The Olympic Trials Marathon: Pressure, Glory, Heartbreak, and Relief
On November 3 New York will serve as host the U.S. men's Olympic Trials. Don Allison gives a three-part preview of the trials starting with a look back at past races.
Posted Saturday, 29 September, 2007
There are hundreds of marathons held in the U.S., but none quite like the Olympic Trials. First, the event is held only once every four years, since its express purpose is to determine the three athletes that will represent the country in the next Olympic Games. Second, not just anyone can compete. Only truly elite, national-class marathoners, usually fewer than a couple of hundred, are invited to run, based upon stringent time qualifying standards. (This year that standard is 2:22, or five-km and ten-km qualifiers of 13:40 and 28:45, respectively.) Finally, for those with serious Olympic ambitions, winning is not necessarily accomplished by finishing first, but rather by placing among the top three finishers, since any of those spots will yield an Olympic berth. (Although there is a total prize money purse of $250,000, tiered among the top 10 finishers.) As if all that were not enough, the trials for the 2008 Olympic Games will take place in the biggest city in the country, New York, the host of the biggest marathon in the country, which will take place the day after the trials, set for November 3 of this year. Over a series of three articles, we will take a look at the history behind the trials marathon, the race route and details, and the top contenders to make the Olympic Team.
Throughout the years since the modern Olympic Games started in 1896, there has been much discussion and analysis regarding the best and most fair way to select the three men and three women that will go on to represent the U.S. in the Olympic Games Marathon. On the face of it, the process should be simple: just select the three fastest marathoners, right? Well yes, that is the goal, but what exactly does that man? The three fastest on any one day, or the three fastest during the past six months or year? Head-to-head competition would seem to be the most democratic way to go, but what happens if a marathoner who has dominated the sport during the past few years ends up sick or injured on the appointed day of competition? Should an exception be made for that runner? Just going by statistical results over a period of a year or two years may seem an objective method of determining the worthy Olympians, but becomes complicated by different runners on different courses on different days. A 2:12 run a hot day on a hilly course may be a higher quality marathon than a 2:08 run on a cool, windless day on a flat course, thus rendering a comparison of raw results nearly meaningless.
Before 1968, a subjective selection process, multiple trials races, or some combination of both was used to select the Olympic Marathon team, with mixed success. Back in the early part of the 20th century, when athletics was very much a gentleman’s game, a straight selection process was a well accepted practice. Eventually, multiple trials races were used, a process sometimes so complicated that even those running did not know its status. In 1952, Ted Corbitt learned that he had made the Olympic Marathon team through a phone call from a New York Times reporter. “You had better get training” the reporter advised Corbitt, who thought he had been eliminated from consideration for the team.
In 1960, the Boston and Yonkers Marathons served as dual selection races. The rules stipulated that a runner complete both races in order to be eligible for consideration for selection to the team. Johnny Kelley, the overwhelming favorite, dropped out of Boston however, thus eliminating him from contention. But he came back to soundly defeat all of his rivals in the Yonkers Marathon, and Pincus Sober, a USOC official, took up his cause to be named to the team, his Boston DNF notwithstanding. That is exactly what happened. Poor Robert Cons, the third man named to the team previously, was instead relegated to alternate status. As some compensation, he was allowed to travel with the team to Rome for the Olympic Games.
Since 1968, the governing body of the sport has opted for a one-day trials race, with the top three finishers (as long as they all have met the Olympic Games time standard; more on that later) going to the Games, and everyone else going home. This selection process has resulted in plenty of excitement and plenty of heartbreak, making the trials 26-miler one of the most eagerly anticipated on the calendar. In fact, for many the trials marathon incorporates more drama than the actual Olympic Marathon.
In 1968, in order to simulate the altitude the runners would face in Mexico City, the race was held in the thin air of Alamosa, Colorado. None of the 129 qualifiers broke 2:30, as George Young edged Kenny Moore to win; Ron Daws rounded out the team. The setting was quite different four years later, as the trials were held in Eugene, Oregon, That gave Oregon University grad Moore a decided advantage, but he was challenged by an up-and-coming star named Frank Shorter. In his book Men of Oregon, Moore relates the story that as he and Shorter had gapped the field late in the race, he was trying to assess how Shorter felt. He got his answer when Shorter lamented, “Why couldn’t Pheidippides have stopped after 20 miles?” The pair went on to tie for the win, and history was made later that year in Munich when Shorter captured the Olympic gold medal. Moore was an agonizing fourth, seconds from a bronze medal.
The script was similar in 1976, as the trials marathon was back in Eugene. This time Shorter was the veteran, challenged by an upstart from Boston named Bill Rodgers. The pair ran together for much of the race, until Shorter pulled ahead to win by seven seconds. Back in third, Don Kardong earned a place on the team and went on to repeat Moore’s agony in the Olympic Games, finishing fourth, while Shorter won the silver medal in Montreal.
The 1980 marathon trials marathon was marked by anger and sadness over the already-announced Olympic boycott by the U.S., thus rendering the race a mere formality. No one in this race would be going to Moscow to compete in the Olympic Games. Still, the honor of being an Olympian was at stake, and Tony Sandoval from New Mexico caught Benji Durden late in the race and went on to record a speedy 2:10 to win the race, held in Buffalo, New York. Conspicuous by his absence was four-time Boston and four-time New York Marathon winner Bill Rodgers, who skipped the trials race, surely disconsolate in knowing the boycott had dashed his best hope of earning an Olympic medal.
Back in Buffalo in 1984, the heavy favorite to win the trials marathon was Alberto Salazar, the then U.S. record-holder and three-time New York City Marathon winner. But just past halfway an unknown named Pete Pfitzinger made a bold move, breaking from the pack to establish a 150-yard lead. Much to everyone’s surprise, he held on until the last mile, when he was passed by John Tuttle and then Salazar. But Pfitzinger came roaring back to win the race, and went on to be the top U.S. finisher in the Olympic Marathon in Los Angeles.
Another surprise winner emerged four years later in New Jersey, as little-known Mark Conover edged Ed Eyestone to win the trials marathon, improving his personal best from 2:18 to 2:12 in the process. There was drama for the final Olympic berth, as Pfitzinger came from well off the pace to reel in young Paul Gompers from Harvard to earn another trip to the Olympic Games, this time in Seoul, South Korea, where he was once again the top U.S. finisher. This trials marathon marked the first time prize money was awarded. Conover pocketed a hefty $50,000 to go along with his PR.
The marathon trial was run in warm conditions in Columbus, Ohio in 1992. A trio of Eyestone, Steve Spence (who had placed third in the World Championships Marathon a year earlier) and a young medical student named Bob Kempainen all ran together to overhaul early leader Keith Brantley to make the team.
The 1996 trials marathon in Charlotte, North Carolina was “highlighted” by Kempainen’s stomach distress. Just past 21 miles, the Minnesotan forged a lead then promptly lost his breakfast, not once, but twice. Non-plussed, Kempainen went on to win the marathon easily, followed by Mark Coogan and Brantley, the feel-good story of the day, finally making the Olympic team after heartbreak four years earlier.
The new millennium saw a new low in the trials marathon. No runners were able to negotiate the heat and hills in Pittsburgh to post an Olympic qualifying time of 2:14, a first in Olympic Marathon Trials history. That meant that just a single runner (not the top three) would advance to the Olympics in Sydney, Australia. That runner was South Dakota State graduate Rod DeHaven, who survived a battle of attrition to win in 2:15.
The 2004 trials in Birmingham, Alabama saw yet another young runner try to steal the race with a bold move. In raw, cold conditions, Brian Sell sped away from the field. He faltered late in the race however, and was passed by the three pre-race favorites: Alan Culpepper, Meb Keflezighi, and Dan Browne. Keflezighi went on to win a silver medal with a spectacular run in the Olympic Games in Athens.
So what will the 2008 trials bring? No doubt much drama will be in store. In the next installment of the trials preview, we will look at this year’s race and the course the runners will have to tackle in order to earn a chance to run in the Olympic Games Marathon in Beijing, China in 2008.