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March 4, 2018

Assessing Chattanooga As The 2020 U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials Host

With USATF scheduled to announce in early April the host of the 2020 U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials, we will be running a series of posts making honest assessments of each of the bid cities.

Among the four cities bidding for the Trials to be held between January and March of 2020, most are familiar to fans of elite American distance running:

  • Atlanta, with the annual AJC Peachtree Road Race and its Olympic legacy as the host of the 1996 Games
  • Austin, home to the annual Texas Relays, the University of Texas and its powerhouse NCAA track and field program, and a slate of local road races with a long history of strong professional performances
  • Orlando, which has been the setting of a few Olympic Trials qualifying performances in recent years and also frequently hosts Hansons-Brooks Project athletes at the Walt Disney World Marathon and Half Marathon (as well as having been a two-time host of the annual shitshow known as the USATF convention)

And then there’s Chattanooga, the subject of our first bid assessment. With little-to-no history with USATF or in professional road racing, how does this newcomer’s bid stack up against the veterans’? Is it ready — seemingly overnight — to emerge as a key player in the professional US distance running scene, swooping in and landing the crown jewel of USATF road events? Or will it have to wait its turn while the Marathon Trials are awarded to a more experienced bidder?

City

With a metro area population just over 500,000 and an airport with only five gates, Chattanooga is by far the smallest city bidding for the Trials. It’s really a city that lives in the rain shadow of two larger metro areas in Nashville and Atlanta, which it is situated almost exactly halfway between (just over 100 miles of freeway driving from each).

This isn’t a knock on Chattanooga as a place to live and work (it’s the only city to be named Outside Magazine’s “Best Town in America” twice!), but size does matter to the current USATF regime (see: Los Angeles, Awarding of 2016 Trials to). If Chattanooga is chosen, it will be because city leadership has made landing this event a priority and smoothed out event logistics and funding elements (loosening road closure and course design restrictions, granting fee waivers, galvanizing support from civic leaders) in a way that the larger markets wouldn’t or couldn’t. Without this civic support from the highest levels, this bid has no chance. Even with that support, based on media market size and lack of experience, it’s a long shot.

Course

Quick— name a Chattanooga landmark! I’ll wait . . . no cheating! While a course that makes use of Chattanooga’s scenic bridges would provide some lovely river scenery (fitting for a city nicknamed “the Scenic City”), Chattanooga lacks for nationally iconic landmarks that the Trials could start, finish, or pass in the shadow of. While probably not a deal-breaker for a bid with everything else going for it, this lack certainly doesn’t strengthen a bid already fighting an uphill battle. After all, it would certainly be nice for Tom Hammond to have something built-in to talk about during a Trials broadcast that, to the viewer who cares about the Olympics but doesn’t know anything about marathoning (which, to be fair, also describes Tom Hammond himself), consists essentially of nearly three hours of nearly-naked skinny people running kinda fast.

And while I don’t claim to be an expert on Chattanooga topography or bridge architecture, a criterium course, as the Trials course is required to be, with multiple bridge crossings per lap isn’t likely to be the racetrack course that USATF is looking for. Furthermore, the elevation maps of both of Chattanooga’s urban marathons make clear that a fast, flat downtown route likely isn’t in the offing anywhere in this city. Because if there were one, at least one of them would be using it.

Weather

This year’s Chattanooga Marathon is on March 4, and the average historical low on that date is 38 degrees while the average high is 60. On March 4, 2017, the low temperature was 30 degrees and the high was 64. Record extremes in Chattanooga on March 4 are 9 degrees (1943) and 82 degrees (1976). The average relative humidity in Chattanooga in March at approximately 7:00am is 82, and the city receives an average of five inches of rain every March with an average of 11 days in March with precipitation. Average instantaneous wind speeds in Chattanooga in March (calculated 10 meters above the ground) are between 5 and 6 mph. In summary, the typical conditions in Chattanooga in March are near-ideal, but there is a substantial risk of rain on race day, as well as some risk of extreme temperatures (sub-freezing temperatures being more likely than heat).

LOC Strength

Chattanooga has two urban marathons. The one involved in the bid, the Chattanooga Marathon, was launched in 2016. In that inaugural edition, a mis-set turnaround cone caused marathoners to only run 25.9 miles, invalidating the results for Boston qualifying purposes (and Trials qualifying purposes, although that mattered to exactly zero participants). Since then, its course has changed to a mobius strip that local organizers are describing as two loops, but since I don’t have an advanced degree in cartography I’ll have to take their word for it (seriously, click the link and if you can follow it give me a call). Regardless of complexity, that the race has already been forced to shoehorn itself in like this to reduce the traffic impact on the city is not a sign that local officials or residents are excited to roll out the red carpet for the extra day of road closures that hosting the Trials would require.

The Chattanooga Marathon has actually had fewer course problems than its fall counterpart, the 7 Bridges Marathon, which has run an incorrect distance (once long, once short) in two of its last three editions. Look, I’m sure there are good people working their hardest to put on these Chattanooga races, but I would think that, since they’re selecting an Olympic marathon team, it might be important to USATF that our Trials race is, you know, actually the marathon distance. And with its marathons’ recent performance, the Chattanooga LOC hasn’t proven its ability to nail even this basic part of putting on a marathon.

In the name of fairness, it’s worth noting that the Chattanooga Sports Committee has successfully hosted several major endurance sports events in recent years, including the USA Cycling Professional Road Championship, a full Ironman, and the Ironman 70.3 World Championship. Also worth noting is that in triathlon and in cycling people care way less that a course be accurately and precisely measured. So maybe Chattanooga should stay in its lane and stick to those types of events.

X-Factors

With no history with USATF, no compelling story to tell, and a relatively weak and inexperienced LOC with a history of course challenges, Chattanooga would need some really strong “x-factors” to become a compelling bidder. Unfortunately for Chattanoogan running fans (of which I’m sure there are at least six or seven), unless local billionaire Jeffrey Lorberbaum is secretly one of us (by which I mean “a huge running nerd”) and bankrolling this operation with some of that sweet, sweet carpet manufacturing money, and is ready to shell out for an outsized prize purse and operating budget, this bid has exactly no x-factors that I’m aware of. And without any x-factors, it also has no chance.

Assessment

1.5 Olympic rings (of 5 possible, obviously)

Taking the Trials to Chattanooga would be a step backwards for USATF, bringing us back to the not-so distant, dark past when U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials were hosted in cities like Birmingham, Alabama (2004, men) and Columbia, South Carolina (2000, women). Say what you will about USATF’s dysfunction (and many of us do — there’s even a Facebook group for it!), but since 2008 the Trials have been in major media markets and held in conjunction with major, established, professional events. And that’s where they’re going to go again in 2020. Which means Chattanooga will have to wait a quadrennium — and maybe longer — to host USATF road racing’s crown jewel.

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