U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon might be very fast: A Q&A with two Paris hopefuls

It’s only February, but the season of U.S. Olympic Trials competitions is about to get real in a hurry. One of the highest-profile events is the marathon, which takes place Saturday morning in Orlando.

Given the revolution in shoe technology and faster qualification standard — 2:18 for men, 2:37 for women — this should be among the most competitive marathon trials ever. The way things are shaping up, the U.S. is expected to send three women and two men to Paris, the result of a somewhat convoluted system of qualifying marathoners for what historically has been one of the signature events of the Olympics.

But first there is the trials marathon — often a topsy-turvy race filled with surprises. If you saw Molly Seidel not only making the team for Tokyo in 2020 but also winning a bronze medal, then you knew a lot more than the so-called experts.

We caught up with two top runners with the Brooks team, C.J. Albertson, 30, of California, and Zach Panning, 28 of Michigan, Thursday as they were arriving at marathon headquarters and acclimating to the scene, which includes everything from former Olympians to seriously fast weekend warriors who train while holding down full-time jobs. Both said they are fired up and expecting a fast race.

“This will be the Olympic Trials that, even with it being a little warm, will kind of change people’s perspectives of what you need to run to be in the mix and be good,” Albertson said.

The following interviews have been edited for length and clarity.

How are you feeling?

Zach Panning: I’ve been feeling pretty good. I’m coming in pretty healthy. I had a really good training block and half the battle is getting to the line healthy and feeling good. So, we’ve done that, and now it’s just time to go take care of business and put that fitness on display, hopefully.

C.J. Albertson: I got to run in shorts and a t-shirt and the sun this morning. So, pretty good.

There was some concern that Florida was a bad choice for the marathon trials because of the heat (high temperatures for Saturday are expected to reach the mid-70s). What does the weather feel like for you, and how did that affect your training?

CA: I’ve done a lot of training for that. Running on my treadmill and in really hot, humid conditions. It doesn’t look like the weather’s going to be too bad, but if it’s a little warm, I think I’ll feel really good in that.

ZP: We’ve been down here since Dec. 20. It feels like, when we come down for two weeks at a time in other years, and not to mention, I think Michigan, at least in the summer, does a pretty good job of preparing us. Michigan, in general, I think prepares us for just about anything. But we’ve been training at about 10 a.m. every day. I’ve been using the sauna quite a bit.

Zach Panning

Zach Panning runs during the 2023 world championships in Budapest, Hungary. He finished 12th there in 2:11:21, three minutes off the Olympic qualifying time. (Kirby Lee / USA Today)

Trials is a different animal in that second or third can be as good as first. Does that change your approach?

CA: To be a national champion and the significant prize money, first is better than third, but third is better than third in any other race.

ZP: You want to win the race. There are A goals, B goals and C goals. No matter what, I think, the A goal is to win the race that you’re running. I don’t think that changes too much, but it is nice to know that those second and third spots, at least the second spot for sure, goes to the Olympics.

What was your heaviest training week this cycle?

CA: I had a couple of weeks at like 130 (miles run), like 127. That’s pretty typical for me.

ZP: I got to mid-130s for a couple weeks there. That way when we did our big workouts as well, trying to do those on tired legs.

What do you think of this course?

CA: Great course. Pretty flat with a few little rises. Not a lot of turns. It’s actually mostly shaded. I think it’s going to be pretty fast.

ZP: I really like it. Three eight-mile loops and a two-mile loop. That’s like what we did at world championships in Budapest. You know where the hard parts are going to be on the course and you get to attack those spots multiple times. It’s like in the mile — the third lap is the most important.

CJ Albertson

CJ Albertson (far left) leads the pack during the 2023 Boston Marathon. He’s hoping to grab one of the two guaranteed U.S. men’s spots in the Olympics. (Brian Fluharty / USA Today)

How fast are you going to have to be to make this team?

CA: If it was perfect conditions, I’d probably say under 2:08, but I think maybe the last 10 kilometers will get a little bit slowed down just because it will be a little warm, so probably 2:08:30 for third place.

ZP: I think there will be at least three guys that run under that 2:08:10 (the Olympic qualifying time).

Finish this sentence: I will make this team if … 

CA: I run fast in the last six miles.

ZP: I run my race. If I let others dictate my race, I think it becomes more difficult for me.

What’s your go-to pre-race dinner?

CA: Very simple rice and bread. I’ll maybe have like a little bit of meat or eggs, some small, little dose of protein. Maybe some fruit. But very simple.

ZP: I’m a big chicken parmesan guy. I always get that before big races. So some pasta and some chicken. It’s done me well. I’ve been doing it since high school.



World marathon record destroyed in Chicago

(Top photos of Zach Panning and CJ Albertson: Shaun Botterill / Getty Images; Maddie Malhotra / Getty Images)

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