Olympic Marathon Trials: How they work and when they’re happening for 2020

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Like leap year, presidential elections, and the Olympics themselves, the Olympic Trials only roll around every four years. 

It’s 2020, and that means it’s almost time for another four-year Olympic Cycle to draw to a close. Right now, most of the top runners in the country (including my team) are hard at work training for the upcoming Olympic Trials. 

In case, unlike us, every step of your last four years hasn’t been a step toward this single race, here’s a quick primer on the Olympic Trials, as well as a bit of my personal Trials experience.

What are the Olympic Marathon Trials?

An “Olympic Trial” might sound like an archaic Greek legal procedure, but it is in fact a competition whereby a country selects its Olympic team.

Qualifying for the Trials does not mean that you have qualified for an Olympic team – it’s more like earning the chance to try out. Only the top three finishers in each Trials event make it to the Olympics, so, as you might imagine, it gets pretty competitive. 

In 1908, the US became one of only a handful of countries to use an Olympic Trials system. Most other countries simply pick three athletes from a list of top performances in each event and send them off. 

These two selection processes, while equally valid, tend to favor different types of athletes. Think of it in terms of college admissions: you’ve got schools who emphasize prospective student’s overall GPA, their career performance, and then you’ve got schools who pay more attention to SAT scores, which indicate their ability to show up on a given day. If the Olympic Trials are the SAT, then the United States is looking for three exceptional test-takers.

How do you qualify for the Olympic Marathon Trials?

Olympic Marathon Trials


In order to qualify for the US Olympic Marathon Trials, athletes must meet certain event-specific time standards. The marathon is unique among Olympic events in that you can qualify for the Trials without ever having run a full marathon – USA Track and Field will accept a fast half marathon as a substitute. 

As for the actual time standards, they vary slightly from Games to Games, but tend to be fairly consistent. For example, the women’s Olympic Marathon Trials standard in 2016 was 2:43:00 (later amended to 2:45) for the full, and 1:15:00 for the half marathon. In 2020, it is 2:45:00 for the full marathon and 1:13:00 for the half. 

The Olympic Trials standards correspond to the Olympic ‘B’ standard, which, depending on the event, may or may not constitute a viable time. For many events, only the ‘A’ standard is acceptable; however, under certain circumstances, the ‘B’ will suffice.

What was it like to run the 2016 Olympic Marathon Trials?

I competed in the 2016 Marathon Trials, and am qualified again for 2020. Here’s how it went down.

In college, I burned straight through my eligibility, never stopping for a “red shirt” season. It was a double-edged sword; on one hand, I was lucky enough to have never sustained a serious injury. On the other hand, it left me, a four-and-a-half-year double major, with an awkward semester in limbo. 

I used that time to try to qualify for my first Olympic Marathon Trials. There was just one hurdle. 

In NCAA D1 track and field, the longest competition distance is the 10k – a full 20 miles shorter than a marathon, and 6.9 miles shorter than the half. Between finishing my last semester of school and working part time at the NC Museum of Natural Sciences, I knew I didn’t have the time or experience to train for a full marathon. I was going to have to qualify with a half marathon. And in late October of 2015, I did.

This left me with the simple task of not panicking about 26.2 race looming on the imminent horizon. In my naiveté, I reasoned that a full marathon couldn’t be that bad. I would be plenty prepared. Right? Right.

Unfortunately, I was in for what my grandma would euphemistically call a “learning experience”. 

Olympic Marathon Trials

The 2016 Marathon Trials were, to put it gently, an affair.

Hosted in Los Angeles, California, over 250 female and 200 male athletes participated that year. Of the competitors, roughly one-fourth (myself included) had never run a marathon before. The course consisted of four flat 6.2 mile loops, with an additional two-mile extension on the first loop. There were two fluid stations set up along the loop so that the runners were able to grab a fueling bottle roughly every 5k. 

Honestly, it would have been a great debut marathon setup if not for two factors: my energy was very high, and the weather was very hot. By the time the women took to the starting line at 10:30 a.m., temperatures were already approaching 80 degrees. Most of that heat was reflected off of the L.A. asphalt like some kind of sick toaster oven. I remember watching heat shimmer rising from the road and thinking “oh no”.

Then the gun went off and my lack of experience showed in a big way.

As a collegiate 5k and 10k runner, I was used to going out hard. Shorter races are more forgiving that way; I could usually muscle through a fast opening mile and still finish well. Even in my limited half marathon experience, I had been able to pull off good races by simply adjusting after a too-quick start.

But the marathon is a different beast, especially in the heat. So when I started clicking off miles consistently 8 seconds faster than my goal pace, I had no idea of the crash and burn that awaited me.

At mile 19, I imploded, spectacularly.

I went from steadily running to shuffling and stumbling forward like a George Romero zombie. If you’ve ever hit the wall in a marathon, you know exactly the feeling I’m talking about: that concrete-legged exhaustion only 26.2 miles of hard running can produce. It was ugly.

Nevertheless, I finished.

Olympic Marathon Trials

So what can we expect from the 2020 Olympic Trials?

This year’s Trials promise to be very different from 2016. The 2020 Marathon Trials will be held in downtown Atlanta on a three-loop course that starts and finishes at the 1996 Olympic Park. They will take place on February 29th, five months before the Track Trials (and six months before the Olympic Games) so that athletes who plan to run both have time to recover.

Unlike pancake-flat Los Angeles, Atlanta is fairly hilly city, and the course embraces this fact. This should make for some interesting tactics come race day. As for the weather, it could be anything from 80 and humid to 25 and snowing. 

This time around, I feel exponentially more prepared. The L.A. Trials was less something I did than something that happened to me. But now, with four marathons under my belt, I’m ready to take control of my race and actually, well, race it.

2020 Olympic Marathon Trials

If you want to catch the Olympic Marathon Trials, tune into NBC starting at noon EST on February 29th. If you happen to be in Atlanta, join the ZAP cheering section for a fun race viewing crowd! And if you yourself are racing, good luck, and Godspeed!

By: Joanna Thompson, professional runner with Zap Endurance

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    4 responses to “Olympic Marathon Trials: How they work and when they’re happening for 2020”

    1. I’m in Atlanta and to say I’m excited to watch this race and cheer my head off is an understatement. The Atlanta course Is going to be great for spectating bc of the 3 loops of peachtree. I am also completely impressed that this year 511 women qualified for the race; those numbers are incredible compared to LA. Can’t wait to see everyone out there.

      • I so wish I could be there!! Cheer extra loud for Joanna, my friend Paula Pridgen, and my running coach Enoch Nadler!! I’ll be cheering from home!! Running in Atlanta is so great! I’m so happy you’ll be out there supporting them all!

      • We can’t wait to see you! I should say the the Atlanta Track Club has really done a remarkable job with these Trials as well – pretty stoked about the course they’ve put together!

    2. Oh my gosh! you are amazing. I ran a marathon once and that was it. You are inspiring me to do more. Will follow your journey.

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