The lure of the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials

The U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials are one of the most important events of the quadrennial. They have become the go-to place for true running geeks and their families. In 2020, at the Atlanta 2020 Olympic Trials, crowds were estimated at just over 250,000 people on the course!

It has not always been that way, but the loyal fans always find ways to get there.

In 1968, a young Frank Shorter ran several loops of the Olympic Trials course in borrowed shoes (I believe from 1968 Boston champ Amby Burfoot), only to drop out. Frank would end up winning in 1972 and 1976. The 1968 Trials were won by George Young, a famed steeplechaser, second was Kenny Moore, a new convert to the marathon and confirmed Lydiard disciple, Ron Daws, from the Minnesota Track Club.

In 1972, a new company, NIKE, provided the field of 72 with a free pair of the new NIKE racing shoe, the Verdun. About sixty men wore the shoes, forgetting that, at the time, one needed to take some time to get their feet used to the new shoes. Frank Shorter and Kenny Moore tied on that one. Frank went on to take gold in Munich, the city where he was born. Kenny Moore took 4th, and Jack Bachelor took ninth, the best performance by a US team at that time.

In 1976, the Trials were once again held in Eugene. Frank Shorter and Bill Rodgers tied, with Don Kardong taking third in front of his Stanford teammate Tony Sandoval. Don broke from his friend with just a few miles to go. In Montreal, Frank Shorter took the silver, with gold going to East Germany’s Waldemar Cierpinksi, who later it was written, had, like most of his GDR teammates, used better running via chemistry to go from a mediocre steeplechaser and marathoner to Olympic champion. Don Kardong took fourth, having been beaten by one Karel Lismont of Belgium. Bill Rodgers, injured, finished in fortieth place. Two months later, Bill Rodgers won the first Five Boroughs race in New York City.

In 1984, Joan Benoit Samuelson had knee surgery just nine weeks out from the LA Olympic Trials. The Trials, held in Olympia for the Women, were the first time the marathon was offered for women in the Olympics. Joan Benoit, as she was then known, ran a calculated race and discussed with her coach, Bob Sevene, to run from the front. Julie Brown, a star middle-distance runner who moved to the marathon, took second, and Julia Isphording surprised many in third.

At the LA Olympics, Joan Benoit Samuelson became the first woman to take Olympic marathon gold, with Grete Waitz in Silver and Rosa Mota in bronze. Julie Brown was 36th, and Julia Isphording was a DNF. Joan had lead from just about three miles, and did not look back.

The lure of the Marathon Trials is this. If you qualify, running a minimum of 2:11.30 for men and 2:29.30 for women, and you finish in the top two men and top 3 women, you can make the U.S. Olympic team.

The marathon, even with Super shoes is one tough event. No matter what anyone tells you, running sub 4:50 miles for men and sub 5:20 miles for women will beat the heck out of you.

Who wants it the most on the day? Who is best prepared? And who can keep it together over the last 2-3 miles when one’s body, heart, and brain says, find a Starbucks?

We will just have to wait to see!