In matters of prestige, the New York City Marathon has always been the race—at least for the American distance running contingent. Yes, Boston has the historical pedigree and Chicago has a ripping fast course, but for overall opulence New York can’t be beat. It is the largest marathon in the world (not to mention the most expensive). It’s the race with all the celebrities. The start, which sends over 50,000 runners streaming, zombie-like, over the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, feels less like a sporting event and more like a gazillion dollar Jerry Bruckheimer fantasy.
No wonder, then, that New York is where so many big names of U.S. running have chosen to make their 26.2-mile debut. Deena Kastor. Meb Keflezighi. Dathan Ritzenhein. Shalane Flanagan. Kara Goucher. The list goes on. In 1980, decades before he had his current sinister image, a 22-year-old Alberto Salazar announced himself to the marathoning world by winning NYC in near world-record time.
Measured against its glorious past, the 2019 NYCM, which takes place on Sunday, has a relatively modest elite field—particularly on the American front. There is, of course, a very good reason for this: on February 29, just 17 weeks after the NYCM, the U.S. Olympic Team Trials will be held in Atlanta, Georgia. At this late stage, many American pros who have a shot at making the Olympic team are already in hibernation.
But not all. On Sunday, Jared Ward and Des Linden will be returning to New York as the ostensible favorites to take top American honors. Both made the last U.S. Olympic team after not racing a marathon the previous fall. This time around, however, Ward and Linden appear undaunted by the prospect of hammering the streets of New York City a few months out from the Trials.
“I think I’m in a different position than I was a few years ago, going into the last Olympic cycle,” Ward says, explaining that he has become more confident in what his body can handle in terms of training load and how much recovery he needs. (Ward says that his marathon training blocks are usually about 10 to 12 weeks long.) Now 31 years old and coming off a big personal best (2:09:25) at this year’s Boston Marathon, Ward is also more aware of the fact that pro marathoners only get so many opportunities. Last year, he finished as the top American in New York and sixth overall. He believes that he can do better in 2019.
“I think the main reason that I chose to run New York is that I’ve had this goal for years now to finish in the top three in a major marathon,” Ward says. “I wasn’t willing to throw away a fall [marathon] opportunity on a course that I think I am suited well for when I think I have a chance to make a strike on that podium.”
Somewhat counterintuitively perhaps, Ward also says that racing another marathon a few months out from the Trials is a good way to avoid psychological burnout. “I’ve always felt that athletes in the lead up to Olympic years, especially marathon runners, tend to be overcooked by the time we get to the Trials,” Ward notes. “I think this way I’ve been able to shift my focus away from the Olympic cycle and funnel it into New York.”
Thankfully, Ward has other things to distract him. He has four children. In addition to being an adjunct faculty member in the statistics department of Brigham Young University, he is also an aspiring inventor. Just last week, Ward appeared on an episode of ABC’s business-themed reality TV show “Shark Tank,” to pitch a heated, vibrating massage ball.
As for Des Linden, who has shown some entrepreneurial initiative of her own by co-founding a line of gourmet coffee, the question is perhaps less why she is racing New York so close to the Olympic Trials, but whether she has any intention to race the Trials at all.
After the elite fields for this year’s NYC Marathon were released in September, Linden gave an interview with Nick Zaccardi of NBC Sports in which she confessed that “it was a little bit difficult to be excited” about the prospect of competing for medals at the Olympics given the prevalence of doping in international competition. It’s hard to blame her; both the first and second-place finishers in the women’s marathon at the last Olympics have since tested positive for EPO. In the wake of her statement, Letsrun speculated that Linden might skip next year’s Olympic Trials and run the 2020 Boston Marathon instead.
Via text message, Linden told me that she was “undecided” about competing in Atlanta. The decision would hinge on how well she recovered from New York and her “excitement levels” about trying to make her third Olympic team in February.
“That said, on paper, there is plenty of time between NY and the Trials for recovery,” Linden added. “In my opinion the New York course and racing nature are better preparation for the Trials course/competition than the other fall marathon options anyhow.”
Indeed, despite a recent change to the course to accommodate the unexpected high number of participants, the 2020 Trials race will feature several challenging hills late in the game—just like the NYC Marathon.
In speculating that Linden might run Boston next year and forgo the Olympic Trials, Letsrun noted that it might also be the savvier financial move for the 36-year-old. Having won Boston in 2018, and being a perennial contender in U.S. marathons for most of the past decade, Linden is among the more recognizable names in American marathoning. According to Letsrun, she might be in a position to command a six figure appearance fee—especially in a year that will likely feature fewer top-ranked U.S. athletes.
This, of course, also played into Ward and Linden’s decision to run New York City this fall. “There’s a unique financial incentive,” Ward said when I asked him how much appearance fees were a factor in his decision to race New York.
“I just came off my best marathon time in Boston and finished as the top American in NYC in 2018 . . . I’m really more marketable now than I’ve ever been before. I have a family with four kids. To not take advantage of that is to pass up on something that you never know if it’s going to be available next year, or if this is kind of my chance.”