The 2024 Olympic Trials Marathon qualifying standards were announced at last week’s USA Track & Field annual meeting and, as expected, they’ve been tightened up a bit. In the case of the women’s standard, quite a bit. In order to qualify for the 2024 Trials—the date and location of which have not been determined yet—men have to run 2:18:00 or faster for the marathon or 63 minutes or faster in the half. Each of those marks is a minute faster than the 2020 standards. Women have to run 2:37:00 or faster in the marathon to qualify, or 72 minutes or faster in the half. Those marks are 8 minutes and 1 minute faster, respectively, than the previous standards.
So what do I think? I’ve gotten this question at least a dozen times in the past few days and here’s where I’ve landed: I personally believe the women’s field at the 2020 Trials in Atlanta was way too big (511 athletes) while the men’s was just about right (260), so the existing standards needed to be evaluated and adjusted accordingly. The main purpose of having an Olympic Trials race is to choose the Olympic team; the secondary purposes are to create opportunity and experience for up-and-coming athletes and, as Sarah Lorge Butler wrote in the aforelinked piece for Runner’s World, “to connect elite running with a broad audience.”
Given that, I believe not having A and B standards for the Trials is a mistake and a missed opportunity for USA Track & Field. Hear me out here: If an athlete hits the A standard, they get their hotel room comped for the weekend and can have access to personal bottles on the course. Hit the B, you get an entry to the race but need to put yourself up, carry your own gels, and use the general water/fluid stations along the route. This would create some natural separation between the top contenders and slower qualifiers along the course while also helping keep costs down for race organizers (in 2020, the Atlanta Track Club paid covered travel and/or hotel rooms for all qualifiers). So what should those A and B standards be? Well I’m glad you asked. The A standard: Men need to run a marathon in 2:11:30 or faster, women need to be 2:29:30 or faster, OR a top-10 finish in a World Marathon Majors race. These are in line with the 2020 Olympic standards, which should be a pretty straightforward and understandable proposition. The B standard: 2:18 or faster for the men, 2:40 or faster for the women, or 63 and 72 minutes or faster, respectively, in the half marathon. Here are two other twists I’d throw into this mix: 1. Each field is capped at 250 runners. So, if you hit the standard but you’re the 300th fastest marathoner in the country, you don’t get a spot on the Trials starting line. Harsh? I don’t think so. This is how it works at Boston and at championship levels of track and field and there’s no reason this shouldn’t also be the case for the Olympic Trials Marathon. In fact, I think capping the field size would create even more competition amongst Trials hopefuls and push people to aim higher and run faster than they otherwise would have thought possible. (Not to mention it would also make the race itself less congested at the start and along the course.) 2. Limit the number of half marathon qualifiers who compete in the Trials to the top 10 or 20 fastest on each side. I thought about suggesting the elimination of the half-marathon qualifier altogether—because in no other event in Athletics (that I can think of, anyway) can you qualify with a mark from a different event—but one person convinced me that this would be a terrible idea and her name is Molly Seidel.
What about the shorter qualifying window? It opens on January 1, 2022 for the marathon, and January 1, 2023 for the half and will stay open until 60 days before the Trials race (presumedly spring 2024 sometime). Even though that will likely end up being tighter than the last Trials window I think that’s still a very reasonable amount of time for aspiring athletes to chase down a mark.
I’ve also been asked how many athletes I think hit qualifying marks. I’m going to be optimistic and say around 200 on each side. Given the 2020 qualifier numbers relative to the new qualifying standards that’d be a huge jump, especially for the women, but there’s enough excitement around the marathon and the Trials in particular in this country that I believe athletes will step up and rise to the occasion. I’m personally excited to witness, experience, and feed off of the collective energy it generates throughout 2022 and 2023.
Lastly, there’s said to be some “fine print” that will be revealed this week and I’m interested to see what other important details it reveals, if any. I’d love to understand how the powers that be landed on the seemingly arbitrary marks that they did, why they didn’t choose to have A and B standards, what courses they will deem eligible, etc. I’m also curious to see how much interest there is amongst events and event organizers to host the Trials once it goes out to bid. If Atlanta 2020 race director Rich Kenah’s post-race comments are any indication, USATF doesn’t exactly make hosting the Trials the most appealing proposition. “We won’t be bidding on future Trials unless there is a significant change in the bid requirements,” Kenah told Road Race Management. “With due respect to our friends at USATF, it is my belief that they need to put more skin in the game and not rely exclusively on the LOC [Local Organizing Committee] and NBC to carry 100% of the expenses for the event. I believe there is a better model to be built that will incentivize excellence for all involved.”