Cases for large U.S. Olympic Marathon Team Trials fields: a non-scholarly review of the literature

In a seller's market for "elite" status, the cries from beyond the threshold are always entertaining

Sunday’s Marathon Project, a mixed-sex race on a 4.3-mile loop supersaturated with pacers, drew 88 highly credentialed marathoners to Arizona, throwing a dam into this year’s relentless river of event and goal postponements. (Bad metaphor choice: This race was basically in the desert.) The small field of mostly American runners, including 48 men and 40 women, served a restive 2020 running public some great racing and real suspense (for a marathon, anyway; I’ve been watching lots of crime shows).

Better still, the even smaller field of entirely American webcast talkers did praiseworthy commentating, Des Linden really carrying the day. I wonder how many people caught her subtle correction of the lead announcer late in the men’s race, when he observed that forward-facing leader Marty Hehir couldn’t be sure of the size of his late-race lead, and she countered that Hehir could hear when small groups of spectators (COVID-19, remember) who had just cheered for him were now yelling second-place Noah Droddy’s name. This is the kind of thing that automatically occurs to an experienced road-racer and not at all to the most well-meaning outsider, but Des has the quickness to turn such concepts around for a knowing audience in a useful way. (On a middle-aged note, it used to be a novelty seeing anyone I knew or often encountered in person on TV or a TV-like screen, but now that magic is gone. Everyone with a social media account is now, at least to my brain, a TV personality in the making; I’ve now seen “films” including almost everyone I know.)

With the production sounding on its face much like a bare-bones U.S. Olympic Marathon Team Trials event (other than the pacers and the combined men’s and women’s start), I was moved several days before the event to read two pleas to keep the men’s and women’s qualifying standards for those races at least as inclusive as they already are — close to ten times more inclusive, numerically, as the Marathon Project was. Both of these essays are authored in whole or in part by runners who have landed outside the standards, one of them by less than two seconds (and the whole story is more agonizing than that, inasmuch as marathon is ever agonizing; I’ve been watching lots of dramatized killings on TV). The Medium piece, from earlier this month, focuses on both the men's and women's standards, while the Fast Women article, posted on Feb. 10, a few weeks before the 2020 Trials, stays true to the mission and dives deep into the women's event.

The authors are good lobbyists for the difficult case in question. I'm only familiar with Peter Bromka through seeing his name in Mario Fraioli's Morning Shakeout newsletter. His writing style makes it easy to get to "know" him, which, thanks to the data saturation, can be lacking in people who write about competitive running from the inside (and the name of Bromka's newsletter is Writing About Running). Also, I can't help but identify with him on principle, because chasing the Olympic Marathon Trials standard was my own excuse for taking running seriously for a while. (In 2003, when Pete Pfitzinger was also a senior writer for Running Times wrote about coaching me and a few other Trials aspirants over the Internet — a pretty new thing then.) Esther Atkins I also know very little about; that she has sub-2:30:00 chops makes her a useful commentator in this issue, but more than that, I’m impressed that anyone exists with that name today who wasn’t alive during the last pandemic. Next I hope we’ll be treated to a Josiah Ezekiel Wheelock chiming in on the 10,000-meter Olympic Trials standard after he drops a 27:55 at Payton Jordan, ideally boasting muttonchops.

Bromka, at 38, missed the Trials by a total of 62 seconds across three marathons. That makes him sort of the Byrne Decker of the 2020 cycle, with even more intense pathos. Between December 2002 and December 2003, Decker, with whom I trained when I could in those days, ran four marathons between 2:22:48 and 2:24:55 when the standard was 2:22:00. The 2:24:55 was on a hot day and not even a real attempt. At the time this quest ended, Decker was 37. He also did all of this working as a partner in a law firm and with four kids at home.

And, while I am unreservedly disappointed that Wade, along with a few members of the "official" media, has attached herself to the stink of Ben Chan's misguided and increasingly erratic Laz Lake ruination-quest, that doesn't discount the fact that she has been a knowledgeable and truly tireless supporter of high-level running for a long time, and continues in that role today. That's not an olive branch; concerning the above, I think she's out of her mind. But I also have this weird idea that people are more than the sum of the one or two things about them I find most unruly. That may not be clear given my obvious tropism for other people's bullshit and the unfiltered way I often describe it and its human sources, but half the reason I can so readily call people on what I see as their mistakes is that I don't see those people themselves as mistakes, and, perhaps unrealistically, expect them to perceive as much. (There are exceptions to this, and if you hunt around a little, you can find an example or two of people I consider irredeemable. None of the subjects of my rants about today’s running world have struck me as comprehensively awful people from a distance, though that idea may soon be tested.)

I would recommend pausing to read both pieces before continuing, and since you just didn’t, I’ll fill in the blanks. The Olympic Marathon Team Trials, colloquially called the Olympic Trials Marathon, is used to select the three men and three women who represent the U.S. every four (or so) years in the Olympic Games. Getting into the qualifying race requires run a time on a certified course with, in effect, no more of a net drop than the Boston Marathon has, something like 425’. The times have gradually moved down over the years, from 2:22:00 and 2:48:00 for men in 2004 to 2:19:00 and 2:45:00 today (that’s an oversimplification; there was a brief excursion to 2:18:00 and 2:43:00 during the 2020 qualifying cycle before the standards were relaxed again owing to changes in Olympic Games qualifying requirements). The number of qualifiers has shifted over the years in accordance not just with shifting qualifying standards and citizen interest, but with the introduction and removal of various other options for entry, including track times in the 5,000 meters and 10,000 meters.

For the 2016 and 2020 Trials, the deal was approximately the same: A 2:19:00 or a 2:45:00 was good enough for entry in both years, while a half-marathon option time allowed entry as well, with this cut-off tightening from 1:05:00 to 1:04:00 for men and from 1:15:00 to 1:13:00 for women. In theory, neglecting a small increase in the U.S. population in those four years and all else the same, the total number of male and female qualifiers should have stayed approximately constant or perhaps dropped slightly owing to the tougher half-marathon standard. Instead, the number shot up by 65%, from 471 to 778. In contrast, the 2004 Trials, the one I took aim at myself, only had 104 male and 151 female qualifiers despite the 2:22:00 and 2:48:00 cut-offs and no half-marathon option. (It’s worth noting that the world records when I ran my PR in 2001 were 2:05:42 and 2:20:43.)

Although the races are separate, 778 men and women is more like a good-sized road race than a world-class selection event. The arguments being put forth by Peter Bromka/Esther Erb and Alison Wade are essentially predicated on “are-ought” rhetoric: This is how things are, and they got that way by the agreed-upon rules, so this is how they ought to be — why mess with success? You wanted a swarm of quasi-fast runners, you got them, and they’re good for the sport.

The total field sizes were, again, 471 in 2016 and 778 in 2020, with the number of men climbing from 214 to 265 and the number of women increasing from 257 to 513. Of greater interest is the paths runners used to get in: In 2016, the number qualifiers via marathon alone was 298 (92 men, 206 women), a number that ballooned to 731 in 2020 (235 men, 496 women). The number of half-marathon qualifiers therefore dropped from 173 (122 men, 51 women) to 77 (30 men, 47 women).

Given that the total number of athletes who gained entry into the men’s and women’s Olympic Trials using marathon times alone more than doubled from to 2016 to 2020 despite no changes to the standards, any such argument for keeping the qualifying standards the same as they are now for 2024 — independent of what the International Olympic Committee decides — is virtually required to be feature some combination of creativity, desperation, or silliness. While a quick glance around the current running-media landscape confirms these qualities are easily combined into one package whether the the occasion demands it or not, usually with a cherry of angry bullshit on top, I found both of these pieces to be far more creative than inane, even if I found myself unconvinced of the mostly shared thesis. Also, despite having tabled competitive running and often wondering where I’d be if I’d just started drinking hard at 14 instead, I still enjoy seeing other thoughtful people discuss a topic in which I once had a personal stake; this is especially true when I’ve been spending too much time on Twitter, where almost everyone is proudly expelling the least thoughtful thoughts their overstimulated cortical lobes are capable of ejaculating that day.

At this point, although, again, you people aren’t known for reading sites other than this one, I’m wondering if you’re thinking what I was when I dug into these: To what length will the authors go to downplay the effects of the latest generation of racing shoes? I’m admittedly green when it comes to this stuff, but for elites I’ve seen round figures like a 3 percent improvement using the most advantageous shoes to ranges like 2 to 3 percent, maybe a little higher for runners who are merely “fast.” Regardless, everyone who follows top-level running is exquisitely aware of the controversies this has created (Nike unveiled the shoes unfairly) and the undeniable glut of fast times that have resulted. What to do about this is perhaps thorny, but acknowledging it is straightforward.

Instead, the authors all but ignore the carbon-plated elephant in the room. Bromka and Atkins say, "New shoes and new sports nutrition have helped, but those tools have stoked the imagination of sub-elite American distance runners," while Wade doesn't mention shoes at all. This is a striking dismissal and a noisy silence, respectively, considering the purported 2 to 3 percent advantage. If you split the difference and give everyone 2.5 percent, that's enough to get a 2:22:30 guy in the only footwear that existed until a few years ago to 2:19:00, and enough to take a 2:49:00 woman under 2:45:00. This is not worth even a mention?

Another way to look at the rough effect of shoe technology: What would the 2020 standards needed to have been to cap the number of men and women getting in via a marathon time at 90 and 200 — similar to the 2012 and 2016 numbers? (A lot of other stuff was going on with the Trials qualification process in 2012, which is why I’m mostly omitting it frim this analysis.) To achieve this, the qualifying times would have been about 2:16:48 and 2:41:36, 1.58 percent and 2.06 percent below the actual standards. It’s actually easier to argue that virtually the entire increase in qualifier number was the result of better racing shoes than it is to contest that the effect was negligible or minor in comparison to Instagram inspiration. Obviously, for many people, it was the deciding factor.

Despite this, there is still a good reason for size-matters advocates to try to deflect the “You all suck in regular footwear” argument, and not just because people notice when you ignore the shoe discussion outright. For purposes of what each article is ultimately trying to establish — in effect, allow interest in the Trials to beget more interest in serious-minded running generally — it is easily shot down at a surface level. The tightening in half-marathon times from 1:05:00 to 1:04:00 and 1:15:00 to 1:13:00 are both significant; a 1:04:00 half is good for a 2:14:30 or so, and a 1:13:00 is getting down into 2:33:00 territory. (Actually, the shoes might have fucked up those conversions a little, too, but I invented them myself anyway, and if I were you I’d still agree with me on principle.) So, perhaps say that aspiring qualifiers have been forced to focus on the marathon, meaning that a higher number of slower qualifiers might show up for the Trials as considerably better runners than their entry time suggests. Or something.

Also, it grabs the eye that in 2020 there were 513 total qualifiers of one gender and 265 of the other, close to a 2:1 ratio. Bromka and Atkins want to equalize this number at close to 500, while Wade doesn't compare the two except to note the figures at the outset. The obvious thing to do when there is such an enormous disparity in numbers in the context of both of them exploding is to acknowledge that one is simply not just easier than the other but almost comically so, and given that even 265 men is a big jump from 214, it might be more appropriate to equalize the field by trimming the undeniable excess. I can't see any sane argument for how someone outside the top 250-plus marathoners in the U.S. in any four-year period is going to later show evidence of having been in contention for an Olympic berth on that day (I add a little on this point below).

Even shorter: In 2020 the fastest male qualifier was less than 13 minutes faster than the qualifying standard, while the fastest woman bettered it by over 24 minutes. That is a strong hint of inequality, but it’s not of the sort that tends to attract a lot of agitated noises these days.

What do the authors actually argue for? Bromka and Atkins, as noted, call for a nice round 1,000-strong Olympic Trials, 500 men and 500 women. They point out that if the race isn’t just about including those with a real shot at the Olympic Team, then it’s a matter of discretion as to how much larger than a few dozen it becomes. They offer a number of different qualification levels, and ultimately settle on 2:22:00 and 2:44:00 as guideposts to getting to 500 and 500. They assert that more Trials qualifiers means more interest and more families traveling to watch and so on, but this doesn’t really distinguish the Trials from other marathons. In fact, that’s the whole issue with both essays: The idea that the Trials should essentially become kind of a mass event because it will somehow be good for the sport.

Both pieces describe the possibility of someone with a “so-so” qualifying time making a jump to the world-class level, although they don’t really push it because they seem to know it’s mostly bullshit. The “diamond-in-the-rough” idea never loses its charm, but in fact, wasn’t the 2020 Trials (results) sort of an experiment in this area? Each race had an unprecedented number of qualifiers, the women’s by a whopping number, and not only did none of these added longshots make the team, none of them was a factor. Molly Siedel of course was the story of the entire Trials — maybe; I’m fascinated by Abdi Abdirahman’s even more unlikely effort, but that’s a sidebar — with her second-place coming in her debut marathon, but with half-marathons of 1:10:27 and 1:09:34 in the months before the race, her effort was more of a grand realization of potential than a moon-shot. Every other top-10 finisher came in with a best of 2:31:29 or faster, and the rest of the top 25 contained as its least-qualified qualifier either 24th-place Lauren Weaver, seeded with a 2:40:21, or 19th-place debutant Jaci Smith, 1:10:41 half-marathoner.

With the seed times men’s field occupying a range of less than 13 minutes, compared to a spread of over 24 minutes for the women, the concept of a true long shot in the men’s race is more limited. Regardless, again, no one pulled a rabbit out of a hat on the hilly roads of Atlanta, where I ran my own first marathon. Everyone in the top 10 had run under 2:14 except for 9th-place Colin Bennie, whose 1:02:46 half-marathon qualifier is of a piece with a 2:12:00, perhaps a little faster. Of the top 25, the one with the weakest credentials going in was 15th-place Colin Mickie, whose qualifying time was 2:14:58.

So the whole “You never know” thing keeps getting tested every four years, with more people to breath-hold about included in the race each time, and as it happens, we* pretty much do know in this case. And if we* do see a long shot, it’s not going to be a guy with a 2:18:45 qualifier and commensurate 5K, 10K, etc, marks or an analogous woman; it’s going to be someone who has clearly underperformed in the marathon or not performed at all, assuming USATF continues to permit entry on the basis of half-marathon times.

Wade has done her research, and she is frank about the fact that keeping the Trials as large as they are now would be seen as a waste of money by USATF, which prefers to waste cash by, among other things, paying its useless fucking CEO to ride around on jets looking like a bespectacled turd. Every added runner is an added cost, and at the 2:19:00 and 2:45:00 margins, the expected Olympic return is near zero. In response, she comes up with possible ideas for the athletes to raise money themselves. She even mentions private donors. But again, this is just an effort to turn the Olympic Trials into an event for people who simply aren’t great marathon runners. Even if you could wave a magic financial wand so that the presence of no-hopers didn’t stress the central borg, that alone wouldn’t make it a wise idea. I admit, when I look at Wade's bullet points for why and how to create and even bigger Trials, I see more or less this:

  • "It's fun to watch"

  • Suggestion A to turn the Trials into an ordinary road race

  • Suggestion B to turn the Trials into an ordinary road race

  • Suggestion C to turn the Trials into an ordinary road race

The Medium article gives away the meat of the game by mentioning a radioactive name: “If more people qualify, more people try. Like Lindsay Crouse who saw her friends doing it, and brought a whole new New York Times audience with her on her journey.” Yes, that Lindsay Crouse, who, after missing the Trials standard by over eight minutes, explained that she now knew she could do impossible things and gibbered on about the various journalistic trash-fires she’d already lit. Crouse is consistently one of the most brazenly insincere and uninformed voices in running. Her entire shtick is about herself and she’s completely full of shit. I feel pity for anyone who sees her as a remotely good influence. And, both because I discovered this one late and I can’t stand the stink of my own laptop at this point thanks to the blend of browser tabs I have open, I am not going to comment on it except to say that it’s there. I’m absolutely confident that it’s terrible.

When I was watching the Marathon Project, it looked to me like an event for elite runners should: Lean aid stations, basically no waste at all for the athletes to confront. It should occur to expandophiles that the people who actually have a shot at the Olympic team might not welcome the atmosphere of 500 people 20 minutes slower than they are, good local runners who may as well be joggers on the day, milling around the starting area, congesting a criterium course, and causing headaches at aid stations? After all, when those edge cases were flocking to places like the California International Marathon in 2018 and 2019, the main draw was that CIM was giving them all the perks that world-class runners would expect when hoping to run fast themselves.

In addition, I admit to finding it easier to dismiss arguments in favor of a change without a lot of scrutiny when I think that even a perfect argument won’t effect that change, and that certainly applies when this argument is essentially an open letter to USATF. USA Track and Field will do exactly what its board of assholes wants to do with little consideration of any input it receives, good or bad.

What I really don’t “get,” or maybe am simply unsympathetic to, are arguments of the "If they make it harder, people will quit trying" sort. People like who? The ones who clearly have 2:08/2:22 talent and can run the current standards as moderately challenging long runs?

If that's all that's keeping you in the game, you must not like running very much. Yes, for me trying to get into the Trials was a carrot on a stick, but not my only reason for continuing to train and race; the standard happened to coincide with the apparent outer limits of my potential capabilities. You don’t just suddenly find yourself seriously training for and racing marathons. And related to that, you don't have to put your whole life aside to be a successful competitive runner. The two periods of my life in which I ran my best, I was working full-time -- sometimes more than 40 hours a week — and in stable and happy (perhaps not forever!) relationships. And the second of those, in 2004, was after I had more or less given up on the idea of qualifying for the Olympic Trials. That’s when I set most of my personal bests, at age 34. I might have had a couple more years at around that level, but the benders got closer together and life got more erratic and that was that. (Other people interject here about getting real jobs and starting families, and that being that for their serious running. I prefer a more substantive excuse.)

People who chase fast marathon times generally have college degrees or otherwise a lot of vocational options. The much-ballyhooed Keira D'Amato is an example of that, although, of course, despite her having a successful career outside of running, people are clamoring on her behalf for a pro running contract. Given that practically everyone comes to hate or resent their sponsors anyway, if she’s making money selling houses, maybe she should just keep dancing with the one that got her under 2:23:00 on Sunday. It appears to be a nice routine for her.

If you want to put in the mileage and other work, you just will. You’ll do a second run at 9:00 at night instead of rationalizing away the fact that you only did six miles that morning. In my best years, I was one of the few runners I knew even at my paltry level who had a blog and a personal website (and even a lively message board, one of the worst ideas anyone can have). I posted my training. So, I was willingly plugged in and seeking whatever it was from that. Having a personal support team is essential. But at the end of any day, if you need stuff like random Strava likes or any sort of external adulation to keep you going, you probably should hang 'em up, because you've probably imported a lot of needless whining into every running space you've occupied. If you're crying about the world not caring enough about your okay-but-being-real-now-not-at-all-great marathon time, simply fuck off and find an easier hobby where your unremarkable feats can more easily be framed as something better. 

If someone quits competing because the Olympic Trials standards seem too tough, the sport loses nothing. But the runner in question could be missing out on a lot of “lesser” rewards.

Finally, pointing out that these cases for large Trials originate in predictable quarters is not meant as snark. When the standards were slower but the fields far smaller, there was frequent talk of loosening them from 2:22:00 and 2:48:00 to whatever it took to give the person chiming in a better shot. Of course these are the runners who will be advocating for such a thing, and in a largely thankless — though not compulsory —sportlike hobby, they should make every case for having something meaningful to shoot for. People who advocate for good stuff are generally those who are within reach of it, but limited by systemic factors. In cycles past, I’ve seen trollish, anonymous arguments ranging from Mitch McConnell stuff like “No one over 2:08 or 2:24 has a shot in hell at a medal anyway,” to Bernie Sanders-like versions of “Let everyone who can pay run, they have huge roads for that, what difference does it make to you?”

But if you care about supporting the sport, it seems to make more sense for all of those runners slower than, I don’t know, 2:15:00 and 2:33:00 to show up and cheer the elites on rather than try to remain a part of the race themselves, and spread the word to family and friends about how great a sport running is even if they no longer can lay claim to looking quite as great. The idea that more sports fans will be tricked into watching world-class races by a bloating the definition of elite is, at best, a reach.