The Olympic Marathon Trials Raised the Bar for Women’s Running, and Women Met the Challenge

Gordon Bakoulis spectating 2020 US Olympic Marathon Trials

March is Women's History Month, and we'll be highlighting the achievements of women—particularly in running—all month long. Check back often! 

Many years ago, I qualified for the U.S. Olympic Marathon Team Trials in the marathon five times and competed four times—in 1988, 1992, 1996, and 2000. The trials races are among the highlights of my running career. All these years later, I cherish the memories—not only of the races themselves, but of the concentrated effort it took to get there. Each race brought out the best I had in me. I never made an Olympic team, but I left it all out there as I raced against the most talented and accomplished female distance runners in the country. The trials system, with its high and exacting standards combined with a focus on elevating and celebrating the achievement of every qualifier and the sport as a whole, absolutely made me a better runner, for a longer period, than I would have otherwise been. It gave me a platform to push myself beyond what I thought possible and to become, for a moment, the best version of myself.

Gordon Bakoulis and other competitors at 1996 US Women's Olympic Marathon Trials

As much as I cherish these experiences, for 20 years I hadn't returned to watch the trials races as a non-participant in any meaningful way. (I was a spectator at the 2008 trials, but spent more time trying to corral my three rambunctious sons than watching the race, and I watched the 2012 and 2016 trials on TV.)

Of course, I hadn’t lost interest in American women’s professional distance running—how could I? My generation pushed forward a women’s running movement that changed the sport forever, starting at the top and extending through the ranks. Our efforts paved the way for the generation of women who followed. Female runners now make up 60 percent of road race participants, and today’s elite women runners receive equal prize money, broadcast coverage, and financial compensation. Yes, sexism still plays out, as evidenced by the 2019 revelations of body-shaming of some elite female athletes and unfair pregnancy clauses in the shoe-company contracts of others. But overall, the picture is positive—and American women have been seizing the moment. In 2017, Shalane Flanagan became the first American woman in 40 years to win the open division of the TCS New York City Marathon. The following April, Des Linden was the first women’s open winner of the Boston Marathon since 1985.

These successes touched off a massive resurgence, with the “Shalane effect” motivating huge numbers of American women to raise their running game. The number of U.S. Olympic trials qualifiers—women who ran sub-2:45 in a marathon or sub-1:13 in a half-marathon—grew in leaps and bounds, and by January 19, 2020, when the qualifying window closed, more than 500 women had achieved the standard, punching their ticket to Atlanta for the trials on February 29. I realized I wanted nothing more than to be there with them, cheering from the sidelines

I arranged to stay with my childhood friend Abby, an Atlanta resident and fellow running enthusiast whose two teenage daughters would be competing in 4 x 1-mile relay the morning of the trials, organized by the Atlanta Track Club for local high school teams. Throughout January and February, I obsessively followed the Instagram feeds of the top-seeded runners as well as the more than 20 NYC-based athletes who’d qualified. Both the women’s and men’s races were shaping up to be thrilling competitions.

A family in Atlanta before the 2020 US Olympic Marathon Trials

Nothing I’ve experienced in running—as a competitor or fan—matched the energy and excitement of race day. I joined Abby and her husband, their daughters, and a swarm of their friends and teammates at a cheer station along Peachtree Street and yelled myself hoarse, taking my eyes off the course only to check various chats, feeds, and text exchanges. I lost count of how many times the tears welled up: Watching the hundreds of women qualifiers pass by together on their first of three loops, seeing two beaming pregnant competitors at the back of the field, watching the high school girls as they looked on, wide-eyed. The races were epic—full of surprise breakthroughs and comebacks along with agonizing disappointments. Four hundred fifty women started the race and 390 finished, a huge increase from the trials races I ran, when the number of finishers barely hit three digits, with only 65 finishers in 1992. 

Spectators and runners at 2020 US Olympic Marathon Trials in Atlanta

Later that day Abby and I took a walk and reflected on everything we’d experienced. We talked about her daughters, for whom discrimination and lack of opportunity in women’s sports are things they read about in history books. “They can’t imagine not having the same opportunities that boys do,” she said. “They know it happened not long ago, but it’s not something they’ve ever experienced.” Like them, I never suffered overt discrimination, nor was I ever told I couldn’t run because I’m female, but I know plenty of women runners my age and older (and some younger) who had such experiences. I know too that we all need to keep our awareness high and our resistance to backsliding strong.

I was exhausted at the end of the day and wondered how I’d fare in the next day’s half-marathon, held on a hilly course that covered much of the same ground as the trials route. Inspired by every female finisher in the trials, I surprised myself with a fast (for me) time and a third-place age-group placing. I relished that feeling I still love—being my best self and giving it everything I have.

Gordon Bakoulis after the 2020 Publix Atlanta Half Marathon

Women’s distance running in the U.S. is going to keep getting stronger. For all the excitement I felt as a participant back in the day, I see that the sport is faster, deeper, broader, and more visible now, and I believe all those trends will continue. Female distance runners at all levels will keep on raising the bar, looking ahead, and knowing we deserve to be here.

Author: Gordon Bakoulis

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