Elite Trail Runners Tackle Olympic Marathon Trials

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Elite trail runners might not have qualified for the 2020 U.S. Olympic Marathon Team, but they fought something fierce at the U.S. Olympic Team Trials in Atlanta on Saturday.

The perhaps most-watched trail and ultra runner crossing over to the roads was Jim Walmsley, 2019 Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run winner and course record holder. Some pegged him as an underdog to make the US Olympic team. (The top 3 finishers qualify for the Olympics.) 

A strong group of women trail runners contended as well, especially considering the Atlanta course’s relatively hilly course. Bethany Sachtleben, for one, the 2016 runner-up at the USATF Mountain Running Championships and member of the US team that earned bronze at Worlds, placed 18th in 2:36:34.

Walmsley, 30, placed 22nd in 2:15:05 in his first road marathon; he qualified for the trials with a 64-minute half-marathon in Houston last fall. 


Aliphine Tuliamuk, Molly Seidel, Sally Kipyego

Galen Rupp, Jacob Riley, Abdi Abdirahman

Walmsley is no stranger to hard surfaces. Last year, he set the 50-mile world record, running 4:50:08 in an exhibition race hosted by HOKA ONE ONE. Before that, he ran track for Air Force Academy.

After the race, he said that it fit into his goals for the upcoming year or two, including Comrades in South Africa and road ultra records. “This one got a full 14-week block and total attention. So there’s nothing else I could’ve done to try to do better. Maybe on a different day, it would’ve shaken out a little differently, but it was a far shot. I’m glad I did this,” he said. 

However, he misses the trails. “Ultimately, the roads are boring and it’s monotonous and I don’t like the training as much. I’d much rather the trails and I’m really looking forward to the end of the year, getting back into training for UTMB out in Silverton, Colorado, which is a second home to me. It’s like eight hours a day with poles in my hands and eating junk food and taking pictures. I enjoy that training a lot,” he said. 

Jim Walmsley surges. Photo: Elizabeth Carey

In the next breath, though, he expressed hope that cross-over performances can help bridge any divide among running fans and boost the sport of running as a whole. “I think a lot of ultra fans are watching the trials today that might not have, and vice versa. I hope that some of the marathoners in this world start watching the ultras,” he said.

It’s like eight hours a day with poles in my hands and eating junk food and taking pictures. I enjoy that training a lot.

Some  Trials runners sought to prepare for upcoming trail races or capitalize on speed. Others sought to change up training stimulus or simply make the most of an opportunity to race with the best in the country. 

Additional notable trail-related finishes include: 

Rachel Drake, 28, member of the 2019 US World Mountain Running Championships, placed 59th in 2:41:58. She confirmed the race was “really hard,” but appreciated grouping up with training buddies and the emphatic, always-cheering crowd. “There’s no hiding out there, there’s no pity parties,” she said. 

Tyler Andrews, 29, winner of the 2019 Tussey Mountain Back 50 Miler and silver medalist at the 2016 50k World Championships, placed 82nd in 2:22:51—more than seven minutes off his PR.

Ellie Pell, 28, who finished 3rd at the JFK 50-Mile race in 2019 (plus back-to-back 50ks outright), placed 121st in 2:44:59.

Ashley Brasovan, 29, the 2019 North America Sky Running Champion, placed 139th in 2:46:00. 

Ladia Albertson-Junkans, runner-up at the 2019 Bandera 100k, placed 141st in 2:46:08. Before the race, she said her goal was to be in the moment. “And remembering to be Brave Like Gabe,” her best friend Gabe Grunewald who died of rare cancer last year— but not before starting a foundation by the same name that raises funds and awareness for research.

Polina Carlson, 2019 runner-up at Xterra Trail Run World Championships, placed 160th in 2:47:00. 

Camelia Mayfield, 27, fifth finisher at Western States in 2019, placed 180th in 2:48:17, leading a pack of trail and ultra runners who finished within a minute of each other. “I will be doing Western States 100 again in June, so this actually fits well with working on some flatter, faster speed, as that race actually is less technical than other races,” she said before the race. “I think that regardless of how you look at it, increasing aerobic fitness as you do for marathon training is going to benefit you for trail races and ultramarathons. It has also worked well to trail for a ‘flatter’ race (although Atlanta is hilly by road runner standards) during the winter months because I am limited in how much vertical gain I can get in Bend since the taller mountains are snowy. “

Deanna Ardrey, 5th at the 2019 US Mountain Running Championships, placed 194th in 2:48:35.

 Devon Yanko, 37, winner of the 2019 Tussey Mountainback 50-Miler and multiple-time Olympic Trials qualifier, placed 197th in 2:48:42. Before the race, she said challenging herself to run fast on roads helps with her trail and ultra goals. “My motivation when I qualified last year at Houston wasn’t actually about the Trials, but about chasing my own PR from the 2012 Olympic Trials,” she said. “I came close to running a PR at Houston—2:39, which is well under the standard. While I admittedly struggled to find motivation for competing at the Trials, given the course is not conducive to a PR at all, I am excited to be a part of it and grateful to be there.”

After the race, she said it was a struggle but that she was able to execute her race plan of passing people in the later stages. 

Elizabeth Ryan, 29, member of the 2019 US team at the World Trail Running Championships and third-place finisher at the 2018 Way Too Cool 50k, placed 203rd in 2:48:53.

YiOu Wang, 2019 winner of The North Face 50-Mile race, ran 2:50:15. For Wang, the Trials became a goal at the end of 2018 after TNF 50-Mile race was canceled, and California International Marathon seemed like a good option. She ran 2:39, about two minutes off her PR. She hadn’t run a full marathon since 2011, but the Trials was her 14th. “It actually is kind of refreshing to keep track of splits and pace, to get back into the rhythm of track work and tempos,” she said. “It’s important to not get stagnant in your training, so participating in a wide variety of events is a really great way to keep your body fresh, keep your mind fresh.” (Watch for her in Lake Sonoma this spring.) 

Kasie Enman, 40, who in 20190 qualified for World Trail Championships and finished third in both the Speedgoat 26k and Vertical K, ran 2:52:45.

Lauren Coury, 33, winner of the 2019 Mt. Hood 50-Miler, ran 2:52:16. 

Elizabeth Carey is a freelance writer and running coach based in Seattle, Washington.

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