U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials Men’s Race: The Workhorse, The No-Shot And The Soldier

By Kyle Merber

February 7, 2024

This is not going to be an entire write-up appreciating Zach Panning, but if you’d like to read that, subscribe to my OnlyPanns. (I’m so sorry, everyone.)

I mean, Panning holds on for a top-three finish if the race was two hours earlier in the day, right? Those were some of the soggiest split-shorts I have ever seen. Everyone had to run in the same conditions and part of the game is to allocate one’s energy throughout the entire marathon. But surely, in cooler conditions, the smoke from under the hood doesn’t billow quite so much?

If there is any consolation it’s that his inspiring strategy whittled down the whole field to a few, and in the process, earned a tremendous amount of respect from distance fans everywhere. I’m sure Zach would rather be an Olympian, though.

And that’s the drama we live for. While Panning faded to sixth, all eyes turned to another battle, between the 40-year-old Elkanah Kibet, who set a new American masters record, and finished in fourth, and the hard-charging Lenny Korir who narrowly missed the team in 2020, and would not be denied a second time. (Okay, more accurately, if he’s denied, it will be by confusing qualifying processes and not due to placement in this race.)

Leonard KorirLeonard Korir

Johnny Zhang / @jzsnapz

Though Korir boasts a personal best of 2:07:57, it was set in 2019, and he most recently DNF’d in Chicago, not many expected for Korir to be on the team, despite a 2:09:31 last spring in Paris. And at 24 miles, if you left Lenny off your list, it still didn’t seem like a bad decision – Korir was 37 seconds outside of qualifying position, back in fifth place. But somehow, Korir got there ahead of Kibet, and crossed the line with a look of disbelief on his face.

The question now becomes: does Korir go to the Olympics? The casual fan’s head surely exploded in confusion during the post-race interview. In all likelihood, Korir will be fine, even though NBC’s legal team probably preferred the ambiguity. He currently sits 68th on the Road to Paris, with the top 80 unlocking their spot on May 5th. With the major East African countries maxed out with their three spots unlocked it’s probably good.

There is an awkward amount of time between now and the Olympics that could be well-utilized if Korir tries to chase a fast half marathon to improve his ranking. That Ryan Hall record from 2007 is long overdue to go down, considering Hall was wearing shoes that would feel like a bed of nails for feet now accustomed to super shoes.

Anyway, in all my Panning- and Panning-adjacent rambling, I’ve buried the lede for this section.

Conner Mantz, Clayton YoungConner Mantz, Clayton Young

Justin Britton / @JustinBritton

Perhaps the top story to come out of this Trials is not that of triumph but of friendship. (Awww!) The BYU BFFs Conner Mantz and Clayton Young sat in the pocket of Panning for over 22 miles and ran this thing like it is exactly what it is: a qualifier. There was a potential world in which one of the two guys who unlocked the slots for the US men still finished in the top three and didn’t guarantee their spot. Thankfully that didn’t happen, because I don’t know if any amount of Peacock infographics could have conveyed to viewers just what had happened. And also, Young and Mantz appear very fit and ready for the world stage.

My favorite moment of the entire day might have been the premature high-five between the two that foreshadowed the sort of teamwork that we’d be seeing less than an hour later. As it became clear that the two had comfortably separated themselves from the field, it was noticeable just how much more comfortable Clayton was in comparison to Mantz. Granted, Mantz always looks like he’s trying hard and that relatability is why we love him. But in the final moments when Young deferred the win and at least $15,000 to Mantz, the fans rushed to their kitchen drawers to make and put on tinfoil hats. 

The conspiracy: that Mantz had a bigger contract bonus for winning and therefore they would split the larger pool between them. Admittedly, that was my first impression, as well. Until I used the business cortex of my brain and thought about it a little more. Mantz was a bigger star coming out of college and therefore, almost certainly has the bigger base between the pair. The expectation in signing the more lucrative contract would be that he’d make the Olympic team and therefore that’d be pre-baked in.

U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials Men’s RaceU.S. Olympic Marathon Trials Men’s Race

Johnny Zhang / @jzsnapz

According to the lads, Conner was fighting for his damn life trying to make it to the line in one piece and not have his dreams shattered. As referenced in his Strava “Morning Run with Clayton” recap, his coach Ed Eyestone lost his spot in the final 400m of the 10,000m in 1996 and he wanted to avoid that.

Meanwhile, Clayton just seems to not really have cared. Is that what I would have done? No. But if you listen to any of his interviews then it only takes about 15 seconds of him talking to realize he is a much better person than I am. He was running to get the big Q, which he did.

Strictly from a brand marketing standpoint, it’s an incidentally genius move. If he drops the hammer with four hundred meters to go, then he wins the Trials by a few seconds – that’s the story. Instead, he is GRACIOUS and SELFLESS and WHO KNOWS HOW FAST HE COULD POSSIBLY RUN? Now it’s a conversation because he never showed his cards!

Sometimes nice guys do finish first… or… I guess still second… but you know what I mean.

For more of the top stories and analysis from the biggest stories in track and field from the past week, subscribe to The Lap Count newsletter for free. New edition every Wednesday morning at 6:30 a.m. ET.

Kyle Merber

After hanging up his spikes – but never his running shoes – Kyle pivoted to the media side of things, where he shares his enthusiasm, insights, and experiences with subscribers of The Lap Count newsletter, as well as viewers of CITIUS MAG live shows.