qualifiers were to beat those odds.

The women’s side is even more problematic where 340 women have qualified for the Trials, 26 of whom have run sub 2:32:30. All 3 athletes who comprised the US team at the Olympics in Rio (Amy Cragg, Shalane Flanagan, Des Linden) are qualified, and each has run 2:27:00 or faster. In addition, there is Jordan Hasay, Emily Sisson, and Kellyn Taylor all of whom have run under 2:25. If you are one of the 315 runners not to have run under 2:32:30 you are a longshot, and I’m being kind.

In preparing for the Marathon Trials in 2016, one of my most talented runners got nicked up in training. Knowing that he could not compete at his best at the Trials in February we made the difficult decision to go to Plan B. Let’s go all in on the Boston Marathon in April. We still would enjoy the experience of the Trials in LA 2 months earlier, but we would use the race as a training run, a prelude to Boston. In retrospect, it probably was the wisest decision of his career. The heat in LA was abominable. After starting to suffer big time at mile 18 and without the pressure of having to risk injury in going for his Olympic moment, he made the courageous yet wise decision to walk off the course. Less than 2 months later he had completely recovered and ran one of the best races of his life. He was first American in the Boston Marathon and finished in the top 10.

You have sacrificed a lot for your sport. Enjoy the experience of the Trials. Don’t fall into the trap of defining your career by one race that is run only every 4 years when the chances of fulfilling your dream are small and there are so many other opportunities out there for you to succeed.

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