Tri and running pundits have spoken. We asked veteran running reporter Sarah Barker to give us the rundown of where everyone stands.
Imagine Taylor Swift switching stages and predicting her own Best Actress Oscar in three years. Or Kim Kardashian veering into politics, and slamming it into Washington 2020 gear. In terms of media splash, Gwen Jorgensen announcing she’s not only leaving triathlon for the marathon, but that she’s aiming for Olympic gold in that event, is a tsunami.
The Internet staggered, every media outlet up to and including the waste recovery newsletter Trash Today has reacted to the news, bloggers are hyperventilating and acting out with excessive statistics—the endurance world has lost its collective mind.
Snag some fuel, and let’s take a cyber tour of the still-smoking thoughtscape of Gwen’s Chances At Tokyo 26.2 Gold.
The one universal is that she has somewhere between zero and nada chance of winning Olympic gold in the marathon. There. We’re done. Psyche! We’re not done.
Lars Finanger, LetsRun’s sole tri contributor and a former pro triathlete, was the lone predictor of Gwen gold in LetsRun’s discussion, based on her long legs and experience with winning Olympic gold, but continued: “ …she will battle it out to finish as the top non-African woman in the field.” Which is to say, she could finish as high as 15th.
BUT, another point of universal agreement is that a lot can happen in 26.2 miles, and runners, distance runners, live for the long shot. For example, LetsRun’s tagline is Where Your Dreams Become Reality. A thin and terminally awkward bunch populate this low-skill sport: marathon heroes are often shy, weedy, cerebral types—the archetypical long shot. Gwen is, in her heart, an accountant, a numbers geek. An accountant who throws down, who talks some real ballsy smack? She’s a marathoner’s dream. Runners get behind that. A safe distance behind, good twenty feet.
Plus, no one wants to totally rain on Gwen’s parade. After rating her chances of winning marathon gold at zero, John Levison at Tri247.com brightens up: “That said, I think her reasons for making the switch are admirable, brave and frankly… why not?!”
Plus, oh dang, another thing Internet dwellers agree on—no one believes her stated reason for the switch, that she’s accomplished everything there is to accomplish in triathlon. The larger reason, as YouTube pundit Triathlon Taren points out, is that top level marathoning fits a lot better with momming and homeowning than top level tri-ing, in which she shuttled across three continents in the course of one year.
Taren goes a little bit further and suggests Gwen’s really bold plan—to not only switch sports but to win Olympic gold—is a sponsor-stroking publicity stunt. He backs that up by pointing out that Red Bull, the inventor of the publicity stunt, enjoys prominent placement in her announcement video.
But there were some interesting perspectives too. Knowledgeable people say the hardest part of the Olympics is making the U.S. team. Unlike some countries like Kenya, where a committee selects the three-person marathon team, U.S. runners have to finish in the top three at the Olympic Trials Marathon (awesome performances they may have racked up previously are irrelevant), and have hit the Olympic time standard.
“She could not be entering into a more difficult period for U.S. female marathoners,” said LetsRun’s Jonathan Gault. He named off the domestic competition: Amy Cragg, Jordan Hasay, Des Linden, Molly Huddle, Emily Sisson, Laura Thweatt, and others who could emerge in the next three years. Given the depth of U.S. women’s marathoning, Gault points out that Gwen will have her work cut out for her just making the team.
While John Levison at Tri247.com digs up some nice examples of triathletes who have successfully converted to the marathon, his bottom line is tri-marathoners have come close—third in the European Championships, 8th in the Olympics, and a very recent 6th place finish in the New York City Marathon by Italian triathlete Sara Dossena—but no cigar. When the Olympic Marathon came around, none of them could manage a podium spot, much less the top one. One of the hardest pills to swallow as Levison points out, is that even though Olympic Marathons are often slow, tactical races, the women who take top honors have wheels. “While an Olympic Marathon may be tactical/slow relative to a big city Marathon, they are still not won by ‘slow’ athletes, getting lucky that the tactics fell their way on the day. YOU NEED TO BE FAST!” By fast, Levison was talking about sub-2:20:30. And the definition of fast is getting faster.
Kenya’s half-marathon world record holder Joyciline Jepkosgei has announced she’ll be moving up to the marathon. Her half time—1:04:51—suggests a marathon in the 2:13 range is in her wheelhouse. Ouch. Levison’s point is that even if Gwen whittles her marathon down to 2:25, which is possible, it’s going to take someone with at least a 2:19 in her toolkit to take home Olympic gold.
As much as her passion and strength in triathlon is in running, Gwen herself has pointed out a major unknown—whether her body can handle the 120 miles/week of training she says will be necessary. She mentions that when she was running in college, she topped out at 70 miles/week, and her NYC Marathon was accomplished on 50 miles/week max. Slowtwitch’s Dan Empfield wonders if her success as a runner was because she wasn’t doing all that much of it: “It seems to me that she is a better runner off cross training than she is when she is a pure runner. You could say the same of Lukas Verzbicas and, really, you could say the same of you.” Oddly, the only time Gwen has ever hit 100 miles/week was while pregnant. And that brings me to a perspective I’d like to add to the Internet discussion.
As Flotrack and every other media outlet point out, Gwen is not only embarking on marathon-specific training, she’s recovering from the birth of her first child, born Aug. 16. Gwen mentions marathoning moms Deena Kastor and Kara Goucher as inspiration, but fails to mention that neither woman returned to her peak form after childbirth. Back-to-back marathon mom Stephanie Bruce recently posted an admirable 2:31 at this year’s NYC Marathon, two years after her second child was born, but has not returned to her pre-baby PB of 2:29. In fact, most U.S. women put off childbirth until the end of their career rather than the beginning or middle.
Top Kenyan marathoners have mastered mid-career maternity, and have come back as strong or stronger than ever. But, they are very serious about rest, and are usually out of competition for a full two years, sometimes longer.
Two-time world champion, two-time World Marathon Majors Champion, and sub-2:20 marathoner Edna Kiplagat has five children, three by birth and two adopted.
“Kiplagat gave her body a full year to recover, which, together with the six months off while pregnant, totaled 18 months of complete rest from running,” I wrote after talking with Kiplagat.
Even after the 18 months of zero running, Kiplagat ran slowly for three months, very gradually building back to pre-baby tempo and volume.
Contrast that with Gwen’s plan. She hit at least a couple 100 mile weeks during the fifth month of pregnancy (Kiplagat stopped running completely by her fourth month) and told People magazine in May that ideally she could get in a run before zipping off to the hospital to give birth.
In a recent interview with Triathlete, Jorgensen said, “I’ve been a little slower returning to running than I anticipated after giving birth. I’ve had to really allow my body to heal and I’ve spent a lot of time working on my core. Last week I only ran about 30 miles.” That would have been maybe nine weeks after giving birth.
Again, Kiplagat, who is typical of Kenyan runners, did not run at all for a year after giving birth. Gwen said she went to the gym 18 days after son Stanley was born, and plans to race in 2018. U.S. women seem proud of jumping right back into their athletic careers, but have had less success than Kenyan women—women like Mary Keitany and Edna Kiplagat who are turning in Olympic podium-worthy performances—in returning to competition after pregnancy.
Anyway, it’s fun to ponder how one of the world’s greatest athletes will handle a sort-of new sport. At the end of the day, she’ll run a faster marathon than the majority of triathletes could ever hope to.