How To Make The Olympic Marathon Team

Photo: PhotoRun

Alan Culpepper, 2004 Trials champion, shares his top tips for punching a ticket to the Games.

Written by: Mario Fraioli

Culpepper breaks the tape at the 2004 Olympic Marathon Trials in Birmingham, Alabama. Photo: PhotoRun

With only two days to go until the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials here in Houston, it’s all over but the waiting.

All the heavy mileage and hard workouts have been done for a couple weeks now, but as the top contenders in both the men’s and women’s races make their final preparations for this Saturday morning’s showdown on the Avenida de las Americas in Texas’ largest city, it’s the ability to execute on race day which will separate those who represent the United States at the Olympic Marathon later this summer in London from those who will watch the races from the comfort of their couch.

We asked Alan Culpepper, 2004 Olympic Marathon Trials champion and one of the most consistently good racers the United States has ever seen, what it’s going to take to make the most competitive Olympic marathon team in our country’s history.

1. An inherent, true belief.

Culpepper, a two-time Olympian who also qualified for the 2000 Games in the 10,000 meters, says that an aspiring Olympic athlete who truly believes he or she is going to make the team should have decided at least six months in advance, that “regardless of the circumstances, no matter what” it was going to happen.

“Inherently there’s this underlying true belief,” Culpepper explains. “It’s not a commitment to the training, it’s not a commitment to the suffering or to planning your race well, it’s like this deep inherent belief that you know you’re gonna do it, you just know it’s gonna happen. And it doesn’t mean it’s gonna be easy.”

2. Keep your cards close.

The week leading up to the race can be a three-ring circus for the top athletes with media requests, sponsor obligations and fan excitement seemingly everywhere you turn. It can be easy to waste all of your energy by getting caught up in the excitement of the event rather than focusing on the most important task at hand–the race itself.

“It’s race week. There’s a lot of energy to be spent, and a lot of focus and a lot of giving away to your competiton if you let it happen,” Culpepper says. “And those are all psychological things, more than even physiological, but that mental mindset and that kind of mental focus determines your physiology a lot of times.”

3. Let the race unfold, don’t force it to unfold.

When Culpepper won the 2004 Trials in Birmingham, Ala., he didn’t take the lead for the first time until mile 21. Brian Sell, running in his first Marathon Trials, made a bold move early on to separate himself from the field before being gobbled up by Culpepper, Meb Keflezighi and Dan Browne, who went on to finish 1-2-3 to earn the right to represent the U.S. at the Olympic Games in Athens.

“You have to run a really patient race,” Culpepper advises. “And I don’t mean patient by not going out hard or not running your pace, but just patient in your thoughts as you’re going through the race. It’s easy to get excited. I remember being in a pack with 15 guys early in the race and you could tell people were antsy even though we were only 6 or 7 miles into the race. They weren’t relaxed or being patient. And I don’t know that I was either, but I kept telling myself to be. If you’re not, you just pretend, and if you pretend long enough you start to act that way or start to believe it. I just tried to stay as calm and relaxed as I possibly could and just let the race unfold. Let it unfold, don’t force it to unfold.”

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