Making the big meet in France⏱

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The Women: The half, the record, and the underdog 🐶

Photo: Johnny Zhang | @jzsnapz

Coming into last weekend, it felt like there were only a handful of possible permutations of who could ultimately end up on the podium.

There was a clear list of favorites, whittled down even more when Molly Seidel pulled out and news broke of Aliphine Tuliamuk’s hamstring ailing her. If you asked ChatGPT to run through one thousand scenarios, it would keep spitting out different, perhaps plagiarized lists of the following names: Emily Sisson, Betsy Saina, Keira D’Amato, Lindsay Flanagan, and Sara Hall.

Well, it’s a good thing that the US Olympic Marathon Trials selects the team and not a bunch of dorks prompting a language model. This shit (apologies to marathoners for calling the marathon “this shit”) is unpredictable. The team we got is an excellent one, but I don’t think it’s one that many would have predicted.

Now that a few days have passed – and with the benefit of having witnessed her commanding 2:22:10 Trials record-shattering debut – it feels a bit silly to have ever underestimated Fiona O’Keeffe. Well before becoming the fastest American to debut in the marathon, back in 2022 she was the fastest American debutant in the half marathon, running 1:07:42 in Houston. (Note to self: when writing 2028 preview, don’t forget to consider Weini Kelati among the favorites, even if she only races more half marathons between now and then.)

Within the first two miles on Saturday, O’Keeffe found herself positioned towards the front, seemingly without meaning to. There were moments before the halfway split when it looked like she drifted to the front on accident, before consciously taking a few slower steps and relinquishing control of the pack over to a competitor.

From afar, I interpreted it as O’Keeffe being lulled into a false sense of confidence before entering into unchartered territory. But then those doubts were fully disproven, and she sucked the blood out of the hearts of her foes and slowly opened the gap over the final eight miles.

Since O’Keeffe’s run, several thoughts have continued to ricochet around my mind:

  • the 5:09 split in the 25th mile

  • that the half marathon standard needs to remain

  • that the women running 6K for NCAA XC doesn’t necessarily favor true distance runners

  • and that if she is running 2:22:10 when it’s in the low 70s then what’s her Valencia conversion with a pacer?!

Half a minute back, Emily Sisson got her redemption following the disappointment of a DNF in 2020. Sure, the American record-holder finished second, but more importantly, she made the team and ran 2:22:42 in tough conditions. This was a base hit – and one of the markers of long-term success in this sport is the ability to run the rounds… even when the rounds in question are months apart. She calmly executed at a moment when the pressure was on, racing like a veteran, hiding in the pack and calmly covering moves. Whereas most athletes try to fabricate a plot where they see themselves as an underdog to mitigate expectations, that approach was impossible for Sisson. 

The actual underdog here was Dakotah Lindwurm. The DII walk-on at Northern State University in Aberdeen, South Dakota, is giving all the inspiration to the young women out there who may not have been breaking records in high school. Despite a 2:24:40 personal best from Chicago, which would have seeded her in the top 10 on the start line, the Minnesota Distance Elite squad star – I’ll say it, she’s a star! – was once again overlooked.

Historically this newsletter has taken a very elitist stance: that the Olympic Trials standard should be very hard to get into and that the field should be small. But a story like Dakotah’s challenges me to reconsider. She graduated with a 10,000m best of 34:57 in 2017, but trained with the intention of qualifying in 2020. And hasn’t that all worked out well? Don’t we want to develop more athletes like her?

I am not fully committed to that yet, though I do strongly believe in the Olympic Trials qualifying system, which has found a detractor in Amby Burfoot. And while I do understand his point that perhaps the most competitive team would incorporate a committee vote to ensure the most accomplished athletes make the team, I believe the Trials serve a greater purpose than just Olympic qualifying. (Although it’s worth pointing out that the Trials system, not a vote, is how America’s most recent marathon medalist, Molly Seidel, made the squad.)

While the event itself is under the constant financial threat of no longer being viable, the depth of American running has greatly been aided by that dangling carrot. In 2023, there were 66 American women under 2:37:00 compared to 48 in 2019, and just 12 in 2015. But the Trials is not just about performance, it’s about coverage, media, and stories. And isn’t that the best part?

The Men: The workhorse, the no-shot, and the soldier 🐴

Photo: Johnny Zhang | @jzsnapz

This is not going to be an entire write-up appreciating Zach Panning, but if you’d like to read that, subscribe to my OnlyPanns. (I’m so sorry, everyone.)

I mean, Panning holds on for a top-three finish if the race was two hours earlier in the day, right? Those were some of the soggiest split-shorts I have ever seen. Everyone had to run in the same conditions and part of the game is to allocate one’s energy throughout the entire marathon. But surely, in cooler conditions, the smoke from under the hood doesn’t billow quite so much?

If there is any consolation it’s that his inspiring strategy whittled down the whole field to a few, and in the process, earned a tremendous amount of respect from distance fans everywhere. I’m sure Zach would rather be an Olympian, though. 

And that’s the drama we live for. While Panning faded to sixth, all eyes turned to another battle, between the 40-year-old Elkanah Kibet, who set a new American masters record, and finished in fourth, and the hard-charging Lenny Korir who narrowly missed the team in 2020, and would not be denied a second time. (Okay, more accurately, if he’s denied, it will be by confusing qualifying processes and not due to placement in this race.)

Though Korir boasts a personal best of 2:07:57, it was set in 2019, and he most recently DNF’d in Chicago, not many expected for Korir to be on the team, despite a 2:09:31 last spring in Paris. And at 24 miles, if you left Lenny off your list, it still didn’t seem like a bad decision – Korir was 37 seconds outside of qualifying position, back in fifth place. But somehow, Korir got there ahead of Kibet, and crossed the line with a look of disbelief on his face.

The question now becomes: does Korir go to the Olympics? The casual fan’s head surely exploded in confusion during the post-race interview. In all likelihood, Korir will be fine, even though NBC’s legal team probably preferred the ambiguity. He currently sits 68th on the Road to Paris, with the top 80 unlocking their spot on May 5th. With the major East African countries maxed out with their three spots unlocked it’s probably good.

There is an awkward amount of time between now and the Olympics that could be well-utilized if Korir tries to chase a fast half marathon to improve his ranking. That Ryan Hall record from 2007 is long overdue to go down, considering Hall was wearing shoes that would feel like a bed of nails for feet now accustomed to super shoes.

Anyway, in all my Panning- and Panning-adjacent rambling, I’ve buried the lede for this section. 

Perhaps the top story to come out of this Trials is not that of triumph but of friendship. (Awww!) The BYU BFFs Conner Mantz and Clayton Young sat in the pocket of Panning for over 22 miles and ran this thing like it is exactly what it is: a qualifier. There was a potential world in which one of the two guys who unlocked the slots for the US men still finished in the top three and didn’t guarantee their spot. Thankfully that didn’t happen, because I don’t know if any amount of Peacock infographics could have conveyed to viewers just what had happened. And also, Young and Mantz appear very fit and ready for the world stage.

My favorite moment of the entire day might have been the premature high-five between the two that foreshadowed the sort of teamwork that we’d be seeing less than an hour later. As it became clear that the two had comfortably separated themselves from the field, it was noticeable just how much more comfortable Clayton was in comparison to Mantz. Granted, Mantz always looks like he’s trying hard and that relatability is why we love him. But in the final moments when Young deferred the win and at least $15,000 to Mantz, the fans rushed to their kitchen drawers to make and put on tinfoil hats. 

The conspiracy: that Mantz had a bigger contract bonus for winning and therefore they would split the larger pool between them. Admittedly, that was my first impression, as well. Until I used the business cortex of my brain and thought about it a little more. Mantz was a bigger star coming out of college and therefore, almost certainly has the bigger base between the pair. The expectation in signing the more lucrative contract would be that he’d make the Olympic team and therefore that’d be pre-baked in.

According to the lads, Conner was fighting for his damn life trying to make it to the line in one piece and not have his dreams shattered. As referenced in his Strava “Morning Run with Clayton” recap, his coach Ed Eyestone lost his spot in the final 400m of the 10,000m in 1996 and he wanted to avoid that. 

Meanwhile, Clayton just seems to not really have cared. Is that what I would have done? No. But if you listen to any of his interviews then it only takes about 15 seconds of him talking to realize he is a much better person than I am. He was running to get the big Q, which he did.

Strictly from a brand marketing standpoint, it’s an incidentally genius move. If he drops the hammer with four hundred meters to go, then he wins the Trials by a few seconds – that’s the story. Instead, he is GRACIOUS and SELFLESS and WHO KNOWS HOW FAST HE COULD POSSIBLY RUN? Now it’s a conversation because he never showed his cards!

Sometimes nice guys do finish first… or… I guess still second… but you know what I mean.

Non-Qualifying Winners at the Trials 🏆

Photo: Johnny Zhang | @jzsnapz

The City of Orlando – There was a lot of controversy around the bidding process and the start time, but ultimately, the venue was a great host and the event ran smoothly. With round trip plane tickets available for less than $100 from many major cities and affordable hotels, this was an easy weekend trip for fans. The course was well-designed for spectating, even if crossing the street was an issue. If – as was the case at the 2020 Trials – this is the last time the whole US distance running community is together before next month’s pandemic, then these memories will power us through isolation.

Peacock – It’s like someone has incepted the idea of rewatching Jurassic World into my brain. This was a huge win for the paid subscription service to use the paid subscription service to advertise the paid subscription service to people who are already subscribed to the paid subscription service.

Running Books – Meb Keflezighi and Deena Kastor received free endorsements for their books from Clayton Young and Emily Sisson in post-race comments, respectively. Both said these books directly impacted their performances. My own life hasn’t been nearly as inspiring, but I often wonder if I wrote a fictional tale about a runner in 2024, a dark, gritty reboot of Once A Runner, for instance, how bad would it have to be to not sell? Runners love running books, and while there are some great ones, there still aren’t enough bad ones out there to truly saturate the market.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints – 10% of $80,000 and $65,000! 

Masters Running – The 40-year-olds, Sarah Hall (2:26:06) and Elkanah Kibet (2:10:02), both broke the masters American record. And don’t forget Des Linden, 40, was 11th, and Roberta Groner, 46, was 26th. But perhaps the best performance was by Abdi Abdirahman.

Mill City Running – I didn’t really know anyone associated with the Minneapolis-based running store heading into the weekend, but after their Friday night party and meeting a dozen or so people from the city, I just need to find an excuse to visit. One of the coolest parts of the Trials is that there are so many events popping up and each one is super welcoming. For Orlando residents it must have been very confusing why they did not have to pay for a drink all weekend. 

Maegan Krifchin – Is 18 miles at 7:14 pace good if you are seven months pregnant? Unbelievable. 

Fourth Place – It’s hard not to position the Olympic Trials as an all or nothing situation. For three people it’s the best day of their lives and in theory, those who narrowly missed out on making the team should be devastated, right? Well not for the unsponsored Jess Tonn McClain, who was very pleased with the day! McClain finished just 15 seconds out of third after being 72 seconds back in 8th at mile 22. Elkanah Kibet was similarly pleasant! (I also should note that he has been incredibly consistent in his career, having run nine marathons under 2:12:35.)

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Trending Up: New Balance Indoor Grand Prix 🏁

History buffs will tell you that Noah Lyles won three gold medals last year, but the statistic-heads are licking their chops seeing his improvements trending in the right direction. If you were ready to hit the panic button after he ran 6.63 in the 60m last weekend, then may I remind you of that Marilyn Monroe quote that can be weaponized to rationalize acting terrible: “If you don't love me at my worst, then you don't deserve me at my best.”

On Sunday at the New Balance Indoor Grand Prix – Lyles’ first meet of the year according to the World Athletics Calendar – he stormed to a 6.44 in what has controversially become his house. One year ago, his then-personal best of 6.51 was considered a big deal because the improvement was a leading indicator that he had worked on his weakness… the start.

If in 2022, he ran 6.55 for 60m indoors and 9.91 for 100m outdoors, and then in 2023 he ran 6.51 and got down to 9.83 and a World Championship, what will a 6.44 bring? Confusing anime references is the only thing I can promise.

Just because it’s early in the year does not mean we can’t start reading too closely into every performance! Remember, that’s the best part of track and field. So who else is getting a lot better?

There was a battle in the 3000m between Elle St. Pierre and Jess Hull, who ultimately won in a new Australian record of 8:24.93. While Hull knocked another seven seconds off her personal best, St. Pierre almost broke the American record in her first race back on the track since giving birth to her son Ivan. The only reason this shouldn’t be a surprise is because we watched her run 4:23 at the 5th Ave Mile six months postpartum.

The race of the meet for people whose favorite event is the 1500m would have to have been the 1500 – do you know how bad the race would have to be for me to think otherwise? The two major headlines here are, “Holy cow! Did you see how good Hobbs Kessler looked?” And “I guess Jake Wightman is back!”

The 2022 World Champion did not think The Kid was going to run away from him when he made his move, but Kessler closed in 54.3 for his final 400m. If Hobbs is running 3:33.66 right now, then it’s reasonable to think that he could challenge Yared Nuguse at Millrose, right? And if he can challenge Nuguse and Wightman then he can contend with Jakob and Kerr, right? Depends on the trajectory!

I love track & field (speculation)!

Catching up with Olympic Qualifier Dakotah Lindwurm ✍️

Photo: Johnny Zhang | @jzsnapz

An average high school runner, Minnesota Distance Elite’s Dakotah Lindwurm walked onto the team at Northern State University, but wound up a two-time NCAA Division II. She similarly entered the world of post-collegiate running as an unheralded but steady performer. But she ramped up to the marathon distance early, raced it often, and steadily chipped away at it, even winning the Grandma’s Marathon a couple of times. 

Still, despite boasting a well filled-out resume, she seemed like a longshot to make an Olympic team. There were too many big names slotted ahead of her, with PRs significantly faster. That all changed on Saturday, when Lindwurm outlasted all but two members of one of the best fields ever assembled at an Olympic Trials marathon. Her story is one that is sure to inspire, and her progression is one that I know high school coaches nationwide are sharing with their non-state-champion athletes this week. 

Dakotah was generous enough to chat with me over the phone following her qualification. This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

How is your body coming off the race on Saturday? Were you in one piece the following day?

Yeah, I'm. feeling really good. I've done a lot of marathons and have been running really high mileage, so I don't feel like the marathon really destroys me anymore.

So does it feel real yet? We saw other athletes celebrating through their final mile and you really didn't let yourself celebrate until the very end.

I was just all business in those last couple of miles. You never want to celebrate too early and be caught. So I just felt like I just needed to get to the finish line, touch the finish line, and then celebrate. I don't feel like it is real yet. I don't know that it will until I'm back home and into my routine. But I keep getting little reminders that I am now going to be on an Olympic team, and I almost break down in tears every time.

When did it feel like it was actually happening? Was there a point in the race that you thought not only do I have a shot, but it's happening as we speak?

When I dropped Caroline Rotich and had like three seconds on her. And for one moment I let myself think, ‘you're on the team if you can hold this.’ But again, I wanted to put that aside and just said, ‘you have to just finish this marathon – do not think about the finish line until it's there.’

It seemed like around mile 17, or when Fiona O’Keeffe was starting to make a move, that you made a concerted effort not to try and match everyone in that surge. Am I reading that correctly? Were you strategically allowing that bit of a gap to open between you and third place?

I don't think it was out of desire that I wanted to let them go, but it was out of knowing what my body felt like at that moment. I felt like I didn't have it in me to make that move and hold it. I would have been playing too many cards that early in the race. Coach Lundo [Chris Lundstrom] told me before, if people make a move at 18 through 20 that seems too heavy, let them go and celebrate it because they're going to come back – they're going to blow up. He's a pretty wise man, as that’s exactly what happened.

I remember in your Lap Count interview in 2021 you had mentioned in the first few marathons of your career, that you had issues throwing up. With it getting warm late in the race, was there ever an issue with your nutrition?

I had great nutrition. I think I finally dialed in what I needed to do and in past marathons, especially early, I thought more is better when it comes to carbs and I had to learn the hard way that that's not true. You can't absorb the carbohydrates if you're putting too much in your bottle or if it’s too diluted, I suppose. And I haven't really had stomach issues since. 

Was there something different about this build up than in the previous? Looking at Strava, you ran a number of 130 miles a week and had lots of 20+ mile days. Was it as smooth as you could have hoped? Did something change, or was it just a matter of time making you a better marathoner?

Something just clicked this build, where before we got into the meat and potatoes of it, I talked to Coach and said, ‘I've been handling 120 really well and we are going to be in Florida… we're going to be training for a flat race and I want to bump that up a little bit.’ And he was really receptive to that and happy to give me the 130 mile weeks. 

And something about being in that zone of being pretty tired, but recovering and still hitting every single workout as well as I could have hoped... I think there was maybe one 90 minute fartlek that I would have liked to go a little bit faster, but it was still the best I had ever done. Every single workout was top notch plus faster than I've had before. I don't know what about it just clicked – maybe it's just all the miles catching up to me.

Something that stands out about your training is that you really don’t run that slow. Even on easy days, despite running 130 miles a week,  you move pretty quickly all the time. Is that a long term strategy and have you always been that type of athlete?

I've always been somebody who runs fast. When I joined the cross country and track team in high school, I was just somebody who just ran with the boys. My girl teammates would always skip out on runs and hide behind the school. So I just got in the habit of running with the guys and they just ran a little bit faster and made it a hard effort. I know that when you're in a 130 mile week, that you’ve got to take at least your doubles as slow as possible – for me, that's like 7:10 pace. That's me literally being conscious of slowing down to keep my heart rate low. But if I'm just out there and I'm not thinking about pace, my body just likes to move at like a 6:45 pace.

Also, the vibe I'm getting is that you really like Taylor Swift as well! Just something about your Strava titles… Are you doing the majority of those miles by yourself?

Our team meets up three days a week and the rest of the days are out on our own. I was living with Annie [Frisbie] down in Florida, and even then, she likes to take her recovery runs a bit slower. So we do our own thing, and that's kind of how we both prefer it. I like to spend some time by myself anyway.

So I saw that your high school personal bests were posted (2:44/5:35/11:56). That is now your race pace for a marathon. When you were in high school, did you have these visions of one day being an Olympian or was that not on your radar?

When I was in high school, I was still playing hockey and for sure had Olympic dreams there. But that obviously didn't pan out. But by no means did I think I was going to be an Olympian in running during high school. I ended up walking onto my Division II team because like, I wanted to keep running and I enjoy the community behind it. I was getting better through high school, but I knew that I wasn't the best in the country or even close to the best in my state.

What's been the craziest thing – besides the race – in the last couple days with so much happening since you crossed the finish line? Has there been a moment beyond making the team that was like, ‘Oh my God, this is so cool!’?

I walked into a bar late Saturday night and Des [Linden] and Kara [Goucher] were in the back and I was like, ‘I'm gonna say hi!’ They jumped out of their seat and screamed for me – for them to be so excited and know who I am – that was probably the craziest thing for me.

Given your story and background, the number of younger athletes now that are probably seeing themselves in you or at least hope to one day see themselves in you – what is that like and what do your Instagram DMs look like?

They're absolutely unhinged. I'm somebody who likes to keep their text messages at zero. And I read all my DMs just to keep that notification out of the way, but I can't keep up with it right now. It's absolutely wild. Hopefully sometime I'll have some moment to try to respond to some of the younger athletes, because I would love to inspire a younger generation who's maybe not the high school phenom that their competitors are, but are willing to really work hard.

Looking towards the Olympics, it's a long build up between now and the Games, whereas it was a shorter turnaround after Chicago. What do you do for the next six months to prepare? Do you do one long buildup or have plans to do a half?

I'm somebody who likes to race. Taking a couple months off or anything just to go from Chicago to the Olympic Trials was pretty tough. I'll probably try to replicate that since it seemed to work, and keep me in good shape. But I'll definitely be at the Grandma's Half Marathon, since they're close to my heart, and I want to still support that race. I'd love to do a couple of shorter races to work on my speed.

Have you thought about a goal for the Olympics or are we not there yet?

Today was the first time I started to dream about it and talk it through with my boyfriend. But I think on a hot day it can produce an underdog story just as much as it did on Saturday. I want to place in the top 10, though it would be great to bring home a medal for the country.

Rapid Fire Highlights 🔥

  • The high schoolers went off this weekend! Sadie Engelhardt doubled up, running 2:41.00 for 1000m at BU on Saturday and then doubled back to go 4:34.45 in the mile at NBIGP on Sunday. And the Nike Cross Nationals champion JoJo Jourdon dropped a 3:59.87, hopefully ensuring he won the Monday morning question at school, “what’d you do this weekend?”

  • Femke Bol ran a 49.69 quarter, followed by a new 200m Dutch national record of 22.64. Last year at the same meet she ran 49.96 and 22.87 so according to my calculations this is better. (Good breakdown from Anderson)

  • Olivia Markezich set a new NCAA mile lead at the Meyo Invite of 4:27.76 and in continuing with the trend of this newsletter of comparing athletes to a previous version of themselves, that was a 4:34.00 at the same meet last year.

  • UNC’s Parker Wolfe ran 7:37.41 for 3000m at Boston University and four men, led by Vincent Ciaettei, ran 3:52 in the mile. (Results)

  • Laura Muir’s 3000m from earlier this season in Cardiff will not count towards her selection for the World Indoor Championships because the meet was not on the World Athletics Calendar. Very confusing rule! And so she has switched from the mile to the 2-mile at the Millrose Games to hit that mark.

  • Apparently being very good at indoor track is converting well to “short track,” as Selemon Barega went to Toruń to run 3000m in 7:25.82 and Samuel Tefera won the 1500m in 3:34.61.

  • Habitam Alemu won the 800m in Poland, running 1:57.86, which sets her up well to potentially become Ethiopia’s next great marathoner. And Freweyni Hailu ran a world leading 3:55.28 as 11 of the 12 women in the race set personal bests, including national records for Kenya (4:01.17) and Uganda (4:02.78). I was like… no way that’s true because Faith Kipyegon exists, but the GOAT might go her whole career without ever running an indoor race. 

  • Mondo won the Mondo Classic in 5.92m. When we talk about things track and field should aspire to be in terms of presentation it is everything about this meet. It’s also why we love the Marathon Trials – full focus on one competition.

  • WATCH: The Millrose Games — Sunday, February 11th, 1-3pm ET NBC

Thanks so much to Bandit for sponsoring this week’s newsletter! My favorite NYC running brand is going to be sponsoring all of our Millrose Games content including the Saturday afternoon preview show. Also, this was way too long of a write-up this week.

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