I was eating lunch in the break room at work last week, when two of my colleagues sat down at a nearby table. Although I know it’s rude to listen in on other people’s conversations, I couldn’t help paying attention when the talk turned to marathon times, specifically, the difficulty of qualifying for the Boston Marathon. Both of these two colleague are runners, and one has been training hard for the Bay State Marathon in a couple of weeks, hoping to run under 3:05. That time happens to be the published standard for men 18-34 required to qualify for Boston. But as we saw last week, even running the published qualifying standard wasn’t enough to guarantee entry. Unless you ran 2’28” faster than that, you didn’t get in.
The presence of qualifying times serves as a powerful status signal in the running world, a threshold of sorts, separating those who are presumably dedicated enough to train their butts off to qualify, and those who are not. I’m not sure that’s exactly true, by the way, but that’s the perception. And according to that perception, the qualifying standards impose a ranking system on runners, identifying those who are more or less worthy. In any case, in this region there is a well-understood difference between finishing some random 26.2 mile race and qualifying for Boston. Many more people achieve the former than the latter.
And then there is qualifying for the Olympic Trials.
It’s hard enough to explain the difference between a 3:45 marathon and a 3:11 marathon (see: Rossi, Mike). However, it’s a fool’s errand to try to explain the difference between running, say, sub-2:25 (damn good) and running sub-2:18 (Olympic Trials “B” standard). Don’t even think about trying to put into words the difference between the “B” standard and the “A” standard (sub-2:15), because you’ll only waste your breath. It is a long journey down through these strata, and likely only those who have traveled that road can report what it’s really like.
The mystique around qualifying for the Olympic Trials was the subject of an article that ran last week in the Wall Street Journal (“When Just Qualifying for the Olympic Trials is Good Enough“).
On balance, I found the article interesting and well-reported, but I also found it a little bit annoying that the author keeps describing many of the Trials qualifiers as far too slow for the Olympics. Sure, if someone qualifies with a 2:17 and then runs that same time in the Trials, chances are they aren’t making the team (unless the temperature that day is 102 degrees). But “B” standard marathoners have improved to run Olympics-worthy times. Mark Conover entered the 1988 Trials with a personal best of 2:18 and won the race. Christine Clark entered the 2000 Trials having qualified under the “B” standard, and ran a seven-minute PR to win the race. It can happen.
While I admit that for most would-be trials qualifiers, the main prize might be the distinction of qualifying, it bothers me that “just qualifying” is taken so lightly. if it comes down to it, I don’t really see much of a difference between a man who can run 2:16 and a man who can run 2:10, or between a woman who can run 2:35 and a woman who can run 2:29. I can talk about the difference, and even sound knowledgeable while doing so, but that doesn’t mean I understand it.
Or, as the WSJ article puts it, by recreational standards, all these runners are fast.
But there are a lot of fast people who don’t even come close to qualifying for the Olympic Trials. In the marathon, “fast” will only take you so far.
About a half million people finish marathons in the U.S. each year. Roughly a tenth of those run fast enough to qualify for Boston, but fewer than 1 in 300 of those fast enough to qualify for Boston run fast enough to qualify for the Trials.
In other words, there’s nothing “average” about the runners who qualify for the Trials, whatever Jill Geer says. Indeed, they are a very select group, standing just one step away from whatever fame would await them were they to shock the running world and become Olympians.
But that last step… is it a short step that any of the qualifiers might take into the limelight, or is that final step that takes you from 2:18 to 2:10, or from 2:43 to 2:29, the longest one of all?