After the behind-the-scenes negotiations with pace setters, agents and race officials, after months of training, after weeks of plotting a strategy to secure an Olympic qualifying standard, a pair of BYU alumni went out and delivered two of the fastest marathons ever by an American.

“Leave it to USATF to make a (confusing) situation. The Americans should be saying a prayer of thanks that there will be two spots for them in the Olympics. Somebody else might fill them; I don’t know if it’s fair, but …” — BYU track coach Ed Eyestone

Conner Mantz and Clayton Young not only finished sixth and seventh, respectively, in last weekend’s Chicago Marathon — the top American finishers — they also made history. Mantz, running only the third marathon of his life, finished with a time of 2:07:47, tying him as the fourth-fastest American ever and breaking his personal record by 29 seconds. His training partner, Young, crossed the finish in 2:08:00 to become the  seventh-fastest American ever, breaking his personal record by almost four minutes.

In the process, they didn’t just surpass the automatic Olympic qualifying time of 2:08:10; they crushed it. In the end, Ed Eyestone’s duo of Mantz and Young executed the race they planned.

“Rarely does it happen the way you draw it up,” said Eyestone, BYU’s longtime track coach and a two-time Olympic marathoner himself. “At the end of the day, we got the No. 1 and No. 2 American marathons this year with a pair of BYU alum.”

It was a historic day all around. Kelvin Kiptum, a Kenyan, ran the fastest marathon in history on a record-eligible course (not too much downhill, precisely measured, etc.), clocking a time of 2:00:35. He did it the hard way, running the second half faster than the first half — 1:00:48, followed by 59:47. It was a remarkable feat. Let’s put it this way: The American record for the half-marathon is 59:43, set in 2007; only one other American has even broken 60 minutes for a half-marathon. Kiptum did it AFTER running a half-marathon and came within four seconds of the American record. He averaged 4:36 per mile.

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Kiptum was followed (distantly) across the finish line by four more African-born runners. Then came the BYU duo. Mantz, 26, and Young, 30, have been training together in Provo under the guidance of Eyestone. While at BYU, Mantz was a two-time NCAA cross-country champion and Young the NCAA 10,000-meter champion.

Since then, they have turned to road racing (where there are more financial opportunities than on the track), although Mantz still runs a couple of track races each year. Mantz won the big Bolder-Boulder 10,000-meter road race earlier this year, and Young has won U.S. championships in the 8K, 20K and 15K.

Mantz ran his first marathon in the 2022 Chicago race, finishing seventh with a time of 2:08:16, the fastest marathon debut by an American. He finished 11th in last April’s Boston Marathon in 2:10:25, fading badly in the last few miles. Young had run three marathons, the fastest of which was 2:11:51.

They trained for months with an eye on Chicago. Mantz even passed up an offer to represent the U.S. in the world track championships marathon in late August so he could focus on preparations for Chicago. More specifically, they targeted the automatic Olympic qualifying time of 2:08:10, a remarkably stiff standard, especially when you consider that only five Americans had ever achieved that time (two of them were naturalized citizens born in Africa).

“That was our primary mission coming — we wanted to get 2:08:10 out of the way,” said Eyestone.

Like all major marathons, the Chicago Marathon hires pace setters (19 in this case) to pace the top men’s and women’s performers for portions of the race. That leads to a lot of discussion and negotiation among coaches, agents and race officials in the days before the race as they try to agree on the pace for the various tiers of world-class runners.

Kiptum initially said he wanted a pace in the 1:01:30 range for the first half-marathon, but in a conversation with Eyestone he confessed that he was really seeking a world-record pace; he settled on a pace of 1:00:40.

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Mantz had been left to do a lot of his own pacing in the 2022 Chicago race and Eyestone wanted to ensure that wouldn’t happen again. The representatives of American Galen Rupp, an Olympic marathon bronze medalist and the 2017 Chicago champion, wanted a pace of 1:03:00, but Eyestone said that was a little faster than he wanted for his athletes, and eventually they settled on 1:03:15, allowing them to run together. They settled on a pace of 1:04 flat for Young.

Mantz reached the half-marathon in 1:03:21 with Young splitting 1:03:45, so both were running faster than their targeted paces, but neither was laboring. Eyestone, who was handling color commentary for the local NBC affiliate, would say later, “I was taking splits, so I knew they were running well and within themselves.”

Mantz actually picked up the pace for the next 10K, running at a 4:50 per-mile clip, and farther back Young was running at 4:54-4:56. With just 5,000 meters remaining, Mantz was on pace for a time in the 2:06:50 range, but he wilted over the last 5K and his pace dropped to 5-minute miles. He ran the last 10K alone for the most part, which didn’t help his cause. Young, who had begun more conservatively as instructed by Eyestone, ran the last 5K at a 4:55 pace and passed a number of runners late in the race.

“I was very convinced I could run under 2:07 today but my last 4K was a little brutal,” Mantz told Letsrun. “ … But it was really a good run. I’m really excited about my race.”

“I was proud of both of them,” says Eyestone. “We pushed the envelope a little today. Clayton ran very well and ran a huge PR. Conner ran at a 2:06 pace for a long time. He held it together for being very tired. It wasn’t the struggle that he ran into at Boston. So we were able to explore some of the limits and make progressive steps. … We’ll learn some things from this.”

Their next big race will likely be the Olympic marathon trials. Under the convoluted qualifying system of the United States Track and Field, neither Mantz nor Young has won a spot on the U.S. Olympic team yet. By surpassing the automatic qualifying time, they merely guaranteed that two Americans will compete in the marathon at the Paris Games next summer, and if another American meets the standard it would guarantee three spots.

But the actual qualifiers for Paris will be determined in February at the U.S. marathon trials, where the top three finishers will advance to Paris provided they have run at least 2:11:30. The automatic qualifying time of 2:08:10 guarantees that the U.S. will have two runners in the race.

Confused? Everybody is.

“Leave it to USATF to make a (confusing) situation,” says Eyestone. “The Americans should be saying a prayer of thanks that there will be two spots for them in the Olympics. Somebody else might fill them; I don’t know if it’s fair, but …”

Clayton Young leads the pack in the 5,000-meter run at the NCAA West Prelims. | BYU Photo