Olympic Dreams

Contributed by Erin Mara, a writer and runner living in San Francisco.

Above: August 19, 1984 – San Francisco, California, United States: Runners in Golden Gate Park, with the Conservatory of Flowers in the background, during The San Francisco Marathon. (Steve Ringman / San Francisco Chronicle / Polaris)

The San Francisco Marathon has a history rich with Olympian participation. Soon after The Marathon’s start in the late 1970s, the race started to catch the attention of world-class runners.

It attracted an international class, an elite field, and garnered some serious history.

SF Marathon

July 20, 1986 – San Francisco, California, United States: Runners going downhill from the Palace of the Legion of Honor toward Lake St. during The San Francisco Marathon. (Steve Ringman / San Francisco Chronicle)

In 1984, a week after the Olympic Games in Los Angeles, a handful of Olympic team alternates ran in The San Francisco Marathon. Simeon Kigen — arguably the best road runner in the world at the time but barred from the Kenyan Olympic team because of internal politics  — ran in The San Francisco Marathon with a vengeance. He finished with a time of 2:10:18, better than any of his compatriots in the Olympics that year. Kigen’s time still holds the course record.

“This showed we were able to create a course that enabled runners to achieve a world-class time in San Francisco,” said Scott Thomason, the first executive director of The San Francisco Marathon. “This showed that San Francisco could be run competitively.”

Two-time Olympic marathoner (1984, 1988) Pete Pfitzinger won The San Francisco Marathon in 1983 and 1986.

In 1984, a female runner no one had heard of before, raced and won her first competitive marathon in San Francisco. Nancy Ditz went on to become a member of the 1988 Olympic Track and Field Team.

“The San Francisco Marathon made my career,” Ditz said. “It put me on the map. I had just starting running — I had no idea I was going to win.”

1984 was the first Olympics women were allowed to run marathons, and Ditz said it was “a heady time” to be a woman marathoner.

“There were some incredible women running back then — Joan Benoit, Ingrid Kristiansen, Rosa Mota,” she said. “It was an exciting time to be running.”

Ditz said The San Francisco Marathon gave her the confidence to run in the Olympic Trials.

“I never thought I could run in the Olympics. The San Francisco Marathon raised my expectation level for myself.”

Other notable runners include Janis Klecker, who won The San Francisco marathon in 1983 and 1990 and competed in the 1992 Summer Olympics; Maria Trujillo, who won The San Francisco Marathon in 1986, and represented Mexico at the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles; Dave Gordon, who ran The San Francisco Marathon in 1984 and competed in the Olympic trials that year, as well as in in 1988; and Massimo Magnani of Italy, who ran The San Francisco Marathon in 1984 and competed in the Summer Olympics in 1976 and 1980. Allison Roe of New Zealand, known in the running community as one of the greatest marathoners of all time, ran The San Francisco Marathon as her last competitive marathon in the mid-1980s.

“The race didn’t just have national caliber athletes, it had athletes that were prominent all over the world — that’s how competitive the race was at that time,” said Regional Director for USA Track & Field and former race director of The San Francisco Marathon John Mansoor. “It was a very prestigious and competitive race. It was arguably one of the most prominent races from a competitive stance.”

In 2016, The San Francisco Marathon officially became a sanctioned USA Track & Field qualifier race for the Olympic Team Trials. Runners who meet the qualifying times are now eligible to compete for a spot on the U.S. Olympic team.

“The Olympic Trials are the pinnacle of competitiveness,” said Devon Yanko, five-time winner of The San Francisco Marathon and a three-time member of Team USA.

An elite ultrarunner who runs 8-12 marathons a year as part of her training regimen, Yanko ran in the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials in Houston in 2012 with a time of 2:38:55, finishing 36 out of 250 women. She said she’s excited that her hometown marathon is now an Olympic Team Trials qualifying race.

“The San Francisco Marathon’s designation makes a difference. It shows a commitment to taking the race in a more competitive direction,” Yanko said.

John Mansoor, Regional Director for USA Track & Field and former race director of The San Francisco Marathon, said the designation means one thing: “This is how you know you have a top-notch, world-class marathon.”

Mansoor noted that it’s important that races are conducted under a high standard. “As a sanctioned USA Track & Field qualifier race for the Olympic Team Trials, The San Francisco Marathon is conducted to the highest standards.”

The designation also “brings better runners to the race,” Mansoor said.

The Olympic trials window for the 2020 Olympic Games opens in September 2017, so San Francisco Marathon runners can compete to qualify in 2018 and 2019. To qualify for the Olympic Trials, men must run 2:19 or faster, and women must run 2:43 or faster. Around 200 people qualify every year, and runners must finish in the top three, explained Mansoor.

Today — as the only USA Track & Field-sanctioned marathon in the Bay Area, as well as a qualifier for the Boston Marathon and the only full marathon and double marathon event in San Francisco — the race is the Bay Area’s path for runners to race into the international stage of the Olympics.


Origins of the Race