Why Amateur Runners Need Another Race to Shoot For

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Why Amateur Runners Need Another Race to Shoot For

Last Friday, at its annual meeting, USA Track and Field announced the qualifying standards for the 2024 U.S. Olympic Trials in the marathon. As many had anticipated, the bar has been raised: men who wish to take part in the 2024 Trials will need to run either a 1:03 half marathon or a 2:18 full, compared to 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 with 1:13 and 2:45. The adjustments, which are conspicuously 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. Of those athletes, only 169 men and 91 women would have qualified by the new standards. While the specific date and venue for the next Olympic Trials are still to be determined, it seems likely that we won’t get another sub-elite bonanza like we had in 2020.

Opinions are divided on whether tougher entry standards are a good idea. The argument for making the Trials more exclusive is that the primary purpose of the event is to select an Olympic team, and that allowing too many runners with no plausible shot into the race could diminish the experience for top athletes. A Trials that needs to accomodate more runners is also more expensive to host. With many race organizers still reeling from the pandemic-inflicted fallout of 2020, staging a smaller event might be more economically feasible. The last thing USATF needs is for the Olympic Trials to go the way of the Games, where cities that were once eager to host are increasingly inclined to give the honor a hard pass.

The counterargument is, in effect, the more the merrier. USATF’s stated mission is to drive “popular engagement in our sport” and a Trials race that includes a larger contingent of amateur athletes could potentially give more communities some emotional stake in the event. There’s something seductive and nostalgic about this view, especially for those of us who have seen too many movies: One imagines fleet-footed Billy from the mill, the pride of Jefferson County, getting a write up in the area’s last local newspaper and inspiring the next generation of would-be Olympians. Why kill that dream for the sake of saving a few hundred grand and having to set up fewer water bottles?

Of course, even with tougher standards, there will still be plenty of hometown heroes who make it to the Trials. But perhaps last week’s announcement is a sign that it might be time to invent another marathon altogether—one that also rewards competitive amateurs, but isn’t as restrictive and which doesn’t only take place every four years.

That race, one might argue, already exists: it’s called the Boston Marathon and a lot of people know about it. However, there’s a demographic for whom qualifying for Boston presents no significant challenge, but for whom the OTQ is likely to remain forever out of reach. (After all, there’s a 42-minute difference between the Boston qualifying times for the fastest men and the new OTQ standards. For the women, that difference is 53 minutes.) Boston, for all of its magic, is one of the largest marathons in the world. An annual domestic race with a robust sub-elite professional field that mirrored the intimacy of the Trials and catered 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 get to the next level. The Chicago Marathon has a version of this concept with its “American Development” program, where male qualifiers who have run 2:35 or faster and women who run 2:55 are given their own warm-up area and gear check tent, but the latter program is inevitably subsumed by the spectacle of the world’s second largest marathon. Maybe it’s time we move to staging smaller races for faster runners.    

Here, once again, American running culture could take inspiration from the Japanese. Last weekend saw the final edition of Japan’s historic Fukuoka International Marathon, a men’s-only race that was once the preeminent marathon of the world, but which has had a hard time remaining financially viable and which has decreed that this year’s race would be the last. In its 75-year history, Fukuoka International’s champions included American legends like Frank Shorter and Bill Rodgers back in the seventies and, more recently, Ethiopia’s Haile Gebrselassie. Before the pandemic turned it into an elites-only race, Fukuoka International doubled as an aspirational target for talented hobbyists: qualifying standards were a challenging-but-attainable 2:35 for the “B” race and 2:27 to toe the line with top professionals.

Earlier this year, in a post for his blog Japan Running News, Brett Larner, who recently produced a two-hour documentary on Fukuoka, wrote about the significance of the race and the way amateurs athletes regarded it with similar reverence as runners in the U.S. do the Olympic Trials: “Not just for the true elite but for high-level amateurs across Japan and worldwide, qualifying for the Fukuoka International Marathon was a point of pride, especially hitting its A-standard and getting to start on the track with the big boys. I was just wearing my hat from it when I was running a few days ago and still prize it and my post-race towel the highest among the things I’ve gotten at races over the years.”

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

All of which might not make one particularly sanguine about launching a Fukuoka or Osaka International-esque event in the United States. Nonetheless, there have been some valiant, if modest, efforts. Here in New York, for example, the Trials of Miles race series has staged two sub-elite-only half marathons in Rockland State Park, dubbed Project 13.1, whose most recent edition had roughly 100 finishers between the men’s and women’s races. 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, particularly with the ever-growing expense and logistical hassle of mass participation races.

Of course, a significant part of the Fukuoka International Marathon’s appeal stemmed from its status as a legacy race—to run it was to join an exclusive club. Likewise, part of the aspirational lure of the Olympic Trials, in addition to the challenge of qualifying, is the race’s affiliation with the most prestigious sports competition in the world. A new marathon that wants to position itself as an attractive option for a small demographic of hardcore athletes has to invent its significance from scratch. No small task, but you’ve got to start somewhere.

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