From Trails to the Olympic Trials

At the Olympic Marathon Trials, the mountain, ultra, and trail communities will be well represented as athletes vie for spots in Rio.

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For runners focused on mountain, ultra, and trail (MUT) events, a road marathon can be an out-of-the-ordinary practice. Athletes used to racing 50 or 100 miles on dirt may find running 26.2 miles fast on pavement to be a step out of their comfort zones.

But for runners of any stripe, the chance to run in the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials, which take place on Saturday in Los Angeles, is simply too good to pass up, even if the chances of making the actual Olympic team are slim. (Only the top three men and women will represent the U.S. at this summer’s Olympic Games in Rio De Janeiro, and the fields are replete with professional marathoners who have run the distance significantly faster than any of the MUT athletes signed up.)

“It’s a pretty big honor to make the trials, and a benchmark of what level you’re running at,” says Max King, who ran in the 2012 trials and qualified for this year’s race at the 2015 Los Angeles Marathon with a time of 2:17:34. (He holds a marathon PR of 2:14:30.) “The roads show no mercy. They’ll let you know if you’re getting slower.”

Who’s Running?

The MUT community will be well represented at the Trials this year. Those who have met the minimum qualifying standard (a 2:19:00 marathon or 1:05:00 half-marathon for men, and a 2:45:00 marathon or 1:15:00 half for women) and are currently entered in the race include:

  • Max King – 2014 Chuckanut 50K and Ice Age 50 Mile winner
  • Caitlin Smith – 2015 Tamalpa Headlands 50K winner and USA Track & Field 50K Trail Champion
  • Joseph Gray – 2013 and 2014 US Mountain Running Champion
  • David Laney – 2015 Chuckanut 50K and Bandera 100K winner; 2015 USA Track & Field Trail 100K Champion; third place, UTMB 2015
  • Larisa Dannis – 2015 Waldo 100K winner; 2014 USA Track & Field Road 50-Mile Champion and Western States 100 runner-up
  • Patrick Smyth –  2015 Way Too Cool 50K and XTERRA Trail Run World Championship winner
  • Emily Harrison – 2014 Lake Sonoma 50 Mile winner
  • Tim Tollefson – 2014 Flagline 50K winner and USA Track & Field Trail 50K Champion
  • Caroline Boller – 2015 Black Canyons 100K winner; eighth place, 2015 Western States 100

Noteworthy absences include 2015 Tamalpa Headlands/USA Track & Field Trail 50K Champion Andy Wacker and 2015 Western States 100 champion and 2008 Olympic marathoner Magdalena Lewy-Boulet. Both ran times that qualified them for the Trials, but did not register.

Training Differences

Training for a road marathon—where the pace is faster and more sustained than in a hilly trail race—can present a unique challenge to athletes who must also maintain their strength on trails for later in the season. But some Trials qualifiers find that incorporating both road and trail training into their schedules puts them at an advantage, noting that marathon-specific speedwork can make them stronger, faster and more efficient on trails.

“I do a little bit of everything in training—some hills, some track, some tempo,” says Caitlin Smith, 34, who lives and trains in the Bay Area. “I find I am in my best shape for trail races after a road marathon.”

On the other hand, Smith says, incorporating trails can help strengthen her for any effort, road marathons included. “The trails are always there and I still tend to do my long runs on them, even with an upcoming marathon,” she says.

Meanwhile, Patrick Smyth, 29, who specialized in road and track racing before joining the Nike Trail Elite squad, says his recent training has been “a traditional marathon buildup.”

For the most part, anyway. “During that time, I’ve done a handful of [half-marathon] trail races, just to keep the body sharp and the mind fresh,” he adds. “Juggling the marathon block with some trail racing hasn’t required an overhaul in the training plan, but it has meant that some of the racing was done on tired, mileage-soaked legs.”

Sponsor Support

While many of the MUT runners participating in the Trials are sponsored athletes, they are sponsored to run trails. That means they might not see the financial and travel support for the Trials that they often get for trail races.

“The trail team is focused on trail only, so even road ultras are not covered by our budget,” says David Laney, 27, who runs for Nike Trail Elite and will be wearing Nike gear at the race. “I’m running and paying for the Trials, as would any unsigned marathon guy.”

For athletes like Laney, whose 2:17:02 at the 2014 California International Marathon was faster than the “B” qualifying standard of 2:19:00, but slower than the “A” standard of 2:15:00, no expenses are covered by USA Track & Field. The same goes for athletes who qualified via a half-marathon rather than a full. Athletes who meet the “A” standard (2:15:00 for men, 2:37:00 for women) have travel expenses covered.

Smith, who is sponsored by the trail-focused brand Salomon, likewise says she receives no financial support for the Trials. In addition, Salomon makes almost exclusively trail shoes, so she won’t necessarily be wearing optimal road-racing shoes, which are typically treadless and lightweight.

“[Salomon] makes some road/trail hybrids,” she says. “They make a road shoe, but not in my size yet.”

Why Run?

With the lack of financial support, and the near-certainty of running much farther back in the pack than they typically do on trails, why are so many MUT runners going all-in at the Olympic Marathon Trials?

It’s almost a silly question to ask a runner.

“I’m running [the Trials] because the Olympic Games are the pinnacle of athletics,” says Laney. “I know my PR, and I know the PRs of my competitors, but having the opportunity to line up with the best marathoners in the world and having a go at making an Olympic team is something I’ve dreamed about since I was 5.

“How do you pass up a chance, [even] a 0.01-percent likelihood, that you could make an Olympic team?” he continues.

Put another way?

“It’s a special event,” says Smyth.

Correction: Camille Herron, the 2015 USA Track & Field Road 50-Mile Champion, will not be competing in the Trials, as an earlier version of this article stated. She will be at the race volunteering and spectating, however.

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