How 600 dreams become six Olympians at the U.S. marathon trial

Galen Rupp hopes to be giving high-fives and handshakes at the conclusion of the U.S. Olympic Team Trials for marathon. EPA/TANNEN MAURY

Years and years of training and countless miles run for the fastest marathon racers in the country will come to a head on Saturday in Atlanta, when the biggest field in history takes on a hilly course in the U.S. Olympic Team Trials for marathon.

Some 600 racers are set to hit the course, with three men's and three women's spots for this summer's Tokyo Games at stake.

"There's no other race like it," said Amby Burfoot, the 1968 Boston Marathon champion and former executive editor of Runner's World. "There's much, much more pressure in the trials than there is at the Olympics. Once you're at the Olympics, that's the frosting on the cake. You have to suffer your way to get there."

It's a top-three-take-all prize in both divisions, as the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee will name its men's and women's teams for the Summer Games based off of Saturday's results in Atlanta, regardless of previous race results in the lead-up to Saturday.

"It's been four years in the making, so it's impossible not to put all the pressure in the world on yourself," added Burfoot. "You have to have a head on your shoulders and withstand the pressure... and, when something happens in the middle of the race, you have to make the right decision."

A crop of big-name veterans will look to make said right decisions in both the men's and women's fields, as lead packs could form around the odds-on favorites in Galen Rupp, the 2016 marathon bronze medalist in Rio, for the men, and Jordan Hasay, who has burst onto the marathon scene in the past three years, for the women.

Amy Cragg, the 2016 trials winner and considered a favorite in the women's field, withdrew in recent days due to an ongoing battle with Epstein-barr.

The Favorites - Men

Galen Rupp: "He's the greatest American distance runner of all time," said Burfoot of three-time Olympian Rupp, who won the 2016 trials ahead of Rio in Los Angeles. The 33-year-old has the fastest marathon qualifying time among the men by nearly two minutes at 2:06:07, but has been shrouded in controversy as his former coach, Alberto Salazar, has been accused of supplying his athletes (including Rupp) with PEDs and removed from his prominent role with Nike.

Leonard Korir: The next-fastest U.S. man at 2:07:56, Korir has raced just a single major marathon in his career, clocking said time at October's Amsterdam Marathon to produce the U.S. fastest-ever debut. The 33-year-old placed 14th in the 10,000m at the Rio Olympics in 2016.

Scott Fauble: The 28-year-old has three top-10 finishes in three international marathon appearances, buoyed by a 2:09:09 in Boston less than a year ago, where he was the top American.

Jared Ward: Ward's coach Ed Eyestone at BYU calls Rupp, Korir, Fauble and Ward "the big four" in the men's event, saying he feels the three spots will be split among them, as the only four to qualify with times under the 2:10 mark (Ward's PR is 2:09:25). A father of four, Ward has built a résumé of consistency over the past four years after being a surprise qualifier for the Rio marathon, where he finished sixth. "I'm prepared mentally," Rupp told ESPN in an interview this week.

The Field: Another 12 runners have clocked in qualifiers at 2:10 to 2:12, including four-time Olympian and 2012 marathon runner Abdi Abdirahman (2:11:34). Five-time Olympian and two-time medalist in the 1,500m Bernard Lagat (2:12:10) is also in the field.

The Favorites - women

Jordan Hasay: The word in the running world on 28-year-old Hasay is if she finishes, she'll be on the team -- meaning she has a history of pulling out of or pulling up in races, sick or injured. "She's run well in Boston, which is a similar course to Atlanta, but she hasn't done anything in the past year," said Burfoot of Hasay, whose fastest-in-the-field 2:20:57 came in Chicago in October 2017.

Sara Hall: The wife of Olympic marathoner Ryan Hall has come on strong at 36, running a career-best 2:22:16 in her most recent marathon, in Berlin in September.

Emily Sisson: At 2:23:08, she has the third-fastest qualifying time, but Sisson's time is from her lone marathon -- ever. She clocked that in London last spring, but whether she can replicate it will be the question. "I definitely don't feel like I'm an experienced marathoner," she told NBC's Olympics blog.

Kellyn Taylor: Taylor was sixth at Trials in 2016, but has since shaved minutes off her PR, coming in fastest at the famed Grandma's Marathon in 2018 at 2:24:29 to win that race.

Crowded at the Top: "I think the women's race is deeper than the men's race," said Burfoot, before listing off the likes of two-time Olympic marathoner Desiree (Des) Linden, Molly Huddle (a two-time Olympian in the 5,000m) and Idaho's upstart Emma Bates, an off-the-grid runner whom ESPN profiled last year.

Linden, Burfoot said, could set the tone for the women's race, having recently broken away from the pack in several races she's run. "She's always part of the mix... there's no one who's counting her out because of how mentally strong she is."

Course impact

While many major marathons are run on flatter courses, Atlanta has nearly 1,400 feet of uphill climbs (paired with almost as much downhill, we should note), a kind of course that doesn't lend to the crossover track runners who are trying to make a splash in marathoning.

"It's like a long cross-country race," Burfoot said. "Because of that, the race will favor more experienced strength runners."


The race begins at noon ET and will be broadcast on NBC.