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The Road to the Paris Olympics and here is What You Need to Know.

American runners are about to begin training for the U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon

It’s early October, which means it’s the peak marathon season for many runners. But with an Olympic year on the horizon, it also means America’s top marathoners are about to hit the road to Paris.

More specifically, the men’s and women’s 2024 U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon races—scheduled for February 3 in Orlando, Florida—are just four months away. And that means the top U.S. runners hoping to represent their country at  next summer’s Olympics are about to begin preparing for the all-or-nothing qualifying race that decides which six runners will represent Team USA next summer on the streets of Paris.

Although several top American runners are racing the Chicago Marathon on October 8, even they have their eyes on a much bigger prize next February.

“There’s nothing in my mind that compares with being an Olympian and being in the Olympic Games,” says 26-year-old Utah-based Nike pro Conner Mantz, who returns to Chicago after finishing seventh last year in 2:08:16 in his debut at the distance. “So putting that first has been the plan for a long time. We’re just putting that first and we’re working backwards through the season with other races.” 

Registration will open for the U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon in early November for runners who have surpassed the qualifying times in the marathon (2:18:00 for men, 2:37:00 for women) or half marathon (1:03:00 for men, 1:12:00 for women). The qualifying window extends through December 3—the race date of the last-chance California International Marathon, which for decades has been one of the most popular Olympic Trials qualifying races.

In 2020, a record 708 runners—465 women and 243 men—qualified for the U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon in Atlanta just before the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic. But USA Track & Field lowered the women’s qualifying standard by eight minutes from the more attainable 2:45:00 plateau, which means there will most likely be a much smaller women’s field this year.

But even so, amid the handful of runners who have a legitimate shot at making the Olympic team, there will also be dozens of dreamers, wannabes, and just-happy-to-be-there elite amateurs who have worked hard, put in the miles, and earned the chance to be on the start line of the deepest and most competitive U.S. distance-running races that only happen once every four years.

The men’s and women’s races will run simultaneously with the men beginning at 12:10 P.M. EST. and the women starting 10 minutes later. Runners have complained that a high noon start means they will be forced to race in hot, humid conditions. Over the past decade, the average temperature on February 3 in Orlando has been 69.6 degrees Fahrenheit at noon, rising to 73.3 at 4 PM. But actual temperatures have varied drastically, from 81 degrees Fahrenheit at 2 P.M. last year to 56 at the same time the year before. USATF officials have responded by saying that the start times are to accommodate live coverage on NBC and to match the expected conditions in Paris.

Here’s an update and overview of what’s next, who the top contenders are, the course, and what to expect in the next four months.

The 26.2-mile U.S. Olympic Trials course runs through downtown Orlando and consists of one 2.2-mile loop and three eight-mile loops. The marathon course will run through several neighborhoods, main streets, and business districts in Orlando, including Central Business District, City District, South Eola, Lake Eola Heights Historic District, Lake Cherokee Historic District, Lake Davis Greenwood, Lake Como, North Quarter, Lawsona/Fern Creek, SoDo District, and the Thornton Park neighborhood. It will then head east to and around The Milk District neighborhood and Main Street. (Notably, the course will come close to Disney World, which is about 15 miles to the southwest.)

Unlike the Olympic Marathon course in Paris, which will challenge runners with significant hills in the middle, the Orlando course is mostly flat. Each loop has a few minor variations in pitch, but only 38 feet separate the high and low points on the course. Ultimately, though, it’s a spectator-friendly route with chances for family, friends, and fans of runners to see the action several times. 

The top women—based on personal best times and recent race results—are Emily Sisson, Emma Bates, Keira D’Amato, Betsy Saina, and Lindsay Flanagan. But the U.S. Olympic Trials races almost always produce surprises with a few great runners having off days and a few good runners having exceptional days, so there is reason to expect the unexpected.

Sisson lowered the American record to 2:18:29 last year when she finished second in the Chicago Marathon. She’s running Chicago again on October 8 along with Bates, who has said she’s hoping to break the American record. In January, Sisson, 31, chopped her own American record in the half marathon in Houston with a 1:06:52 effort, and most recently won the U.S. 20K Championships (1:06:09) on September 4 in New Haven, Connecticut. Bates, also 31, hasn’t raced at all since her sterling fifth-place effort at the Boston Marathon in April, when she slashed her personal best to 2:22:10. 

While Chicago will be another good place to test themselves, both have unfinished business after Bates was seventh at the 2020 Trials and Sisson dropped out near the 21-mile mark.

The same goes for Flanagan, 32, who has been one of America’s best and most consistent marathoners for the past five years. She placed 12th at the trials in 2020. She had a breakthrough win (2:24:43) at the Gold Coast Marathon in 2022 followed by a strong, eighth-place finish (2:26:08) at the Tokyo Marathon earlier this year. In August, she ran perhaps the best race of her career, when she finished ninth (2:27:47) at the world championships in Budapest amid hot, humid conditions.

The 38-year-old D’Amato, meanwhile, just capped off another strong season with a 17th-place showing (2:31:35) at the World Athletics Championships in Budapest, a year after finishing eighth in the world championships and setting an American record 2:19:12 at the 2022 Houston Marathon. She was 15th at the Trials in 2020 in 2:34:24, just two years into her competitive return to the sport after having two kids and starting a career in real estate in her early 20s.

“It’s such a huge goal of mine to become an Olympian,” says D’Amato, who lowered Sisson’s U.S. record in the half marathon with a 1:06:39 effort at the Gold Coast Half Marathon on July 1 in Australia. “It’s really hard for me to put words into this because my whole life, wearing a Team USA jersey has been like a huge dream. And when I left the sport (temporarily), I felt like I said goodbye to that dream and I kind of mourned the loss of being able to represent my country. I feel like it’s the greatest honor in our sport to be able to wear our flag and race as hard as possible.”

Saina, a 35-year-old Kenya-born runner who ran collegiately for Iowa State University, became a U.S. citizen in late 2021. She placed fifth in the 10,000-meters at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro while competing for Kenya. She’s spent the past several years splitting time between Kenya and Nashville, Tennessee, where she gave birth to a son, Kalya, in December 2021.

She’s returned with a strong fourth-place 1:11:40 result at the Tokyo Half Marathon last October and a fifth-place 2:21:40 showing at the Tokyo Marathon in February. In May, Saina won the U.S. 25K Championships in Michigan. Two weeks ago she broke the tape at the Blackmores Sydney Marathon in Australia in 2:26:47.

Other top contenders include but are not limited to Tokyo Olympics bronze medalist Molly Seidel (who’s personal best is 2:24:42), 2022 U.S. Olympic Trials champion Aliphine Tuliamuk (2:24:37, 11th in Boston this year), Susanna Sullivan (2:24:27 personal best, 10th in London this year), two-time Olympian and 2018 Boston Marathon winner Des Linden (2:22:38), and Sara Hall (2:20:32, fifth at last year’s world championships), plus Kellyn Taylor (2:24:29), Nell Rojas (2:24:51), Sarah Sellers (2:25:43), Lauren Paquette (2:25:56), Dakotah Lindwurm (2:25:01), Annie Frisbie (2:26:18), Sara Vaughn (2:26:23), Tristin Van Ord (2:27:07), and Jacqueline Gaughan (2:27:08).

The list of potential men’s top contenders isn’t as clear-cut, partially because there are so many sub-2:11 runners and several fast runners who are relatively new to the marathon. But all that suggests a wide-open men’s race where more than a dozen runners are legitimately in the mix for the three Olympic team spots. That said, the top runners on paper, based on both time and consistent results over the past few years, are Scott Fauble, Jared Ward, Galen Rupp, Conner Mantz, Leonard Korir, Matt McDonald, and C.J. Albertson.

The 31-year-old Fauble, who was 12th in the Olympic Trials in 2020 and owns a 2:08:52 personal best, has finished seventh in the Boston Marathon three times since 2019 and also finished seventh in the New York City Marathon in 2018. Ward is a 2016 U.S. Olympian and has three top-10 finishes at the New York City Marathon and a 2:09:25 personal best from Boston in 2019. He’s 35, but he just ran a 2:11:44 (27th place) at the Berlin Marathon in late September.

Rupp, who won the past two U.S. Olympic Trials Marathons and earned the bronze medal in the marathon at the 2016 Olympics, is nearing the end of his competitive career. He boasts a 2:06:07 personal best and has run under 2:10 more than any American in history, including when he finished 19th at the world championships (2:09:36) last year. He’s a bit of a wild card because he’s 37 and hasn’t raced since his lackluster 17th-place showing at the NYC Half Marathon (1:04:57) in March, but the world will get a glimpse of his fitness in Chicago this weekend.

Mantz followed up his solid debut in Chicago last fall with a good Boston Marathon in April (11th, 2:10:25) and solid racing on the track and roads all year, including his recent runner-up showings at the Beach to Beacon 10K in August and the U.S. 20K Championships in September.

McDonald, 30, who was 10th in the 2020 U.S. Olympic Trials, has quietly become one of the best marathoners in the U.S. while serving as a postdoctoral associate in chemical engineering at M.I.T. His last three races have clocked in at 2:10:35 (Boston 2022), 2:09:49 (Chicago 2022), and 2:10:17 (Boston 2023). The only other runner who rivals that kind of consistency is Albertson, 29, who has run 2:10:23 (Boston 2022), 2:10:52 (Grandma’s Marathon 2022) and 2:10:33 (Boston 2022) in his past three marathons and was seventh in the U.S. Olympic Trials in 2020 (2:11:49).

The men’s race will likely have a mix of veteran runners and newcomers who have run in the 2:09 to 2:10 range since 2022. Among those are 2020 U.S. Olympic Trials runner-up Jake Riley (2:10:02 personal best), who is returning from double Achilles surgery; 2016 U.S. 10,000-meter Olympian Leonard Korir (2:07:56), who ran a 2:09:31 in Paris in April; Zach Panning (2:09:28, plus 13th at the world championships in August); U.S. 25K record-holder Parker Stinson (2:10.53); Futsum Zienasellassie who won the California International Marathon last December in his debut (2:11:01) and then doubled-back with a new personal best (2:09:40) at the Rotterdam Marathon in the spring; Abbabiya Simbassa, who ran a solid debut marathon (2:10:34) in Prague this spring; and Eritrean-born Daniel Mesfun (2:10:06) and Ethiopian-born Teshome Mekonen (2:10:16), who both received U.S. citizenship within the past year; and solid veterans Nico Montanez (2:09:55), Elkanah Kibet (2:10:43) and Nathan Martin (2:10:45).

Additional sub-2:12 runners who will  be in the mix are Andrew Colley (2:11:26), Clayton Young (2:11:51), Brendan Gregg (2:11:21), Josh Izewski (2:11:26), Jacob Thompson (2:11:40), and Kevin Salvano (2:11:49).

As noted previously, some top contenders will season their marathon legs one final time at the flat and fast Chicago Marathon on October 8. An even more select few will opt for the New York City Marathon on November 5. After that, nearly every American with eyes set on an Olympic berth will double-down over the holiday season for that one final, critical marathon training cycle. Expect to see a wide range in heat training, from sauna protocols, to warm weather training trips, to simply an adjusted race day strategy.

Of course, with the Olympic Marathon falling under the purview of World Athletics, qualifying for the U.S. Olympic Marathon team is not quite as simple as finishing on the podium in Orlando. Any American looking to have a breakout performance and finish within the top three at the U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon will need to have run under 2:11:30 for men and 2:29:30 for women within the qualification window, which spans from November 1, 2022 to April 30, 2024. Given the possibility of oppressively hot and humid temps on February 3 in Orlando, they’re best bet is to secure that time now.

These qualification standards are in accordance with a new rule from World Athletics, which allows national Olympic committees to circumvent the typical Olympic qualification process of running under 2:08:10 for men and 2:26:50 for women, or being ranked among the top 65 in the world on a filtered list of the top three athletes from each country. The catch, though, is that three other runners from said country must have met one of these two standards. If this sounds complicated, that’s because it is.

For the hundreds of elite amateurs on the cusp of hitting that coveted U.S. Olympic Trials qualifying time, it’s do or die mode. While a few made the cut at the Berlin Marathon on September 24, one of those opportunities was lost when the Twin Cities Marathon was canceled on October 1 because of excessive heat. Temperatures are shaping up for an auspicious day in Chicago this weekend, and many more will give it a final shot at the Columbus Marathon on October 15; Indianapolis Monumental Marathon on October 28; the Philadelphia Marathon on November 18; and the last-call California International Marathon, a point-to-point race ending in Sacramento, California on December 3. 

Ultimately, only six American runners will likely continue on along the road to Paris and earn the chance to run in the men’s and women’s Olympic marathons next August 10-11. For a handful of younger runners, the 2024 U.S. Olympic Trials will be a motivation to reinvigorate the Olympic dream or keep a faint hope alive, at least until the 2028 U.S. Olympic Trials that will determine the team for the Los Angeles Olympics. But for many runners, the journey to the U.S. Olympic Trials in Orlando will lead to the end of their competitive road running careers as new jobs, young families, a switch to trail running, and other priorities will take hold. 

“I think the Olympic Trials is an important part of American distance running,” says Kurt Roeser, 36, a two-time U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon qualifier who works full-time as a physical therapist in Boulder, Colorado. “I’m glad that they kept it the same event for this cycle and hopefully for future cycles because it gives people like me a reason to keep training. I’m older now and I’m not going to actually have a chance to make an Olympic team, but for somebody that’s fresh out out of college and maybe they just barely squeak in under the qualifying time, maybe that’s the catalyst they need to start training more seriously through the next cycle. And maybe four years from now, they are a serious factor for making the team.” 

(10/07/2023) Views: 484 ⚡AMP
by Outside Online
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