U.S. Road Running Community Comes Together for Olympic Team Trials Marathon in Orlando
By Gabrielle Russon
From the TCS New York City Marathon command center, Paul Ortolano was always on red alert.
Ortolano already mapped out all the worst possible scenarios in his head before race day and he was ready to act fast if something unexpected happened during the world’s largest marathon.
“We have to always constantly think about anything that can happen at any moment,” said Ortolano, New York Road Runners’ head of event operations.
Once, Ortolano forged a new, makeshift start line for the wheelchair athletes on a shortened course three hours before the race began because of dangerous winds on the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge, where the normal start line usually was. When New York hosted the men’s U.S. Olympic Team Trials - Marathon in 2007, Ortolano kept the race going while also dealing with the sudden death of Ryan Shay, who collapsed in Central Park in the early miles of the race. Tapping into his years of experience from the race that’s part of the Abbott World Marathon Majors, largest marathon in the world, Ortolano is volunteering as the right-hand man for Track Shack co-owner and race director Jon Hughes during the 2024 Trials which will be held in Orlando on Saturday.
Race operation veterans from New York, Chicago, Boston and Big Sur marathons – some of the most famous, bucket-list races in the country – are coming to Orlando to share their own expertise for the Trials. It shows just how tight-knit the running community is as well as the magic of the Marathon Trials, several said.
“The running industry is an incredibly supportive community. While we can be competitive, we also recognize collaboration and an investment in the success of every road race, big and small, is good for our sport,” said Carey Pinkowski, the Bank of America Chicago Marathon’s executive race director who is sending volunteers to Orlando to help. “We will be supporting everything from event operations and athlete services to media logistics and providing live updates from the lead vehicles.”
About 360 runners will compete on the downtown Orlando streets for their chance to represent the United States at the Olympic Games Paris 2024. The community is encouraged to cheer on the athletes at the event hosted by City of Orlando, Orange County, Greater Orlando Sports Commission, Visit Orlando and Track Shack. The men’s start is at 10:10 a.m. followed by the women at 10:20 a.m.
For Ortolano, who worked for NYRR for 18 years, it’s back to the familiar spot of being in the race command center and developing contingency plans. He knows Central Florida well too. Before New York, he worked at Walt Disney World where he was part of the brains creating the Goofy Challenge during Walt Disney World Marathon Weekend.
On Saturday, Ortolano will be on hand to help make sure the Trials start on time as the TV cameras put downtown Orlando in the international sport spotlight. Then once the runners take off, Ortolano plans to migrate to the finish line with Hughes.
“I will be working directly with Jon, just in case something happens…He can go one way, and I can go another.. He’s going to have a race command center, and the people in there should be able to put out those fires,” said Ortolano, Hughes’ longtime friend and colleague.
On his mind? That Florida heat, Ortolano said.
Just ahead of the fastest runners on the course will be Dave McGillivray, zooming by on a scooter and scouting ahead for danger.
McGillivray knows what it takes for a city to successfully pull off a marathon.
For 37 years, he has helped lead the prestigious Boston Marathon. He also directed the U.S. Marathon Trials in 2004 and 2008.
From his vantage point in the scooter, McGillivray will look for cars pulling into the course and making sure the road is clear and the water stations are ready. He also knows the race can get complicated with lead vehicles on a loop course like Orlando where the men could pass slower women and the faster women pass slower men.
“I’m out there just trying to troubleshoot the whole way for two hours,” McGillivray said. “I’ve been known to jump off my motor scooter and run over and fix something and jump back on the scooter and catch up to the pack again.”
With his “best seat in the house,” McGillivray said he is thrilled to be at the Trials and working with his longtime friend and colleague Hughes.
“I am excited just to have a role in the Olympic Trials. I don’t take that for granted,” McGillivray said. “On the other hand, I have a job to do, and I have to keep my game face on. I can't get too emotional with it until afterward.”
Come Saturday, Doug Thurston hopes you won’t see him at all.
“Real nuts and bolts course operations, we should be very invisible. And that's the way we want it. We want the runners to not have to think about anything,” said Thurston, the Big Sur International Marathon race director from 2013-2022 and the race director for the 1992 U.S. Olympic men’s Marathon Trials.
Thurston, who has known Jon and Betsy Hughes for 30 years, offered to assist at the Trials.
Like McGillivray, Thurston will be on the course Saturday. He will ride in a truck carrying extra orange cones as part of the crew keeping the course safe and closed for vehicles and assisting athletes if anyone suffers medical issues or drops out.
“We're just just making sure that both the community can enjoy the event with minimal inconvenience and that the runners are safe and protected,” said Thurston.
To prepare for the high-pressure race day, Thurston traveled from his home in New Mexico to Orlando in January to see the course firsthand on a test run with a small number of athletes. He pours over maps of the city and jumps on regular calls with the other operational leaders leading up to the Trials.
“The Olympic Trials are the pinnacle of U.S. runners. This is the best of the best,” Thurston said. “To be a part of that, you're helping make dreams come true for the very best of the American men and women marathon runners, and that's very exciting. We're professionals, and we want to do our job the best we can. All the race directors want to see this event succeed.”