How Orlando Landed The 2024 U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials

The CITIUS MAG Podcast

November 9, 2022

“We wanted to do this for a long time because we knew Orlando can really produce what is needed by the course, the staging area and the support from our running community, but also our entire community to really put forth a world-class event.”

Orlando has been selected to host the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials on Feb. 3, 2024, USA Track and Field and the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee announced on Tuesday. The top three men’s and women’s finishers who meet the qualifying standards set by World Athletics will qualify for the team heading to the Summer Games in Paris.

This will mark the first time that Florida is hosting the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials. The other reported finalist was Chattanooga, Tennessee. Both cities previously expressed interest in hosting the 2020 trials before it was awarded to Atlanta. Atlanta Track Club Executive Director Rich Kenah later shared that the organizing committee was “well into the red” after hosting in 2020.

The 2024 race will be organized by Jon and Betsy Hughes’ Track Shack, which produced many events in the Orlando area.

I spoke with them on Wednesday morning for some early thoughts and comments on the planning for 2024…

CITIUS MAG: Congratulations. How exciting was it yesterday when they made the announcement public?

Betsy Hughes: It was pretty awesome. We had our whole team with us and we worked so hard for this. We’re very, very excited to show our city off to the rest of the world.

CITIUS MAG: Why Orlando? What do you think you sold the USOPC and USATF on?

Jon Hughes: I think there’s something a lot of people don’t realize is that we actually, in a sense, started our bid process back for the 2020 Trials. Betsy and I had been in Houston for the 2012 trials. I was there in 2016 with our team in L.A. and we actually timed the trials. We were like, ‘Wow, we’d love to do this. We’d love to get to Orlando.’ So this is like an eight-year process…We actually went through the process in 2020. We didn’t go all the way through to the final bid process, but it gave us the experience to understand what was necessary to make sure that we could fulfill everything that was necessary to create a really great Olympic Trials experience for everybody – most importantly for the athletes but also for the fans, for the sponsors and for the governing bodies. We wanted to do it right.

So, yes, this has been a long process and it was quite a process going through the entire bid process this year but we’re excited. We wanted to do this for a long time because we knew Orlando can produce what is needed by the course, by the staging area, by the support from our running community but also our entire community to really put forth a world-class event.

CITIUS MAG: Having run tons of miles in Orlando, I’m guessing flat and humid is what a lot of people are expecting?

Jon Hughes: Well, they’ll get the flat. We were talking to some Olympians and (1996 Olympic team marathoner) Keith Brantly was one of them, He was talking about one of the courses he’d run in Carolina, in the year that he qualified, really beat their legs up. The hill is so rough. I was saying we couldn’t scare up a hill in central Florida if we wanted to. It’s no problem there. We like to do the looped courses now so it will likely be four six-point-something-mile loops something mile loops – but it will be fast. It’ll be a fast, flat course, which I know everybody’s looking forward to. And you mentioned humidity, January/February are our two coolest months by far. And it’s going to be on February 3rd. The weather should be great. Our humidity is lower. Those are two months out of the driest time of the year as well as the coldest. So we’re looking forward to that.

CITIUS MAG: For those who may not be as familiar, what’s Track Shack’s background in staging events?

Jon Hughes: We started producing events back in 1978, so we’ve been producing events going on 45 years now. I think a lot of people in the running world and the running industry know that in 1992 we brought the concept of running a marathon to Disney. And in January 1994 that came to fruition. So it will be 30 years that we have produced the Disney marathon as well as now a number of events with Disney. But before that, we started producing quite a number of events locally and still do. We still have about 17 events beyond the Disney events. We produce everything from 5Ks to half marathons here in Central Florida. It all started with the Track Shack itself, which was the retail store that started in 1977. The events became an offshoot of that, which then eventually became their own company.

CITIUS MAG: Let’s dispel the rumor now…Disney World won’t be part of the course, right?

Betsy Hughes: This is Orlando and this is downtown Orlando, which is historic. It’s beautiful. And as much as we love our theme park partners, this is a city of Orlando and Orange County, Florida event. This is something that it’s right here in our backyard. Our store is just north of downtown Orlando. As John was saying, we opened in 1977 so we’re one of the oldest running retailers in the U.S. and we’ve been producing events almost the whole time. We have an incredible staff, not just at our store, but a whole nother staff with our event company. They are so excited to do this event.

Jon Hughes: We’re going to showcase our iconic park, Lake Eola, which is a centerpiece of Orlando. That’s where the start, finish and staging will be. It’s going to be great. But you made me laugh again because I was in New York and I was with some of my peers and race directors in the running business and also some people in the media. One of them did say to me as we did a walkthrough one day – he said to me, ‘I just don’t understand why does Disney want to get the trials?’ And it is somebody that’s somewhat of a seasoned veteran. And I’m like, ‘No. It’s not going to be at Disney.’ He was like, ‘I just assumed.’ I’m like, ‘No, no. We are downtown Orlando – the real Orlando. We want to show people. Our Orlando mayor Buddy Dyer and our county mayor Jerry Demings want people to see that there is a really incredible city. We love all the theme parks here and we certainly love Disney but this is the city of Orlando.

CITIUS MAG: What else can you share about the course right now? Is there a timeline in mind for revealing it?

Jon Hughes: Honestly, Chris, if I had the course right now, I’d be happy to share it with you. We showed USA Track and Field a couple of different options. One thing we did learn going through the bid process for 2020 is that they have a lot of input on that. We also have a technical director there we’re going to be working with, who is fantastic. We are going to follow their lead. The ultimate goal is to make a course that’s best for the athletes. So we don’t have it. We have some ideas but right now I don’t have a confirmed course.

Betsy Hughes: But if anybody knows Orlando at all, the actual downtown where our iconic Lake Eola and the fountain is. That is definitely in the vicinity. We have a couple of big races that we do – our turkey trot and our OUC Orlando Half Marathon – that have similar roadways. So if anyone knows Orlando, it’s going to be in that vicinity.

CITIUS MAG: You were part of the bidding for 2020 and you’ve probably read about how much Atlanta spent on it and their decision not to bid again. What’s different about this bid so that you don’t end up in a similar situation?

Jon Hughes: Going through the process for 2020 was an eye-opener. We’ve been in the business so long. We know Rich (Kenah) – a great guy with Atlanta. We know Wade Morehead with Houston. So we know all these people personally and professionally and I got some great input from all of them. What I think has been the problem – I think that there is going to be and will continue to be improvements from the national governing body side to make the trials more appealing. But what we realized is you have to go into this with your eyes wide open. I think the problem has been that a lot of people went into it thinking that perhaps this could actually really help produce revenue in different ways. We did not go into this thinking that. That’s where I go back to the great support that we’re getting from the city, in particular, and the county and the sports commission to bring it to fruition. They are partners. We will be forming the LOC with them and that’s what I mentioned earlier about how it’s going to be a win-win for everybody, including the overall community. Everybody is dedicated to this. Nobody is looking to, if you will, make money. We want to showcase our beautiful city. That’s why it is called The City Beautiful. We’re going to bring youth out. We want to encourage the youth, get them inspired and get them into a healthy lifestyle.

Betsy Hughes: It’s easy for us to talk about this because this is what we do for a living. We produce road races with what we think is the best team in the sport. We have our ops team, our marketing team, and our timers. We’ve had our own computerized scoring system that’s unlike no other since ’83 when we first started working with computers in the races. We have our Track Shack Youth Foundation. And for us, when we produce all these local events, we’re benefiting our local youth. That’s why that’s so important to us. But this is what we do. We have the store. We have the events. And now we’re going to have the Olympic Trials here in Orlando. And we’re so excited.

CITIUS MAG: One of the best parts about being in Atlanta was the crowds. It felt like There were 700 people competing and each one of them brought five to ten family members. They’ve tightened up the standards so maybe there are fewer people competing. When you close your eyes and picture it, what does that look like?

Jon Hughes: For one thing, Betsy and I were two of those people in Atlanta, because we went and we were benchmarking Atlanta as well. It was thrilling. I thought that Rich Kenah and his team did an excellent job with the 2020 trials. And kudos to them because you mentioned earlier about the money and all. That was a decision that they made by the Atlanta Track Club. They said, ‘You know what? We’re going to go ahead. Let them bring in everybody and we’re going to take care of them.’My hat is off to them because that was a huge financial commitment and I thought that was really great. Jason Siegel (President and CEO of the Greater Orlando Sports Commission) was saying that we anticipate at least 100,000 spectators. That’s the nice thing about Orlando is that’s nothing foreign to us. We have some huge events right down in the same venue that we’ve talked about that get crowds of 100,000+ like the 4th of July and some others. Even our own corporate run has 18,000 just participants – not counting all the co-workers and friends and family who come out, so the venue can hold it. The way I believe the course will be headed is that we’ll have spectators all the way around. Around Lake Eola is just going to be it’ll be great.

Betsy Hughes: It’s really conducive to crowds. We can close our eyes and just tell you it’s going to be amazing.

Chris Chavez

Chris Chavez launched CITIUS MAG in 2016 as a passion project while working full-time for Sports Illustrated. He covered the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro and grew his humble blog into a multi-pronged media company. He completed all six World Marathon Majors and is an aspiring sub-five-minute miler.