The Countdown Is On: One Year to Go Until the U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon
Next year’s Summer Olympics in Paris mark the 40th anniversary of women competing in the event. With one year until the U.S. Olympic Trials, anticipation is running high.
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For fans of distance running, the U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon has become the most-anticipated 26.2-mile race in the country. And in just one year, it’s back. On February 3, 2024, the best American distance runners will once again go head-to-head, this time in Orlando, Florida, to decide which three athletes will compete for Team USA at the 2024 Paris Games.
The event also marks the 40th anniversary of the first women’s U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon, which took place on May 12, 1984, in Olympia, Washington. It was about 12 weeks before the Los Angeles Games, but the quick turnaround didn’t seem to have much effect on Joan Benoit Samuelson, who won in 2:31:41 after rushing to recover from knee surgery, then went on to also win the first women’s Olympic gold medal (2:24:52) in the event.
It was the beginning of decades of enormous growth for women’s running. Back in 1984, the qualifying time to participate in the trials was 2:51:16. In 2024, women have to run 2:37 (or a 1:12 half marathon) to earn a place on the start line in Orlando—eight minutes faster than in 2020, when 512 women achieved the standard of 2:45 (or 1:13) to race in the U.S. Olympic Trials in Atlanta.
While that 2020 event was quite a celebration of the progress in women’s running, it also caused some officials, coaches, and athletes to question whether the qualifying times were challenging enough. So USA Track & Field, the governing body of the sport, tightened them. As of January 25, 104 women have made the list of 2024 qualifiers, according to USATF—the qualifying window opened in January 2022 and closes December 5, 2023 for the marathon. (The window for the half marathon qualification opened in January 2023). Ultimately, the field will likely be smaller, but how much smaller remains to be seen.
“There’s still going to be over 300 women, if not 400 women,” predicts Kara Goucher, the 2007 world championships 10,000-meter silver medalist who was second at the 2012 U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon and fourth in 2016. “They’re still dreaming big and they are willing to make a lot of sacrifices to take their shot.”
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The More, the Merrier?
Those big dreams have fueled interest and boosted the popularity of the sport, especially over the past decade. The big marathons like Boston and New York attract great elite competition every year, but the trials is the only place where all the fastest Americans show up to race each other, which has made the event so compelling—a must-see marathon—for fans. The American system of selecting the top three finishers (who also have the Olympic standard of 2:29:30 or faster) to go to the Olympics makes it a high-stakes spectacle.
“When you get to the trials, you’re actually seeing all of your favorite athletes competing and that’s such a big draw,” says Deena Kastor, former American record-holder (2:19:36) and 2004 Olympic marathon bronze medalist. “Years ago, you might have said that it’s a given that these are the top three runners in the country by far. Now it’s less predictable, so it’s more fun to watch the race unfold in front of you.”
Atlanta police estimated that 200,000 fans lined the course at the 2020 trials. For every one of the 500 women who qualified, it seemed like an army of relatives and friends showed up to support them, not to mention the people who watched the national broadcast from home.
For a sport that often lacks mainstream appeal, many saw that the high participation numbers captured increased interest in the race—when a neighbor makes it to the Olympic Trials, suddenly a community becomes invested in it. And the crowd in February 2020? It was really loud.
“It was like they knew that was going to be the last fun event before COVID shut everything down,” says Aliphine Tuliamuk, who won the 2020 U.S. Olympic Trials. “If you were somebody who is distracted by noise, you were easily distracted by that because it was just ringing in your ears. It was so loud. You kind of had to tune out a little bit.”
Nonetheless, Tuliamuk is of the belief that the more competitors who can reach the starting line, the better.
“I just hope that no matter what happens, we will still have a lot of women who make it,” she says. “It’s amazing to race with all these women and in return, they’ll go inspire their communities. It’s what sports should be all about.”
Related: Photos from Behind the Scenes at the 2020 U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon
Only Three Make It
Every time the bar is raised, women have responded (also with the help of advancing racing shoe technology, of course) and 2024 should be no different, especially if the results at the very top of the sport are any indication.
In the past year alone, the American marathon record has been lowered twice, after standing for 16 years (2:19:36, set by Kastor at the 2006 London Marathon). First Keira D’Amato, 38, finished the 2022 Houston Marathon in 2:19:12, then Emily Sisson, 31, improved that mark in October, finishing the Chicago Marathon in 2:18:29. And who knows? The record could fall again by next February. The U.S. has 22 women under the Olympic standard of 2:29:30.
But part of the allure of the trials is that so many factors are at play, as we witnessed in 2020. The course in Orlando, though not released yet, promises to be flat, unlike the relentless hills of Atlanta, but the weather very well could be warm and humid. Although D’Amato and Sisson are the country’s leading contenders right now, D’Amato, who was still early in her comeback after being away from the sport for several years to start her family and career, finished 15th in 2:34:24, while Sisson was unable to finish the race. (She went on to make the Tokyo Games in the 10,000 meters.) It was Tuliamuk, Molly Seidel, and Sally Kipyego who came out on top—and rookie Seidel also brought home an Olympic bronze medal from Tokyo.
That’s all to say, nobody knows what will happen, but experts predict something fast.
“We might even see personal best there because the competition is going to be so stiff,” Kastor says. “My first professional coach, Joe Vigil, used to say, ‘I’m going to have really high expectations for you, but the higher my expectations, the better chance that you’ll strive high.’”
The day always brings the gamut of emotions for everybody involved. Goucher has experienced all sides of it—the elation of making the team in 2012 and the deep sorrow of just missing it in 2016. She absorbs the highs and lows even as a spectator. Although she didn’t compete in Atlanta, she confesses that she took a moment on a side street for a good cry by herself.
“There was this wall of women running down the street and it just touched me,” Goucher says, adding that she was thinking how many athletes would be left out at the end of the day. “At least 12 people who we’ve all followed are capable of making that team, who deserve to make that team, but only three of them can go. That’s the cruel beauty of it and what makes it so special.”
The ultimate but improbable dream for February 3, 2024, is that all the top athletes arrive in Orlando healthy, in peak fitness, and able to give the trials their absolute best shot over 26.2 miles. What a race it would be to see a late-stage battle between those dozen or more women who have the credentials to land on the podium.
“I want to see everyone with their A-game,” Goucher says. “And that’s a scary thought, but my dream would be to see all of them at the top of their game. We have the deepest talent among American women that we’ve ever had and there’s this respect for everybody.”
Kastor agrees—once again, it’s going to be the hardest team to make. “People are going to have to have nearly perfect buildups,” she says. “The race itself will need to be flawless.”
Tuliamuk welcomes the competition while acknowledging that the 2024 Olympic trials will be the challenge of her career so far. She’d love another chance to represent the U.S.A. After the Olympics were postponed for a year, she gave birth to her daughter, Zoe, then was injured in Tokyo.
“I want to represent my country to the best of my abilities. I didn’t really get to do that, so I’ll be doing my best to make sure that I make it to the start line healthy and ready,” she says. “It’s going to take so much more to make that team, but there’s nothing better than making a team when everybody brought their A-game and you emerged in the top three. I’m looking forward to that.”