Do you remember the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials? It was “before times.” Right before times.
February 29, 2020. The world was on the verge of a pandemic. The then-president interrupted the race’s television broadcast to say everything would be fine. Then Aliphine Tuliamuk, Molly Seidel, and Sally Kipyego took first, second, and third, to become the first runners named to the 2020 U.S. Olympic team.
Everything would not be fine. Less than a month after that, the world shut down. By March 24, the Tokyo Olympics were officially postponed. And the U.S. women’s marathon team could only do what the rest of us were doing: wait and see.
But Tuliamuk, 32, wasn’t going to put life on hold. She and her fiancé, Tim Gannon, wanted children—something they had planned to do after the Olympics and maybe a fall 2020 marathon. Tuliamuk looked at the calendar, did some calculations, and they gave it a try. She gave birth to daughter, Zoe, on January 13, 2021, giving herself six months to recover, train, and line up at 5 p.m. Eastern on Friday in Sapporo, Japan, to compete in that long-awaited Olympic marathon.
Meanwhile, Seidel, 27, had experience to gain and decided to take every opportunity she could in the “bonus” year. The Olympic Trials race was her first 26.2-mile competition. While it was successful, she knew she didn’t know the distance well. So she practiced. Seidel went through another training cycle to prepare for the elite-only 2020 London Marathon in October, learning how to better fuel and hydrate, and what it takes to compete against a stacked international field. She finished sixth in 2:25.13, her best so far.
After the Trials, Kipyego, 35, went to visit her family in Kenya and stayed for much of the pandemic. The familiar training ground also provides the 2012 Olympic silver medalist in the 10,000 meters, built-in childcare support for her daughters, Jerop and Emma. She raced twice in 2021, describing her 51:06 at the 15K Gate River Run in March as “rough,” but that the “rust is definitely busted and the pipes are wide open.” Back in the U.S., Kipyego completed much of her Olympics buildup in Flagstaff, Arizona, and most recently raced the Sound Running Track Meet 10,000 meters in May, in 31:30.
What does Team USA face at the Olympic marathon? Formidable international competition, heat and humidity, and a mostly spectator-less three-loop course.
The marathon was moved to Sapporo, about 500 miles north of Tokyo on the island of Hokkaido, in an attempt to evade the heat, however the temperatures have been about the same as Tokyo for the duration of the Games. The race is scheduled for 6 a.m. on Saturday in Japan and the forecast calls for 77 degrees Fahrenheit and 81 percent humidity at the start, rising to 84 degrees by 8 a.m. local time.
The women who best handle the conditions will fare well, despite what their personal bests look like on paper. Nonetheless, Brigid Kosgei, 27, of Kenya is the hands-down favorite as the world-record holder (2:14:04, at the 2019 Chicago Marathon). At the 2020 London Marathon she won by more than three minutes in 2:18.58. Her current fitness is somewhat of a mystery, but Kosgei did finish the Istanbul Half Marathon in April in 1:06:01.
Last year, first-time Olympian Peres Jepchirchir, also from Kenya, set the half marathon world record for a women’s-only race in Valencia, 1:05.16. Kenyan Ruth Chepngetich (2:17:08) is the reigning marathon world champion and placed third in London last year. At the Istanbul Half Marathon she set the world record for a mixed-gender race in 1:04.02.
The Ethiopian team also brings some heavy hitters to the field. Roza Dereje ran the 2019 Valencia Marathon in 2:18.30, where teammate Zeineba Yimer finished in 2:19.28. Birhane Dibaba set her personal best at the 2020 Tokyo Marathon, 2:18.35.
Speaking of the 2020 Tokyo Marathon, note that Lonah Salpeter of Israel won it in an impressive time of 2:17.45. And in Valencia, Helalia Johannes, turning 41 next week, of Namibia, broke the 2:20 barrier in 2:19.52.
For Team USA, Tuliamuk, the U.S. champion, has a personal best of 2:26.50 from the 2019 Rotterdam Marathon. In her postpartum return to training, she entered the Peachtree 10K road on July 4, finishing in 32:43. In her last big session of the buildup, she ran 15 miles averaging 5:41 at 7,000 feet of altitude in Flagstaff and “felt good.”
“Coming back from pregnancy and childbirth is incredibly hard, it’s unlike anything I have ever done in the past, yet also very fulfilling to go home to my little one after any run whether it kicks my butt or not,” Tuliamuk wrote. “Today’s workout was a win [on] so many levels. I don’t know what it means for my race, but I am very optimistic.”
Seidel posted from the Olympic Village in Tokyo, before traveling to Sapporo, that she’s eager to line up and she’s remained committed through the postponement to “hit this thing hard.”
“This past year had been kind of a blessing, just being able to learn so much and get in quality, consistent training,” Seidel said during an interview with Women’s Running earlier this summer. “I couldn’t tell you the last time that I had this amount of steady training under my belt.”
The Americans have their work cut out for them, but the Olympic race often ends up a strategic affair where tactics and heat management can level the field. Whatever the outcome, Team USA has already made history with two mothers who are also the two first Black American women to race the distance at the Games.
“I want to win Olympic medals and perform at the highest level. I also want to raise and be there for my children,” Kipyego wrote on Instagram before taking off for Japan. “I don’t want a version of self. Thank you for not asking me to choose. My greatest desire is to live my fullest potential.”
How to watch:
Time: 5 p.m. Eastern on Friday, August 6