February 4, 2024. At the Olympic Marathon Trials in Orlando on Saturday, two Masters runners turned in amazing performances in their quest to join Team USA in Paris.
WOMEN'S RACE Sara Hall, has had a long and decorated career, augmented by recent runner-up finishes at the London Marathon in 2020 with a 2:22:01 and a 5th place finish, and first American, at the 2022 World Championships Marathon in Eugene. Hall, who turned 40 last spring, had never been on an Olympic team. This looked to be her last chance but, perhaps one of the best. She could build confidence from those successes at London and Eugene; her training had gone well. She was prepared, but the field was deep and strong. Veterans like Keira D'Amato, Lindsay Flanagan, Caroline Rotich, Betsy Saina, Emily Sisson, and Aliphine Tuliamuk were known competitors, but relative newcomers could surprise. Molly Seidel qualifying in her debut marathon at the 2020 trials in Atlanta is an example.
Everyone who is a serious fan of the sport now knows the name of Fiona O'Keefe, who startled many in the running community when she surged away from the lead pack during mile 20 and then extended the lead from Mile 20 to Mile 21. Sisson was the only runner in the lead pack who could try to go with her. And then, all of a sudden, instead of Hall vying with 4 other women for the win, it was O'Keefe going for the win, with Sisson in pursuit and Hall battling for the final spot with three other women. O'Keefe got the win in 2:22:10, with Sisson about a half minute back in 2nd.
Rotich and Saina, the pre-race favorite of many, had been in that lead pack the whole race. Dakotah Lindwurm, who was not one of the favorites, but had been there as well, had started to struggle and drifted back. Twelve seconds behind the lead group at Mile 19, Lindwurm was, seemingly, out of the hunt. Her 5:30's had not been matching the 5:27's the lead group had imposed on them by O'Keefe. But once O'Keefe and Sisson left them behind, the trio of Hall, Rotich and Saina found their pace at 5:38 for Mile 20 and slowed to 5:48 for Mile 21. The combination of a warm day and too hot a pace had worn on them. Lindwurm's 5:35 for Mile 20 brought her slightly closer to the trio and then her 5:39 in Mile 21 brought her to the front of that 3-athlete pack, as they slowed to that 5:48 split.
|Sara Hall, between Dakotah Lindwurm left and Fiona O'Keefe right firmly in the hunt for the win on the 2nd loop of the 2024 Olympic Trials course Photo Credit: Michael Scott
Hall fared better than Saina and Rotich. Both had to retire from the race between miles 21 and 22--such disappointment! Saina may have another good chance; she will be 39 for the 2028 Trials. But for Rotich, only one year younger than Hall, this was probably her last chance to make Team USA for the Olympics. Rotich is a two-time winner of the UA NYC Half, winner of the 2015 Boston Marathon and member of Kenya's marathon team for the 2011 World Championships. Rotich switched her residency for international competitions from Kenya to the US last October to be able to represent the country she has lived in since 2006. Hall battled on.
|Sara Hall right and Emily Sisson left on the third loop, trying to stay in touch with O'Keefe at the 2024 Olympic Marathon Trials Photo Credit: Michael Scott
But her legs and lungs, which had been carrying her to sub 5:30 miles from Mile 14 to Mile 19 could no longer do it. Mile 22 was 5:47, as she lost another 7 seconds to Lindwurm. When her pace slowed again and Lindwurm gained another 7 seconds, Hall must have realized the dream was gone. But you finish the race. Hall finished 5th in 2:26:06 as Jessica McClain sped by her in the last 385 yards.
|Sara Hall finishing her 2024 Olympic Marathon Trials Race Posted by S Hall on Facebook
Hall posted after the race on Instagram: "My heart is broken, but my love for this sport is unchanged. Man, I missed doing that and loved every moment of being out there again flying along, flanked by an incredible group of women I love and respect so much. Even when you come up short, there’s no better feeling than going all-in and all-out on something you love.Congratulations to our amazing team @fiona_okeeffe @em_sisson_ @dakotahlindwurm who are going to represent so amazingly in Paris!"
It was not the ending Hall wished for, and the fast time unimportant. But it will be important to many athletes as they enter their 40's. That 2:26:06 smashed Des Linden's mark of 2:27:35 set just a few months ago in Chicago. If neither Steph Bruce, D'Amato, nor Rotich break it next year when they pass 40, it could stand for a long time. The 3-way Masters attempt, or 5-way if Hall and Linden joined in, might be a nice story line for Chicago next year!
MEN'S RACE It was a different story in the men's race. Elkanah Kibet enjoys less fame than Hall. But he has had a distinguished career in international competition for the US. He has run the marathon for Team USA in three World Championships, London in 2017, Doha in 2019 and Eugene in 2022. His best World's finish was 1st American and 16th overall in London. He was 2nd American and 9th overall at the Boston Marathon in 2:09:07. He turned 40 last summer. Not listed as one of the prerace favorites, you can bet that the other prime contenders knew he was there.
|Elkanah Kibet US Army World Class Athlete Program Posted on Facebook by US Army WCAP
The men's race unfolded differently. After the first two miles, Zach Panning, one of the pre-race favorites, asserted control of the race by moving to the front and setting a pace that would, if held to the end, result in a time that would qualify for the Olympic Games.
|Elkanah Kibet left running in the lead pack on the 2nd loop, with Leonard Korir far left, his rival for the final spot, a few meters behind at the 2024 Olympic Trials Photo Credit: Michael Scott
As was announced shortly before the Trials, the US was only guaranteed two spots in the Olympic Marathon in Paris. By running very fast times at Chicago last October, Connor Mantz and Clayton Young opened up two slots. But no other American had run under the 2:08:10 needed to unlock a third spot. If anyone other than Mantz or Young had run under 2:08:10 in the trials that would have unlocked a third spot. Panning, with Mantz and Young running comfortably in 2nd and 3rd, brought the lead pack through the half marathon in 1:04:07.
Kibet, and one of his rivals, Leonard Korir, a youngster at 37, who finished 4th in the 2020 Trials, were in that pack. Panning kept hammering as Miles 15 through 19 went by in 4:51, 4:48, 4:44, 4:51, and 4:53. In Miles 18 and 19, Kibet and Korir allowed a 7 second gap to open up between them and the leading trio. Mile 20 saw Kibet's split rise just above 5:00 for the first time; he suddenly found himself in 5th, 7 seconds behind Korir and 16 behind Panning. Even though Kibet lost another 9 seconds to Korir in the next mile, with a 5:15 split, the veteran did not panic. He found a way to settle into a slightly more productive rhythm. Kibet closed up with Korir by Mile 23.
By Mile 23, the lead trio was tired; all three had splits of 5:06 or 5:07. Mile 24 saw Panning start to struggle. Mantz and Young's splits climbed from 5:07 to 5:10 but Panning's split for Mile 24 was 5:29. All of a sudden, Panning was 3rd, in 'No Man's Land', twenty seconds behind the lead duo of training partners, Mantz and Young. At that point he had a 24 second lead on Kibet. Korir had hit another bad patch and trailed Kibet by 12 seconds. With 3rd place coming back to him, Kibet found a way to lower his split for Mile 25 to 5:07. With just 1.2 miles to go, he was only 3 seconds out of 3rd place and closing fast, with a 14 second lead on Korir, in 5th. After that disastrous 24th mile for Korir, the warrior inside him awakened and saw that if he could find a better rhythm with his stride, he had a chance at the prize that eluded him in 2020. He was not able to lower his pace by as much as Kibet in Mile 25, but almost. Korir's 25th mile split was 5:09 to Kibet's 5:07. Kibet continued to close on Panning, but it was because Panning had nothing left. Kibet's pace rose to over 5:20 per mile as Korir was able to keep his under 5:10. Kibet passed Panning shortly after they passed the 25 Mile mark. But right before they hit the 26 Mile mat, Korir had passed Kibet with a head of steam. Korir claimed third in 2:09:57, five seconds ahead of Kibet. Korir was elated, Kibet downhearted.
|Elkanah Kibet, after finishing the 2024 Olympic Marathon Trials in 4th Place Photo Credit: Michael Scott
But Kibet had battled hard; it was not in the cards for him on this day.
The consolation prize, if you will, is that he lowered Abdi Abdirahman's American Masters Marathon Record by one second. At the 2020 trials, Abdi ran 2:10:03; that had stood as the American 40+ record since then. Once the new record is ratified, it will read, Kibet 2:10:02.
OTHER MASTERS RUNNERS
WOMEN The other headliners were Steph Bruce and Des Linden. Bruce had qualified for the trials and would run them. Bruce gave birth to her third child, a daughter, Sophia, to join sons Riley and Hudson, just 4 months before the trials. At the beginning of 2022, after being diagnosed with a congenital heart condition, Bruce had started a 'Farewell Tour'. After some really strong performances, she called it off and said she would be pointing toward the 2024 Trials. Bruce had finished sixth at the 2020 Marathon trials in Atlanta. And here she was, four years later, probably not the fittest she had ever been for a Marathon. But she was showing up and would enjoy every minute! Bruce ran her first mile in 5:53 and ran all of her splits for the first 12 miles of the race in the 5:51 to 6:01 range.
|Stephanie Bruce keeping it going through the 2nd Loop of the 2024 Olympic Marathon Trials in Orlando, FL Photo Credit: Michael Scott
After that her splits climbed up further into the low 6's and eventually climbed above 7. But she had enough left at the end for a strong finish. She had every reason to be proud of her 2:47:42, finishing just outside the top 100. Her Strava post: "On paper rough, in real life, after giving birth to Sophia over 4 months ago, super proud."
Linden, the winner of the 2018 Boston Marathon, was relishing her role as the underdog and the one runner who knew how to run well in disastrous conditions. If the weather was too hot, would the favorites fade back? Would we see Linden calmly moving to the front? That was the speculation. In the end it was not to be. Linden came in with the Masters Record she set last October in Chicago. She left with a fine 11th place finish, but no Masters record any more. Linden must have been thinking a 5:30 pace would bring her home in a little over 2:26 and that might be good enough to win on a warm day in Orlando. She started out at that pace and was comfortably in the middle of the lead pack. When Hall and the others lowered the pace to 5:17 in the 2nd mile, Linden's response was to run a 5:28 mile. Her third mile was 5:34. By then she was a half-minute behind the leaders. Linden, no doubt, felt that everything was okay. You never knew what might happen to those going out fast on a warm day. She wished them well but knew she had to be ready to move should things open up later in the race. But with O'Keefe applying pressure at the front, Linden fell further and further behind with her 5:30-ish pace that grew closer to 5:40 after Mile 14.
|Des Linden, running with plenty of bounce in her stride-Third Loop of 2024 Olympic Trials Marathon Photo Credit: Michael Scott
By Mile 22, she was 3 minutes behind Hall and 4 minutes behind O'Keefe. Her gamble did not pay off. but it had been her best bet. She did take over a minute out of Hall's lead in the last 4 miles. Linden was right that the fast pace and warm weather would favor a more reasonable pace. But she needed another mile or two of racecourse for it to pay off. In the end, Linden had another fine run, stopping the clock at 2:28:04, in 11th place.
Roberta Groner does not have quite the celebrity status of Bruce and Linden. Although it was close after the Doha World Championships in 2019. She finished as the #1 American in the Marathon and 6th overall that year. The time was slow, due to the inferno like conditions in Doha. They ran the race in the middle of the night and the conditions were still so hot they had a huge number of DNF's. Groner ran her qualifying 2:31:37 at Copenhagen in 2023. Her PR was set at Rotterdam 4 years earlier in 2:29:06! Unlike Linden, Groner had no real likelihood of finishing top 3. But she would run the race, compete, and see what happened. Her plan was to run at 5:45-5:50 pace. That would, if all went well, bring her in with a 2:32 Marathon, very respectable on a warm day in Orlando. Running part of the way with Katie Kellner, Groner appeared to have a fun day as well as a good one.
|Roberta Groner gives a Thumbs Up while racing in the 2024 Olympic Marathon Trials alongside Katie Kellner Photo posted on Facebook by R Groner
She passed the Half Marathon mark in 1:16:01 and slowed only slightly over the last 13.1 miles, finishing 24th in 2:33:33. Marybeth Chelanga, in her debut marathon apparently, had a lead of a minute over Groner with 3 miles to go. Groner caught Chelanga with 200 meters to go and edged ahead. But Chelanga did not give up as they sprinted the final meters to the finish line.
|Roberta Groner Right and Marybeth Chelanga both finish in 24th place at 2:33:33 Photo posted on Facebook by R Groner
They wound up with the same time to the second! Such a fun way for a veteran and a rookie to end the race!
Andrea Pomaranski is the American Masters (40+) Record Holder for the 1 Mile (Road) at 4:47 and the 50 Km at 3:07:49. She is also the 2023 50K US Champion and the Silver Medalist from the 2023 World 50K Championships. Her plan was much like Groner's. Pomaranski carried a faster pace through the halfway point, running the first half marathon in 1:15:12 compared to Groner's 1:16:01.
|Andrea Pomaranski found something too smile about on Loop2 of the 2024 Olympic Marathon Trials in Orlando FL Photo Credit: Michael Scott
But over the second half, Groner was able to keep her splits about 5 to 10 seconds faster than Pomaranski. By Mile 23, Pomaranski was no longer ahead of Groner. But she kept her pace going, finishing 27th of 116 in 2:34:35. That was a Trials Marathon to be proud of!
Meriah Earle, who won the Masters Overall Race at the 2023 USATF Club Cross Country Championships, ran in her first Trials Marathon in 2020. This would be her second. She hoped to improve on her 136th place finish in 2:45:46. Earle knew that an average pace of 6:00 per mile would allow her to finish under 2:40, giving her some slack should she slow over the last few miles. She ticked off sub-6's through Mile 11. Even though she had not kept the sub-6's going through the entire first half, she gained confidence, no doubt, by seeing the halfway split of 1:18:00. Except for her Mile 17 split, which was 6:06, she was running at 6:15 pace from Mile 16 to 21.
|Meriah Earle running comfortably right behind Bruce on the 2nd Loop of the 2024 Olympic Marathon Trials course in Orlando FL Photo Credit: Michael Scott
From Mile 22 to 24, Earle's pace rose to 6:25 per mile, but it never shot up like it did for some who had been less cautious in the early miles. Earle hit her 25th mile split in 6:02 and kept it going for a 6:08 in the last full mile. Finally she was across the finish line, one objective achieved. She finished 61st in 2:39:46!
MEN Apart from Kibet, none of the other Masters athletes in the Men's race had a realistic shot at qualifying. The list, in alphabetical order, included: Riley Cook, Ben Payne, Jesse Davis, Prescott Leach, Sergio Garcia, Malcolm Richards, Alex Taylor.
Ben Payne had the best day. He ran the first mile in 5:18 but followed that with a 5:07. Once he got into his rhythm, he was running at about 5:15/mile pace through the Half Marathon.
|Ben Payne far right striding along at 5:15 pace in the first loop of the 2024 Olympic Trials Marathon Photo Credit: Michael Scott
Payne passed the halfway point at 1:08:55. Payne kept that up the rest of the way, his slowest at 5:19 and his fastest at 5:09 over those miles. He finished strong to post a 2:17:05, finishing 34th of 150. Kudos to Payne! Not many handled the Orlando warm as well as he did.
Malcolm Richards had a good day as well. The first half marathon was smooth. Like Payne and much of the field, Richards ran his first mile slower than his second, 5:13 and 5:06 and then settled into a pace that was just under 5:10. Richards rolled through the half at 1:07:44 and kept that sub-5:10 pace going through mile 17.
|Malcolm Richards Center-white cap rips off another sub-5:10 Mile on Loop 2 of the 2024 Olympic Marathon Trials Photo Credit: Michael Scott
After Mile 17, the next few miles were at 5:18/mile. After Mile 20 things fell apart a little more; the splits rose closer to 5:30, and then 5:45. Richards's 2:18:32 had him in 44th of 150. Richards was mildly dismissive of his effort on his Strava post, titled, "Yeah, on second thought, I don't know about this whole marathon thing." But Richards had a pretty good result on the day. Many folks struggled to finish. That often happens with a marathon on a warm day. Of course, it was not as fast a Trials marathon as his 2:17:13 in Atlanta nor as fast as his 2:15:10 on the fast course in Berlin in 2016. But it was 8 seconds faster than his Trials marathon in LA in 2016, and 43 seconds faster than his Trials debut marathon in 2012.
Prescott Leach ran a pretty even race, although slower than the races of Payne and Richards. His first mile was 5:30 and he dropped to 5:21 for the 2nd. He hit the splits from Mile 3 to Mile 21 between 5:21 and 5:26, crossing the halfway point in 1:10:06. His pace was closer to 5:30 for the last 5 miles but it does not appear that he experienced as much variation as Richards. His 2:21:07 left him in 71st place out of 150--top half!
Riley Cook was unusual in that his second mile was not faster than his first, hitting both at 5:21. But thereafter Cook settled into 5:20/mile pace through the 17-mile mark, crossing the half at 1:09:33. After Mile 17, his pace climbed above 5:30/mile, and then after Mile 20, above 5:45.
|Riley Cook right cranking out the 5:20 miles on Loop 2 of the 2024 Olympic Marathon Trials Photo Credit: Michael Scott
He found his legs could handle a sub-5:30 pace for the final couple of hundred meters, getting him across the finish line in 2:22:53, 90th of 150. Cook noted on Strava, "...not what I hoped for or felt like I trained for, but I gave it everything I had. The third loop was a death march." and "...it was really cool to have family here supporting me. I hope it inspired my kids to chase their dreams."
Jesse Davis started with a 5:26 and dropped it to 5:14 for the 2nd mile. He then kept it around 5:20 pace through Mile 17, crossing the halfway point at 1:09:34.
|Jesse Davis left gives a 'Thums Up' to a fan as he keeps his 5:20 pace going through the 2nd loop of the 2024 Olympic Marathon Trials Photo Credit: Michael Scott
He and Cook must have been running in a group at that point. Davis commented on Cook's post that he was right behind him much of the way. Davis's splits rose to 5:40 pace for miles 18-20 and then to just under 6:00/mile for the final 6 miles. His 2:24:17 left him 108th of 150, another fine effort! His Strava post echoed Cook's, "That was tough. Started cramping with 8 or 9 to go, so went into survival pace. Not my worst race ever and given the heat, I'll take it."
Alex Taylor reported on Strava, after the race, that: "Nauseated and couldn’t take in more fluids and was getting cramps so pulled the plug. Physically fine. Respect to all the finishers today." Taylor was running steady before Mile 18.
|Alex Taylor right laying down a steady 5:40 pace as he runs, by chance, next to Bradley Taylor on Loop 2 of the 2024 Olympic Marathon Trials Photo Credit: Michael Scott
He passed the halfway point in 1:12:23 and continued to carry a 5:40 pace through Mile 18. That was when he made the sound decision to 'pull the plug' and live to race another day.
Sergio Reyes won the 2010 USATF Marathon Championship, hosted by the Twin Cities Marathon in 2:14:02. He also ran in the 2012 Olympic Marathon Trials in Houston, finishing 25th in 2:15:41. Reyes's experience this year was similar to Taylor. His splits fell into the 5:52 to 5:58 range up through Mile 16. He had hit the halfway point in 1:11:55.
|Sergio Reyes running strong on the 2nd Loop at the 2024 Olympic Marathon Trials Photo Credit: Michael Scott
He lowered his pace to 5:47 for Mile 17. I do not know if that was an experiment to see if he could carry a faster pace or simply because he was suddenly running more smoothly, as sometimes happens in a marathon. His pace rose back up to 6:03 for Mile 18. That was his last split.
It had been a warm marathon day in Orlando, not a day for PR's or to get the third qualifying spot for the Olympic Men's Marathon. But it was not the health risk that many worried about, and it may turn out to be as warm or warmer in Paris in the summer. So it was a good selection site for that reason.
Certainly, hats off to all of the runners who qualified and, especially so, to those who were able to compete, in an event that only comes around once every four years. Next Marathon Trials up, 2028!
Sources: Runners World, Wikipedia, World Athletics, www.orlando2024trials.com, www.usatf.org/events/