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Difficult Course & Blustery Conditions make for Unexpected Outcomes at US Olympic Marathon Trials

The start line of the Women's US Olympic Marathon Trials, Atlanta, Georgia.

In the biggest and deepest field in US Women's Olympic Marathon Trials history, on the largest stage in the nation, four Idaho Distance Project athletes poured their hearts and souls out onto the streets of Atlanta, Georgia, alongside 440 other women. While their results may not be what they wanted, or some may have even exceeded their expectations, making the starting line of the race and crossing the finish line 26.2 miles later was a huge victory in itself. The cool temperatures combined with blustery winds gusting up to 20-30 miles per hour, continuously undulating hills on a 3+ looped marathon distance course, and hairpin turns within tightly packed groups at racing speed all combined for extremely challenging race conditions. Tossing in potholes and crowded hydration/fuel stations also added to making this Trials race one for the history books.

(L to R: IDP athletes Emma (Bates) Ulmer, Kristen (Findley) Morse & Megan Lacy, Emily Myers, IDP athlete Sam Diaz)

Emma Ulmer taking a turn at the front of the women's lead pack.

While Atlanta may have done a thorough job of hosting the Trials, NBC Sports provided less than seamless coverage. That aside, we were able to see Emma Ulmer throughout most of the race helping to push the lead pack, both tucking into the crowd off and on, then taking turns at the front. The consistent lead group of around 20 took a conservative start to the race with a 6:13 first mile, but that was to be expected with the blustery winds, a challenging course and astronomical size of the women's start group (444). Emma stayed within the lead pack until around mile 22/23, which is when the 7-8 remaining at the front started to string out. From the race statistics that appears to be when her legs started to feel heavy and turnover became more labored. Though running most of the final four miles alone, she stayed in visual contact with the racers ahead. Emma remained strong, continued to battle and strive forward through the pain, and crossed the finish line in 7th place with a time of 2:29:35. Though times were not a factor in the trials, that was a fantastic finishing time regardless.

Emma was not alone in the difficulty of trashed legs within that third lap of the course. The expected contenders were all in the lead pack of 20 through the halfway point, but between the 15 and 22 mile mark the ruthless ups and downs of the hilly course and harsh winds started to chew up the expected top racers. Jordan Hasay fell well off the pack around mile 15 but still managed to finish in 26th place. The pace began to pick up at miles 17 (5:33 mile) and 18 (5:25 mile) within the third lap of the 3x8 mile loop portion, dropping the lead group down to 12 by the 17 mile mark. At that point Aliphine Tuliamuk and Molly Seidel began to push the pace harder (the two had spent time training together in Arizona and made a prior pact to do just that). Several pre-race favorites DNF'd: Sara Hall dropped out at mile 19, both Molly Huddle and Emily Sisson pulled off of the course between miles 21 and 22. Other tough and courageous runners pressed on with their eyes still on the prize: Sally Kipyego, Kellyn Taylor, Laura Thweatt, Des Linden and Emma Ulmer were still maintaining contact 5-10 seconds back of the two leaders. Tuliamuk continued to push the pace, then surged ahead of Seidel with a mile to go, crossing the finish line in first place with Seidel still in second. Kipyego hung on for third, and Linden edged ahead of Thweatt to nab 4th place (Olympics alternate). Thweat, Stephanie Bruce, Emma, Taylor, Nell Rojas and Julia Kohnen rounded out the Top 10 finishers.

(Tafphoto captured the chaos of the leading women navigating the treacherous hairpin turns in a tight pack at race pace.)

IDP athletes Kristen Morse, Samantha Diaz and Megan Lacy have all had experience competing on challenging courses as trail runners, battling technical trails, mountain routes and high elevations. While trail competitions may be helpful experiences in marathon racing, the undulating course of Atlanta was especially brutal because of the constant high winds and 26.2 mile distance of difficulty.

Kristen (Findley) Morse seemed to be one of the few of the nearly 700 total combined starters to actually thrive under the vicious course conditions. She managed to increase her pace over the final 2.2 miles crossing the finish line at 2:38:59 with a 1 minute 28 second marathon PR! Ranked 145th by time coming into the Trials, she propelled herself forward to finish 32nd.

The largest and deepest women's field in Olympic Marathon Trials history.

At the end of the day 390 courageous woman crossed the finish line at this historic event, and Idaho Distance Project/Kameron Ulmer coached four of them. No matter how many miles of training is banked and how healthy an athlete is at the starting line, a marathon can often blow all of those preparations out of the water. Anything can happen over that distance, positive and negative, that can lead to a breakout day or end in disappointment. A runner can have a remarkably good racing day and still not meet their goal because some other competitors had an even better result. Over the 26.2 mile distance the weather and/or the course can thwart the best preparations of even the most talented runners.

IDP athletes Sam Diaz and Megan Lacy had that kind of day. Despite the realization early on that their races weren't going as they'd planned and hoped, they had the strength and determination to finish the relentlessly brutal course. Sam stated she found the race "rough from the start but somehow has left (her) me hungry for more". She her fought her way through the race, running with a former college teammate for awhile, and finished with a time of 2:48:29 in 189th place.

(Samantha Diaz shared some miles with a former University of Nevada teammate, Emily Myers.)

Megan battled through the 26.2 miles even after finding out a few weeks before the trials that she had a couple of stress injuries and tears in her foot. She was determined to finish what she started and completed the course in 2:57:45 and 355th place.

(Megan Lacy's smile never falters! photos: @kfinstotheleft , @u2pride)

The media and 'expert' prognosticators had their clear favorites prior to the start of the race, including a list of underdogs capable of an upset and talented athletes unlikely to finish in the top 3. But, as people who race and/or follow the marathon understand, the 26.2 mile race is a fickle and often relentless beast that can either jump onto your back and chew on you relentlessly, or it can trot alongside you and boost you up while cheering you on along the way. The predictors had no idea that out of their top five favorites three of them would succumb to the beast and DNF, one would falter early and struggle to finish, and the two-time marathon Olympian would finish fourth; two 'underdogs' would gain the crown and place third, and an 'unlikely competitor' would place second in her debut marathon. The race venue may have been spectator friendly, but the combination of a circumrotary course, repeated hairpin turns, cooler temperatures combining with continuous harsh winds, wasn't easy for even the fittest and strongest athletes. Anyone who finished this course has so much to be proud of; 390 of the 444 women who started the race completed the full 26.2 miles. Definitely an accomplishment and an experience to remember!

Emma and Laura Thweat at the front of the lead pack prior to many of this group pulling off the course.

We want to extend a huge thank you to all of the professional and amateur photographers/videographers along the course. You provided an up-close look and captured this incredible experience that is invaluable. Apologies that you won't all get notated credit as so many photos were pulled from various sites and/or didn't have photo credit provided.

IDP is so proud of these four amazing women, Megan, Emma, Sam and Kristen! The courage and dedication it took to log the miles and training, get to the start line and to finish this brutal race, even if many were feeling stripped to the core before the end, is unfathomable. The strength they all exhibited is a great jumping off point for the months ahead and years to come. Congratulation to them and to Coach Kameron for such a marvelous achievement! I think they can all agree that they were pleased and thankful to have had the experience of competing at the Olympic Trials.

(photo: Kristen Morse)


©2019 by Idaho Distance Project