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The road to the Paris Olympics marathon goes through Orlando, Florida.
At least it does for American marathoners.
After some delay, USA Track & Field, the governing body for American running, finally announced last week that it selected Orlando over Chattanooga, Tennessee, as the site of the 2024 U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon on February 3, 2024.
American distance runners have been waiting to find out the location of the event ever since the qualifying standards were released a year ago. The top three finishers in the men’s and women’s races in Orlando will qualify to represent the U.S. in the marathon at the 2024 Olympics in Paris.
While U.S. men have had only modest international success in the marathon in recent years, women’s elite-level marathoning in the U.S. has never been better. Since the last U.S. Olympic Trials in 2020, Molly Seidel earned a bronze medal in the Tokyo Olympics, Emma Bates, Sara Hall and Emily Sisson have earned podium finishes at World Marathon Majors races and the American record in the marathon has been lowered twice by Keira D’Amato and Sisson.
“I’m thrilled about it and look forward to racing in it,” said Bates, who finished 7th in the 2020 U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon. “It’s all about selecting the three runners who will make the Olympic team. It’s such a cool time to be chasing these big goals because everyone else around you is chasing them and it makes you want to rise to that level.”
Here are five key things to know about the 2024 U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon.
1. What is the U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon?
Every four years, the U.S. selects its women’s and men’s Olympic marathoners based on the top three finishers at the U.S. Olympic Trials. Only those who are U.S. citizens and have earned qualifying times are able to participate. Runners must meet or surpass the qualifying standards on a certified marathon course (2:18:00 for men and 2:37:00 for women) or half marathon (1:03:00 for men, 1:12:00 for women). The men’s and women’s half-marathon qualifying times and men’s marathon qualifying times are 1 minute faster than they were in 2020, but the women’s marathon qualifying time is 8 minutes faster, a change made to pare down the size of the women’s field. In 2020, the men’s race had 260 qualifiers and the women’s race had 511, but for 2024 the races will be capped at 250 runners apiece.
The U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon was first held for men in 1968 in Alamosa, Colorado, while the women’s began in 1984 in Olympia, Washington. The men’s and women’s races have often been held in separate cities, most recently when the 2008 trials were split between New York City (men’s in November 2007) and Boston (women’s in April 2008) the day before the traditional marathons in those cities. At the 2020 U.S. Olympic Trials in Atlanta, the men’s and women’s races were held concurrently on the same course with offset starting times to optimize TV coverage.
2. Qualifying for the U.S. Olympic Trials
Although the date and location of the 2024 U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon were just announced, the window to qualify in a marathon opened on January 1, 2002 and will extend until 60 days before the race or December 5, 2023. The period to qualify via a half marathon opens on January 1, 2023 and closes on the same date. Dozens of men and women have already earned qualifying times in the marathon, but many more are likely to join the list at the December 4 California International Marathon and the January 15 Houston Marathon and Half Marathon. (USATF also did away with the “A” and “B” qualifying standards for 2024, which was also mostly tied to paring down the fields and simplifying the qualifying process.)
3. Racing in Orlando
The U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon will be organized by the joint efforts of the Greater Orlando Sports Commission, the City of Orlando, Orange County and the Track Shack running store, which has organized races in Orlando since 1977. Orlando has big shoes to fill after the superlative effort the City of Atlanta and Atlanta Track Club did as the host organizations of the 2020 U.S. Olympic Trials, which was the biggest, fastest and arguably one of the best in history.
Will the Orlando marathon course send runners through a portion of Walt Disney World and any of the adjacent Disney theme parks? While it might seem natural, given that Track Shack owners Jon and Besty Hughes, who helped spearhead Orlando’s bid for the event and have organized numerous races on Disney properties for many years, including the Walt Disney World Marathon, the answer is no, says Jon Hughes, who is the race director for the Orlando Olympic Trials.
“Everyone is asking that, but no, it won’t,” he says. “The course is going to be centered in the great downtown area we have in Orlando and start and finish near Lake Eola. The nickname of Orlando is ‘The City Beautiful’ and we really want to be able to highlight that to the spectators watching and the audience on TV. Our goal is to make it the best Olympic Trials event ever for the runners, for the local spectators and for the TV audience.”
The race course hasn’t been finalized yet, but Hughes said it will follow the pattern of the most recent Olympic Trials in which both the men’s and women’s races will be held on a spectator-friendly multi-loop course. The 2012, 2016 and 2020 events, held in Houston, Los Angeles and Atlanta, respectively, drew big crowds of cheering fans, although those metropolitan areas are much larger than Orlando. “I think people will be surprised to see what kind of support our running community will bring,” he says.
The Orlando course will be a flat and fast course, Hughes said, and definitely flatter than the 2024 Olympic course. The Olympic marathon course in Paris will consist of a large, single loop that passes many of the French capital city’s most famous monuments, starting at the Hotel de Ville, before passing by Versailles and ending at Les Invalides. The first and last section of the Paris course will be flat, but it will include several big hills with a maximum grade of 13.5 percent between the 9- and 18-mile marks.
Runners will likely have to deal with relatively warm, humid conditions in Orlando as average morning conditions typically range from lows in the 50s to highs in the upper 70s during the first weekend in February with humidity between 60 and 80 percent.
4. The Frontrunners
So who would make the U.S. Olympic team if it was held in 2023? Based on time and recent results, the frontrunners for the women’s race would have to be Emily Sisson, 31, who set a new American record of 2:18:29 while finishing 2nd place at the Chicago Marathon on October 9, and Keira D’Amato, 38, who set the previous U.S. record (2:19:12) in Houston last January and also finished 10th at the World Athletics Championships (2:23:34) in July, 6th at the Berlin Marathon (2:21:48) in September and 15th at the New York City Marathon (2:31:31) on November 6.
Other top contenders include Aliphine Tuliamuk, 33, who won the 2020 U.S. Olympic Trials (2:27:23) and just placed 7th at the New York City Marathon in a personal best 2:26:18; Sara Hall, 39, who finished fifth at the World Athletics Championship (2:22:10) and owns a 2:20:32 personal best from 2020; Emma Bates, 30, who placed 7th at the world championships (in a personal best 2:23:18) and 8th at the New York City Marathon (2:26:53) and Molly Seidel, 28, the bronze medalist at last year’s Tokyo Olympics and 4th-place finisher at the 2021 New York City Marathon in 2:24:42, even though she’s dealt with some injuries and other setbacks in 2022. Also, it’s hard not to consider two-time Olympian, 2018 Boston Marathon champion and 50km world record-holder Desi Linden, 39, in this group too. Her personal best of 2:22:38 was set back in 2011 when she placed 2nd in Boston, but she’s always competitive when she toes the line, including her efforts in Boston (13th, 2:28:47) and New York (16th, 2:32:37) this year and her 4th-place finish at the Atlanta Trials in 2020.
On the men’s side, the top contenders aren’t as clear cut, even though there are more sub-2:11 qualifiers than ever before. Although Galen Rupp is 36 and has struggled in recent years, he should still be at the top of the men’s list based on his marathon experience, personal best time (2:06:07 in 2018), two U.S. Olympic Trials wins (2016, 2020) and the bronze medal he earned at the 2016 Olympics. He’s the fifth-fastest qualifier to date (2:09:36) from his 19th place result at last summer’s world championships, but he stopped to walk several times in the final miles of that race and also dropped out of the New York City Marathon earlier this month.
Conner Mantz, 25, is a bright, young American star and has the best marathon time among U.S. runners in 2022, however his solid 2:08:16 effort in Chicago was also his debut marathon. Scott Fauble, 31, has been the most consistent U.S. marathoner in recent years, having run sub-2:10 twice, including his 7th-place, 2:08:52 personal-best effort in Boston in April and finishing as the top American in New York this month (9th, 2:13:35) Other sub-2:10 runners include Elkanah Kibet, 39, who trains with the U.S. Army’s World Class Athlete Program, also ran well in Boston (9th, 2:09:07) and placed 24th at last summer’s world championships (2:11:20), but he was forced to withdraw from the New York City Marathon because he had to report for active duty overseas. Zach Panning, 27, is the fourth-fastest qualifier to date after his breakthrough 2:09:28 effort in Chicago last month.
5. More Contenders
Because the U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon is the only marathon that regularly draws such a deep field of American runners, hundreds of runners make it their primary focus even if they’re not considered top contenders. History has shown that dark horse competitors can achieve Olympic dreams, too, as evidenced by the efforts of Mark Conover (1988) and Jenny Spangler (1996) emerging from relative obscurity to win the Olympic Trials and earn Olympic berths, while plenty of other runners who weren’t necessarily pre-race favorites have earned Olympic team slots, including Seidel and Sally Kipyego (2020), Jared Ward (2016), Blake Russell (2008) and Brian Sell (2008).
On the women’s side, Lindsay Flanagan and Nell Rojas have both had very good years. Flanagan lowered her PB to 2:24:43 personal best while winning Australia’s Gold Coast Marathon and placed 11th at the New York City Marathon (2:29:28), while Rojas was the top American finisher at the past two Boston Marathons (6th in 2021 in 2:27:12, and 10th in a personal best 2:25:57 in 2022) and was the No. 3 American at the New York City Marathon (2:28:32). After that there are veteran runners Laura Thweatt (2:25:38) and Kellyn Taylor (2:24:29), who were both top-10 finishers as the 2020 U.S. Olympic Trials, as well as numerous rising American marathoners who should be in the mix, including Dakotah Lindwurm (2:25:01), Susanna Sullivan (2:25:14), Sarah Sellers (2:25:43), Sara Vaughn (2:26:23) and Maggie Montoya (2:28:07).
On the men’s side, the next tier of contenders could be huge. Although he’s dealt with some injuries, Jake Riley, the runner-up at the last U.S. Olympic Trials (2:10:02), shouldn’t be counted out, while Lenny Korir (2:07:56 PR in 2019, 4th at the 2020 U.S. Olympic Trials) is also still a viable contender. Other runners who could be in the mix include Matt McDonald (2:09:49, 10th at the 2020 Trials), Nicolas Montanez (2:09:55 at the 2022 Chicago Marathon), Augustus Maiyo (2:10:47, 5th at the 2020 Trials), Martin Hehir (2:08:59 personal best in 2020, 6th at the 2020 Trials), C.J. Albertson (2:10:23, 13th at the 2022 Boston Marathon, 2:11:49, 7th at the 2020 Trials) and Reed Fischer (2:10:54, 16th in Boston, 10th, 2:15:23 in New York). And who’s to say an up-and-coming runner like Frank Lara (2:11:32) , Mick Iacofano (2:11:48) or Clayton Young (2:11:51) can’t make the team? Or for that matter a seasoned veteran like Ward (2:09:25 PR, 6th at the 2016 Olympics) or Tyler McCandless (2:12:28).
6. Elite, Non-Professional Runners
While the U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon is obviously a big deal both for elite-level marathoners focused on making the U.S. Olympic team and competing for medals, it’s also a quadrennial target for hundreds of national-class elite runners who want to test their mettle against the best runners in the country. Those runners typically work full-time jobs without any support from sponsors and don’t often get invited to run in the elite fields at the World Marathon Majors (Boston, Chicago, New York, London, Berlin and Tokyo) so they’re often chasing fast times at the Los Angeles Marathon, Houston Marathon, Grandma’s Marathon and the California International Marathon, among other races.
“The trials are special because they give athletes in our sport something to reach for,” says Amanda Phillips, an Oregon school teacher who qualified for the 2024 trials when she finished fifth place in 2:35:07 at last spring’s Los Angeles Marathon. “If there are 100 athletes there, still only three make it. But those three wouldn’t be where they’re at without the support they had before making it. There’s a huge group of elite athletes that make no money, and are out there purely for the pursuit of reaching their potential, and we need races that showcase their hard work and celebrate their dedication or else the sport won’t have anything for their athletes to reach for. Because we have these trials and have attainable standards, we have a large contingent of aspiring athletes ready to make the next jump in their training and racing. I’m excited to be one of them.”