Many of the best marathoners in the country will compete in the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials this Saturday, February 13th, but only six athletes—the top-three male and female finishers—will earn the right to represent the United States at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil this August. 211 men gained entrance into the Trials by running a marathon in 2:19:00 or less or a half marathon in 1:05:00 or less, but just 27 of those men achieved the “A” qualifying standard by running under 2:15:00 for the marathon. In seven of the previous eight Trials dating back to 1984—the year that women began participating in the event—more women have qualified to compete in the Trials than men. The trend continues this year as 246 women qualified for the Trials by running a marathon in 2:45:00 or less or a half marathon in 1:15:00 or less, and 42 women achieved the “A” qualifying standard by running a marathon in under 2:37:00.
These 457 men and women represent the upper echelon of road-marathon running. Perhaps surprisingly, not all 457 runners are strictly road marathoners—some can be considered crossover athletes: athletes that compete in other disciplines such as trail and ultrarunning. On our count, 15 of the 457 athletes this year have completed at least one ultra-distance race—and among those 15, many have a proven pedigree in ultras. The list of dual-threat athletes this year includes Sarah Bard, Caroline Boller, Magda Boulet, Larissa Dannis, Emily Harrison, Camille Herron,Caitlin Smith, Lindsay Tollefson, Joseph Gray, Max King, David Laney, Tony Migliozzi, Patrick Smyth, Tim Tollefson, and Andy Wacker. [Added February 12th: Jesse Davis is racing his second Trials this weekend.] Harrison, King, Smith, Smyth, and Tim Tollefson are now two-time Trials qualifiers and Boulet and Herron have each earned their third trip to the Trials; the rest of the group consists of first-time qualifiers. Amazingly, with the exception of Dannis, King, and Smith, the rest of the 2016 Trials qualifiers with ultra experience have gained that experience since the last Marathon Trials in 2012—in other words, aside from Dannis, King, and Smith, none of the qualifiers ran an ultra until 2012 or later. But the belated arrival has only seemed to enhance their successes at ultra-distance events: in the last four years, this elite group collectively accounts for at least eight ultrarunning national championships and five ultra world championships.
These 15 athletes with ultra experience have heaps of trail running experience, too. Aside from Herron and Migliozzi, both of whom have stuck to the roads almost exclusively so far in their careers, the remaining 13 routinely compete on the trails—collectively, the group has tallied dozens of wins at sub-ultra-distance trail races around the globe. Adding to this group, Allison Morgan, having finished second at the USATF Half Marathon Trail National Championshipslast year, is a sub-ultra crossover athlete competing at the Trials this year. She qualified with a half-marathon time of 1:13:10, the 19th-fastest in the country since 2013. Nick Arciniaga, who placed eighth at the 2012 Trials, constitutes another sub-ultra crossover athlete. In addition to frequently competing at shorter-distance trail races in his hometown of Flagstaff, Arizona, Arciniaga says that, “During the spring through fall in Flagstaff, I train on the trails probably 90% of the time.”
At the 2016 Trials, at least 17 of the 457 qualifiers, or roughly 3.7%, can be considered crossover athletes. How does that compare to previous Trials? According to our in-depth but far-from-complete research, at least 15 of the 370 qualifiers in 2012, or about 4%, could be deemed crossover athletes and at the 2008 Trials, at least three of the 240 qualifiers, or a scant 1.25%, could be labeled crossover athletes.
The trail and ultrarunning community has grown considerably and, as the presence of crossover athletes at the 2012 and 2016 Trials suggests, competition at trail and ultra races has blossomed as more talented road marathoners arrive to the scene. But can any of these crossover runners return to the road marathon and actually make an Olympic team? The average men’s third-place time at the Trials since 1984 is around 2:13:00 but in the most recent Trials the third-place time was a smoking 2:09:47. On the women’s side, the average third-place time since 1984 is about 2:31:00 but in 2012 the third-place time was a speedy 2:26:06.
Tollefson, Boulet, and Herron own the three fastest qualifying times for the crossover women but of those three only Tollefson will participate in the Trials. While Herron is determined to master trail ultras this year, Boulet endured an injury that has prohibited her training. “I am now just getting back to running and don’t want to rush into racing as I feel very unprepared for such a high-caliber event and don’t want to risk not toeing the line at Western States in the summer, which is my highest priority,” she explains. Bard and Harrison qualified with marathon times of 2:43:16 and 2:44:40, respectively. These times are well off the average third-place finish time from past Trials but both Bard and Harrison will arrive at the line with appropriate perspective. “As someone whose first marathon was a 4:02—and second a 3:15—being part of Saturday’s race is a celebration. Mostly, I want to enjoy the experience and reflect on the work I did to get here,” Bard explains. Harrison adds: “If anything, this is a confidence booster for the rest of year.”
Among the men, Wacker, the 2015 USATF 50k Trail National Champion, is the only non-starter. He says that he “had to decide how [he] could best achieve [his] goal of representing the U.S. to [his] greatest capacity” and he is committed to performing well at the World Mountain Long Distance Championships in Slovenia where he will represent the United States later this year. Tollefson has less-than-triumphant plans for his return to the Trials. Due to an untimely hip injury, he humorously reports that his goal is to “get healthy enough to sprint the first 2.2-mile loop with my countrymen and then gracefully abandon and watch the race unfold with a cold beverage in my paws.” Gray posted a 1:03:42 half-marathon time last January to qualify for the Trials, but given his focus on shorter distances throughout his career, it’s difficult to know what to expect from him on race day.
Among crossover athletes, Laney, King, Migliozzi, and Smyth arguably have a chance—albeit a miniscule one—of making an Olympic team. Laney, Migliozzi, and King enter the Trials with nearly identical marathon qualifying times: 2:17:02, 2:17:27, and 2:17:32, respectively—not absurdly far off from the average third-place time in recent Trials. Plus, King ran a 2:14:36—good for 19th—at the 2012 Trials and Smyth closely trailed him in 2:15:00, finishing 22nd. More promising still, Smyth earned his ticket to the Trials with a lightning-fast 1:03:00 half marathon last month. Smyth should be especially optimistic considering that Arciniaga, a genuine Olympic hopeful, won the Star Wars Half Marathon last month in 1:05:49.
So what are the odds that a crossover athlete will make the Olympic team? Laney places his odds at “about one in a million” and thinks he’ll finish in the top 40 or 50 but vows to “run as fast as [he] can” and will hope for a little luck. King says the race will “give [him] an idea if [he’s] in good shape or not” and isn’t “shooting for much other than to execute a good race,” which he thinks would amount to a 2:14:00 or 2:15:00 finishing time. Migliozzi, the 2015 IAU World 50k Champion, and Smyth estimate that a good day could land them in the top 10 but recognize that it would take a nearly perfect day and new personal bests. Arciniaga, with a marathon personal best of 2:11:30, is the clear favorite among the crossover athletes for a podium spot. But all things considered, the crossover athletes toeing the line have grim prospects of making an Olympic team.
But these runners should still have hope. Let’s not forget the day back in 2008 when a woman entered the Trials with a marathon-qualifying time of 2:42:38, the 46th-fastest qualifying time. At 34 years old, she ran the Trials 12 minutes and 19 seconds faster than her qualifying time, finished second, and became an Olympian. She was Magda Boulet, who would go on to become the 2015 UltraRunning Magazine Ultra Runner of the Year and a truly masterful crossover athlete.
At the Trials, anything can happen.