Imagine a high-stakes Australian marathon trials, with all of our fastest runners lining-up on home soil. Up for grabs: a ticket to the Tokyo Olympics (assuming they proceed). What a race that would be!
The United Kingdom will hold its marathon trials race in March 2021. And other countries have already done so. In October 2019, Athletics Canada held its Olympic marathon trials in conjunction with the Toronto Waterfront Marathon. And in February 2020, the American marathon trials were held on a hilly, purpose-designed course in Atlanta.
I watched these two races, in their entirety, on live stream. And from start to finish, they were gripping. And that’s saying something.
When it comes to viewing excitement, marathons aren’t exactly rocket launches. On the sport spectrum, they probably slot-in somewhere between golf and curling. And even that assessment might be generous (especially, if you ask a non-runner).
There can be tense edge-of-your-seat moments when runners surge or overtake someone. These moments are often fleeting, however, and book-ended by long periods of monotonous foot-striking.
Make the marathon more exciting
Turn a marathon into a trials event, however and you get an instant (and considerable) dial-up in drama.
Suddenly, you’re watching Game 7 of the NBA Finals; a heavyweight tilt entering the 10th round; a tie-breaker in a five-set nail-biter at the Australian Open.
The aspiration of every athlete is on the line: a chance to represent their country at the Olympics.
Yet there are no guarantees in a trials race. There are clear favourites; athletes who should win. But they have to show-up nonetheless, and compete with hungry underdogs and upstart, unheard-of-athletes.
And sometimes those underdogs do the unimaginable, and pull-off upsets. In Atlanta, unsponsored athlete Jake Riley shocked everyone and finished second in the men’s race, while none of the (heavily) favoured American women finished in the top 3.
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A trials race is a Battle Royale! It forces the superstars to step-up, and it can be a launching pad to stardom for those up-and-comers ready for lift-off.
Can a marathon trials happen in Australia?
The idea of an Australian Olympic marathon trials has been lobbed about, and with good reason.
We have Australian Marathon Championships each year, run by Athletics Australia in conjunction with a big city marathon (it’s slated for Gold Coast through to 2022). So why not extend that championship idea, once every four years, and host a trials race?
It almost seems like a no-brainer. Is there a better way to build hype around the sport and grow the fan-base? Get some quality sponsorship, televise and market-the-hell out of the event. And then, get your top runners’ names and faces on the map of the national sporting landscape.
Rather than clocking PBs abroad, a trials race would give our very best athletes a real, meaningful incentive to run their best race on Australian soil, in front of a (hopefully captivated) domestic audience.
Will it happen for Tokyo 2021?
I would love to see an Australian marathon trials before for Tokyo 2021 games. But I don’t hold out great hope. It’s logistically challenging to organise in the short window available, and it’s not technically necessary.
While selections aren’t locked-in, enough runners have achieved the standard to allow Australia to field a full squad.
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), Ellie Pashley (2:26:21 in Nagoya, Japan) and Milly Clark (2:28:08 on the Gold Coast) have all run times faster than 2:29:30.
Six of these seven athletes will very likely comprise our Tokyo-bound marathoners.
A marathon trials for the legit hopefuls
These athletes are amazing, and all well-deserving of their spots — if they are eventually named to the national team.
But 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.
For argument’s sake, imagine a men’s field with the likes of 2:14-runners Ben St. Lawrence, Julian Spence, Thomas Do Canto and Nik Harman. You could also add some sub-64 minute half-marathoners looking to make fast debuts such as Andy Buchanan and Joel Tobin White.
On the women’s side, past Olympian and two-time Commonwealth Games bronze medallist Jessica (Stenson) Trengove has talked to us about her intention to run 2:26 or faster and is certainly deserving of an opportunity.
And the women’s roster could be filled out with sub-2:45 marathoners, such as Rochelle Rodgers, Marnie Ponton, and Stephanie Auston.
A race for the ages
It would be awesome to see these athletes go head-to-head. Not in London, or Japan, or Chicago, or Houston. But on a purpose-designed, multi-lap (and Covid-safe) course in Melbourne, Sydney or the Gold Coast.
In future years, it would make sense to piggy-back on an existing marathon, and its infrastructure (everything from planning and race-day ops to marketing).
In 2021, the Canberra and Hobart marathons are both scheduled for April, which is an ideal time. But neither city boasts an ideal course for achieving the standard.
In this strange period, one would imagine an Australian marathon trials would need to be an elites-only race in a tightly-monitored environment (similar to the 2020 London Marathon), on a flat course.
I’m spit-balling here, but a 5-km lap course around the Sydney Olympic Park precinct or the International Regatta Centre in Western Sydney (which has no road traffic) could be ideal. *NOTE: I’m most familiar with Sydney, but I’m sure every city would have an equivalent prospective locale.
But what about the talent pool?
I can already hear the naysayers whispering. Australia doesn’t have the depth of talent at the distance to necessitate a trials race.
In 2021, there might be some truth in that statement. But guess what: the way to increase your country’s talent pool and find stud runners, in future, is to grow the sport. Make distance running popular, give young people stars to idolise, and a reason to choose athletics over footy or cricket or tennis or swimming.
And just because the talent-pool is small at the moment, that doesn’t mean legit contenders should be denied an opportunity to showcase their talents, and make the squad — if they’re capable.
And if a race can be feasibly and cost-effectively organised by the likes of Athletics Australia, a state athletics body, or by a private company (similar to The Marathon Project).
Furthermore, if depth was a real issue, you could always expand the invite list by relaxing the cut-off. The U.S. trials race had an entry standard of 2:19:00 for men, and 2:45:00 for women.
An Australian marathon trials could, for example, invite women who have run 2:55 or faster, and men who who have run sub-2:25. (Or predicted half marathon equivalents).
Below are the 2019 Australian Marathon rankings, as an indicator:
What about the athletes who have already run standard?
Athletes should be notified of the intentions of a governing body to run a trials race, as it would certainly influence their training, race selection and recovery timeframes.
That said, the athletes who have currently run standard are not guaranteed Olympians. Not yet. There is always the threat of someone running faster, and overtaking them in the rankings.
If Australia were to hold a marathon trials, there are a couple of designs that could be used: one is cut-throat, and one more diplomatic.
The U.S. trials race was an example of the former. All-or-nothing. The top three finishers got the job. End of story. If you blew-up or had a bad day, too bad.
This race model might ruffle some feathers, but it would also guarantee your best athletes are on the start-line. They wouldn’t have a choice.
A more diplomatic trials race
If organisers wanted to take a more diplomatic approach, they could adopt the Canadian model.
In the Canadian marathon trials in 2019, only one Olympic spot was guaranteed for the top finisher — provided they ran the standard. (One of those spots was nabbed by Trevor Hofbauer in an incredible upset, which we wrote about). The other two national team spots will eventually be filled by runners who have achieved the standard elsewhere.
In this scenario, the top two male and female runners in Australia (Adams and Robinson; Diver and Weightman) would — in theory — be safe from getting knocked-off the team by someone who ran a slower time.
But they might still be tempted to run, just to be safe. They wouldn’t want to be sitting idle while someone ran faster.
Hopefully on the cards
Whether we get a trials before Tokyo remains to be seen. If yes, I’ll certainly be paying the fee to tune-in (if I can’t attend in person).
And if not, it’ll be a bummer; a bummer for fans of the sport, but more importantly, a bummer for athletes deserving of a genuine shot at qualifying. Some of these athletes, no doubt, will be looking for overseas races at great personal expense (and probably in defiance of the best health and travel advice).
I’d certainly be considering a ‘risky’ choice, if making the Olympics were a lifelong dream and a legitimate possibility.
At any rate, I hope the conversation is being had. If not now, a marathon trials in the future would be an awesome spectacle and a sure-fire way to help grow and popularise the sport.
What do you think? Should Australia host a trials race for the marathon? Would you tune in?