Five Alaskans to compete in Saturday’s Olympic Marathon Trials
Five Alaskans are primed for the biggest race of their lives on Saturday — the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials in Atlanta, Georgia.
They’ve run countless miles on ice and snow in the heart of winter as well as around indoor tracks and on monotonous treadmills.
Some have trained mostly solo and squeezed in 100-mile weeks while holding full-time jobs and raising a family, while others have thrived in the camaraderie of running communities in Alaska and Canada. One is breaking ground as the first transgender runner at the Trials.
All have met the qualifying times of sub-2 hours and 19 minutes for men and sub-2:45 for women — some comfortably, others just barely.
Finally it’s time to toe the line with the country’s best. While only one of them has a glimmer of hope to place in the top 3 and represent the U.S. at the 2020 Olympics, simply participating in the pinnacle of elite American marathoning is a reward worth celebrating.
Qualifying Time: 2:17:23, 2018 Indianapolis Marathon
Aaron Fletcher is confident and seeking a breakthrough race at the Trials.
And with good reason: he’s just completed the best training cycle of his career, is injury-free and itching to go.
“I averaged about 108 miles a week for the last 12 weeks and had some really great long runs on the treadmill with hill simulations to get ready for the race,” said Fletcher, a full-time civil engineer who has one young child and another on the way. “(The training) has gone better than I ever could have hoped, honestly.”
A recent confidence-building run: 23 miles on the treadmill, with 16 of them at 5 minute-per-mile pace while throwing in hill simulations on grades of 2 to 6 percent.
Staying motivated has not been a problem for the 2009 South Anchorage High School graduate who had a successful college career at Brigham Young University in Utah after joining the team as a walk-on.
“I’ve stayed motivated by the fact that that stakes of this race are so high,” Fletcher said on Wednesday from Atlanta. “The potential reward for performing well here are incredible.”
Fletcher shattered a 35-year-old record at the Equinox Marathon last September but acknowledges that making the Olympic team is not a realistic goal (“You can dream,” he says). But Fletcher believes he’s in shape to break his personal best of 2:14 despite the hilly nature of the course that will likely slow men’s times down by at least two minutes.
“Anywhere near the top 10 or 20 is a phenomenal result in this field,” said Fletcher, who is self-coached and trains almost exclusively on his own. “I want to race my best. That honestly is my goal: to get out there and compete and not worry about things I can’t control.”
Residence: Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada
Qualifying Race: 2:18:49, 2019 Eugene Marathon
The reality of running the Olympic Trials started to sink in for Tony Tomsich on Thursday when he ran part of the course with fellow Trials qualifier Anna Dalton and spotted some of the biggest names of the sport — Boston Marathon winner Des Linden, Olympic medalist Bernard Legat, 2020 contender Leonard Korir — at race headquarters.
“It’s fun to play the name game,” said Tomsich, who qualified by a mere 11 seconds at the 2019 Eugene Marathon. “All the big names are floating around.”
Tomsich, a 2005 West Valley High School graduate, spent five years as a coach at UAA before moving to Vancouver with his Canadian wife in 2016.
“For me it’s really just an honor to be here and a celebration of the journey I’ve been on the last few years,” he said.
Tomsich was primarily a 1500-meter racer at Western Washington University from 2005-2010, when the marathon seemed like an impossibly long distance. But he began to consider the possibility at UAA coach TJ Garlatz’s suggestion and ran a respectable 2:26 at the 2018 Berlin Marathon despite a “classic blow-up marathon horror story.”
He credits the Miles2Marathon team in Vancouver, which he joined first as a runner and then as a coach, for helping his improvement. The team’s co-founder is Dylan Wykes, a 2010 Olympian with a 2:10 marathon best. The team has great camaraderie, whether members are training for their first marathon or chasing a Boston Marathon qualifier.
“Everyone within the group has a passion for running,” Tomsich said.
Unfortunately, Tomsich’s Trials preparation has been a struggle as a misdiagnosed leg injury prevented him from training consistently for about six months after the Eugene qualifier. Recently, though, he’s strung together a couple good months of running.
“I want to go out there and have a good, positive experience,” Tomsich said. “I want to run a smart, conservative race and ratchet down the last 10 kilometers.”
Residence: Anchorage and Bozeman, Montana
Qualifying Race: 2:44:18, 2018 California International Marathon
Anna Dalton has experienced more than her share of adversity on her road to the Olympic Trials.
The 2008 West Anchorage High graduate has suffered concussions — first from a mountain biking fall and then a car accident — and struggled with a chronic hamstring injury as well as anemia.
But now she’s healthy and well-trained after a build-up that included 5-6 weeks of running 90+ miles per week. She also set a personal best by nearly two minutes of 1:17 at the Houston Half Marathon on January 19 and ran a 1,600-meter time trial (nine meters shy of a mile) at the Anchorage Dome in 4 minutes, 53 seconds.
“It was a bit of surprise to have that speed in my legs while training for a marathon,” said Dalton, who prefers running in Anchorage with training partners but also divides her time in Bozeman, Mont., while working remotely for the Anchorage Conservation Foundation.
But she’s happily trading Anchorage’s cold, snow and ice for Atlanta’s less challenging conditions.
“I’m looking forward to running on dry pavement,” she said on Wednesday from Bozeman while heading to the airport.
Dalton hoped to qualify for the Olympic Trials in 2016 and felt she was in range of the 2:43 qualifying standard at the time, but overtraining and injuries stymied her bid.
Training has gone smoother this go-round as her sponsor United Physical Therapy helped heal her hamstring issue and a new doctor got her anemia under control by prescribing iron pills every other day instead of daily.
“That was a game-changer,” Dalton said adding that the 2020 Trials is a “celebration of a lot of years of hard work.”
Dalton, who mixed in trail and mountain races when not focusing on marathons, believes she’s in about 2:40-2:41 marathon shape and estimates the hilly, looped course is about three minutes slower than a flat course.
With more than 500 women competing, there will be no shortage of women to run with and chase after.
“I want to finish well above where I’m ranked,” she said.
Hometown: South Glens Falls, NY
Qualifying Race: 2:41:19, 2019 Grandma’s Marathon
Keri McEntee moved to Alaska from New York State in 2015 to take a job in Fairbanks as a occupational therapist. She’s also moved her winter training mostly indoors to avoid the frigid temperatures and dark of Interior Alaska.
“It’s been a miserable winter in Fairbanks for running,” McEntee said, adding that she will run on bike paths if the temperature is reasonable and the footing is decent.
McEntee has been logging lots of miles at the Big Dipper Ice Arena, where 7 ½ laps on a track of sorts above the ice rink equals a mile.
“I don’t count laps,” McEntee said, adding that she justs run circles until her time goal of 90 or 120 minutes expires. “It’s better than the treadmill for me because last winter the treadmill flared up an Achilles’ injury.”
Summer in Alaska is a different story, however, as McEntee has triumphed at both the Anchorage RunFest Marathon and Mayor’s Marathon on her ascendency to the Trials. Her marathon debut at the 2017 Mayor’s resulted in a 3:04 time that won the women’s race by almost 18 minutes.
McEntee quickly overcame heartbreak after missing the Trials qualifier by a mere 28 seconds at the 2019 Boston Marathon. That very night, she bought a bib from someone on Facebook for Grandma’s Marathon in Duluth, Minnesota, and achieved her successful qualifier two months later despite debilitating blisters starting after just three miles. “I ignored the pain,” McEntee said.
Making the Trials is thrilling for McEntee, who describes herself as a “pretty mediocre” runner in high school that did not compete in college. She accepts that the top runners in Atlanta are on a different level.
“I’m not delusioned into thinking I’m actually going to qualify,” McEntee said. “The women likely to qualify are a good 20 minutes faster than me.”
Qualifying Race: 2:43:52, 2019 California International Marathon
Megan Youngren’s participation at the Olympic Trials was in doubt until nearly the last minute.
That’s not because she didn’t run fast enough: Youngren qualified by 68 seconds at a marathon in Sacramento, Calif., culminating a remarkable improvement of more than two hours from her marathon debut at the 2017 Equinox in Fairbanks.
Her entry was in limbo as she awaited approval from the race’s governing body, USA Track & Field, as the Trials’ first known openly transgender participant.
“I got a call from them on Monday (Feb. 24),” said Youngren, a Soldotna native. “They said ‘We’re looking forward to seeing you on Saturday. I had to ask them three or four times, really? … One part was shock and one part was a slow build of excitement for getting to race.”
Youngren said she has followed the rules set by USATF and submitted the necessary paperwork and medical records showing that her testosterone levels are low enough to meet their requirements.
Youngren, who has been transitioning since 2011, began running in 2017 to lose weight and get a shingles problem under control. She ran six marathons in 2019, dropping her time from 3:07 at Los Angeles in March to 2:43 at her qualifier in December.
“It is surreal (to be running the Trials),” she said. “I put in the work but was always waiting for the plateau to happen and it didn’t.”
Youngren said she has received much support since her trans status became public in local and national news articles. She’s also been criticized by those who feel she has an unfair physical advantage. She’s hoping that by helping pave the path she limits the controversy that future trans runners have to deal with.
Youngren says the Atlanta course suits her well. “Three loops, rolling hills, that’s exactly what I do in training. That’s perfect for me,” she said.
She’s shooting to run faster than 2:45 on Saturday. “It’s going to be a crazy, just super exciting environment to be in,” Youngren said.
Alaskans in previous U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials
Kris Mueller, 74th, (time unknown)
David Morris, 10th, 2:16:20
Will Kimball, 25th, 2:20:21
Chris Clark, 96th, 2:51:07
Kristi Klinnert, 107th, 2:58:06
Chris Clark, 1st, 2:33:31
Will Kimball, 37th, 2:29:13
David Morris, 38th, 2:29:26
David Morris, DNF
Jesse Cherry, 29th, 2:16:31
Jesse Cherry, DNF
ALASKA MEN’S MARATHON – Top 10 All-time
Criteria — the runner must have primarily grown up in Alaska OR been living in Alaska when running their fast marathon
1. David Morris, 2:09:32 (Chicago 1999)
2. Aaron Fletcher, 2:14:45 (St. George UT 2017)
3. Jesse Cherry, 2:16:31 (2012 U.S. Olympic Trials)
4. Rick Wilhelm, 2:17:00 (1991 – location unknown)
5. Tony Tomsich, 2:18:49 (Eugene 2019)
6. Kris Mueller, 2:19:26 (Twin Cities 1986)
7. Will Kimball, 2:20:21 (1996 U.S. Olympic Trials)
8. Matt Adams, 2:20:27 (Missoula 2014)
9. Michael Wisniewski, 2:22:29 (Mayor’s 2009)
10. Bob Murphy, 2:22:47 (Nike Oregon Track Club 1983)
ALASKA WOMEN’S MARATHON – Top 10 All-time
Criteria — the runner must have grown up in Alaska OR been living in Alaska when running their fast marathon
1. Chris Clark, 2:31:35 (2000 Summer Olympics)
2. Suzanne Ray, 2:40:54 (Twin Cities 1991)
3. Keri McEntee, 2:41:19 (Grandma’s 2019)
4. Megan Youngren, 2:43:52 (CIM 2019)
5. Anna Dalton, 2:44:18 (CIM 2018)
6. Gerry Litzenberger, 2:45:19 (Twin Cities 1988)
7. Kristi (Waythomas) Klinnert, 2:48:48 (Twin Cities 1994)
8. Najeeby Quinn, 2:49:32 (Mayors 2004)
9. Julianne Dickerson, 2:49:52 (CIM 2019)
10. Shannon Gress, 2:51:33 (Juneau 2014)
-By Matias Saari, Alaska Sports Blog correspondent