Of the 259 women and 217 men who qualified for the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials, only about 10 in each field have an honest chance at finishing in the top three and going to Rio. But hundreds or even thousands more arranged the past four years of their lives around running a marathon or half-marathon fast enough to earn the honor of being an extra in those ten legitimate contenders’ show, and failed.

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Why would so many people do that? What’s the big deal about the Marathon Trials? Staten Island desk jockey and Trials stalwart Mike Cassidy answered those questions eloquently in an essay he wrote for LetsRun:

“For the vast majority of the qualifiers ... the Trials is itself the crowning accomplishment, the reward for having earned a place in American distance running’s most exclusive club. Most of them harbor no illusions about making the team (okay, maybe some illusions), or, for that matter, even finishing the race. For them, the Trials is a victory lap, a chance to rub shoulders with their heroes—their equals for a weekend.

But it is the presence of these satisfied qualifiers—and the family and friends they bring along for the ride—perhaps as much as anything else, that helps create the festive, convivial atmosphere that pervades Trials weekend.

In many sports, championships are clouded by the antagonism of the warring factions, a cauldron of conflict, hostility, and stress congealed into a toxic stew. But the Trials are different, because running is different. Despite the magnitude of the moment, the mood is mutually supportive. Rare in sport, or in life, is something so fierce so friendly.”

Cassidy nailed it. Running is one of the few sports—if not the only one—in which the line between amateur and professional is vague or non-existant. There are no local dudes pedaling Huffy bikes in the Tour de France; the neighbor with a good arm doesn’t suit up in the NFL; amateur footballers watch Manchester United’s sweet footwork from behind the railing.

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But 40,000 amateur runners covered the same 26.2 miles at the same time (well, they started out at the same time) as world marathon record holder Dennis Kimetto in Berlin. I threw down with Paula Radcliffe in the New York City Marathon. Sure, Radcliffe was surprisingly unconcerned by my presence, but I had the chance (and I blew it, man). There was no barrier between us besides vast oceans of ability.

The lead pack of major marathons always consists of the pros, identified by their low bib numbers. But soon enough a four- or five-digit bib flies by wearing an expression of intense focus, incredulity, and glee at running stride-for-stride with—wha-wha? pulling away from?—someone they’ve read about online, someone with a shoe contract and a coach and an agent. As runners stream by your viewing spot on the curb, the low-number pros, already several miles down the road, become diluted and eventually completely supplanted by high bib numbers. The Marathon Trials is about that sweet-spot estuary of low and high numbers, where pros and amateurs mix.

For a small handful of people the Marathon Trials is about selecting the Olympic squad, but for the hundreds of Mike Cassidys in this country it’s a once-every-four-years party. Meb, Abdi, Shalane, Des—pros who can get by with just one name—get plenty of recognition. And the back of the packers, hell, they bring the party with them, a 26.2-mile rave of friends, snacks, beverages, music, and bodily fluids. They don’t need any freaking recognition. The Marathon Trials recognizes hardworking, overlooked, locally-ranked strivers. (The oft-used running terms “elite” and “sub-elite” give me the master-race fantods, and I’m making a stand against them right here and now.) For moms and teachers and accountants who have shoehorned almost the same number of miles as the pros in around their day job, the Marathon Trials is the Golden Fleece.

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In keeping with distance running’s populist nature, admission to the Marathon Trials is as close to all-comer as you can get. If any U.S. citizen can run a certified marathon (men under 2:19; women under 2:45) or half-marathon (men under 1:05; women under 1:15) in the world within a 30-month window preceding the Marathon Trials, they’re in. No need to belong to a club or have a sponsor; no exclusive qualifying series.

This quadrennial event happens February 13 in Los Angeles, six months prior to the Rio Olympics, giving the newly selected Olympians enough time to fully recover and launch a final training cycle. The other Marathon Trials celebrants will be back at their day jobs on Monday, mapping out the next four years.

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photo credit: Getty Images