Since 1982 I've written a newsletter, Running Commentary. A new issue appears here each week, and material is archived.

Thu, 20 Dec 2012 04:40:10 -0500

Trials Times

RUNNING COMMENTARY 968

(The latest, and probably last, home for my magazine column was Marathon & Beyond. That seven-year stay ended in 2011. Now I have permission to republish those pieces. This one comes from the July 2008 issue.)

Some races should stay exclusive. Not exclusively for the pros but not for just anyone, either. Not many events but just three marathons, Boston and the Olympic Trials for men and women.

The sport needs this set of races reserved for runners who go fast, not just those who enter quickly. They draw the lines that distinguish the best of us from the rest of us. The only argument I have with qualifying standards is where to draw the lines.

When I first ran Boston, the race welcomed anyone – as long as he was male and stood a good chance of beating the cutoff time of 3˝ hours. That’s why I could legally run my debut marathon there, without any prior time.

Then came the first rumblings of a running boom. Boston had to set standards or be overrun with runners. Today’s standards might have eased too much, given the field that is 20 times larger than when time-qualifying first arrived.

The Olympic Trials standards might have tightened too much, at least for the men. The toughest ticket to punch in U.S. long-distance running just got tougher. Men of the marathon will need to run 2:19:00 or better to qualify for the 2012 Trials. The “B” standard of sub-2:22 from the 2008 Trials is gone, along with the chance to slip in on a severely downhill course. The women retain the “B” standard (2:46 for 2012), and the “A” of 2:39 remains unchanged.

Races serving an Olympian purpose require high standards. After all, only three runners of each sex advance – provided they meet the even tougher time requirements of the Games. The Marathon Trials aren’t meant for the masses. Yet neither are they only about Making The Team. The Trials are also about honoring the near-great who view reaching this race as their “Olympics.”

I’ve heard no convincing case for limiting these races to the precious few, and can argue against eliminating the “B’s.” As with most subjects in this column, I take this one personally. Not that I ever came close to qualifying, but I once had close family ties to that race.

Jim Howell is the only member of my family ever to compete in an Olympic Trials. The two of us were related only by marriage, but we’d lived and sometimes trained together (on his easiest days) before he qualified for the marathon with a little more than a minute to spare.

I was almost as thrilled to see Jim run the 1972 Trials as he was to be there. He had no chance to make the team, so this was his “Olympics.” Jim’s time in the 2:28s wouldn’t come close to qualifying now, but it should.

The field of sub-2:30 runners wasn’t overcrowded in Eugene that year, and wouldn’t be now if a similar standard applied. In the 2008 men’s race, with 2:22 as its time limit and downhill courses allowed, the finishers numbered 104. Of those, only 34 runners in the New York City race broke the and 2012 standard of 2:19.

The race has room for many more. Accepting two or three times more would add little to the cost and much to the benefit. Keep the standards high and the honor of running in this event special, I say, but open the qualifying window wider. Offer expense money only to the fastest qualifiers, then let the others pay their own way.

Jim Howell, a graduate student at the time, scraped together all of his own expense money in 1972. The benefits came later, when runners in his area took more seriously the advice of a Trials qualifier. As a hometown hero he went into coaching, first at a junior college and then a university. A runner of Jim’s speed couldn’t have qualified under the new standards.

I say the Trials still need runners like him. At least bring the men’s event into line with the women’s – and better yet, ease both of them a little more.

Men trying to reach the “B” standard for the 2008 race had to squeeze into a two-minute window behind the “A’s.” The women had an eight-minute window (2:39 to 2:47 for those Trials) for “B”-standard qualifying (with no plan so far to eliminate these second-tier runners in 2012).

I say, round off the upper limit at 10 minutes above the “A” qualifier, for men and women. These times, 2:29 and 2:49 for 2012, would create more of the hometown-hero marathoners.

Mary Coordt is one of those heroes, as well as a friend of mine. She was a B-standard qualifier for the third straight time in 2008. Runners in the Sacramento area look up to her for advice, which she gives freely.

Mike Long volunteered to help with my running class in Eugene and also led beginning-runner groups at a local store. He hasn’t made the Trials, and probably won’t under the new standard, but likely would under the “A-plus-10-minutes” plan. Mike is already a hometown hero, and could become an even bigger one. The sport can’t have too many of them.

UPDATE: Mary Coordt qualified for her fourth Trials in 2012. Mike Long reached a bigger goal – graduation from medical school.


[Many books of mine, old and recent, are now available in three different formats: (1) in print from Amazon.com; (2) as e-books from Amazon.com and BarnesandNoble.com; (3) as printable and shareable PDFs from Lulu.com. Just released was Learning to Walk. Other titles: Home Runs, Joe’s Journal, Long Run Solution, Long Slow Distance, Marathon Training, Run Right Now, Run Right Now Training Log (not an e-book), and Starting Lines, plus Rich Englehart’s book about me, Slow Joe (e-book only). The middle book of the memoir series, Going Far, is being serialized in Marathon & Beyond magazine.]
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