2020 Olympic Marathon Trials Talk

On Monday of this week, I found a routine Runner’s World e-mail in my inbox. It seems that the organizers of the 2020 U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials to be held in Atlanta, Georgia, released the qualifying course specifics. And I must say that reading the article got me clickity clacking on the keyboard like a Tasmanian Devil searching thru Google for more info regarding the Olympic Marathon race.

Initial Thoughts

The Runner’s World article – ‘The Olympic Marathon Trials Field Is Ginormous Already—And Qualifying Remains Open for Another Year’ – had me probing for more details regarding the rumored challenging course. It also got me curious about which other U.S. courses were considered, and how the Atlanta course will measure up against other proposed qualifying courses.

Of course as we know, only the top three finishers from the qualifier in each men’s and women’s class, will represent the U.S. at the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. To reiterate, the qualifying times men must run a marathon in 2:19:00 or faster or a half marathon in 1:04:00 or faster. And for women, the times are 2:45 and 1:13.

Runner’s World has pointed out that the course will have an elevation gain of 1000 feet. Holy yikes! Guess, this is where all that additional strength work will pay off (especially, in the upper legs)?! To put things into perspective I plugged in a few of the other major marathons that tout elevation challenges during my Google rage.

U.S. Marathon Course Comparisons

Boston and New York City were a couple that made my cut for elevation comparisons. Boston with the overall “quad shredder” descent in elevation with the four Newton Hills between miles 18-21. And of course Heartbreak Hill with its horrible timing being 91 ft. of elevation climb at approximately mile 21 and after the 3 consecutive hills. I can personally attest to Boston’s deceiving first half descent and carrying a quicker pace, and the yang of loathing involved during Heartbreak Hill. Woof!

Boston Marathon Elevation Map

The New York City Marathon course is also known for its bridges transitioning runners to each of 5 boroughs. Allegedly, this course is also known for being challenging in terms of elevation because of the bridges that even the pros must strategize their race tactics accordingly.

New York City Marathon Elevation Map

With the USATF mandated course loops of the Atlanta trials course (4 to be exact), I’m suspecting that it will be not only challenging in terms of elevation, but also to find a general rhythm to maintain aspects like pace. I was aghast at reading Letsrun.com‘s report on the elevation after allegedly plotting it out on three different apps. They even challenged Runner’s World’s initial 1000 ft. gain claim to calculations of gain being more like 1500ft. Hoy! Take a look!

Letsrun.com Olympic Marathon Qualfier Map & Elevation Report

Other Trials Courses That Were in the Running

Apparently there were three other cities proposing to bid being the host for the olympic qualifier. Other trials contenders were Chattanooga, Austin, and Orlando. I’m sure there are many factors including some sport genre politics to take into account with each of these locations, but a few of the basic checklist items I’ve read about are;

  • Airport accessibility and functionality to host the influx in spectators and participants.
  • Size of the city or metro area. Can it’s commerce sustain the event with hotels, food options, etc.?
  • Course location itself and permit granting by the hosting city.
  • Race organizers tenure and experience with hosting such an elite event. (Reports of lacking support for heat induced DNFs after the last 2016 Los Angeles qualifier, probably haunts the USATF Olympic committee.)
  • Media coverage solid enough within the city to draw and fulfill the once every four years momentous occasion.

Since the trials are held in February, the 29th (which is a leap day) to be exact, it’s logical to prioritize a hosting city that requires a more temperate climate prediction. Not that Iowa is necessarily even equipped to host this caliber of marathon, but dang could you imagine elites like Shalane Flanagan or Galen Rupp lining up at the start line with blue lips and goose bumps from head to toe in their scant racing uniforms? Brrr-tastic….NOT!

Marathon Tidbits On Each Proposing City

From my gathering of Google articles, each city’s proposed course had unique features to take into account. For example; Austin has a reputation for one of the fastest net downhill courses that also loops around the Capital. Being a fast and loop routed course could forecast some speedy times all the while allowing for great spectatorship.

In terms of the Orlando course, I would have to assume it would be flat and also relatively fast. Some Disney fans might root for the course finding its way thru the theme park but…logistics of a start at o’dark thirty so that the park can still open for regular hours just wasn’t in the cards. Sorry Mickey Mouse lovers!

Chattanooga seems to boast plenty of outdoor enthusiast adventures according to the cities tourist page; like rock climbing (going on my personal list of places to take my daughter climbing), mountain biking, hiking, white water rafting and the list goes on. All of these things sound uber appealing to me as a nature lover and adventure dreamer but the city was purportedly just plain sucky for hosting a huge event such as the Olympic Qualifying Trials. And all of these outdoor enthusiast amenities have no relevance to bearing a fast trials course. Real bearing was given to the fact that Chattanooga’s airport was puny in comparison along with the minuscule size of the city compared to the other bidders.

Atlanta’s Course Notes

So in typical coach and runner’s mindset fashion, I immediately also started thinking about how one would perhaps tackle the 3 x 6 mile loops and the final 8.2 mile loop. With a top 3 finish target, I would forecast an overall time somewhere around 2:25:00 for women and a competitive 2:12:00 for men. Take a look at the USATF marathon trials qualifying field list.

Top 10 Men in Qualifying field. Shout out to Iowa’s Brogan Austin!! =)
Top 10 Women in Qualifying Field.

Forecasting times of course is like trying to play pin the tail on the donkey. Each of the qualifiers have qualifying times from varying courses, some fast, some not so fast. Also, let’s not forget the Atlanta course 1000 – 1500 foot elevation gain that throws in a few extra spins before trying pin that tail on the donkey (yeah,…horrible analogy I know). Even if we took the forecasted times of 2:25:00 and 2:12:00, which would mean running even splits of 5:32/ mi for 2:25:00 and 5:02 / mi for 2:12:00, you’d have the dark horse of the elevation challenge.

We know it’s seemingly unlikely already, but if you calculated those splits out (for a 2:25:00 women’s finish) for the 3 x 6 mile loops at 33:12 per loop, then the last 8.2 mile loop would have a target loop split of 45:22. For the men 30:12 per 6 mile loop and 41:16 for the 8.2 loop.

But here’s where the tiger in the cat plays in – how will each athlete handle the elevation challenge? How much competition grit will each athlete have to anty up and forego holding onto pacing targets to instead run to the competition and place in the top three. With the qualifying field times that are posted, the men’s field is looking like a shark tank. But both races will have us all sitting on pins and needles to see the completion of the third place finisher. My blood pressure is already rising!

What Would You Do?

Would you tackle each of 3 x 6 mile loops by just trying to maintain even pacing and get a feel for how others are handling the elevation grinds and then try and negative split the pace per mile on the last 8.2? Certainly you would find a course simulator that you could train on that would mimic not only the elevation intervals but also the mileage of each loop. Such competitive races always seem to come down to who can hold on the longest and who can out kick when everyone is staring at the dreaded “wall”.

With Atlanta’s Olympic Games hosting history, the trials marathon course will already be accessorized with a few 5 ring montages.

“The start line will be located just outside of Centennial Olympic Park in front of the College Football Hall of Fame on Marietta Street near Atlanta’s popular downtown attractions including Georgia Aquarium, The Center for Civil and Human Rights and the World of Coca Cola before heading toward the city’s best known thoroughfare – Peachtree Street. On Peachtree, the runners will pass the Fox Theatre and loop around the Margaret Mitchell House, a museum honoring the legendary author of “Gone with the Wind.” From Peachtree Street, the course takes the competitors into Atlanta’s Historic Old Fourth Ward where they will find the Martin Luther King National Historic Park, birthplace and burial site of the Civil Rights icon. 

The final loop will include a 2.2-mile section of the course, which will take the athletes by the Georgia State Capitol building and underneath the Olympic Rings and Cauldron structure outside Georgia State Stadium that served as the Olympic Stadium at the 1996 Atlanta Games. In the 26th mile, the race for a Tokyo Olympic berth will pass the homes of the Atlanta Falcons, Atlanta United FC and the Atlanta Hawks, and the Georgia World Congress Center before finishing inside Centennial Olympic Park, downtown’s transformational Olympic legacy green space.”


I’m such a geek for the marathon and absolutely drool over the strategy of racing the distance. Can’t wait to see some of the American distance running women that have helped to really put the U.S. on the map, throw down in Atlanta. Will Galen Rupp continue to lead the men’s field? How will our Iowa marathon hero, Brogan Austin, step up in the elite field? 2020 can’t come soon enough for me, but let’s not rush the training and build for the runners still working at qualifying before the January 19th, 2020 deadline. Best of luck to all!!

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