By David Melly
January 30, 2024
Happy Olympic Marathon Trials week, to those who celebrate! The most fun event in American marathoning is almost here. In a few short days, hundreds of elite runners will take to the streets of Orlando, Florida, united by one shared goal: to represent Team USA at the 2024 Paris Olympics.
Some of the most dramatic moments of professional running in recent memory have played out at this race, from Bowerman Track Club’s team tactics in the heat of Los Angeles in 2016 to Abdi Abdirahman making an astonishing fifth Olympic team in Atlanta 2020. Olympic Trials debutants like Molly Seidel and Galen Rupp have gone on to win medals for the United States in the same year, and the heartbreak of failing to make a team can motivate future greatness, like Emily Sisson’s legendary 10,000m win at the 2021 track and field Trials after a DNF in Atlanta.
Whether you want to wow your friends and family with your encyclopedic knowledge or win your local pick ‘em betting pool, everything you need to know about the upcoming Trials race can be found below. We will be sending out the men’s marathon preview tomorrow.
Follow The Action
The women’s race begins at 10:20 a.m. E.T. on Saturday, February 3. If you can’t make it to Orlando in person, you can follow along at home with race tracking and live results online. The races will be streamed live on Peacock (subscription required) beginning 10:00 a.m. E.T. and then broadcast (on a tape delay) on NBC at 12:00 p.m. the same day.
CITIUS MAG is proud to partner with HOKA for all of the weekend’s festivities and celebrate everyone from the athletes looking to qualify for Paris to those everyday heroes and 9-5 workers who somehow found a way to run fast enough to toe the line against the best. Our HQ will be the CITIUS CAFE at 151 E. Washington Street. Come on by as we have a whole weekend of programming, live shows and a shakeout run scheduled. HOKA will also be unveiling its newest racing shoe this week and we’re excited to be part of that launch.
Before we get to the athletes to watch, there are also a number of key factors that may affect the outcome of the first selection event of the year for Team USA.
Kevin Morris / @KevMoFoto
How Does Qualifying Work?
The women’s qualifiers will likely be decided in far less complex manner than the men’s, as a whopping 13 women have run under the 2:26:50 Paris 2024 qualifying standard (compared with only two men) and eight more have run under the 2:29:30 “B” standard that would allow them to qualify if they finish in the top three. There are a few potential contenders who do not have the requisite “B” standard, most notably the group of half marathon qualifiers making their debuts in Orlando, but it’s highly unlikely that third place in the women’s race will be slower than 2:29:30. In the last three Trials events, the slowest third-placer has been Shalane Flanagan in the brutally hot conditions of LA 2016, and she still ran 2:29:19 en route to securing her spot.
In short, when it comes to the women, you can save yourself a lot of headache when thinking about the qualifying system: unless something totally crazy happens, the first three finishers will all be heading to Paris this summer.
The Course And The Weather
In every marathon, two big factors help determine the race outcome as much as the athletes’ preparation: the course and the weather.
Much hay has already been made over the choice to host the Trials in Orlando, Florida, a city where temperatures can climb into the 80s even in February. All you need to know now is that USATF and the Greater Orlando Sports Commission did – following a formal request from qualified athletes – agree to move the start time from noon to 10 a.m. in hopes of reducing the amount of time that athletes will be running in the warmest part of the day.
Right now, the forecast looks to be on the warmer, but still manageable, side with a high of 72°F. Most of the race will likely be run with temperatures in the mid-60s. There’s a small chance of rain and a bit of a breeze, but it doesn’t look like it’ll be unreasonably wet, windy, or humid. In short – it will be a little warmer than ideal marathoning conditions, but unless the outlook changes drastically in the next few days, there’s no reason to suggest fast times are completely out of the question. That being said, mid-60s weather may still feel quite warm for anyone from the Northeast or upper Midwest who didn’t trek down to Florida early to acclimatize.
The course is a relatively flat set of loops through downtown Orlando, beginning with a 2.2-mile mini-loop before setting out on three 8-mile circuits. On-site spectators will get to see their favorite runners at least three times, but runners out on the course won’t be too overwhelmed by the monotony of endless loops. The steepest climb on the course is a roughly half-mile stretch starting around miles 4.5, 12.5, and 20.5, with a gain of around 34 feet. It’s not quite the PB-making machine that looped courses like the Marathon Project or the McKirdy Micro Marathon boasted, but it’s nowhere near as challenging a profile as Boston or NYC.
Kevin Morris / @KevMoFoto
The Heavy Hitters
We’re truly in a golden age of women’s marathoning in the U.S.
Deena Kastor’s 2006 American record stood for over 15 years until it was broken twice in 2022 by two different women. Five of the 10 fastest American women of all-time will be on the starting line racing head-to-head in Orlando, a true embarrassment of riches. The depth of this field makes it hard to pick any favorites or even safe bets for the team, but perhaps the two with the strongest case to make are the duo who bumped Kastor down the list.
Despite being two of the biggest names in road running in the last four years, Keira D’Amato and Emily Sisson have actually only raced a marathon head-to-head once: The 2020 Olympic Marathon Trials, where Sisson DNFed and D’Amato finished 15th. Both women have ascended to an entirely different level in the years since, with Sisson, the track superstar, shifting her primary focus to the roads and D’Amato completing her return to serious running after a decade-long break.
D’Amato has been about as consistent as anyone can possibly be since the 2020 Trials, racing seven marathons in the last three years. The only two blemishes, perhaps, are her 2022 NYC performance, where she finished 15th in 2:31:31, and the 2023 World Championships, where she finished 17th in 2:31:35. But you can hardly fault her for New York, which was her fourth marathon of 2022 – it occurred only six weeks after her sixth-place finish in Berlin. In Budapest, she was the second American finisher behind Lindsay Flanagan, but she also attempted a braver race strategy, leading the race at halfway in warm and humid conditions. All indications – including D’Amato’s wonderfully transparent Strava log – suggest the 39-year-old is healthy, fit, and capable of the kind of performance that delivered her 2:19:12 personal best in Houston in 2022.
Sisson’s road record is a bit more up-and-down. The American record holder had a fantastic marathon debut with a sixth place-finish in London 2019… then dropped out of the 2020 Trials… then pulled out of the 2021 NYC Marathon before the race with an injury… then set the American record in Chicago in 2022… then set out on a bold early pace in Chicago 2023 before fading to a still-respectable seventh-place finish. The most recent of those performances may be the most telling about Sisson’s potential in Orlando: even in a race that clearly wasn’t executed perfectly, she was still the top American finisher with a time that is faster than every other woman in the field’s best, save two. Sisson’s ceiling is so high that a B- performance may still be enough to make the team, and if she’s able to put together an A day, she’ll be damn near unbeatable.
Kevin Morris / @KevMoFoto
Seven women in the field can already claim the mantle of “Olympian” regardless of how the race plays out. It looks pretty likely that at least one of the three spots on the women’s side will go to a repeat Olympian. However, in the case of former track stars Emily Sisson, Jenny Simpson (more on that below), and Betsy Saina, they’d be first-time Olympians off the oval. Saina, the fifthplacer in the 2016 Olympic 10,000m, had a baby two years ago and only became eligible to compete for the U.S. in 2021, so she’ll be competing at her first Trials as an American. The Kenyan-born track stud made her marathon debut with a 2:22:56 in Paris in 2018, and at last year’s Tokyo Marathon, her first since giving birth, she clocked a shiny new 2:21:40 PB, making her the #3 seed headed into Orlando. Saina is currently splitting time between the U.S. and Kenya and got up to 130 miles a week in her build, so she’ll be a formidable contender in any type of race. If you haven’t yet, catch up with Saina via the Lap Count’s interview from early January.
Two of the three marathoners from the Tokyo Olympics are back in action after a few up-and-down years: Molly Seidel and Aliphine Tuliamuk. Sally Kipyego, who finished third in Atlanta in 2020, has not competed since 2022 and while she has a bye into the Trials as a reigning Olympian, it does not look likely that she’ll run. Seidel has had a rocky go since winning bronze in Tokyo, enduring a string of mental and physical health challenges over the last several years, but she came back in a big way in Chicago last fall with a 2:23:07 eighth-place finish, her new PB. If anyone can navigate the challenge of balancing heavy mileage with anything life throws at you along the way, it’s Seidel, and she can’t be counted out as a major contender for another team.
Tuliamuk, the Trials champion in 2020, became a mom in 2021 and has dealt with a few injuries of varying severity since, but she still managed a 2:26:18 seventh-place finish in NYC in 2022, a new all-conditions PB of 2:24:37 in Boston in 2023, and a handful of national titles on the roads in between. Both Tuliamuk and Seidel have resumes that suggest their respective personal bests aren’t quite reflective of their talent and potential; if you ignored their on-paper times and looked at their performance relative to competition, they’re clearly both capable of hanging with sub-2:20 caliber runners. Still, a slower first half might suit them well, as they might not be as comfortable ripping 5:15 miles from the gun as D’Amato or Sisson.
Molly Huddle is a two-time Olympian on the track and has shown flashes of greatness in the marathon, most notably finishing third in her debut in NYC in 2016, but she hasn’t quite hit the same high heights over 26.2 as she has over other distances. She doesn’t have the 2:29:30 qualifier as she gave birth to her daughter Josephine in 2022 and only ran 2:32:02 in NYC last year (which was still good for a ninth-place finish) in her return to the marathon. It’s hard to consider an umpteen-time national champion a “dark horse,” but Huddle may be one of the biggest potential contenders that not many are paying attention to.
And then there’s Des Linden. The two-time Olympian and fourth-place finisher from the 2020 hasn’t been much of a factor in major races this Olympic cycle, competing in 5 marathons from 2021-2023, never finishing higher than 13th. Shortly after turning 40 last year, however, she did break the American master’s record in New York with her 2:27:35 performance. Linden may be one of the few athletes in the field hoping the forecast turns for the warmer, as she’s been a vocal advocate against moving the Trials start time earlier and famously won the 2018 Boston Marathon in some of the harshest racing conditions in recent memory.
Kevin Morris / @KevMoFoto
The All-Star Moms
One of the most interesting and positive changes the last few years of marathoning have brought about is a true reevaluation of how we, as fans and observers, perceive the career arcs of older athletes and those who choose to take time off to start a family. Runners like Keira D’Amato and Sara Hall are running their best times well into their late 30s, and internationally, master’s competitors like Edna Kiplagat and Sinead Diver have completely rewritten the playbook on when runners should consider their careers “over.”
It’s highly likely that Team USA will feature at least one – or more – pro-runner mom(s). NAZ Elite stalwarts Kellyn Taylor and Stephanie Bruce have both had children in the last few years and returned quickly and successfully to racing, with Taylor in particular well-positioned to be a factor as she’s finished top-eight twice in the NYC Marathon since finishing eighth at the 2020 Trials. Bruce retired, sort of, in 2022 but decided to un-retire for one last(?) Olympic Trials. Only five months postpartum, she will likely have an uphill battle toward making her first Olympic team, but she’ll certainly get some of the loudest cheers out on the course.
Sara Hall is seeded #4 in the field thanks to her 2:22:10 performance at the 2022 World Championships. While it’s not relevant for qualifying purposes, it is interesting to note that despite her 2:20:32 PB, Hall actually doesn’t have the Olympic standard: that window opened in November 2022 (her 2:22 was from July) and Hall’s 2:25:48 at Boston last year doesn’t count as it’s a point-to-point course. But given that she’s run sub-2:23 four times in her career, if Hall is fully healthy she has perhaps her best shot to make the team in her eighth Olympic Trials appearance. She did, however, withdraw from the Houston Half with a minor flare-up of a hip injury, but she reports that the scratch was merely out of an abundance of caution.
Another runner who’s not just a mom herself but an advocate for all running moms is Sara Vaughn, the middle-distance runner-turned-nonprofit founder-turned-marathoner who’s seeded sixth among the women’s entrants. Vaughn first caught road running attention with her 2:26:53, victorious debut at the California International Marathon in 2021. She then improved her PB in Chicago in both 2022 and 2023, most recently running 2:23:24 for 10th. She hasn’t quite figured out Boston yet, finishing 21st in 2022 and DNFing in 2023, but on the right day, she could certainly be in the mix in Orlando.
Kevin Morris / @KevMoFoto
The Rising Stars
While there’s a big crowd at the top of the ticket in the women’s race, there are also a few athletes who’ve quietly, but decisively, made names for themselves over the last few years.
Lindsey Flanagan, Nell Rojas, Susanna Sullivan, Gabi Rooker, and Dakotah Lindwurm have all run under 2:25 within the Trials window and shown they can compete against tough competition. Flanagan had a fantastic 2023, finishing eighth in Tokyo in the spring and ninth at the World Championships, and the Asics runner rarely has a bad day, running between 2:24 and 2:29 in each of her last five marathons.
Sullivan was the top American at the London Marathon last year, and she’s already raced twice in 2024 with a 1:10:53 half in Houston and a 13th-place finish at the USA XC Championships. She had a tough day at Worlds last year, finishing 58th, but she clearly loves mixing it up across a range of distances and surfaces (she ran everything from the indoor mile to the marathon last year) and can’t be counted out.
Nell Rojas also raced the Houston Half and ran really well there, getting a new PB of 68:52 in the middle of her Trials buildup. She finished ninth at the Trials in 2020 and fifth at the 2021 Boston Marathon, and if her half marathon fitness indicates that she’s ready to level up, there’s only so much farther she can go before she ends up on the podium.
Lindwurm is the youngster of the group at only 28 years old, but she’s been racing marathons since 2019 and is one of the more experienced runners in the field. In the last two years she’s run 2:25:01 and 2:24:40, so she’s clearly coming into her prime at just the right time.
Rooker, a former gymnast who didn’t start racing competitively on the roads until her late 20s, has one of the steepest improvement curves of any of the Trials entrants, going from 2:56 in 2021 to 2:24:35 in 2023. You can read more about Rooker and her story in this interview from earlier in January.
Kevin Morris / @KevMoFoto
The Track Studs
The ability of runners to qualify for the marathon trials with a half marathon performance always opens the door for some intriguing track talent to move to the roads with hopes of making a team. Former Bowerman Track Club athlete Vanessa Fraser ran 1:11:00 at Houston in 2023 to qualify, but she's not expected to run. Half marathon/5k/10k studs Fiona O’Keeffe and Natosha Rogers are coached by another Marathon Trials champ and Flanagan’s former teammate, Amy Cragg, and her husband Alistair. The Lap Count did a fantastic interview with Rogers ahead of her marathon debut.
And, of course, there’s Jenny Simpson. The three-time Olympian has four global medals over 1500m, but she’s yet to race a marathon. One way or another, this Trials will be something of a victory lap for the greatest American miler of the 2010s who’s also an Orlando native, but you can’t count her out as a contender as well: it’s easy to forget that the 1500m star has a 5000m national title, two NCAA All-American performances in cross-country, and first represented Team USA as a steeplechaser. And with the success of former rivals like Genzebe Dibaba and Sifan Hassan over a wide range of distances, there’s recent precedent for blazing track speed translating to success on the roads as well.
Kevin Morris / @KevMoFoto
The Road Warriors
There are so many accomplished marathoners on the start list that even though we’ve mentioned roughly 20 contenders already, there are still a few names who it wouldn’t be surprising to see on the podium in Orlando.
2018 Boston runner-up Sarah Sellers ran under 2:26 at Grandma’s Marathon in 2022, and so did Lauren Hagans in her debut in 2023. Another strong 2023 performance came from Emily Durgin, who dropped out of her debut in NYC in 2022 but then came back to get an Olympic standard at the Toronto Waterfront Marathon the next spring. Minnesotan Annie Frisbie finished seventh in NYC in 2021 in 2:26:18, but hasn’t quite been back on that level on the major scene in the last few years.
One last dark horse worth mentioning is Makenna Myler, who finished 14th in Atlanta. She “only” ran 2:31:59 last fall to qualify for this Trials after giving birth to her second child, but then she obliterated her half marathon PB in Houston a few weeks ago, running 68:28 for second American behind Weini Kelati’s American record.
As always, the chance that someone we completely omitted will end up on Team USA is part of the fun of the 150+ person field – everyone on the starting line has a shot to make the team. The only way to know for sure is to run the race!
David began contributing to CITIUS in 2018, and quickly cemented himself as an integral part of the team thanks to his quick wit, hot takes, undying love for the sport and willingness to get yelled at online.