The 2020 US. Olympic Marathon Trials on Feb. 29 were marked on Gwen Jorgensen’s calendar since her Nov. 2017 announcement that she was leaving the triathlon to pursue running full time in hopes of winning the 2020 Olympic gold medal in the marathon. But now, less than three months out from the event, Jorgensen announced that she will not run the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials and instead focus on making the U.S. team for the Summer Games on the track in the 10,000 meters.
“It’s a multitude of emotions,” Jorgensen, 33, says. “I’m disappointed. At the same time, I’m also excited. I’m at a point where I’m running 70 miles per week and training is going well. I just know that if I went to the trials, running 70 miles per week, I’d be hoping that I made a team. That’s not what I want to do at an Olympic Trials. I want to go in confident and knowing that I have the ability to make a team. My goals in the marathon aren’t changing. My timeline is.”
The 2016 Olympic triathlon champion made the decision a few weeks ago after discussing her training with coach Jerry Schumacher and husband Patrick Lemieux.
“I could get bent out of shape and sad about it, but at the end of the day, I’m excited because I know this path that I’m on will not only be a successful route, but I also think it will lead to success long term in the marathon,” she says. “I’m confident in my abilities on the track.”
Jorgensen’s goal was a lofty one from the onset. No American woman has won gold in the marathon at the Olympics since Joan Benoit Samuelson’s victory in the 1984 inaugural running. The 2020 trials, where the top three finishers qualify for Tokyo, are shaping up to be one of the most competitive races of the year, as American women’s distance running is at its highest level with recent World Marathon Major victories by Shalane Flanagan at the 2017 New York City Marathon and Desiree Linden at the 2018 Boston Marathon.
Even after giving birth to her son Stanley in Aug. 2017, Jorgensen could have returned to the triathlon and arguably been a contender to become the first woman to win back-to-back Olympic gold medals. But she and her family decided to move to Portland, Ore., and once settled there, Jorgensen signed a professional running contract with Nike and joined the Bowerman Track Club.
Jorgensen worked her way to the marathon by racing on the track in the spring of 2018 and ran a few U.S.A. Track and Field road race championships. She says her training went well, nailing all but one workout in 12 weeks. But in the three days before she was set to compete in the Chicago Marathon, Jorgesen battled a fever and underestimated the effects of running while sick. She finished in a disappointing 2:36:23 in her professional marathon debut.
“I didn’t have doubts after that race,” she says. “Yes, it was a bad outcome but I had a really good training leading up to it and it made me more eager than ever to do another marathon to prove that I can do this.”
Contrary to her rise in triathlon, which saw her go from a tax accountant at Ernst & Young in 2010 to an Olympian in 2012 and Olympic champion four years later, Jorgensen’s timeline for a marathon gold medal was already abbreviated and only got shorter after she felt pain in her heel following Chicago. The discomfort was later revealed to be a foot issue called Haglund’s Deformity and needed surgery to be corrected. She underwent the procedure in May and was totally ruled out for the 2019 fall marathon season.
“I just wanted to make sure that I [did] everything right so that I never have this problem again,” Jorgensen says. “I had to listen to my body. I didn’t look at calendars. I didn’t think about racing. I didn’t think about the marathon or track.”
Now fully healed, healthy and recovered, Jorgensen is working her way back to train with her Bowerman teammates. Her day sometimes includes a hill sprints, a track workout, pelvic floor therapist treatment, physical therapy exercises for her achilles and then an evening workout before returning to her family.
In addition to her coaching from Schumacher, Jorgensen will have some input from one of the best U.S. distance runners of all-time. Flanagan, the four-time U.S. Olympian and 2008 10,000 meter Olympic silver medalist, announced her decision to retire in October and has joined the Bowerman Track Club coaching staff. It’s too early for Flanagan to judge what Jorgensen’s ceiling in the event is but acknowledges one area for possible improvement. “She really needs to be able to have a kick,” Flanagan says.
Even Jorgensen acknowledges her lack of closing speed at the moment. At the 2018 U.S. Outdoor Track and Field Championships in Des Moines, Iowa, American record holder Molly Huddle pulled away from the field in the final mile and Jorgensen lacked the closing speed to respond to the move and finished seventh. The work to find that speed will begin soon, as Jorgensen and the Bowerman Track Club will head to Colorado for altitude training in January.
“I think it’s important not to be afraid when you need to admit that your goal needs to change,” Jorgensen says. “I’m not going to say that I’m failing because I still want to have my marathon goals, but the timeline has changed. It’s still important to have big goals and to share those goals. It holds everyone accountable.”