2020 Olympic Trials, Out With a Bang

The Rome Marathon has been cancelled and the Paris and Barcelona marathons postponed. The Boston (April 20) and London (April 26) marathon organizers are monitoring developments. A state of emergency has been declared in the Olympic marathon city of Sapporo, Japan. If COVID-19 has indeed caused the end of the world as we know it, the spectacular 2020 Olympic Trials in Atlanta took marathon racing out in style.

The conditions were suitably challenging for a race that would determine who would represent the USA at the 2020 Olympics, should there be one. “Hill-lanta, it’s real” gasped the women’s fifth place finisher Laura Thweatt. “The last 10K is rude,” said Caitlin Phillips, one of seven competitors from the Distance Project NYC. It was cold, bright, and windy. A marathoner must travel light, and sunglasses, hats, and headbands were the chosen armor.

Thousands lined the course, many cheering friends, family members, or psyching up for their own race the next day. Running royalty was on hand, including Shalane Flanagan, in her Bowerman Track Club gear. And when it finally began, America’s fastest, hopped up on years of training and focus for this stage, like locusts swarmed Peachtree Street, and then were off on their hilly loops.

Galen Rupp and Aliphine Tuliamuk reigned supreme. Rupp ran 2:09:20, safely 1:46 ahead of the first non-podium spot. Tuliamuk ran 2:27:23, a 1:40 margin over 4th.

Tuliamuk grew up with 31 siblings. Her sisters in this one were Hoka One One North Arizona Elite training partners Stephanie Bruce and Kellyn Taylor, who finished 6th (2:29:11) and 8th (2:29:55). It’s a tight crew. NAZ Elite coach Ben Rosario, asked whether three of the top eight is what he was expecting, said “We wanted three in the top three.”

Rupp is the second person to win back-to-back Olympic Trials marathons (Frank Shorter did it in 1972 and 1976) and his win, in the third fastest time in Trials history, marked a superb comeback from heel surgery. Credit is due to Rupp’s former coach Alberto Salazar, currently banned from the sport, who forged Galen into America’s best distance runner. But Salazar’s regimen included performance enhancing substances that have made Rupp hard to root for. Some shadows are tough to shake.

When Abdi Abdirahman held on for third at the 2012 Olympic Marathon Trials in Houston, it was a surprise—after all, he was 35 years old, young in the grand scheme of things but getting up there for a professional runner. Fast forward eight years and at the age of 43, no longer that young in the grand scheme of things and ancient for a pro runner, he somehow held off Leonard Korir, who holds PRs of 2:07 in the full and 59 minutes in the half, for third. It is Abdi’s fifth time making the team (he qualified in the 10,000m in 2000, 2004, and 2008), a remarkable feat in long distance running, or any sport, really. Unsponsored Jacob Riley made up 40 seconds over the last 10k to make the team, finishing second in 2:10:02. Abdi ran 2:10:03, and Korir 2:10:06.

The biggest surprise in the women’s race was Molly Seidel, who finished second by running unburdened of expectations, including her own, in this, her first marathon (she had qualified for the race by running a 1:09 half-marathon). Asked if she thought before the race that she’d make the team, she said “No. I was in the third wave, no. I didn’t [even] expect to make the team three miles from the finish.”

She was clearly uncluttered. “I didn’t have a whole lot of thoughts going through my head. When Aliphine and I made that break, it wasn’t necessarily a conscious decision of ‘I want to make a move right now’. It was just, ‘I want to run my pace, and I’m running my race, and if people want to go with us, they’ll go with us’.”

In contrast, Sally Kipyego, clinging to third, was worried. “I was hurting bad over those last three miles. I was hurting big time! I looked back twice. I’d rather look back and have funny pictures, than have somebody pass me without realizing that they were going by.”

Making a very late charge was 36-year-old Des Linden, the heart and soul of American marathon running, and a master at pacing. She almost pulled it off, passing Thweatt and narrowing the gap to Kipyego in the last mile, before finishing in 2:29:03, eleven seconds off the podium.

Shivering in the outdoor, post-race interview scrum, Des said “I think I did everything I could. There are ups and downs in the sport. Today I put everything I had into it and I just didn’t get the result. To be in that field and to watch the next stars come up and the potential around me was just incredible.”

In all, 390 women and 175 men finished the race, including a woman six-months pregnant in an impressive 3:12:01.

At a key moment late in the race, in the media tent—a sizeable encampment in Centennial Olympic Park where the journalists watched the running on live feeds—there was an announcement: NBC was going to cut its coverage of the race because President Donald Trump needed to say something about the coronavirus. But, the journalists were told, in the tent the live feed of the race would not be interrupted for Trump. There was a bit of laughter, a bit of applause. Trump and the coronavirus would have to wait.

All photos by Andy Kiss. See his full photo gallery of the race. Full athlete interviews and coverage in Episode 97.

Categories: Olympic Trials

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