March 15, 2020. Atlanta. The pre-race Masters excitement was all about the huge numbers of Women who qualified for the Olympic Marathon trials, and rightly so. It was a record number; 34 Masters women qualified and declared for the race. On race day, February 29, thirty Masters women toed the starting line and 4 men.
The numbers were closer to even among the runners who experts touted for Team USA 2020. On the Women’s side, Roberta ‘Bobbi’ Groner was the only Masters runner who was given a chance. There is something about being the top American finisher at the most recent World Championship that provides a certain cachet. Kate Landau was not considered a threat. But many would have given her some chance of making the team; she was the third American woman across the finish line at the 2018 Chicago Marathon and 6th American woman overall at the 2019 TCS NYC Marathon. I was surprised to learn when I contacted Landau for comments before the Trials, that she was not even tapering for the race. All in for Boston, the Trials was her ‘B’ race.
|Kate Landau at the 2020 Olympic trials right behind Roberta Groner in the lead pack
Not tapering apparently agreed with Landau. She got in a heck of a workout, finishing as the top Masters athlete in 14th place overall in 2:34:07. It makes one wonder how high Landau might have finished had she tapered to focus on the Trials. Her view, and that of her coach, was that top 10, but not top 5, was the ceiling for her. And she had run in the 1996 Olympic Trials; that history makes a difference. When she realized her alternative was to accept a spot on the John Hancock Elite team for the Boston Marathon, it was an easy choice. Nothing in the result challenges that judgement; Landau would have had to run 5 minutes faster for top 5, that’s over ten seconds faster pace per mile. Landau noted that she wanted to run in the lead pack, but that made for a very chaotic first 4 miles. With such a large lead pack, attention and energy had to be devoted to just protecting your space. The pace for the first part of the race felt slow to Landau but was faster than planned. Between miles 8 and 11 she realized the pace was too fast, but decided to stay with the lead pack. Landau knew the chase pack was about 11 seconds back and did not want to take a chance, in the windy conditions, of being isolated if she fell back. She was aiming for 1:17 at the half but hit it in 1:15:01; no negative split this race! Shortly after the halfway mark, a group of six started to see the lead pack pulling away. Landau was happy to stay with this new chase pack that was forming. In 16th at that point, Landau focused on keeping a pace going and finishing. Landau says she hardly noticed the hills over the last ten miles as she was dealing with major GI distress. “I lost 51 seconds to a porta-potty stop between miles 18 and 19; was I ever glad to see the finish line.” Landau finished 14th overall, taking the unofficial Masters win.
On the Men’s side, two illustrious veterans, Abdi Abdirahman, and Bernard ‘Kip’ Lagat, received national media attention ahead of the race. Lagat has had incredible success on the track with two gold and six other medals at World Championships and a Silver and a Bronze Olympic medal; up to this year he had already been on 5 Olympic teams. Abdirahman has competed for the USA in 4 Olympic Games prior to this year; he was also a member of the US team that took Bronze at the 2001 World Cross Country Championships. Abdirahman is more accomplished than Lagat at the Marathon. Lagat had the speed to contest the 1500 meters; he did not run his first marathon until New York City in 2018 when he was 43. That was a good first effort but, at 2:17:20 not close to qualifying for the Trials. The following July he headed down under, qualifying with a 7th place finish at the Gold Coast Marathon in Brisbane, Australia. Lagat ran 2:12:10, breaking Meb Keflezighi’s Masters record. No one thought he would lower his marathon best by another 5 minutes at the Trials, but it was intriguing to think whether he could improve enough to contend for the podium. Abdirahman had qualified for his first Olympic Marathon in 2012 at 35. Abdirahman had to withdraw without finishing at those London Olympics. Since then he has been a factor in major Marathons, finishing 3rd overall in 2:11:23 as 1st American in the 2016 TCS NYC Marathon, 6th overall and 3rd American in the 2017 Boston Marathon in 2:12:45, 7th in 2017 NYC in 2:12:48, and 2nd American in 2019 NYC Marathon in 2:11:34. Abdirahman’s first marathon as a masters athlete was Boston 2018, the one with punishing weather conditions that Des Linden won, but so many abandoned. It was not a triumph for Abdi that day, but he toughed it out and finished—perhaps that memory helped on a windy day in Atlanta?!
Abdirahman and Lagat ran in the main pack of contenders for the first half of the race. Both withstood the first insertion of pace between miles 9 and 11, dropping the lead pack from 5 minutes per mile to about 4:50.
|Bernard 'Kip' Lagat strides along the streets of Atlanta on his way to a new Men's 45-49 American Marathon Record at the 2020 US Olympic Marathon Trials
After that, the paths diverged. When the pace accelerated a second time between miles 13 and 16, Lagat started to struggle, falling 8 seconds back in the next 0.8 miles, and then another 20 seconds in the next mile and a half. His dream of qualifying for a 6th Olympic team as a Marathoner was over. Abdirahman, on the other hand, stayed in the mix at the front.
|Abdi Abdirahman battled Atlanta resident, Matt McDonald, for third place after Mile 20 at the 2020 US Olympic Marathon Trials
After Mile 21, Galen Rupp left all others behind, but Abdirahman battled with Augustus Maiyo and Leonard Korir for the next 3 miles before they were joined by Jake Riley. The race for the final 2 places on the team was on! Maiyo fell back out of contention with a mile and a half to go. But there were still 3 runners in position for 2 spots. Between mile 25 and mile 26, Abdirahman and Riley generated a small gap over Korir. In the end it was enough; Korir cut down their advantage but Riley and Abdirahman took the last two spots. Riley had a little more speed in his legs for the final 50 meters, claiming 2nd, with Abdirahman third. At the age of 43, Abdihrahman became the oldest athlete to qualify for the Olympics in a running event. He kept flashing the number ‘5’ with his fingers to signify it would be his fifth Olympics for Team USA! He summed up his resolve: “I'm 43 years young. I missed Rio, that was heartbreaking. I made a commitment to myself to make the 2020 team, and I did it.” He also broke the American Masters record seized by Lagat in Australia last year. Abdirahman added: "Five Olympics is amazing, but I don't do it for the fame. I just do it for the love of sports. If it was someone else, what I've been through, they would have quit the sport a long time ago. But I love running and that's why I do it."
|2020 US Olympic Marathon Trials podium- L to R Jake Riley, Galen Rupp, Abdi Abdirahman [Photo Credit-John Amis AP]
Four minutes after Abdirahman finished, Lagat came across the line in 18th position. It was a terrific performance for a 45-year old, and a new Masters 45-49 American Record. But Lagat is not ready yet to be judged by Masters standards. In a post-race interview, Lagat noted that he was so happy to be competing in the Trials and to hear from so many younger runners that he is their inspiration! Lagat added that the Marathon has been, except for the training, as enjoyable, if not more so, as any other distance he has run. It is very satisfying to have top performances from the 1500 Meters to the Marathon. Lagat is considering a try for a faster time this spring at one of the flat, fast European marathons. He has the base already; he just needs to recover from this one and then fine-tune. Let us hope that the Corona virus contingencies do not totally disrupt his plans.
As noted above, Landau was the top Masters finisher among the women. She was followed 4 minutes later by Gina Rouse, a happy surprise. Rouse’s best marathon time through September of 2019 was a 2:42:38 and she had not broken 2:50 in two Marathons after that. But it all came together in Chicago when she qualified, at age 39, in 23rd place with a 2:38:44. Last Saturday was even better as she knocked 3 more seconds off her time, for a 2:38:41, to slot in at 31st place overall out of 390 finishers.
| Gina Rouse on her way to a top 10% finish Overall and 2nd Masters Athlete at the 2020 US Olympic Marathon Trials in Atlanta
The next Masters finisher was no surprise; Heather Lieberg has been a top open runner for years, and just eased into the Masters LDR division of 40+ this year. Sixteenth at the 2016 Olympic Trials Marathoner, Lieberg’s qualifying time of 2:34:07 came on the challenging Medtronics Twin Cities Marathon course. So hills were a part of her qualifying race and the Trials themselves. Lieberg was more conservative than Landau, staying at the back of the lead pack for the first two miles and then letting them go. She still hit the Half Marathon at 1:17:35 and was the third Masters runner across the finish line in 2:39:47.
|Heather Lieberg striding through Atlanta on the way to a top 15% finish overall and 3rd Masters at the 2020 US Olympic Marathon Trials in Atlanta
Sharon Thompson, with a 2:40:24 for 48th Overall and Laurie Knowles, with a 2:41:58 for 60th Overall, both running in their 4th Olympic Trials event, rounded out the top five Masters. Knowles had the added joy of running before relatives and friends in her hometown!
Two other men ran the Trials. Eric Loeffler, 2nd place finisher in each of the last two Club Cross Country Masters Championship was running in his 3rd straight Olympic trials Marathon but had to withdraw. Alex Taylor was a first-time qualifier who finished 105th in 2:25:19.
Besides the top 5 listed above, 24 Masters athletes were among the 390 who completed the Women’s Division of the Olympic Marathon Trials race. They are: 96 Dot McMahan 2:43:39; 126 Jenelle Deatherage 2:45:15; 132 Kelly Griffin 2:45:33; 136 Meriah Earle 2:45:46; 147 Ann Alyanak 2:46:32; 152 Allison Krausen 2:46:39; 157 Amy Robillard 2:46:52; 169 Crystal Harriss 2:47:36; 173 Dawn Grunnagle 2:47:58; 191 Melissa Hardesty 2:48:31; 206 Janet Cherobon-Bawcom 2:49:13; 215 Hilary Corno 2:49:47; 248 Ruth Brennan Morey 2:51:14; 249 Katherine Newberry 2:51:15; 281 Kasie Enman 2:52:45; 288 Raquel Rios-Reed 2:53:16; 291 Karen Dunn 2:53:32; 327 Angela Moll 2:56:58; 340 Kate DeProsperis 2:58:04; 344 Marilee Blackham 2:58:46; 354 Kristen Lawrence 3:00:58; 369 Bryanne Lauck 3:03:28; 380 Laura Kaulen 3:11:01; 381 Perry Shoemaker 3:11:08.
Personal Race Reports
In my pre-race post, I included extensive replies from three of the participants in the Women's part of the Trials. After the race they offered the following post-race insights.
|Laurie Knowles setting the pace for a group of athletes at the 2020 US Olympic Marathon Trials in Atlanta Photo Credit--Tim Meigs/@timmeigs
I was pleased with my finish. The time was not what I wanted but the wind was brutal. When you paired that with the hills, it made it more of a strategic race for me than a fast one. I ran with teammates for the first couple miles but then we drifted apart. Just knowing they were on the course was amazing though. I had my Atlanta Track Club (ATC) gear on, which helped me get a lot of cheers from the hometown crowds. The spectators were unbelievable; it was like Boston. So amazing! Especially when it’s your hometown.
I’ll take a couple weeks off then reassess what’s next. Probably a fall marathon but I’m not sure yet. Saturday night I went out with family and friends to dinner and then just hung out with my husband and kids. I was too tired to do much more!
|Meriah Earle Center navigates the Marathon course in Atlanta at the 2020 US Olympic Marathon Trials in Atlanta
"This past weekend was amazing! The Atlanta Track Club put on quite a show and I will never forget how cool it was to be at, what I hope, is just my first Olympic Trials. To be honest, I’m a bit disappointed with my race. I think I was ranked 5th among masters runners going in and had the 38th seed overall, so I was certainly hoping to place higher. I knew the time for this course wouldn’t be pretty, so I wasn’t concerned about that; I had just hoped to be a bit more competitive. I knew pretty early that my legs just weren’t there. By the halfway point I had already switched over to the “lets just enjoy this" mind set and try to finish. I was actually surprised when I came in, that the time was still under three hours. I felt like I was almost jogging the last 15 miles or so.
The biggest issue with the weather was the wind of course.. Ha, ha! I think we were all getting tossed around out there! Construction cones blown across the course almost took me out! There were some headwinds where I’m pretty sure I was staying in one spot as I leaned in and tried to move forward. Next to Boston 2018 these were the worst conditions I’ve ever raced in! I think I prepared pretty well for the hills. I don’t think I could have prepared for the wind other than maybe doing some long runs on the soft sand??? Who knows? I handled the cold better than I expected. I was a little chilly in the shade and breathed a sigh of relief when the course moved into the sun, but had no major issues. Kept my gloves, sleeves and ear warmers on the whole time
Strategically I wish I had positioned myself differently at the start. I lined up in the middle of the street and when we started out so slowly the first mile I was boxed in as women were falling right in front of me and getting trampled. I panicked and made my goal of the first mile to just get out of the mess and move to the outside. When I was finally able to get out, I found myself running with the lead pack and probably ran the first 5-10 k faster than I should have. That being said, I had no idea what our pace was ... My GPS said I was running 4:05 pace at one point which I knew was wrong. I tried to go by the course clocks and at the first mile we were around 6:12 which was well within my range. I guess we picked it up after that because the fatigue set in quickly. [2nd 2 miles were run at 5:40 pace-PC] Still, I get to say I ran with Des Linden for a few miles in a marathon. 😊
Recovery is going well. Quads were sore for a few days after, but my resting heart rate is already below what it was the week of the race. I expect to resume easy running on Saturday and I’m getting a massage tonight to flush out the legs a little bit. I rolled my ankle around mile 8 in a pot hole. That has been stiff this week, so I’ll have it looked at.
I’m running a half in April and possibly the Gary Bjorklund Half-Marathon at Grandma's in June. As for my next 26.2, NY 2020?? Although the idea of another hilly and cold marathon right now does not sound like the best idea, ha ha!"
|Melissa Hardesty competing for a spot as an Olympic Marathoner at the 2020 US Olympic Marathon Trials in Atlanta
"The course was tough, and the wind was insane! I felt myself blowing around, and I did not have the opportunity to tuck into a pack as much as I would have wanted. I was happy to find out I finished in the top half of the field. That's about where I suspected I would end up in terms of marathon ability and fitness. I ran conservatively because of the course and conditions; that paid off in terms of finishing place. I think I moved up a hundred places between the half and the finish. However, I had too much gas in the tank coming into the final stretch. Obviously there are no do-overs, but if I could go back, I would have pushed harder in the last two miles.
I will probably take a week off from running but incorporate some long walks to get the blood flowing and speed recovery. Roll Recovery gave trials qualifiers their new deep tissue roller. I like foam rolling and plan to spend some time on that when my muscle soreness goes away. Next week, I may run every other day, then build mileage from there.
I'm registered to run the Seneca7 relay, a 77.7 mile 7-person relay around Seneca Lake on April 26th. Aside from that, I don't know. I may register for the 10k at the World Masters Athletics (WMA) Outdoor Championships in Toronto."
Three cheers for all who qualified; three more for those who made it to the starting line, and an extra three for those who finished! It was a strong statement about the very high quality of Masters LDR in the US. Hats off to Atlanta and the Atlanta Track Club. The athletes invariably praised the operations and the tremendous support they received from the people of Atlanta who lined the course and cheered them on!
Sources: B. Lagat interview-- https://www.usatf.tv/gprofile.php?mgroup_id=45365&mgroup_event_id=70&year=2020&do=videos&video_id=297894 [runnerspace.com subscription required];
[Roberta Groner-Twitter account]
Abdi Abdirahman interview: “Two Arizona Runners Make US Olympic marathon team” by Jeff Metcalfe, Arizona Republic-online: https://www.azcentral.com/story/sports/olympics/2020/02/29/two-arizona-runners-make-u-s-olympic-marathon-team/4915166002/