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Observing strategies of runners at Olympic Trials Marthon

Running & Fitness
Saturday, March 7, 2020

I watched the Olympic Trials Marathon last Saturday. I had two reasons for watching the broadcast of the marathon in Atlanta. One, because I enjoy watching running events, whether it is a track meet or long distance running, like a marathon. The second reason is because the race outcome is different. The Olympic Trials Marathon only takes the top three runners. It helps to run a good fast time, but the time is secondary to placing in the top three. This makes for some different strategy for runners.

The race for the top three runners was open this year as only a few of the best United States marathon runners were entered. To run the race, every runner had to meet a qualifying standard. There are a couple of axioms that marathon runners go by. One is that it is a long race and there is no need to go too fast too soon. Even for us slow marathoners this holds true. I have been in more than one marathon race where the fast starters are sitting on a curb at mile 23, or walking at mile 24. The second thing that marathon runners will tell you is that the halfway point is at 20 miles. 

For the men it was an interesting race. Shrader, a runner from Northern Arizona, took off on a break away at mile 12. He was at least 40 seconds in front of the main pack of runners. He looked strong, had an efficient stride, and good running mechanics. The point that marathon runners mention, “It is a long race,” kept popping into my head. It was much too early in the race to go that fast. It reminded me of watching the LeTour De France bike races. The breakaway groups take off and the peloton group just sits back and waits. Some of these breakaway riders can be 15 minutes ahead of the pack. When the time is right the pack starts to reel them in. It is still amazing to watch the pack swallow the lead bikes up and leave them behind. This is the same scenario in the Olympic Trials Marathon. The pack just swallowed the lead breakaway runners and left them behind at around mile 18. After that the more experienced runners took over and slowly the pack became a group of runners in single file.

From mile 20 on the race was down to five runners. Then four. And a short distance after that the three runners to make the Olympic team battled it out. While being in the top three is the sole purpose of running this marathon the pace was still amazing. Galen Rupp, the eventual winner, ran a 2:09:20, and averaged under a five minute mile pace for 26.2 miles. I look at that and think it is equivalent to running a 75-second quarter 105 times without stopping. Jacob Riley, and 43 year old Abdi Abdiraham, ran a close finish for second and third place. They both ran a 2:10:02 and 2:10:03 time for the marathon. And looking over the results I wasn’t able to find Shrader in the top 25 runners. The two points of the marathon being “a long race” and “the halfway point is at 20 miles” seemed to hold true for this race.

There are a few examples where a breakaway runner will maintain the pace and win. The best example was the first women’s Olympic Marathon in Los Angeles. Joan Benoit (Samuelson) had qualified for the Olympic Trials after having knee surgery just 10 days before. Los Angeles was a hot and humid day for the first women’s marathon. Benoit had the nylon grey tank top uniform of the USA pretty much looking like a mesh fabric with all the holes cut into it. She broke away early and the more experienced runners, and some of the favorites, let her go as they knew that the marathon is a long race. But what happened is that Benoit kept the lead, never slowed down, and won the first women’s Olympic Marathon. The breakaway strategy in this case worked very well.

The women followed the strategy of marathon running more than the men did. The women stayed together in a group until close to mile 18. After that the pace picked up and only the stronger runners were able to follow. At mile 22 the top three women runners were Aliphine Tuliamuk, Molly Seidel, and Sally Kipeygo. It was interesting to learn that Molly Seidel had never run a marathon distance. She qualified by running a fast 1:10 half marathon. The last two miles was between Aliphine and Molly. The lead changed several times and it was just a question if Molly could keep the pace having never run that far before. At the last few hundred yards, Tuliamuk stretched the lead and won in a time of 2:27:23. Molly finished eight seconds behind her and Sally Kipeygo came across for the third spot in 2:28:51.

I get asked by sports fans, “How can you watch runners doing the same thing for over two hours and not get bored?” I could say the same thing about NASCAR and Formula One races that they watch. The one difference is that the marathon does not have the possibility of an exciting car crash. I thought Daytona 500 was never going to be able to finish with all the pile ups the last few laps. As to watching runners that are at the top of their game, I enjoy the athleticism and skilled movement of top athletes in almost any sport. Since I have participated in a number of sports I can relate to the top athletes and marvel at what they have accomplished in many of the sports I watch. Even watching runners, all doing the same thing in a boring marathon, is fun to watch.

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