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From Sweet Road to Peachtree St: Syracuse alums chase Olympic Marathon dreams

Fourteen Orange alums qualified for next Saturday’s Olympic Marathon Trials qualifier

Michelob Ultra Rock ‘n’ Roll San Jose Marathon & 1/2 Marathon - Day 2 Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images

When the US Olympic Marathon Trials start in Atlanta, there will be fourteen Syracuse Orange alumni competing for a spot in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Seven men and seven women reached the qualifying time to get to Atlanta-the most of any college.

Syracuse actually had fourteen alums qualify for the Trials. Twelve reached the marathon standard and two others hit the half-marathon qualifying time.

Syracuse Olympic Qualifiers

Men Seed Time Women Seed Time
Men Seed Time Women Seed Time
Martin Hehir 2:13:49 Maegan Krifchin 2:32:47
Joe Whelan 2:13:39 Christine Ramsey 2:41:12
Dan Lennon 2:16:08 Lauren Kersjes 2:41:44
Jonathan Aziz 2:16:38 Margo Malone 2:42:22
Juris Silenieks 2:17:37 Stefanie Slekis 2:42:24
Patrick Geoghegan 2:18:40 Maura Linde 2:44:37
Colin Bennie 1:02:46* (Half-Marathon) Shannon Malone 1:11:50* (Half-Marathon)

Is there something about the Syracuse distance program that led to this post-collegiate success? I was able to ask some of the runners and one former Syracuse coach (Adam Smith now with Reebok Boston) about the number of Orange who qualified. I wanted to see if there was something about the Syracuse program under the direction of Chris Fox and Brien Bell that influenced these athletes. Here’s what Adam told me about the coaches perspective:

“For the men, you’re running 10K in college in cross country, double what the normal high school runner is running, so you have to be smart about the training (which usually involves us redshirting an overwhelming majority of the men their freshman year). The women is 6K in cross, so it’s not as big of a jump and young women can make a more immediate impact, but you’re still possibly running 10K on the track in the spring. So we have to be smart in terms of how we approach both that first year, and years to come if they make that jump. But in regards to the training aspect while they’re at Syracuse, we absolutely believe our strength work was vital to our success. Long, hilly tempos. Sweet Road. You knew those would make you better.

I do think though that not burning kids out of the sport was very important to what we did on an every day basis. In our sport, in the short term, there’s very little offseason. You’re pretty much going all year round, with a few weeks off here and there. So on a smaller scale, if we didn’t manage them properly throughout the year, they could be toast, or even possibly injured by the outdoor season. But between Coach Fox, Bell and I, we had a handful of eyes on them at all times, and did the best we could to not let anyone slip through the cracks, and very rarely had any injuries. And we did our best to make everyday fun. Obviously, when you’re winning…you’re usually having fun…and there was a big emphasis on establishing and maintaining a winning culture mentality while at Syracuse. But I think when people are done running at Syracuse, there are a lot of young men and women who still have that fire, and we’re proud to not have that extinguished by the time they graduate and leave.”

Alums said the staff created a culture that made running enjoyable and left athletes eager to continue to chase their goals after graduation.

I think the culture Coach Fox & Coach Bell created is why you see Syracuse with the most qualifiers. My experience I think is the perfect example of someone who could have fallen out of love with the sport, but because of their coaching style and unwavering support I “pulled myself up my bootstraps” as they called it my Senior year and decided to be good and score indoor & outdoor at conference after never scoring before and qualified for the preliminary round of NCAAs in 2 events after never qualifying before. They just fostered a culture around great work ethic, being team oriented, and enjoying the process and I think that’s why so many alumni on different life paths still could accomplish this similar goal.”- Stefanie Slekis

“It’s hard to explain why Syracuse runners are the way they are. But ultimately, the program fosters a true love for the sport. It’s easy to get burned out by the demands of D1 training and competing, yet Syracuse alumni seem to graduate with more rather than less passion for running, which leaves the marathon as the next logical goal to strive for.”- Martin Hehir

“It is no mistake that Syracuse has the most alumni competing. Coach Fox and Bell created a culture for long term success and love for the sport. The program instilled toughness which is required for the marathon! I also think those long Sweet Road workouts were a perfect preface to marathon racing:)”- Margo Malone

It wasn’t surprising to hear Sweet Road mentioned by the runners who responded to my questions. The staple Syracuse training venue is designed to build strength in the runners as they tackle the hills over the 6.25 mile course mapped out by the staff.

“Syracuse has prepped us to be marathoners. Sweet road long uphill tempos, long runs the day after workouts, in and out 800s. All that strength work stays with you. I am pretty certain everyone currently running at cuse could run the trials standard.”- Joseph Whelan

Shannon Malone
Brian Vasey

The Syracuse runners who hit the Olympica Trials qualifying standards are more than just professional runners. The group is comprised of a number of runners who hold full-time jobs or are training while in medical and law school. Let’s meet them starting with the women.

Christine Ramsey has the most experience of any of the Syracuse alumni. She’s competed in both the 2012 and 2016 Trials and finished twelfth in the 2009 New York City Marathon.

Maegan Krifchin recently joined the Atlanta Track Club and along with racing in her hometown she was seventh in the 2016 Trials. Krifchin has the fastest time among the Syracuse women in the field.

Margo and Shannon Malone will compete side by side once again. Margo won the Zurich Marathon in 2019 while Shannon qualified through the Pittsburgh Half-Marathon last Fall. I was able to get comments from Margo about reaching the qualifying time and her hopes for the race next weekend.

“It’s awesome there are so many Cuse runners that qualified!

It’s a big deal to qualify for an Olympic trials and an honor to get to line up and race with the best women marathoners in the country.

I am hoping to run a smart race and put myself in a good position to compete with the other women around me the last lap. My expectations are low due to recent life events but I am really proud to have trained to line up and feel the race is an awesome celebration of all the miles I have put in over the years.”

Lauren Kersjes qualified for her 2nd Olympic Trials in the marathon while working full-time as a dentist.

Maura Linde coaches at Johns Hopkins and don’t get concerned that she’s running for the Georgetown Running Club-they have no affiliation with the Hoyas.

Stefanie Slekis thought she’d miss the race due to the birth of her second child but an early delivery might allow her to get to the starting line in Atlanta. Stefanie told me what qualifying means to her:

“It means alot to me to qualify for the Olympic Trials especially after not qualifying in 2016 I really wanted to break 2:43 (which I did) to prove to myself I could hit the 2016 standard now even though the 2020 standard is 2:45. It also means a lot to represent Syracuse as an alumna. I really underperformed my first 3 years of college and I owe so much to Coach Fox & Coach Bell for always supporting me as a student, runner, person, and in pursuing my dream career in collegiate coaching. So I’m proud to be able to be one of the Cuse Alumni to qualify and represent the culture they built at Syracuse.

After just giving birth to our second daughter, Sandy Jane Barrow, on January 30th my goal is just to enjoy every minute of the experience. I’m hoping physically cleared to run the whole race. It would be special to get to finish after thinking I wouldn’t even get to start with my February 18th due date.”

Cross Country: NCAA Championships Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

On the men’s side four members of the 2015 NCAA Champion Syracuse team will be in Atlanta- Reebok Boston teammates Martin Hehir and Colin Bennie along with Dan Lennon and Juris Silenieks.

Sileieks’ post-Syracuse running career includes setting a world record for the fastest half-marathon run in dress shoes.

Dan Lennon is currently in law school and competes for Stotan Racing along with fellow Syracuse alum Joseph Whelan. Lennon hit the qualifying standard in his 2018 marathon debut.

Whelan has gained some notice for his intense training and racing schedule. Whelan’s competed in and won marathons in Austin, Buffalo, and Rochester over the last two years. His fourth-place finish at the 2019 Grandma’s Marathon was where he reached the A qualifying standard for Atlanta by running 2:13:39. Whelan told me that his racing schedule was developed to prepare him for this race.

“The Olympic Trials is a part of history. It’s what motivated me to get out of the door and train.

All my marathon training cycles the last 3 years were designed for the Trials. I’ve run Austin marathon the last 2 years because it was a marathon in late February on a challenging course simulating the Trials course. I ran the Grandmas marathon to run a fast time on a flat course to get into NYC marathon pro field to try and chase the Olympic standard(top 10)(they later changed the standard).

The other A qualifier on the men’s side is Martin Hehir who has been balancing running for the Reebok Boston club along with his medical school studies and family. He shared how he’s been able to handle this juggling act and training away from the club in Philadelphia while preparing for the Olympic Trials.

“Making the Olympic Trials has felt like a crucial opportunity for me because it’s the first big step towards making an Olympic team. It also validates all the hard work I’ve put into the sport and gives me the confidence to keep pushing ahead.

In next week’s race, I’m simply hoping I run the race to the level I’ve been training at. I can’t control how everyone else runs, but if I put together my best possible race I will be satisfied with the result. And with a little luck, I know that my best day can land me a spot on the team.

Training on my own certainly has its difficulties. Getting up extra early to squeeze in the miles before hospital shifts. Not having other athletes around to push me when workouts get hard. However I do think that I get a little extra toughness out of the solo grind and at this point in my life, I’m running for the fun of it. I’m pursuing my goal of becoming a doctor, so the running is truly a very passionate “hobby” that I’ll continue to do as long as I’m enjoying it. And in a way, not having to rely on the sport for a paycheck has made it more fun for me too! The hardest part about training for hours on my own is the time I sacrifice with my wife and daughter - particularly in the morning. I can do the running no problem. But McKenna also gets up super early and leaving her and my tired wife every morning (only to get back and rush to shower, eat, and get to work) leaves me with a sense of guilt that makes it hard to walk out the door. “

Martin Hehir and Max Straneva are two of Syracuse's NCAA Championship qualifiers
Martin Hehir (L) reached the A qualifying standard while enrolled in medical school
Sara D Davis

Colin Bennie will be making his marathon debut in Atlanta. The former Orange All-American has been successful on the roads and will be looking to make a big impact in this race.

Not only did Jonathan Aziz run an OTQ but he also completed his PhD in Aerospace Engineering at the University of Colorado. Patrick Geoghegan is a runner, teacher and the owner of the best headshot in Syracuse XC history.

The post-collegiate success of Syracuse runners might have something to do with the environment they’ve trained in as the coaching staff avoided burning them out during their collegiate years. Smith told me that the coaches preached patience and took advantage of the training areas provided by the Syracuse area to try and keep athletes healthy in a sport that can be a physical and mental grind.

“There are a handful of people out there who complain about the Syracuse winters. Sure, you get some snow up there…maybe more than some other places. But one thing that forced us to do at Syracuse was to be patient. There is no better place to train than Cuse in the Fall. For a distance runner, it is perfect. And even though the Winters sometimes weren’t great…we were able to stay patient, and continue a really nice training block from January through March, with a handful of races in between to break it up. Sweet Road tempos, South campus loops, and in and outs in Manley and in the Dome allowed us to be able to keep that base block high.....I truly believe this was a huge positive for us, as we were able to stay the course and not get too excited about going too fast too early. Little things like this help in the overall process of being successful not only all year round at Syracuse, but post graduation for a lot of these runners as well.

Our goal is to guide them to their goals. Just because we’re not in Syracuse anymore, doesn’t mean you can take the Syracuse out of us. We’re excited for all of the Syracuse Alums at the Trials, and look forward to some big things in Atlanta.”- Adam Smith

The Olympic Trials marathon race will be broadcast on NBC this Saturday, February 29th at Noon. No matter what happens the fact that Syracuse leads the way in qualifiers is a testament to what has been built over the last fifteen years.

Best of luck to all the Orange alums competing in Atlanta. Come back next week for a full recap of the race.