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Why amateur runners need another race to shoot for

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Last Friday, at its annual meeting, USA Track and Field announced the qualifying standards for the 2024 US Olympic trials in the marathon. As many had anticipated, the bar has been raised: men who wish to participate in the 2024 Trials will have to run either a 1:03 half-marathon or a 2:18 full-length, against 1:04 and 2:19 for the 2020 Edition of the race. For women, the new standards are 1:12 and 2:37, respectively, compared to 1:13 and 2:45. The adjustments, which are visibly more dramatic on the women’s side, are a response to the fact that the 2020 trials saw an unprecedented glut of qualifiers: 260 men and 512 women, according to the USATF website. Among these athletes, only 169 men and 91 women would have qualified according to the new standards. While the exact date and location of the next Olympic Trials remains to be determined, it seems likely that we won’t get another windfall for the sub-elites like in 2020.

Opinions are divided as to whether stricter entry standards are a good idea. The argument for making the trials more exclusive is that the main purpose of the event is to select an Olympic team, and allowing too many runners without a plausible shot in the race could diminish the experience of top athletes. A Trial which must accommodate more riders is also more expensive to organize. While many race organizers are still reeling from the fallout from the 2020 pandemic, hosting a smaller event may be more economically feasible. The last thing the USATF needs is for the Olympic Trials to follow the Games path, where cities that were once keen to host are increasingly inclined to give that honor a hard blow.

The counter-argument is, in fact, the more the merrier. The stated mission of the USATF is to foster “popular engagement in our sport” and a Trials race that includes a larger contingent of amateur athletes could potentially give more communities an emotional interest in the event. There is something seductive and nostalgic about this sight, especially for those of us who have seen too many movies: We imagine Billy at the foot of the mill, the pride of Jefferson County, writing an article in the latest local newspaper in the region and inspire the next generation of future Olympians. Why kill this dream to save a few hundred thousand dollars and have to install fewer water bottles?

Of course, even with stricter standards, there will still be plenty of hometown heroes making their way to Trials. But maybe last week’s announcement is a sign that maybe it’s time to invent another marathon, a marathon that also rewards fans of competition, but which is not as restrictive and which does not only take place every four years.

This race, you might say, already exists: it’s called the Boston Marathon and a lot of people know it. However, there is a demographic for whom qualifying for Boston presents no significant challenges, but for whom the OTQ is likely to remain out of reach forever. (After all, there’s a 42-minute difference between Boston’s fastest qualifying times for men and the new OTQ standards. For women, that difference is 53 minutes.) Boston, for all its magic, is one of the greatest marathons in the world. An annual national race with a strong sub-elite field that reflected the intimacy of testing and appealed to some of those caught in the no man’s land between a BQ and an OTQ could potentially showcase emerging talent and motivate athletes to take it to the next level. The Chicago Marathon has a version of this concept with its “American Development” program, where qualified men who run 2:35 or faster and women who run 2:55 are given their own warm-up area and control tent. equipment, but the latter program is inevitably encompassed by the spectacle of the second largest marathon in the world. Maybe it’s time to move on to running smaller races for faster runners.

Here again, American running culture could be inspired by the Japanese. Last weekend was the last edition of the historic Fukuoka International Marathon in Japan, a men-only race that was once the world’s preeminent marathon but struggled to remain financially viable and decreed that the this year’s race would be the last. Over its 75-year history, the champions of Fukuoka International have included American legends like Frank Shorter and Bill Rodgers in the 1970s and, more recently, Ethiopian Haile Gebrselassie. Before the pandemic turned it into an elite-only race, Fukuoka International was also an ambitious target for talented amateurs: top pros.

Earlier this year, in a blog post Japan race newsBrett Larner, who recently produced a two-hour documentary on Fukuoka, wrote about the importance of running and how amateur athletes viewed it with the same reverence as runners in the United States do at the Olympic trials: “Not just for the true elite, but for top amateurs across Japan and the world, qualifying for the Fukuoka International Marathon was a point of pride, including hitting his A standard and hitting the track with the big ones. I just wore my hat when I was running a few days ago and still enjoy it, along with my post-race towel, among the things I have gotten from races over the years.

Elsewhere, Larner notes that small races that “focus on excellence” were part of what made Japan unique, and he lamented the fact that these events were swallowed up by behemoths of mass participation. With the demise of Fukuoka International, the Osaka Women’s International Marathon, which has been in existence since 1982 and currently has a qualifying standard of 3:10, is the last race to continue the tradition.

All of this might not make launching an international event in Fukuoka or Osaka in the United States particularly optimistic. Nevertheless, courageous, albeit modest, efforts have been made. Here in New York City, for example, the Trials of Miles race series hosted two sub-elite-only half-marathons at Rockland State Park, dubbed Project 13.1, the most recent of which had around 100 participants between men’s races. and feminine. As I noted in an article earlier this year, the Trials of Miles concept has yet to find a viable business model, but the desire for such small-scale events certainly exists, especially with spending ever increasing and the logistical hassle of mass participation races. .

Of course, a major part of the appeal of the Fukuoka International Marathon stemmed from its legacy race status – to run it you had to join an exclusive club. Likewise, part of the ambitious appeal of the Olympic Trials, in addition to the challenge of qualifying, is the race’s affiliation with the world’s most prestigious athletic competition. A new marathon that wants to position itself as an attractive option for a small group of hardcore athletes must invent its meaning from scratch. It’s no small feat, but you have to start somewhere.

About Ethel Partin

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