FEBRUARY 29, 2020—With America’s best marathoners set for Tokyo selection on Leap Year Day, the Atlanta TC will host a very large and challenging Olympic Trials. By OT standards, Rich Kenah and his ATC crew will stage a huge event with more than 250 men and 500 women having achieved the qualifying times (64:00/2:19:00 for men, 73:00/2:44:00 for women). So it is likely that some 700 athletes will toe the line for the 12:03 men’s start, with the women at 12:13—yes those are prescribed TV times as NBC will also kick off its Trials programming with a 3-hour live broadcast.
As for Atlanta’s 3-loop course of 8, 8 and 10.2M, let’s just say that indicative of the Georgia capital’s Piedmont setting, it starts hilly, ends hilly, and has a lot of hills in between. In total, the course features 1389ft (423m) of uphill climbing, and with the finish a few hundred meters from the start, 1382ft (421m) of downhill. By comparison, the Boston Marathon has 924 (282m) of uphill and 1383 (422) of downhill. While Boston features relatively longer stretches of downhill, uphill, and flat running, Atlanta’s undulations are relentless.
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Abnormally warm, cold, windy or wet weather will only exacerbate the level of difficulty. Add in the elevated mental burdens of an OT competition and the Atlanta affair will be a challenging full-body test. Given the race’s WA Gold Label designation, Olympic self-selection awaits the first 3 men and women across the line, regardless of time. With the leap-day race, they will have 5 full months to recover and prepare for the Olympic races set for August 8 and 9 in Sapporo.
Ward Is The Men’s Favorite
Six weeks ahead of the Trials, many of the leading contenders found their way to Houston for a half-marathon tuneup. The Sunday group run turned serious in the final kilo as Jared Ward zipped to the front of a 13-man American pack and sped towards a 61:36 clocking. Heading up the finishing stretch and onto Atlanta, Ward repeatedly looked over his shoulder, guarding his preeminent position among American marathoners.
With his Rio ’16 experience, steady progress and heady racing, the 31-year old BYU alum has firmly established himself as the best bet to make the squad. He is a strength runner who performs well in tough competitions, and coach Ed Eyestone knows a thing or two about OT marathons, having made the ’88 and ’92 teams.
Rupp & Korir Next In The Queue
While Ward has the best prospects for making the men’s team, Galen Rupp and Leonard Korir are also capable of making the team if not winning the race. The 33-year-old Rupp is the defending champion and Rio bronze medalist with the talent and experience to be a shoe-in if he is healthy. Coming off Achilles surgery, a calf strain in Chicago, and a coaching change that is a big IF. Given that two laps around the Atlanta course will expose any weak muscles or connective tissue, if Rupp—who holds the 10K AR at 26:44.36—is in the chase over the final loop, he should be able to get it done.
Korir led the ’19 US list with a 2:07:56 clocking in Amsterdam and made the Rio team in the 10,000 where he has a 27:20.18 PR. The Kenyan import has also been a very successful cross country and road racer with a 59:52 half PR. Short on full-marathon experience, Korir is prepping at Patrick Sang’s camp in Kenya training with his big names Bernard Lagat and Eliud Kipchoge.
Led by Korir and the 44-year-old Lagat—who ran 2:12:10 last year—there are more naturalized Kenyans to consider. Add steepler Stanley Kebenei (61:57), Augustus Maiyo (2:12:25), Elkanah Kibet (2:11:51), and the recently unretired 34-year-old Sammy Chelanga, with fresh legs to go along with his 27:08:39 PR and a 61:52 clocking in Houston.
The Other Contenders
Behind the big names comes a bevy of capable athletes. Reed Fischer (61:37 PR) finished on Ward’s heels in Houston and will be a talented wild card making his marathon debut in Atlanta. Andrew Bumbalough (2:10:56) and Chris Derrick (2:12:50) are training with Jerry Schumacher’s Bowerman TC which had a very good women’s Trials performance in 2016.
Also contending will be a cohort of sub-2:12 performers led by Scott Fauble, a proven hill runner with his 2:09:09 in Boston. Jacob Riley (2:10:36), Jerrell Mock (2:10:37), Parker Stinson (2:10:53), Matthew Llano (2:11:14), Scott Smith (2:11:14) and Brendan Gregg (2:11:38) should also be in the hunt.
Hall & Sisson Pacing The Women
The women’s field is led by ’19 list leaders Sara Hall (2:22:16) and Emily Sisson (2:23:08). The fifth time might well be the charm for Hall whose fourth OT in ’16 ended in a DNF. Since then the 36-year-old Californian has gotten better and stronger every year with her husband Ryan Hall serving as coach.
Sisson also figures to be a strong contender for the team if not the win. The 28-year old Providence grad continues to train with Ray Treacy and is just hitting her stride on the road, running 67:30 for the half last year before her sparkling debut and 6th-place finish in London.
A Couple Of Question Marks
Behind this duo is a quintet of talented and proven marathoners and a couple of huge question marks in 36-year-old Amy Cragg (2:21:42) and 28-year-old Jordan Hasay (2:20:57), Nos. 2 & 5 on the all-time U.S. list. Cragg won the ’16 race, finished 9th in Rio, then nabbed bronze in the ’17 WC, and ran a PR in Tokyo the following year before suffering through a very difficult campaign last year.
Ditto for Hasay, who had a breakout campaign in ’17 with 3rd-place finishes in Boston and Chicago. Injuries befell her in ’18, but she looked to be back on track last year with another Boston 3rd, only to have a hamstring give out in Chicago.
There is little question that veterans Desi Linden (2:26:46) and Molly Huddle (2:26:33) should contend. Linden was the runner-up in both the ’12 and ’16 Trials and garnered 9th in Rio. The 36-year-old plans on doubling back in Boston, and is well suited for what may amount to a 30-mile marathon.
Huddle, 35, is also looking to make her third Olympic squad but first in the marathon after she ran an AR 30:13.17 in Rio. Huddle has experienced mixed results in the 26-miler but there is no doubt that the AR holder in the half (67:25) is fully capable of winning this race.
Kellyn Taylor (2:24:28), Emma Bates (2:25:27), and Sally Kipyego (2:25:10) are all accomplished racers and would not be surprises to make the squad. (Continued below)
Questions Remain For Both Races
How slow will the paces be? Will someone attempt a breakaway? Will there be team tactics? How about shoe issues? All these questions and more will be answered in Atlanta on Leap Year Day.