Behind the scenes - British Olympic Marathon Trials

Published 29th March 2021 by mymo

At 7:50am there was a buzz, but it was quiet. There were pockets of quiet conversation that seemed to drift above the music playing through the PA system, but above everything what stood out was the sound of footsteps. It was a sound I hadn’t heard at a start line for over a year.

The athletes jogging their way to the start gantry were masked up, still wearing extra layers ready to throw away at the sound of the start signal that would start the first British marathon trial race of its kind in 40 years. The start was split: male athletes one side, females to the other with both sets of pacemakers lined up at the front and rear of the pace groups. 

Prior to the start, Covid measures had been taken to make sure the event followed all safe protocols. Everyone from media to officials, athletes to managers had been Covid tested either on site that morning or at the race hotel the night before. Athletes were taken on arrival to a separate building where they were allocated mat space to change and stretch while they made their final preparations, while briefings for media, officials and athletes’ plus ones managing their personal drinks, were all done outside. The course was closed to the public and everyone was reminded to keep a safe distance at all times. This was not an ordinary race, run in extraordinary times.

The buzz of the start although muted was still palpable. Just five slots for Olympic selection were up for grabs. This was a race that mattered. The course was beautiful, but most importantly it was flat and it was fast. The weather was not as kind as organisers had hoped - a strong wind coming into play at times along the 12-lap course around Kew Gardens. Athletes tried to run in packs but with such a small number of starters, the packs quickly broke and some athletes found themselves running solo after just one or two laps. 

Perhaps the most notable thing about being present at a closed race was the ability to hear communication between the athletes as they passed on each lap. It was hard to believe the ease at which Hawkins and Smith pacing at the front of the race (operating at 2:10 marathon pace or 5:08 min/mile) discussed pacing, turns and navigated themselves and the group through the feed station. While this pair would eventually be stepping off by 30k, it was still an outstanding task to witness. Hearing the positive communications between athletes, managers and on a few occasions, their families through the feed station was also a great thing to be party to. 

Unlike big city marathons, this looped course gave athletes many chances to step off if it wasn’t their day. They didn’t need to wait for assistance if they wanted to stop, with each lap consisting of 3333m, they were all in jogging distance of getting back to the start and again it was a humbling sight to see some of our best British athletes calling it a day. In the end, only 18 athletes would cross the finish line. 

Much of the excitement came in the races when the pacemakers stepped off at around 30k. Athletes either settled into a new rhythm or took their foot off the gas, knowing what they had to do now to gain qualification for the Olympic games or Commonwealth games, with both being up for grabs. There was a decisive move by Chris Thompson, who throughout earlier stages had come adrift of the lead pack and was seemingly in no man's land between the lead group of Connor, D Griffiths and Aadan, and the chase group that included J Griffiths and Evans. Rumours flew around those who were also following live coverage on mobiles that Thommo had put in a surge that his younger contenders couldn’t keep up with. By the time he came through the bell for the final lap, he had a sizeable gap and looked focused as he passed the media area.

Photo credit: Anji Andrews - Chris Thompson in full flow

The same could be said for the womens’ field where Davis was locked in with the pacer running comfortably on OQ time while second, third and fourth place behind her were changing multiple times. Again, encouragement from Race Director Tom Bedford shouted towards every athlete was audible and welcomed, as we all kept an ear on commentary from across the course. Everyone knows anything can happen in a marathon, and the drama was certainly unfolding. 

Photo credit: Anji Andrews - The women's group

As Thompson made his way into the home straight to take the win (2:10:50), everyone from media to physios and coaches gathered to witness the 39-year-old taking the OQ time and the win with as much surprise and emotion as those watching. Chris is a popular athlete and many of the athletes who had stepped off the course prepared to congratulate him as he finished. Again, Covid security was monitored and all were reminded to keep a safe distance as much as possible. As other athletes streamed in (Connor taking the second Olympic qualifying spot with his second place finish having previously run the qualifying time in October 2020, and Aadan in third) the attention turned back to the racing behind where Stephanie Davis was comfortably, elatedly breaking the tape and securing her place in the British Olympic team with her finish time of 2:27:16 (PB). She was the only female athlete to qualify on the day with Cockram and Edwards in second and third running 2:30:03 and 2:31:56 respectively. While Cockram’s time was a PB, a Commonwealth Games Qualifying time and Welsh record, she was devastatingly just 34 seconds off the OQ standard and was noticeably disappointed. 

In total, the race boasted 11 PBs, 11 home nations Commonwealth Games standards, two Olympic Qualifying times, one V45 marathon record (Ian Leitch 2:17:26) and the Welsh national female record. 

The full list of results can be found here

Subsequent media and presentations were done outside again following event protocol, while the course was quickly derigged to allow for Kew Gardens to open to the public, possibly many entering unaware of the drama that had taken place just an hour before. 

Race director Tom Bedford tweeted via the Richmond Runfest account after the event: 

Wow. What a morning. We poured our heart and souls into making this event happen and we’re just so glad it paid off.”

Whether this will become a regular event depends on a number of factors, but many athletics fans and especially those of us lucky enough to attend on the day would like to hope so. It was a dynamic, exciting event that was full of pure racing and heroic performances and one we would love the opportunity to see again. 

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