The 2020 U.S. Olympic Trials in the marathon took place in Atlanta on February 29. With the top three finishers securing a spot on the Olympic team, the Trials are always a uniquely thrilling affair—a quadrennial showdown in which all bets are off. The 2020 iteration was no exception. In the women’s race, for which a record 511 runners had qualified, we saw, once again, how anything can happen over 26.2 miles. These pictures tell the story of the day.
To mark the occasion, the city of Atlanta lit the Olympic cauldron for the first time since hosting the Games in 1996.
Aliphine Tuliamuk and Stephanie Bruce, who both train with the Northern Arizona Elite, warmed up around Centennial Olympic Park, where both the start and finish were located.
Of the 511 qualifiers, 444 started the race—the vast majority of them amateur runners. The oldest participant was a 48-year-old preschool teacher from Virginia. The youngest was a 16-year-old high schooler from Minnesota.
On the professional side, it turned out to be a rough day for many of the pre-race favorites. Sara Hall, Emily Sisson, and Molly Huddle, who were at the front of the lead pack early on, all ended up dropping out. Jordan Hasay, who had the fastest qualifying time (2:20:57), finished 26th.
Des Linden, however, raced well and came within 11 seconds of making her third Olympic team. Despite finishing in the dreaded 4th place position, the 2018 Boston Marathon champion was sanguine about her race. “I was 4th—not 17th,” she said afterwards. “I thought it was a really great day for me. Three people were just better.”
Spectators lined the course throughout the race, providing a deafening ambiance for the runners. “It was basically a 26-mile scream tunnel,” NCAA-standout Molly Seidel, who was making her debut in the marathon, said of the experience. (Seidel qualified by running the OTQ standard in the half marathon last December.)
A big story going into the race was how the Atlanta Track Club would provide personal bottle service for hundreds of runners. In the end, the organization proved up to the task. “No race in the history of the world has ever had refreshment stations like we will tomorrow,” runners were informed by technical director David Katz the night before the race. “It is absolutely amazing. Spectacular. I have never seen anything like this in 40 years.”
The Trials were staged on a circuit course, which included three large loops up and down Peachtree Street and a final loop that led runners under the Olympic Rings from the 1996 Games.
In the women’s race, of the 444 entrants, 390 finished—a testament to the challenging course and windy conditions.
But for many runners, getting to the starting line of the most exclusive marathon in the country was a victory in itself. Two runners in their third trimester of pregnancy, Rachel Hyland (27 weeks) and Lauren Philbrook (33 weeks) ran several miles together before eventually dropping out (as planned). “I think it was a visible way to show that many female runners are balancing multiple priorities (that may impact performance) when they line up to compete,” Hyland, who was running 70 miles a week until the end of January, says of her decision to participate in the Trials. “I was absolutely blown away by all of the encouragement on the course,” she adds. “Those high fives that I shared with other women on the course as they lapped me were some of the most powerful gestures of solidarity that I have ever experienced.”
In the end, Aliphine Tuliamuk finished seven seconds ahead of Seidel. The two runners worked together over the final six miles, as both made their first Olympic team. “Thanks Molly,” Tuliamuk said afterwards. “I couldn’t have done it without you.”