More—or Less—than 2 Hours, 45 Minutes
Sarah Fountain wants to be Armenia’s first Olympic marathoner, even as standards are changing.
Sarah Fountain stood on the awards stand with a red-, blue-, and orange-striped Armenian flag in her hands, and was not quite sure what was going to happen. She was in Tblisi, Georgia, having just run her personal best for 10 kilometers at 36 minutes, 50 seconds. It was good enough for second place, and a spot on the podium.
She had not planned to bring the flag with her, but as she was announced, one of her friends she had traveled to the race with handed it to her. She was proud to represent Armenia, so brought it with her. It was the flag that the third-place finisher brought with her—Azerbaijan’s blue, red, and green flag with a crescent and eight-pointed star in the center—that gave Fountain pause.
The history between Armenia and Azerbaijan has not been kind, including, most recently, clashes in 2016 where an estimated 350 civilians and troops from both sides were killed. A cease-fire was declared shortly after those clashes, but Fountain was standing on the podium just over one year later, and, as she said, she had seen a lot of personal disdain between people from those countries during her time in Armenia. She was unsure what the reaction would be, and was unsure how to act, even though she did not hold any animosity towards anyone at the race.
So, because she did not speak Azerbaijani, Fountain simply smiled and shook the third-place finisher’s hand. The runner smiled back, and Fountain thought that might have been the end of it. But the next thing she knew, she was in the midst of an Armenia-Azerbaijan post-race celebration and photo opportunity. First, friends of the Azerbaijani runner joined her behind her flag, then Fountain’s friends were on the podium, too. They smiled and celebrated together.
Fountain had not gone to Armenia to turn into a runner—she was working as a strategic philanthropy lead for ONEArmenia, a nonprofit for Armenia’s future, after graduating from the University of Michigan. But standing on the podium with the Armenian flag next to the group of Azerbaijani runners struck a chord. She thought her running could make a difference.
She had been working with a coach in Armenia who had been mentioning that she should step up her training; there was room for improvement, he thought. The race in Georgia—along with the amazing experience, it was a personal best, after all—flipped a switch.
She told her coach she wanted to go for it: Fountain wanted to be Armenia’s first woman to run the Olympic Marathon.
* * *
The pace is just over 9.5 miles per hour. And the runner must keep that pace for just under 2 hours and 45 minutes—running 6 minutes, 17 seconds per mile for 26.2 of them—if she wants to qualify for the 2020 U.S. Olympic Team Trials Marathon.
It is no easy task. However, as of December 4, over 400 American women have run the qualifying mark compared to the 244 who qualified for the 2016 Trials that shared the same standard—a testament to the growing talent and depth in women’s running in the U.S.
The standard was set based on the old Olympic qualifying standard. In 2016, a woman had to run sub-2 hours, 45 minutes while also meeting their country’s team selection process—finishing top three at the U.S. Trials, for example—in order to run at The Games. So, when setting the standard for the 2020 Trials, the thinking was that if someone had run a time that would make them eligible to compete in Tokyo, why not let them have a chance at finishing in the top three? Then, in March 2019, World Athletics (then known as the International Association of Athletics Federations) changed the qualifying standards. Instituting a process that has left many confused, the qualifying mark for women changed to 2 hours, 29 minutes and 30 seconds. (There is also a method of qualifying wherein a woman is ranked high enough in the World Ranking System have they not hit the standard, but the details for that qualifying system will evolve until the day the qualifiers are announced.)
That new qualifying process did not affect the U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon—World Athletics declared that any runner who finished top-three in the event would qualify for the Olympics.
It did however, impact non-U.S. runners chasing that sub-2 hour, 45 minute window.
Sarah Fountain, 24, is one of those runners. She was the first Armenian woman to race the Boston Marathon in 2018. Now, she wants to become the first Armenian woman to race the Olympic Marathon. While sub-2 hours, 45 minutes might not qualify her for Tokyo, it is still the goal she is shooting for on December 8 at the California International Marathon in Sacramento.
Even if she doesn’t qualify for Tokyo in 2020, Fountain wants to make running a possibility for Armenians—especially Armenian women.
* * *
In Armenia, most people thought Fountain was running from something. As she jogged along the streets of the Armenian capital of Yerevan every morning, no one was quite sure what to make of her.
It wasn’t normal, running through the Komitas neighborhood. But most days Fountain ran through the tree-lined streets and down to the Hrazdan Gorge, where she did much of her running. And she ran pretty much every day. Which was not what she thought she would be doing in Yerevan when she moved there in 2017. “Running was not part of the equation,” Fountain said.
Fountain grew up in Connecticut and went to the University of Michigan. While living in Ann Arbor, she ran, but not on the college team. She gravitated towards longer races, jumping in local road races and traveling for a few half marathons.
Fountain’s mother is Armenian (her father is American), and she had been to the country through an internship program in 2015. Following her graduation from Michigan in 2017, she traveled to Armenia as a Birthright Volunteer, an internship program. She loved her time in Armenia and decided to stay, moving to Yerevan and landing a job as a content manager for ONEArmenia. She picked up dual citizenship early in her move to Armenia.
Armenia is a landlocked country east of Turkey, nestled between Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Iran. It’s a mountainous land, with the capital city of Yerevan at 3,200 feet altitude, and much of the country over a mile high. It is about the same size as Maryland, but with a population of 3.3 million, it has about half as many people. Today, Armenia is a representative parliamentary democratic republic that used to be part of the Soviet Bloc, which Armenia left in 1991. Before entering the Soviet Union in 1922, the Ottoman Empire attacked Armenia. From 1914 to 1923—during and after World War I—an estimated 1 to 1.5 million people were killed in the Armenian Genocide. To this day, Armenia campaigns for official recognition of the genocide. (The U.S. House of Representatives voted to recognize, but the Senate did not hold a vote after South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham blocked the resolution.)
Sport is not a large part of Armenian culture. Armenians competed for the Soviet Union until 1992, and today are most competitive in wrestling, where Armenians have won eight of the country’s fourteen medals (no Armenian women have won a medal). Athletes have participated in track and field but have never had a woman athlete compete in the marathon.
In fact, before Fountain ran the Boston Marathon in 2018, no Armenian woman had even run the 26.2 miles from Hopkinton to Boston.
Which was why it was so odd to locals that there was a woman running through the streets of Yerevan every morning—and why people thought that person was running from something.
But no, Fountain simply had realized early in her move to Armenia that running was always going to be an integral part of her life. She had to do it each day. While running wasn’t commonplace, there was a growing community of runners and triathletes in Yerevan. Within her first few months in Armenia, Fountain was working with coach Vahagn Toukharian and training weekly with triathletes Ara Kedekian and Avetik Markosyan, meeting often at Spartak, a beat-up track referred to by locals by its Soviet name.
She was fit when she took second in the 10-kilometer race in Georgia, and then trained even more seriously. She wasn’t running solo through the gorge anymore—Fountain ran through the streets, her head hitched slightly back as if it’s trying to keep up with her bouncy, bounding stride, with training partners. She raced in half marathons—taking second at both the Yerevan Half and the Tblisi Half in 2017—and even jumped up to high-altitude regions of Armenia to train. She also tried to share running with the rest of the country.
Fountain visited Talin, a small village in the northwest of Armenia most known for producing wrestlers and weightlifters, for a 5-kilometer race. Having raced well in Yerevan and Tblisi, she was able to meet with some kids in the town to chat about running and get them ready for a kids’ 1-mile race. When Fountain told the kids to warm up, most of them started doing crawls they had learned in wrestling. She corrected them, working on some A-skips, B-skips, and other runner-centric warmups, but kept noticing two girls whose parents were keeping out of the activity.
During her time in the country, Fountain had mastered the art of being an ignorant American who happened to speak Armenian. So, she went up to the parents and asked, “Can they run with me?” It’ll be fun, she told them. The parents rolled their eyes, Fountain said, but one of the girls joined the drills and raced. Once she finished, Fountain found her and put her on the medal stand, where the little girl smiled and held her plastic trophy. It was a one-person race, but she was the champion. “To see her be proud of herself,” Fountain said, “I wanted to replicate that moment going forward.”
Running could be a part of Armenian culture, Fountain felt.
In April 2018, she became the first Armenian woman to run the Boston Marathon. Her time of 3 hours, 24 minutes, 4 seconds was a way off the Olympic qualifying time of 2 hours, 45 minutes, but this was the first time Fountain had really focused on running the marathon—and she knew there was more there. She said she spoke with representatives from the Armenian Olympic Committee, and they told her if she were to hit the standard, they would try their best to send her to the Olympic Games.
Fountain had spent nearly two years in Armenia, and while the training partners and coach she had in Armenia were helpful, she missed the U.S. To take forty minutes off her marathon time, she decided, it was time to go back.
And while New York City might not seem like the greatest place to seriously train for a marathon, Fountain’s life in the city made her believe 2 hours, 45 minutes is within reach.
* * *
A little over eleven minutes After Emma Bates crossed the finish line in 2 hours, 28 minutes, 19 seconds to win the 2018 California International Marathon (C.I.M.), a crazy thing started to happen. In the five-minute period from 2 hours, 40 minutes after the starting gun to 2 hours, 45 minutes, an astonishing 57 women crossed the finish line. Sometimes it was in packs, sometimes it was one-by-one, but in all, a steady stream of runners crossed the finish line under the U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon qualifying standard—including the runners between Bates and 2 hours, 40 minutes, a total of 98 women broke the barrier.
C.I.M. is, simply put, fast. Runners set massive personal bests and change what they thought was possible. Like Berlin or Boston on a day with a 2011-esque tailwind, the times that fill results pages seem like they need a few minutes added on. C.I.M. is the Nike Vaporfly of marathon courses.
That’s where Fountain is lining up on December 8 as she hopes to knock a big chunk off her marathon time. While she does not live in Armenia currently, she lives in a city where the Vaporflys are common on the East River Park Track many mornings, training with a group of runners who work full-time jobs and run early in the morning and late at night. Working with the Brooklyn Track Club, a club founded by coach Steve Finley and Leigh Anne Sharek (a 2020 Olympic Trials Marathon qualifier) in 2016 of roughly 320 runners that hosts runs and workouts multiple times per week, Fountain set out to drop her best of 3 hours, 24 minutes to sub-2 hours, 45 minutes.
It’s a good city to run in, with plenty of people to run with. Working her job at Discovery Education as a strategic alliances specialist (she helps make digital textbooks and other resources for schools), she found enough time to train and returned to Boston in 2019. She chopped nearly 24 minutes off her time and ran 2 hours, 59 minutes, 59 seconds. She only needed 15 more.
Finley, who now coaches Fountain, thinks that if she sticks to her plan in Sacramento, that the goal of 2 hours, 45 minutes is an achievable one. “If she sticks to her plan and has a good day, I know it’s a goal she’s ready to tackle,” he said. Fountain thinks she’s ready, too.
Life is a little simpler in New York than it was in Armenia—not that it’s any slower in Brooklyn than Yerevan. Plus, there are more people to run with. New York has the aforementioned Brooklyn Track Club, the New York Athletic Club, the Dashing Whippets, Central Park Track Club, a professional track club in the New Jersey New York Track Club, and many more, plus countless races–sanctioned or unsanctioned.
Fountain is eating it up and is becoming more and more confident in her ability to run 6-minute-17-second pace. Running 2 x 3 mile at half marathon down to 10-kilometer pace recently in Prospect Park, Fountain said it came easily. She even powered up the brutal stretch of a hill that was at the end of the 3-mile loop. “I could do another one of those,” she thought to herself when she finished. “There’s tired,” she says, “but it’s a marathon tired. And after that workout, I was like, ‘Okay, I’m ready.’”
* * *
The pace is just over 9.5 miles per hour, and Sarah Fountain is going to do her best to keep it for about 2 hours, 45 minutes on Sunday in Sacramento. That was the goal when she first decided she wanted to give qualifying for the Olympics a go, and it’s the goal heading into the race—even after the Olympic qualifying standards were changed.
There will be other women with her on Sunday. The group chasing the U.S. Olympic Trials standard will be big—98 women were under the mark last year, why can’t 98 do it again? Fountain hopes her watch will click right around 6 minutes, 15 seconds each mile mark she passes. She hopes she gets into a rhythm along the course and the miles come quickly and without thought. She is hoping for the magic of the marathon and the magic of C.I.M. to cooperate with her training. She is hoping that it all comes to fruition, and that she sees a 2:44-something on the clock.
And even if that happens—even if everything falls into place and she runs the fastest she’s ever run by 15 minutes—then she’ll hope that Armenia is willing to consider a wild-card entrance into the Olympics. (This happens at the Olympic Games occasionally, like when athletes make the World Championships in track despite not having a qualifying mark, but they still get to represent their country.)
While 2 hours, 45 minutes has remained the goal for Fountain, the qualification process for The Games has changed. She has not spoken to the Armenian Olympic Committee about what would happen if she did reach the old standard but is hopeful that they still might work something out. (The Armenian Olympic Committee did not respond to an email for this story.)
No matter the decision, Fountain is going to continue running for Armenia–she is hoping 2020 is not the last time she will be fit enough to chase a spot in The Games. For running is the best way she can influence the culture in Armenia, Fountain believes.
“I think a lot of American Armenians go back to Armenia with the hope to, you know, make a difference,” Fountain said. “To make a difference in the homeland that they’ve been told so much about and I wanted it, too. I just didn’t expect running to be the form of the difference that I’ve made. That wasn’t necessarily being talked about or sought after, but it was my version of making a difference. The most rewarding thing would be for other women leaders in Armenia running and playing other sports.”
She hopes to go to a youth race and not have to coax a parent into letting their child run. Perhaps if there’s a runner in Tokyo or Paris on the start line of the marathon, a young Armenian watching might ask her parents if she can try a race, too.