What is the US Olympic Trials Marathon?

By Peter Bromka & Esther Atkins

Peter Bromka
9 min readDec 3, 2020
The start

Imagine, the sun rises on race day in early 2024 as 1,000 of America’s best Marathoners approach the starting line of the Olympic Trials Marathon, the greatest American marathon held once every four years. The top three finishers in each race qualify for the Paris Olympics.

As tens of thousands of fans follow the race intently they’re focused on the spectacle of competition between American’s best professional and amateur runners.

A version of this vision almost took place in Atlanta last February when 511 women and 261 men lined up to race for the chance to run in Tokyo, but not quite.

The women’s race was an extravaganza, with a field nearly twice the size of the men’s. There were more stories, more fans, and more excitement surrounding the females, but some assume it won’t happen again.

Some predict that when the USATF governing board meets this week via videoconference to decide the qualifying standards for the 2024 Marathon Trials they will aim to change the race back to what it “used to be” by reducing the field size. The thing is, the size of this event has never been static.

The field has fluctuated in size over the past few decades. What we’re interested in is what the governing body wants it to become.

Past Marathon Trials Qualifiers

What if instead of editing the momentum from Atlanta they instead aim to amplify it in 2024?

The truth is, if this event was simply about selecting the Top-3 for Paris they could limit it to just a few dozen runners per race, but this event has always been about something more than that alone.

Cultivate the sport

Leaders in American distance running are constantly seeking ways to bring more attention to the sport. Well, one answer is right in front of us.

Encouraging participation of the best female and best male marathoners in the US would provide multiple advantages:

  • More people care — this top tier event will touch far-flung communities across the country. More family members and friends will spectate and join in the big party that is both a very important selection process for an Olympic team and a celebration of the depth of American distance running.
  • More talent is nurtured — It’s easy to speculate that anyone outside the top ten or twenty is a longshot to qualify for the Paris Olympics, but such a narrow focus overlooks the importance of cultivating the future of US running talent. A larger field size keeps athletes like Roberta Groner interested in the sport. Though Groner began with the simple goal of qualifying for the trials because it seemed achievable, she’s gone on to run 2:29 and place 6th at the 2019 World Championships. If just 1% of this talent turns out to be diamonds in the rough it’s a boon for US distance running.

Even today few people understand what the event actually is.

When Esther Atkins tells people she has qualified for 3 Olympic Marathon Trials, she’s most often met with confusion. Some will reply, “but have you qualified for Boston?” Others will say “did you make the Olympics? Oh, that’s too bad.”

The truth is that although Esther has won a US Marathon Championship, and placed in the top 15 at Boston and NYC Marathons, qualifying for each Olympic Trials has had special meaning for her because it’s the reason why she kept running after college.

For Peter Bromka the Trials means something different. Though he’s never qualified, the pursuit of making the standard gave him something to shoot for after he’d run NYC, Chicago. and Boston several times and was searching for the next goal to keep him excited in the sport.

Though we both came from humble beginnings competing at the Division III level, the goal of participating in the most exciting US Marathon held every four years kept us running when we otherwise might have abandoned competition.

Meb Keflezighi called the Boston Marathon the “Olympics for the average person” because you have to qualify to get there. Ask anyone in a local running community and it absolutely is the holy grail of running.

Why do people love the Boston Marathon so much? Because it’s an incredible event. And because the challenge of the qualifying standard gives every runner the gift of purpose.

And why is it that more people know what the Boston Marathon is than the much more prestigious Olympic Marathon Trials? Because they know someone who worked hard to get there.

While past Olympic Trials races and the qualification for them have had a cult following, they’ve garnered little mainstream exposure. That’s changed over the past four years as women qualified at double the previous rate for Atlanta. Though the reason for this mass increase in qualifiers isn’t easy to pinpoint, the impact is impossible to ignore: elite marathoning is capturing the public’s imagination like never before. New shoes and new sports nutrition have helped, but those tools have stoked the imagination of sub-elite American distance runners.

Nearly 500 women and 300 men headed to Atlanta. Each bringing along a network of supporters, followers, and fans, resulting in one of the most exciting events in years. Particularly outsized excitement considering the event’s nearly 1,000 entrants is micro compared to the tens of thousands of runners annually at NYC, Boston, LA, or Chicago

The OTQ standards set for 2016 and 2020 were based on a rule that states the US standards for entry may not be more stringent than the Olympic qualifying standards. And in December of 2015, those standards were set at 2:19 for men and 2:45 for women.

However, in order to remain relevant and attract the most interest, the Olympic Games are adding new events and trying to trim headcount from traditional sports. Aiming to reduce the size of the Marathon, a large event, they’ve dramatically increased the difficulty of its qualifying standard. The women’s time moved from 2:45 to 2:29:30, the men’s from 2:19 to 2:11:30.

Some assume that the USATF may cut down their overall field size from 704 (244 men and 460 women), especially now that they have plenty of room to bring down the qualifying standards, right? We’d like to respectfully suggest “not so fast.”

Leaders in the sport are constantly racking their brains about how to bring more attention (i.e. revenue) to the sport. Well, we think that the answer is to create more spectacle experiences that athletes and fans are inspired by.

The 2020 women’s field in Atlanta could be viewed as an exception, an unexpected result of a tidal wave of newfound ability that will surely be “corrected” in four years.

But what if, instead of editing this momentum, might it be the model to amplify?

Our outline for an even better Trials

For starters, yes, there should still be A standards for automatic qualifying times, and they should come down. If we are looking for approximately 50 A qualifiers on each side, the current lists indicate that would mean 2:34 for women and 2:14 for men. These A standards would guarantee entry, and if USATF is so kind, it would continue to cover housing and travel expenses and provide elite fluids for these qualifiers as it has in the past.

Everyone else would have to understand that it is on their dime just like it is for BQ folks… unless the next host committee offers to be as incredibly generous as Atlanta Track Club was this year.

As for how the rest of the field would qualify, here are some suggestions we’d like to put out there for 2024.

All of our suggested scenarios would include the following:

  • Window: The qualifying window would close 3 months before The Trials, giving everyone plenty of time to train.
  • Size: The total number of qualifiers would be close to 500 from each gender and roughly equal by gender.
  • Event: Elimination of the half marathon qualifying standards. In the past runners could qualify by running a fast half marathon. Years ago you could even get in with a very fast 10k time. Although it was fantastic to see wildcards like Molly Seidel debut at the Olympic Marathon Trials, an athlete of her caliber could have just as easily snuck in a 2:43 sometime in the previous 2.5 years.
  • Logistics: though this field size would make for the largest Trials event ever, it would also measure as a micro field in comparison to major marathon events.
  • Course: a looped course of proper size, like this year in downtown ATL, should be selected to maximize fans’ ability to view and also allows enough space for the races not to conflict with each other.
  • Fluids: The fluid teams this year did masterful work and proved bottles can be provided to over 700 runners. Alternatively — elite bottles could be offered to “A” Qualifiers only and everyone else could have an option of 3–5 different clearly labeled popular fluids (like Gatorade, Maurten and Nuun) plus water offered in both bottles and cups.

Three different concepts

So with that in mind, here are the qualification concepts:

  1. Same Old, Same Old — But slightly more equal standards
  • With the goal of roughly equal field sizes for men and women, the recommended B standards would become 2:22 for men, 2:44 for women.
  • That would make for roughly 400 qualifiers on each side in 2020, so that gives a little more room for growth in the next cycle.

2. “The 500” — A descending order list

  • The top 500 women and men would be invited on a descending order time basis.
  • Could generate excitement as the list grows and changes throughout the window.
  • Athletes could still help each other to qualify, but make sure that we finish first in a crowd, just in case!

3. The Domestic Race Series — earning spots through racing

  • An attempt at rewarding domestic racing — American marathon organizers can bid to host sanctioned Olympic Trials Qualifying events. A certain number of automatic qualifying spots would be awarded at a handful of key races.
  • People could still qualify with an A standard anywhere else, but all B qualifiers would have to be by place or time from these select qualifying races. Something like “Top 25” at these key races
  • This could encourage concentrating our talent at specific domestic races and bring more awareness of what it means to OTQ to the average runner
  • In 2020 nearly 75% of the 2020 OT field qualified from just 5 host events. CIM alone was responsible for almost 40% of the qualifiers. This might create more iconic scenes like the finish line of each of the CIM events in the last 3 years, and in more places than just Sacramento.

What’s in it for us?

USATF and host committees may look at this article as a hopeless prayer to make qualifying for the most prestigious marathon in the country just a liiiittle bit easier.

But here’s what’s in it for them. And here’s what’s in it for us.

If more people qualify, the upper echelon of our sport will touch more far-flung communities across the country.

If more people qualify, more family members and friends will travel across the country to come to spectate and join in the big party that is both a very important selection process for an Olympic team and a celebration of the depth of American distance running. Nearly everyone who was in Atlanta remembers it as a grand celebration that highlighted the best of what American distance running is about.

We want more of this.

If more people qualify, there will be more stories like Roberta Groner whose only goal was to run under 2:45, and she wound up running 2:29 and placing 6th at the 2019 World Championships.

If more people qualify, more people try. Like Lindsay Crouse who saw her friends doing it, and brought a whole new New York Times audience with her on her journey.

If more people qualify, more people care. And if more people care, that creates more interest in the sport, and yes, more interest means more money.

Why should such a small race, where most racers will fail to meet the stated goal, create such outsized excitement?

Though the physical ability and mental fortitude of elite athletes is unquestionable, at times their level can feel difficult to relate to. Sure the fastest marathoners leading in Boston, NYC and Chicago are a marvel to watch, but it’s the masses behind them that capture the hearts and imaginations of fans. Seeing the amateur runner makes the casual fan sipping a latte on a Sunday morning think, “Wow, that’s incredible, I wonder if I could do that?”