February 24, 2020

Your Cheat Sheet to the Women’s Olympic Marathon Trials

Your need-to-know info on the Women’s marathon Trials in Atlanta

Text by Taylor Mahan-Rudolph

Every four years, American runners line up in an attempt to make the Olympic marathon team. The event draws huge attention and with its occurrence in February, allows running to be accessible to the mainstream public for a brief moment outside of the Olympics or marathon majors. For those tuning in to the event for the first time or those who want the inside scoop on who, what, when, where, why – this article is for you.

How it works: In order to compete in the marathon for Team USA, runners are required to run in an event designated the ‘Olympic Trials Marathon’. Any runner who runs below the qualifying standard (2:45:00 for women), is eligible to compete in the Trials. The runners who finish in the top three in the Marathon Trials are automatically selected for the US Olympic Team.

What’s different in 2020:  Last year the IAAF released new rules mandating that athletes had to run under the Olympic standard time (2:29:30 for women) in order to qualify for the Olympics – a noticeably higher standard than the previous mark of 2:45:00. They later modified the rules to allow runners qualifying at a “Gold label status” race (as designated by the IAAF) to compete. Luckily, the US marathon course in Atlanta is now certified so all runners will be able to qualify for the Olympics regardless of whether or not they’ve met the IAAF standard. This is good news for all athletes considering the difficulty of the Atlanta course.

In addition to the shifting IAAF rules, the American women’s field has improved dramatically in the last four years. In 2016, 246 women ran under the qualifying standard. In 2020, 511 women qualified to race in Atlanta on February 29, 2020. This will be the largest women’s field to ever compete in a Trials event.

Course & Conditions: Typically you’d expect the Trials course to be similar to the Olympic race in conditions or course profile. Los Angeles was selected prior to Brazil. Houston before London. However the Atlanta course is very different from what runners will experience in Tokyo, which will be flat and likely very hot and humid in August.

What to expect: With almost 1400 feet of climbing (and an equal amount of descending), the course favors strength athletes over those traditionally considered the “fastest” in the field.

Favorites & Predictions : In 2016, Amy Cragg, Desiree Linden and Shalane Flanagan were the first three across the line. Today, Shalane is retired and Amy recently pulled the plug on the event due to lingering illness. With Desiree Linden still very much in the competitive mix after winning Boston in 2018, another top woman to watch is Emily Sisson, who had the fastest US marathon debut at London last year, with a smoking 2:23.

Other contenders include Sara Hall, Molly Huddle (Sisson’s training partner and the most decorated US distance athlete of all time) as well as Lindsay Flanagan, Jordan Hasay, and Kellyn Johnson.

All runners have PRs below the Olympic standard and are among the top Americans in the last two years. Sara Hall and Molly Huddle both performed well at the Houston half a couple weeks ago with 70 minute runs that could indicate strong fitness for the marathon. That being said, with the strength of women’s marathon running right now there are quite a few contenders not even on that list!

Insider tip: We’re putting our money on Desiree Linden making her third Olympic team – she’s gritty and excels at courses like Boston which are hilly and notoriously tough. Mentally strong athletes are also strong favorites on this type of course – self-proclaimed “under dogs” of the NAZ Elite team, Kellyn Taylor & Steph Bruce will likely do well on a course that requires tactical racing. It also seems likely that someone considered relatively “unknown” to the media could rise to the top five.

Unconventional racers: In addition to the strong runners in the field, a group of professional triathletes will also be taking on the Trials. Haley Chura, an Ironman Champion and former swimmer, swam at the Trials in 2004 but will now be returning to the Trials in the marathon.

Haley will be accompanied by Ruth Brennan Morrey, also a former swimmer & Trials veteran, who will be returning to the Trials after a twenty year hiatus.

Triathlete Sarah Bishop, a serial racer, is coming off a win at the Mesa Marathon and a 5th place finish at a 70.3 distance race just two weeks prior to the Trials.

With such varied backgrounds and experiences, we look forward to chatting with these three women at our panel: the IronWomen Live event, that will precede the Trials on Wednesday, February 26, 2020 from 6:30-8:30pm at the OxWork Business Club. More information on the event is available here.

Where to Watch: The race will be broadcasted live on NBC. We look forward to tuning in to the race on February 29, 2020 to see how it all shakes out.


Taylor is a Social Media Coordinator for Live Feisty Media and a triathlon coach. Before working in triathlon, she studied art and also pursued a professional career in medtech – working her way up to a Director level position at a medical device start-up. She lives in Madison, WI where she trains & races long course triathlon.

Latest podcasts

November 30, 2022
108: The Menopause 200 – An Ultrarunner’s Game Plan for Thriving Through Menopause with Kamm Prongay (Episode 108)
November 29, 2022
117: Rachel Olzer is Both Intense and Soft (Episode 117)
November 29, 2022
The Problem with Persuasion (Episode 111)

Go to Top