On Saturday, about 700 runners will race in Atlanta to decide who will make the U.S. Olympic marathon team. On this week’s episode of Slate’s Working podcast, Shannon Palus spoke with Olympian Amy Begley, who is now the head running coach of the Atlanta Track Club, which is putting on the marathon trials. Begley, who competed in the 10,000-meter in Beijing in 2008, spoke about how she’s preparing her athletes, and the challenging logistics of putting on the largest trials ever. She also talked about her time running with Nike’s Oregon Project, which has been in the news lately after head coach Alberto Salazar received a four-year ban for doping offenses in addition to facing allegations of being emotionally abusive to his athletes. A portion of the conversation, which has been condensed and edited for clarity, is below.
Shannon Palus: What are you doing with your athletes this week to get them ready for the marathon trials?
Amy Begley: The past couple of weeks have been a little crazy. They did their last hard workout on Saturday, Feb. 8, and now it’s a little bit tapering, still doing mileage, but it’s going to start coming down every week and the workouts are a little bit shorter.
Palus: What are the challenges of coaching folks through that tapering period when they cut down on mileage to get ready for a big race?
Begley: Everyone kind of goes through this period of, “Did I do enough? Should I add more? Should I make up for anything that I missed?” We’ve gone through the flu season. We’ve gone through injuries. You have to keep reminding them it’s better not to overdo it now and to get to the starting line healthy than to overdo it and not get to the starting line, which is really hard for some people.
Palus: What did that last hard workout look like before the taper started?
Amy Begley: They do a two-hour run, where every 30 minutes, they change the pace of their running. So they run at marathon pace for 30 minutes. They’ll run at half-marathon pace for 30 minutes.
Palus: As a coach, how do you design that workout?
Begley: For a lot of racing, especially for marathoners, it’s making sure that you understand the pace that you’re running and making sure that you don’t go out too hard at the beginning. A lot of excitement can cause you to go out too fast and that puts you in a hole for later. So being able to feel that pace is really important. But also in the race, you have to understand that people are going to make moves, and you have to be ready and able to change pace. Especially on our course for this trials, the hills are going to be interesting. So you have to be able to change paces coming off a hill, going down a hill, and when you start getting really tired.
Palus: Tell us a little bit about what these marathon trials are going to be like. How many other athletes are going to be there, and what are the stakes of the day that’s coming up?
Begley: This will currently be the largest Olympic marathon trials ever held. Usually there’s somewhere between 250 and 375 athletes, both men and women, but this year there’s going to be close to 700 athletes. The biggest problem is going to be the fluid stations. There’s never been a marathon with this many elite fluid stations. It’s going to be a challenge, not only for us as an organization to put on, but for the athletes to get through those hydration stations without missing a bottle, without knocking things over. The top three will make the Olympic team for both men and women. The fourth person will be the alternate, so it’s definitely high stakes for everybody entering this race.
Palus: You said 700 people are going to be there. Are all of those folks in the running to be in those top three or four spots, or is it sort of clear how it could shake out?
Begley: There’s probably 20 to 25 guys and probably 20 women that have a real legitimate shot of making the team. Everyone else I would say is doing it for experience for later, for 2024, or this is really their Olympics.
Palus: What do the fluid stations look like? Is there a difference between an elite fluid station and one that a casual marathoner would encounter? How are those set up?
Begley: As an elite marathoner, you create your own bottles. You decorate them. You label them. You have to turn your bottles in the night before. The organization then takes them out and puts them on tables. And with this many athletes, the tables are probably a half-mile long. It’s a lot of organization on our part to make sure that all the bottles are placed correctly.
Now the issue is, when people are running and if you’re in a big pack, if your bottle is next to somebody else’s, you could accidentally knock it over. You could accidentally take somebody else’s. It becomes an interesting game. The athletes have to know and understand that, “OK I have my bottles placed out there, but something could happen along the way.” There’s also regular hydration stations with bottled water and bottled Powerade, and they have to be bottled because of doping control. They can’t take something that’s been opened because of liability, because you just don’t know what’s happened. It’s a lot.
Palus: On Twitter, after Mary Cain’s story in the New York Times came out, you mentioned that during your time at the Oregon Project, you were told that you were too fat and had the “biggest butt” on the starting line. And you also wrote that your experiences make you a better coach. And I’m wondering how you apply that experience at the Oregon Project to your work now, and how that changes how you coach people now.
Begley: Alberto taught me a lot. He taught me how to work hard. He taught me how to compete on the world level. But he was also somewhat emotional in his coaching. Between Tuesday and Friday, his opinion of how I looked or if I was in shape or not would change. I’ve worked to not be such an emotional coach, to not let things like that affect me as much. I’m still working on that.
But it also taught me to have better team dynamics. The team would revolve around certain people and their mood for the day, or certain people and how they raced. For example, if we went to a race and three of us had amazing days and PR’d, but one person didn’t, then the rest of us couldn’t celebrate our great days because of that one person. So it taught me that the team dynamics can’t just revolve around one person. It needs to be a synergy of everyone working together.
The other thing is: In the Oregon Project, running was life, and that’s a little bit how it has to be, but also if you’re not a happy runner, you’re not going to run fast. You can’t take everything away from an athlete and just make them live in this bubble of running. With the Oregon Project, there was just running. There wasn’t family. There wasn’t anything else that you really could take time out for, and that is something that I want to make sure that our athletes get a chance to do as well. It’s hard, it’s a fine line, but you have to make sure that the runner is happy as well.