With the results of a hot 2016 U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon freshly in the books, it’s worth revisiting an issue that has become increasingly charged: Should athletes be able to gain entry into the Trials on the basis of half-marathon times alone? And what are the chief arguments for and against this practice, now in its second Olympic cycle?
The 2008 Trials offered an unprecedented lure for elite runners who were marathon virgins: In addition to the marathon standards—then 2:22:00 for men and 2:47:00 for women—USA Track & Field established 5,000-meter and 10,000-meter track qualifying times for men (13:40.00 and 28:45.00, respectively) and a 10,000-meter option for women (33:00.00). Oddly, there was no half-marathon standard in the mix despite that event ostensibly being far more predictive of marathon success than a 5K or 10K. Perhaps not surprisingly, this feature was noncontributory at the Trials races.
USATF made significant changes before the 2012 Trials in Houston. In addition to scrapping the 5,000-meter option for men, it tightened the marathon times to 2:19:00 for men and 2:46:00 for women, lowered the men’s 10,000-meter standard to 28:30.00, and added half-marathon options of 1:05:00 for men and 1:15:00 for women. After the races, Camille Herron, who set her own personal best of 2:37:14 in Houston and since 2013 has served as the women’s secretary and an athlete representative with USATF’s Long-Distance Running Executive Committee, analyzed the results on her blog at CamilleHerron.com. Herron’s conclusions were unequivocal: marathon experience portended marathon success, and any correlation between half-marathon success and a fruitful marathon debut at the Olympic Trials were tenuous at best. She notes also that the relatively easier marathon standard for women encourages distaff athletes to move up to the full earlier as compared to men.
The L.A. Story
For 2016, USATF did away with the 10,000-meter option but kept the half-marathon standards of 1:05:00 and 1:15:00. The men’s marathon standard was initially 2:18:00 and the women’s 2:43:00, but those standards were loosened to 2:19:00 and 2:45:00, respectively, in December of 2015 when the qualifying standards for the Rio de Janeiro Olympics were relaxed. Although there are about as many half-to-full conversion factors as there are people with calculators, for a well-trained and experienced marathon runner, a 1:05:00 translates to about a 2:16:30 and a 1:15:00 to roughly a 2:37:30.
At the 2016 Trials, 125 men qualified solely by meeting the half-marathon standard, 86 men qualified in the marathon (with a good many of them, of course, also making the 13.1-mile standard, and performing better there; for example, Tim Ritchie’s 1:01:23 from October is clearly superior to the 2:14:50 he ran in 2013), so in all, 211 men were eligible to compete on Saturday.
On the women’s side, it was a much different story. Of 246 total qualifiers, only 48 (19.5 percent) qualified solely by virtue of a half-marathon, leaving 198 who met the marathon standard. This is not surprising, given how much stronger a 1:15:00 half is than a 2:45:00 marathon, at least on paper.
About 80 percent of those eligible in each case (167 men and 199 women) started the 2016 Trials races. Owing to extremely unfavorable weather and course conditions—despite the race being held in a city of about four million people, one stretch of road was inexplicably an inch or two deep in sand—the attrition rates were unprecedented, with 62 men (37 percent of the field) and 50 women (25 percent) failing to finish.
Intuition suggests that the DNF rate in a Trials marathon even under optimal conditions will be higher among those who gain entry via a half. Not only is the collective 26.2-mile fitness of this group bound to be lower, but the incentive for soldiering on when the day has gone to hell is, on average, presumably less than it is for established marathon racers. On a steamy morning, one expects this effect to be amplified.
Whatever the reasons, all in all, the half-marathon qualifiers in both races fared poorly. Galen Rupp was obviously a thunderclap of an exception, logging one of the most remarkable marathon debuts in U.S. history, running with poise and confidence throughout and looking less than fully taxed at the end in winning the race. After Rupp came Patrick Smyth in eighth, Augustus Maiyo in 15th and Ben Payne in 16th but both Smyth and Payne had previously competed in marathons, albeit outside the current qualifying window. Given that only four of the top 23 finishers were competing by virtue of a half-marathon time despite close to half of the total field consisting of such types, a reasonable argument could be made for enforcing marathon experience on the entire field in the future.
On the women’s side, if Janet Cherobon-Bawcom—who got in thanks to her 1:10:46 half last fall but ran 2:29:45 for 5th at the 2012 Trials before encountering injury problems—is excluded from consideration, the first athlete to finish from the 13.1-mile pool was former Davidson University standout Erin Osment in 18th, and the next debutant was University of New Hampshire grad Keely Maguire in 24th. Both are young up-and-comers who ran extremely well, but clearly, neither was a factor in the race unfolding 2 miles ahead of them up front.
In the end, the only marathon newcomer who ultimately had even a whiff of influence on the Olympic team selection was the once-in-a-generation Rupp. Is this a strong argument for doing away with the 13.1-mile option? Not necessarily. But it’s unquestionably clear that even highly accomplished half-marathoners without experience over the full distance stand very little chance of placing in the top 10 or 15 on this stage, much less making the Olympic squad.