Exciting Sydney marathon will give fast athletes a last gasp at Olympic dream

On April 25th, some of Australia's top marathoners, including Jessica Stenson and Thomas do Canto, will have an opportunity to chase the Olympic qualifying standard.
Jessica Stenson is back

On April 25th, top Australian marathon runners, including Jessica Stenson and Thomas do Canto, will have an opportunity to chase the Olympic qualifying standard at an elites-only race in western Sydney.

The marathon, which is being organised by Athletics Australia, will take place at the Sydney International Regatta Centre in Penrith, New South Wales.

While the specific course details have not been released, the venue offers a pancake-flat 5km running track around the perimeter of the 2300-metre-long competition lake.

(EDITOR’S NOTE: On a good day, it’s a beautiful spot to run. I won the 2019 Western Sydney Half Marathon on the course in some very fine conditions. However, I’ve heard from several runners the site can get quite windy.)

What are the Olympic marathon standards?

In order to qualify for the Olympic Games, athletes have to run an agreed-upon time standard determined by World Athletics, the international governing body for the sport.

Athletes who meet this mark must then be selected by their national athletics body (Athletics Australia or equivalent). There are usually three male and three female spots allocated to a given country.

For the Tokyo Olympics, the standard for the men’s marathon is 2:11.30 (2 hours 11 minutes and 30 seconds). And for the women’s marathon, the standard is 2:29.30.

Australia already has enough qualified athletes to field a full team: Liam Adams (2:10:48 in Otsu, Japan), Brett Robinson (2:10:55 in London) and Jack Rayner (2:11:06 in London) have all run faster than the male standard of 2:11:30.

And on the women’s side, Sinead Diver (2:24:11 in London), Lisa Weightman (2:26:02 in Osaka, Japan), and Ellie Pashley (2:26:21 in Nagoya, Japan) have all bettered the 2:29:30 mark. 

Tasmanian Milly Clark, who ran 2:28:08 on the Gold Coast in 2019, also has the standard, but is outside the top 3.

If we have a team, why do we need this race?

It would be hard to imagine (let alone field) a stronger Australian marathon team in Tokyo.

However, what I wrote back in January when I made the case for an Olympic marathon trials, still rings true:

“Spare a thought, if you will, for some of the other serious (and hopeful) Australian contenders; athlete’s who are certainly deserving of a shot to at least run the standard. The coronavirus has made it virtually impossible for many runners to access fast races overseas, and that doesn’t appear to be changing anytime soon. A (theoretical) trials race on home soil would be their only hope.”

In organising this race, it’s clear Athletics Australia has drawn a similar conclusion.

There are some legitimately fast distance runners in Australia, and they must be given a shot to run the standard.

To be clear, this marathon isn’t a trials race, as nothing is guaranteed for the winners. The selectors will still have the final say over who represents the country. But it is an opportunity.

Who are Australia’s legitimate contenders?

(EDITOR’S NOTE: Once final start lists have been released, we will update the story.)

On the women’s side, there are two big names this race will cater to.

The aforementioned Milly Clark and Jessica Stenson, both of whom are past Olympians.

Marathon runner Jess Stenson

Clark, who was the top Australian finisher (18th) at the Rio Games, was meant to travel to Europe to race the Rotterdam Marathon in April 2020. Stenson had plans to run the Hamburg Marathon around the same time.

Unfortunately, both events got cancelled, and neither athlete has had an opportunity to access a fast marathon at home or abroad since.

Stenson ran 2:25.59 in Toronto in 2018, before taking a break from the sport to have a child. At her best, she could certainly leapfrog Ellie Pashley and get the third spot.

That raises an interesting question: will Pashley race?

Her coach has been adamant she won’t compete (via the Inside Running Podcast). However, maybe that tune will change in the next five weeks.

It would be pretty awful to sit idly by and watch someone run just a few seconds faster. At least if she’s in the race, she has a a degree of agency in the outcome.

Who are the elite men racing?

On the men’s side, there are several proven marathoners who could comprise an elite field in Penrith. There are also some speedy half marathoners who might be looking to jump-up in distance.

Elite marathon runner Tom do Canto

Here are some of the big names to watch:

  • Thomas do Canto — a 2:14-high marathoner who recently ran 1:02-low for the half in Launceston.
  • Ben St Lawrence — one of Australia’s all-time greats, with a marathon PB of 2:14.
  • Harry Summers — a sub-28-minute 10km runner, with a half marathon PB of 1:03-low.
  • Nic Harman — a 25-year-old with a 2:14-low PB in the marathon
  • Andy Buchanan — a 1:02-high half marathon runner, who just ran a 13:42 5k PB in Melbourne.
  • Michael Roeger — a Paralympic World Champion and the the T-46 marathon world record holder. He boasts PBs of 1:04-low in the half, and 2:19.33 in the marathon.

How many of these athletes will actually line up? And do any of them strike enough fear into Jack Rayner to tempt the Melbourne Track Club athlete to toe the line, to safeguard his top 3 spot?

Who else can run in this race?

While this is technically an elites-only marathon, Athletics Australia has lowered the entry standards to help fill-out the fields.

Men who have run faster than 2:30.00 in the marathon are eligible, and women who have gone under 2:55.00 can also line-up.

This opens the door to a number of prospective athletes, as well as pacers. I was told by an organiser that pacers would not be provided by Athletics Australia, but would be allowed.

In other words, athletes chasing the standard can ‘quietly’ arrange pacers to support them.

Some criticisms of the race

While I’m very much in favour of this race going ahead, there are some issues worth mentioning.

The major criticism has been the timing. It comes very close on the heels of two existing running festivals (Canberra and Hobart), and could potentially dilute their event fields.

Furthermore, it has been criticised for its proximity to the Olympic Games itself. Only 14 weeks will separate the race in Penrith from the Olympic marathon in Sapporo in early August. This could be a deterrent for already-qualified athletes.

Lastly, there’s been an issue of communication. It’s been a poorly guarded secret for some months that this race was happening. So why is it only just being formally announced?

The ‘big dog’ athletes and their coaches were notified early. A consultation meeting was held. Availability and interest needed to be gauged, and some level of buy-in secured, before proceeding with planning. That’s all fine.

But five weeks notice for other eligible athletes is pretty unsatisfactory.

A (small) personal rant

I’m a 2:26.47 marathoner, so could theoretically line-up. However, I’ve planned my whole 2021 training block (and running year) around competing in Canberra.

I wanted a marathon and had to choose a known-quantity, not pin my hopes to a rumoured-to-be-true race, however tantalising.

Had I been given 10 weeks notice, maybe I would have considered changing my program and race. But I’m less than 4 weeks away from Canberra now, and nearly into my taper. There’s no way I’m changing course.

With that personal rant out of the way, let me reiterate: I am still very, very excited to see this race go ahead. Hopefully in person, if spectators are allowed.

Not only will it give legit athletes an opportunity, it’s races like these that are needed to grow and popularise our sport for a domestic audience.

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