The Olympic Trials and the Value of an Impossible Dream
If the qualifying standard gets harder, will it dissuade runners from aiming high?
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On Sunday, Lindsay Crouse, the producer and editor who broke last year’s news about Mary Cain’s abuse allegations against Nike Oregon Project coach Alberto Salazar, published an op-ed in the New York Times titled: “I’m 35 and Running Faster Than I Ever Thought Possible.” Crouse, who is an accomplished amateur runner, describes how she just ran her best marathon at 35—an age where she “didn’t think it was still possible to improve significantly in anything.” This athletic achievement, Crouse goes on to note, was mirrored by successes in her professional life; in addition to the Cain/Salazar story, she was the driving force behind a viral Times story of former Nike runners taking the company to task for having no maternity policy for contracted athletes. “I realized I could do a lot of other impossible things,” Crouse writes. “I could be a reporter like the journalists I’d always admired.”
Marathon training can be very time-consuming, and there’s something seductive about the idea that the benefits of this ostensibly useless hobby might not be limited to eventually being able to run 26.2 miles slightly faster than before. Based on the experience of another runner I know (let’s call him Spartan Ritz), it’s tempting to convince yourself that achieving an ambitious time goal will help you unlock your potential in other areas.
For Crouse, that time goal was two hours and 45 minutes—the women’s Olympic Trials standard for the 2020 race, which is taking place in Atlanta on February 29. A record 511 women have qualified for this year’s event—up from 198 in 2016. (On the men’s side, the standard is 2:19, and 260 managed to qualify.) Although she ended up falling eight minutes short, Crouse suggests that for her and hundreds of women like her, the pursuit itself was transformative.
Two hours and 45 minutes is a daunting yet attainable target for hundreds of the best amateur female marathoners in this country, but that standard is expected to get harder for the 2024 cycle. In the past, USA Track and Field has based trials times on the official Olympic standards—the logic being that it shouldn’t be harder to qualify for U.S. Olympic team trials than for the actual Olympics. However, when the IAAF (which has since renamed itself World Athletics) released the qualifying standards for the 2020 Olympics last March, they had become much more difficult in several events—most conspicuously in the marathon, where the men’s and women’s standards went from 2:19 to 2:11:30 and 2:45:00 to 2:29:30, respectively. USATF will likely follow suit by making its own standards harder, albeit not quite to the same extent as World Athletics. (Only 11 American men and 18 American women have achieved the current Olympic marathon time standard.)
Whether or not this is a good idea is a popular debate topic among those who care about the American sub-elite distance running scene. The marathon trials are unique in that they can accommodate much larger field sizes than the Olympic Trials on the track, where qualifying standards are generally much less feasible for talented amateurs. (In the 5,000-meters, for instance, the standard is 13:25 for men and 15:20 for women. If you can hit those times, chances are you’re a professional runner, or at least you should be.)
The big tent nature of the event, so the argument goes, generates collective enthusiasm for the domestic marathon scene, as dedicated amateurs with regular jobs qualify for the race from all across the country. Even if an elementary school teacher from San Francisco has no realistic shot at taking down Galen Rupp, it’s still exciting to see them competing on the same stage. Culling race fields through tougher standards would result in fewer of these stories. Perhaps it might also reduce the likelihood of aspirational, running-themed op-eds in the New York Times.
On the other hand, when it comes to the Olympic Trials, hyper-exclusivity is sort of the point. The fact that over 300 more women qualified for the trials in 2020 than in 2016 changes the nature of the event, both in terms of athletic significance and race-day logistics; another subject of fevered speculation among running nerds is how race organizers will supply all trials participants with a personalized bottle every four miles without the whole thing devolving into a congested nightmare. If this proves to be an issue in Atlanta, USATF will be all the more incentivized to dramatically reduce the number of runners who take part.
But even if prospective new standards wind up being substantially harder, there’s a sense in which it might not matter to those for whom 2:45 already represented an audacious goal. What’s a few more minutes when you’re already shooting for the moon? One of the tantalizing aspects of this sport is how the limits of what might be possible are constantly evolving. (Especially in our current moment, when advances in shoe technology are ushering in a brave new era that will either allow runners to flourish like never before, or ruin the sport forever.)
Crouse points out to me that roughly a quarter of the women who qualified for the 2020 trials finished within a minute of the standard. This, she suggests, speaks to how much what transpired during this “unicorn” of an Olympic cycle was as much mental as anything else. 2:45 is the magical threshold—until it isn’t.
“You don’t have to be an Olympian to know the difference between 90 percent effort and 100 percent feels the same—you make up the difference with your mind,” Crouse says. “And of course the women’s standard right now is relatively easier than the men’s standard.” (One calculator has the women’s equivalent of 2:19 at roughly 2:38.) “Now that women have shown we can get there, it’s probably time to make the two standards consistent. For me, it’s all the same: Impossible. So I’m sure a lot of us will get there next time, too.”