Paving The Road To Rio
Well, that was fun, wasn’t it?
For the first time ever in the history of the Olympic Team Trials, the men’s and women’s races were nationally televised! As USATF CEO Max Siegel, eloquently put it, “With NBC’s coverage, the stars of one of this country’s biggest cultural and athletic movements will receive unprecedented national exposure. February 13 will be a great day for distance running in the United States.” Indeed it was just that.
Prior to the race, the conditions had to be playing on the runners’ minds. With the weather here in New England simulating that of an Arctic research station (20mph winds and wind chills soon to be in the negative digits), out in Los Angeles it was the complete opposite — sunny, smoggy, and climbing temperatures (67 degrees at the start; near 80 by the finish). How conservatively would runners have to take out the race? For how long would they hold back? Would hydration and the stations be an issue? Who would decide to break out from the pack, drop the hammer and when?
However, the heat was not the only X-factor of the day. How would Galen Rupp, making his marathon debut, fair in his quest to stake his claim? Would Meb Keflezighi, the ageless forty year old, shine on the big stage once again? Would the numerous loops and turns of the projected course play a major role in the race? And how would all of our New England representatives of the Level Legion fair in the sunny lands surrounding the USC campus? As Mayor Eric Garcetti sent off the runners (men’s start time of 10:06 PST, women’s at 10:22), it was time to settle in and await the answers to these questions and many, many more.
In usual marathon fashion, the race unfolded “slowly” with the field looking relaxed. I was slightly surprised to see Meb move immediately to the front of the group. At the two mile mark, the men were averaging 5:07-5:08 pace, so they were indeed taking it out slightly slower, albeit still at elite-level cadence. Meb along with Dathan Ritzenhein, and Diego Estrada, (incidentally, two of my “secret picks” to possibly finish in the top three and qualify for the team), settled out and lead the very large pack through the first television commercial.
Not surprisingly, the women’s race opened up in much the same fashion. With the race being the hottest Olympic Trials ever on record, the ladies also looked relaxed and ever so slightly reined in. With the heat and a long way to go in the race, Shalane Flanagan and Amy Cragg (current friends and training partners) moved to the front and set the tone for the rest of the field, and as we would see later on, the rest of the day. As a sign of what was to come from many of the racers in the hot conditions, Desiree Linden held back and resided in about 20th place. This intentional conservation was exactly what Des and her Hanson brothers mentors had planned to do – relax and “chill” for at least 13.1 miles before getting into a race strategy.
By mile 4, the men had started to up the pace just a bit to near 5:00 flat. It was exciting to see (via FloTrack and their real-time tracking software) some local representatives such as Tim Ritchie near the front in sixth place.
On the women’s side, Kellyn Taylor, along with Cragg and Flanagan were still holding steady with a rather spicy 5:37 mile (2:31 pace finishing time). It appeared that we would have to wait quite awhile for any action to really unfold.
However, the laid-back feeling suddenly was peeled away as what was perhaps excitement, anxiety or even intentional race strategy, began playing out on the sun-baked asphalt. During mile five, for both genders’ races, the leaders alternated throwing down surges. For the men, (25:21 at 5 miles) several of the leaders repeatedly attempted to stretch out the field and establish an eight to ten meter gap before being reeled back in. The women’s side was undergoing the same cat and mouse, feeling one another out, playing head games, through their equivalent distance in the race. Despite the lady leaders averaging 5:47 pace through this point, you could sense antsy excitement as runners would press out and then have to remind themselves, “Hold on, keep it relaxed.” The discipline was admirable.
Around this point in the race, viewers finally began seeing and sensing one of the major (possible) players in the race begin to establish himself. Rupp, through miles six and seven, had moved into fourth place in what was still a substantially large lead pack (twenty to twenty five runners).
With solid form and economy, Rupp looked remarkably focused despite the swinging gold chain and medallion pendulating around his neck, knocking too and fro across his chest. He looked strong but he was a novice with no marathon racing experience. Could he maintain such poise and stamina? Even small aspects such as fueling and hydrating during a race were new to him. How would he handle the rest of the day?
From miles eight through ten, more strategy was employed. Periodically, runners singly and in pairs would up the pace and surge ahead to gap the field in an attempt to separate the wheat from the chaff. However, at least on the men’s side, any gap of five to ten meters would quickly be countered by much of the rest of the lead pack.
For the ladies, similar battles were unfolding but their lead pack, by miles eight and nine, was whittled down to a group of four: Taylor, Flanagan, Cragg, and, perhaps running a bit over her head, Sara Hall. With Linden leading the chase pack quite a ways back, this appeared to be the turning point for the ladies where the race began to open up and get interesting. Like the three ring circus that is primary/caucus season in the political arena, we began to get a sense of who was going to be atop the leaderboard. Who was dropping out and who was going to go “all in?” In fact, as mile ten clicked by for the women (fastest of the race thus far at 5:32), the lead pack of four had opened up a six second gap on the chase pack.
Through the halfway point on the men’s side, things still had not opened up very much. Occasionally, runners such as the speedy half marathoner Estrada would show signs of impatience and blast ahead briefly before settling back in with the lead pack of twenty runners. Perhaps it was impatient or maybe they were tactically just feeling out those around them to see if anyone would go with them. Wisely, nobody chose to take the Joan Benoit-Samuelson a la Olympics in 1984 tactic and pull away early. Conservation still appeared to be the name of the game, especially as temperatures continued to climb to 73-74 degrees.
Finally, around similar times although different distances in the race, we witnessed both sexes begin to throw down the proverbial gauntlet. With a 4:58 mile sixteen, Tyler Pennel unleashed a big move on the field. He opened up a six second gap on everyone. Was this the move we’d been waiting for? From a distance standpoint, it seemed appropriate. The only question was could a half marathoner keep up the effort and continue pulling away or would he crash and burn like Icarus?
The women, at mile twelve also showed signs of separation. Cragg and Flanagan, with a 5:31 mile, pulled away alone and definitively gapped the dwindling lead pack by at least five seconds. Both of the women looked very fluid and smooth. The pundits questioned the move as being a bit too early but any questions or hesitancy were laid to rest as they continued to increase their leads.
Soon after, as the men began catching and lapping the females amongst the turns, Rupp and Meb collectively reeled Pennel back in and tightened up the now well-defined top three leaders. Apparently, the turns and minor congestion were not a problem for them. They continued on with a blistering 4:47 mile seventeen and had now opened up a substantial eight second gap over fourth place Jared Ward, the reigning U.S. Marathon champion. At this point, quick number crunching showed that, with the top three looking so strong, he would have to run consistent 4:45s to pull them back in. However, I had to remind myself that there was still a long way to go with over nine miles left.
I began wondering, with unhindered concern, about my other secret pick, Linden on the ladies’ side. Cragg and Flanagan had a commanding twelve second lead over third place Taylor while Linden appeared to be content to hang back in fifth place. Why wasn’t she covering the surge? Did she know something that the rest of us didn’t? Once again, I was forced to revisit how much time was left in the race.
Around the 30K mark, Pennel appeared to, perhaps wisely, ease off a bit. His surge had appeared to work as the three leaders had really broken away and left Ward in the unenviable position of being all alone in fourth on the scorched roads. However, the easing off perhaps wasn’t strategy on Pennel’s part but rather a venture into the pain cave. He began noticeably grimacing and slightly altering his gait. Consequently, he very quickly began to get dropped. It was time to let the real racing and true suffering begin for the men around the ninety five minute mark of the race. Interestingly, the two races continued to mirror one another as the women’s field continue to be dominated by Cragg and Flanagan, who showed no signs of letting up. It appeared that both races would now be a battle for third place with Taylor, Linden and Kara Goucher almost forty seconds back on the women’s side.
At mile twenty, although I’m ashamed to say it now, I was surprised that Meb was still in control. He looked strong and continued to get it done. I couldn’t believe that age and experience was trumping youth (other than Rupp at this point), out on the race course. Although Meb is on another planet, at forty years old how could he keep doing this? I had expected him to begin to fall apart, especially in the heat-a far cry from his chilly training at snowy Mammoth Lake. In fact, by mile twenty one, the race had decidedly been narrowed down to Rupp and Meb for first and second, while Ward overtook the badly fading Pennel for third place.
As Rupp took the lead for good at 1:48 along one of the fuel/hydration stations, (and continued looking unbeatable), I was heartbroken to find that Dathan Ritzenhein had dropped out at mile twenty one after struggling badly. After his fourth place finish in 2012 at the Olympic Trials and a 2:09:45 qualifier at Chicago, I truly felt he was the man to beat. Such is the life of marathon running.
Speaking of infamous fourth-place finishes, Amy Cragg, who in an interview had stated, “I’m done being the girl who finished fourth in 2012,” continued to look strong. As she and Flanagan continued talking back and forth (race strategy? encouragement?), I began to wonder if the mentee was about to rise up and become the new queen of U.S. marathoning. This appeared to be exactly what the two partners had wanted when they envisioned how the Trials would unfold.
Finally, at mile twenty two, Rupp, who was still looking quite strong, began pulling away from Meb. Making it look easy, he seemed to extend a three to four second lead to an insurmountable forty five second within minutes. Despite looking back repeatedly, Rupp had run such a solid race that there was essentially nothing to see behind him except empty space and the smoggy L.A. skyline. For the women, the race for third was on as both Linden and Goucher continued battling (Des up by ten seconds over Goucher, then minutes later, up by twenty five seconds on the now grimacing Kara).
As we watched Rupp wrap up his victory in his hole-riddled singlet, sucking on wet towelettes, a huge grin overtook his face, we wondered if this was the most impressive marathon debut in recent memory With a huge fist pump, he crashed through the tape in a debut of 2:11:13-impressive given the warm temperatures and never racing the distance prior to today. Meb cruised in waving an American flag in 2:12:20 for second while Jared Ward wrapped up the third official team spot in 2:13:00.*
While the men’s slots were being finalized, Amy Cragg began pulling away from a visibly hurting Flanagan. Cragg continually encouraged her friend and partner, sharing water at one point, and urged her onward, but as the mile twenty four marker clicked by, she made the decision to go. Flanagan was falling off badly and Des Linden was hammering in third place and closing the gap. She flew by Flanagan as though she was standing still and, although she was clearly not going to have the distance left to catch Cragg, she continued to cruise as though she could.
I was overjoyed to see Cragg be vindicated by taking the win in 2:28:27, with Desiree Linden in second place in 2:29:00 Shalane Flanagan managed to hang on to third in and finish in 2:29:26 ahead of Kara Goucher before collapsing and being carried to a wheelchair immediately after crossing the finish line-a visible monument to what it means to leave it all out on the race course.*
Although both races lacked the down-to-the-wire nail biting finishes of Houston in 2012, we were once again reminded of just how gut-wrenching it is to finish outside the top three. Imagine enduring the pain of racing your heart out for 26.2 miles and have to cross the finish line in “defeat” while the three victors embrace one another and are interviewed while shrouded in American flags. To the victors go the spoils.
So now it appears that the road to Rio has been paved. Congratulations to the six qualified runners who are the representatives of the U.S. team in Rio de Janeiro in 2016. Yet, it is more important to congratulate all of the New England runners who valiantly represented Level Legion as well. The men and women who sport LVL stickers, singlets, and beanies continue to make us all proud. We can definitely get too wrapped up in finishing times, splits, paces, etc. Qualifying for the Olympic Team and/or setting a PR are certainly important today. But aren’t fun and fitness really what this is all about?
*Times still unofficial as of press time.
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