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Train, Taper, or Tune-Up? Halfway Through Training, Some Olympic Trials Contenders Race

What can a half marathon do for an Olympic hopeful during the thick of training? We asked what these runners got out of their tune-up races.

They’re halfway there. And six weeks through a 12-week 2020 Olympic Trials training block, many athletes who are competing for one of three spots on the 2020 U.S. Olympic marathon team had all kinds of reasons to race half marathons on Sunday in Phoenix and Houston.

The U.S. women who competed at the Houston Half Marathon displayed depth, with seven finishing under 1:10. Sara Hall was the first American in a personal best of 1:08:58, followed by Molly Huddle (1:09:34), Molly Seidel (1:09:35), Katy Jermann (1:09:35), Lindsay Flanagan (1:09:37), Becky Wade (1:09:40), and Aliphine Tuliamuk (1:09:49).

At the Rock ‘n’ Roll Half Marathon in Phoenix, Kellyn Taylor and Stephanie Bruce paced behind Bruce’s husband and Northern Arizona Elite assistant coach, Ben Bruce, to tie for first (the race officially named Taylor the winner, but the teammates crossed the line at the same time). Their time was 1:09:14, however the course was mis-marked between miles nine and 10, making the route short by 286.5 meters, race officials said in an email to Women’s Running.

Nonetheless, the hard effort in a race setting likely would have led Taylor and Bruce to personal records for a full 13.1 miles.

Sunday was also a milestone for the top American distance runners in the country—the final day to qualify for the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials, which will be held February 29 in Atlanta (the top three finishers make Team USA, heading to the Tokyo Summer Games). To earn a spot on that trials starting line, women needed to clock a 2:37 marathon or faster to obtain an “A” standard or 2:45 marathon/1:13 half marathon for the “B” standard. Although the final tally of qualifiers isn’t available yet, it’s safe to say 500 or more women have made the cut. By comparison, 244 women qualified for the 2016 Olympic Trials.

With six weeks of dedicated training under their feet, we asked what a few Olympic Trials contenders and one coach what they got out of racing on Sunday, instead of opting to continue the grind at home.

Sneaking in an easier week. Ben Rosario, head coach Northern Arizona Elite, was pleased with how his athletes—Tuliamuk in Houston, and Taylor and Bruce in Phoenix—performed on Sunday. But he’s not always a fan of scheduling races during marathon preparation.

“As coaches we lean toward not racing, on average, because when you’re locking in, training at home where everything is controlled, you don’t want to disrupt it,” he said.

But looking at the training block in totality, Rosario discovered that he likes to throw in a “down” week, with less intensity, about halfway through. Athletes don’t like easier weeks when they’re working toward such monumental goals. It’s easier for them to buy into the concept if they’re going to race and require a little recovery afterward.

“It’s one way they can kind of justify an easy week in their heads,” Rosario said.

On Sunday, Taylor, Bruce, and Tuliamuk showed Rosario that they’re responding well to the buildup so far and ready for the next phase of his plan.

“It’s easy to get excited because we’re in such good fitness, but we just have to take one workout at a time,” he said. “We’ll recover from the first block and although our final block isn’t easier, it is less volume. The weekend workouts are big, but they’ll feel better because the mid-week training is a little less taxing.”

Working out the nerves. Molly Huddle, who owns the American record for the half marathon (1:07:25), has raced in four marathons so far. In one training segment she didn’t race at all. In the others, her coach, Ray Treacy, allowed for a little competition, albeit he prefers a 10-miler or 10K.

Shorter races are hard to find this time of year, so Huddle jumped into the Houston race. Having encountered an ankle injury early in the Olympic Trials training segment (it’s fully healed now, she said), Treacy asked that she not run the 13.1 miles too aggressively, so that she can dive right back into training this week. She doesn’t want to lose any more ground.

“There’s a benefit to going through the race-day preparations and nerves and the mental side of it, even if you can’t taper and your legs don’t feel as good as they normally do on race day or you’re trying to have a controlled effort,” Huddle said. “It’s unusual, because I don’t really love having any sense of self-preservation when I’m racing. It’s odd.”

But her mission was accomplished. Huddle left Texas with optimism, she said, because the threshold runs she was doing in practice weren’t as fast as what she ran in the race.

“I didn’t feel like I went under the threshold line until maybe the last 400 meters or something,” she said. “It was a good sign that it felt good and I came out of it in one piece and I don’t need too much time to recover.”

A getaway from the altitude grind. It’s well established that Sara Hall loves to race and she’s racked up some stellar results over the past year, most notably when she clocked a person best of 2:22:16 in September at the Berlin Marathon, then one week later won the U.S.A. Track & Field 10-mile road championships in Minneapolis.

Hall, a mother of four daughters, has a lot of reasons for wanting to race halfway through training for the Olympic Trials.

“It’s not always to prove my fitness to myself, but to go through the motions of racing—practicing what I’m going to eat and trying out any new things. It’s almost a dress rehearsal, but that’s just part of it,” she said. “I like to travel and I like to get a break from being a mom—being in a hotel and having some down time.”

To come away from Houston with a personal best time was gratifying for Hall—and had her dreaming maybe a bit too big afterward. Her husband and coach, Ryan Hall (a two-time Olympic marathoner himself), tried to temper the training aspirations for the next six weeks.

“I’m already plotting all my epic, big workouts and he’s like, ‘you just need to stay healthy.’ That’s something we’re trying to be intentional about because I’ve had a hard time staying healthy in the past couple years,” she said. “We’ll keep growing the aerobic side of things. [The race] was a good benchmark that we don’t need to hit turnover quite as much, we can keep with the aerobic side.”

Much of Hall’s training segment has focused on preparing for an extremely hilly course in Atlanta, running on undulating routes at high altitude in Flagstaff, Arizona, which can make it difficult to really assess fitness levels.

“You’re not really getting the same comparison to other buildups or confidence builders of where you’re at,” Hall said. “[The half marathon] helped me—I felt like I was in the best strength-shape of my life, but to be able to run that fast is a good sign.”