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January 27th, 2020

On February 29th – dubbed by many as “Leap Day” – hordes of finely-tuned American men and women will take to the Atlanta streets to compete in the 2020 USA Olympic Team Marathon Trials. The task here – the first of two pre-race pieces on the men’s and women’s Olympic Marathon Trials – is to analyze the field, forecast who the top performers will be, and predict the athletes who will represent the USA in this summer’s Olympic Games marathon races in Japan. The men who make the Olympic team will likely by the top 3 finishers. An accurate prognostication is virtually impossible in this 26 mile 385 yard event where anything can happen (and almost always does), the weather on race day is unknown, and the event boasts a field containing nearly all of the country’s best athletes who have trained in solitude, hidden any physical tweaks or aches, and – for many – purposely haven’t raced a marathon in quite a while. One would have to be very good to get it right. Just a little bit of luck will help make these predictions look wiser than deserved . Here goes:

The Favorites: There are two entrants who have authored superior bodies of work that separate them from the other competitors:

• Galen Rupp / Qualifier: 2:06:07 Prague 2018: The 33-year-old Rupp is doubtless one of the greatest American distance runners of all time. With 9 national outdoor titles in the 5,000 and the 10,000, Galen has dominated on the track. In capturing silver in the 10,000 in the ’12 Olympics, bronze in the marathon in the ’16 Games, and gold in the 2017 Chicago Marathon, Rupp has shown he can perform at his finest on the big stages. The American record holder at 10,000 [26:44.36] is the #2 athlete on the all-time USA list for both the half marathon [59:47] and marathon [2:06:07] and can handle any race pace. A key question is how will Rupp be impacted by last summer’s ban of his long-time coach and father figure Alberto Salazar? In October, Rupp DNF’d in the Chicago Marathon. Will his mental approach be intact in Atlanta?

• Leonard Korir / Qualifier: 2:07:56 Amsterdam 2019: With PR’s of 59:52 in the half and 2:07:56 [the fastest marathon debut ever by an American] in last fall’s Amsterdam Marathon, the 33-year-old Korir has shown he can race with Rupp. Korir posted several impressive road wins in 2019 but finished 13th in the Doha 10,000 final behind Rupp [5th]. In a close, hard-fought street battle, Korir may struggle matching the leg speed of the faster competitors over the final miles.

In The Hunt: When the rest of the men’s field is examined there are at least five men that should be in the mix until deep into the race, perhaps right up to the finish line. If any of these athletes would make the team, it should surprise no one. It all depends who has that good day at the office on Leap Day.

• Paul Chelimo / Qualifier: 1:02:19 New York 2019: Trials qualifiers who have never before raced a marathon should be viewed with skepticism. That said, the 29-year-old Chelimo, a 2-time Olympic medalist at 5000, is an immensely talented athlete. In his maiden race at 42 kilos, Chelimo’s finishing speed could propel him into the top 3 if the men’s race proves to be tactical.

• Scott Fauble / Qualifier: 2:09:09 Boston 2019: On Patriots’ Day last year, Fauble registered a stunning breakthrough at Boston coming out of nowhere to clock 2:09:09 to finish 7th – a PR by over 3 minutes. Was his surprise performance the race of his life? Or a preview of things to come? We’ll find out on Leap Day.
• Stanley Kebeni / Qualifier: 1:01:57 Pittsburgh 2019: An accomplished Olympic steeplechaser, the 30-year-old Kebenei is yet another Trials competitor who will be running his inaugural marathon in Atlanta. Kebenei clocked 46:00 at last spring’s Cherry Blossom 10 miler to set a new American record. A world championship steeplechase finalist in Doha with a steeple PR of 8:08, Kebeni is a tough cookie who could benefit from a hot day and an honest early pace.

• Bernard Lagat; Qualifier: 2:12:10 Gold Cost Marathon 201: Lagat has enjoyed proving wrong those who have whispered over the past decade that he is too old. This RRCA Hall of Famer holds the American Masters records at 10,000 and half marathon. And his PR marathon clocking last year of 2:12:10 is likely to become yet another Masters AR as well. Now 45 years of age, the multiple-time Olympic and world championship medalist would need the stars and planets to be perfectly aligned to PR yet again and gain his 6th Olympic team berth. That said, it would be a mistake to count out this craftiest of racers.

• Jared Ward / Qualifier: 2:09:25 Boston 2019: The 31-year-old Ward is one of the contenders with the most marathon experience. 3rd place finisher at the ’16 Trials, Ward has consistently raced well in the biggest events. His gutty 6th place finish in the steamy Rio Olympic marathon is likely his most impressive performance. Warm conditions on race day and an honest early pace might well work to his advantage.

The Longshots: One of the endearing characteristics of these Olympic Marathon Trials is that on occasion a lightly-touted American athlete runs the race of his or her life and makes the Olympic team [e.g. Mark Conover, Trials winner in ’88; Julie Isphording, 3rd place in ’84]. Here are a few below-the-radar athletes who just might be able to turn the trick on race day:

• Abinet Adraro / Qualifier: 1:02:09 Houston 2019: Last January the 33 year old Adraro clocked a 1:02:09 half marathon time, bettering his PR by over 5 minutes. The time suggests he should greatly improve his marathon PR of 2:25 in Atlanta. Could Adraro be the sleeper who runs the race of his life at the Trials?

• Andrew Bumbalough / Qualifier: 2:10:56 Chicago 2019: Could the 32-year-old Bumbalough be peaking at just the right time? His 2019 Chicago Marathon qualifying time improved his previous PR by over 3 minutes. A sub-4:00 minute miler, Bumbalough will need to call on that speed in the final miles.

• Reed Fischer / Qualifier: 1:02:06 Houston 2019: This RRCA-supported athlete is another promising entrant who will be running the marathon for the first time in Atlanta. The 2019 Drake Relays champion at 5000, Fischer will need a perfect day to be in the hunt. Fischer’s impressive tune-up half marathon clocking [1:01:37] at the 2020 Houston half marathon shows he is ready to roll.

• Matt McDonald / Qualifier: 2:11:10 Chicago 2019: At age 26, McDonald is one of the younger athletes among the elites. This former Princeton athlete rang up PR’s in 2019 at 15 kilos [45:23], half marathon [1:04:48] and the marathon [2:11;:10]. His PR marathon clocking is vastly superior to his earlier half marathon PR and suggests he may be on the rise.

• Parker Stinson / 2:10:53 Chicago 2019: 27-year-old Stinson is yet another among the younger up-and-coming marathoner supported by the RRCA. The 2011 U20 Pan American Games 10,000 champion likes to front run. He, too, would need it all to come together to run a team-worthy race.

The Crystal Ball: If the weather conditions are accommodating, an early race pace won’t dawdle for long. Contenders needing to run the standard or questioning their closing speed will make sure the pace gets honest early on. While the course provides a net elevation climb of only 7 feet, from the 19 mile mark to the finish is a punishing series of rolling uphills. While the talent is there, don’t expect Ryan Hall’s Trials record time of 2:09:02 from 2007 to be taken down. Look for Galen Rupp, a man prepared for all conditions and paces, to race strong through those final tough miles and post negative splits for his 2nd consecutive Trials win with Korir finishing 2nd and Jared Ward grabbing the final Olympic team berth. This forecast of how this dramatic race will unfold may vary greatly from what actually occurs. Or with a little luck, some predictions may ring true. One thought is for sure: once that starting pistol fires, the men’s race should be one terrific battle.

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Dave Hunter

Dave HunterDave Hunter is a track & field journalist, announcer, and broadcaster.  Dave reports on the premier track & field gatherings around the globe, frequently serves as an arena or stadium announcer for championship events, and has undertaken foreign and domestic broadcast assignments in the sport.


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