Nearly four hundred athletes will be running the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials next Saturday, February 13, in Los Angeles. We asked long time journalist and writer for Cal Track, American Track & Field and RunBlogRun Mark Winitz to pen his thoughts on the upcoming trials.
• The 2016 U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon will be the second time that both the men's and women's Marathon Trials will take place on the same day, at the same site. On Saturday, February 13th in Los Angeles, the men will start at 10:06 a.m. Pacific time and the women will start 16 minutes later.
• NBC will broadcast unprecedented live coverage of the event, on television and online, on Saturday, February 13th, 2016 beginning at 10:00 a.m. Pacific time.
Perhaps, in no other Olympic running event are the variables so abundant than in the marathon. After all, in a 26.2-mile race encompassing more than two hours a lot of unexpected surprises can occur. Before the 2008 Marathon Trials I wrote: That's the beauty and the irony of the marathon. In many respects, competing over 26.2 miles is a roll of the dice.
Only three men and three women will compose the U.S. marathon team headed to the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro (provided they meet the Olympic "A" standards of 2:19:00-men, 2:45:00-women. How will the dice roll for the 168 male and 202 female declared starters who will line up in Los Angeles on February 13th to test their mettle against the best in the U.S.? My conventional wisdom and almost 40 years covering the sport tells me that the top three slots at the Marathon Trials will go to one runner in the very top U.S. ranks, one highly ranked (but not necessarily a favorite) competitor, and one "surpriser." It doesn't always work out that way, but this outlook keeps my mind open for the many variables that come into play.
Certainly, 2016 conjures much speculation about the outcome of the Marathon Trials, and rightly so. And, with the varied opinions and projections come some key questions:
How much longer can Meb Keflezighi and Deena Kastor keep going at the top? Will Keflezighi, age 40, the 2004 Olympic marathon silver medalist, qualify for his third U.S. Olympic marathon team? Can Kastor, the U.S, women's marathon record holder (2:19:36) who will turn 43 the day after the Trials, make her fourth Olympic team? Deena Kastor is out.
Will the Trials in Los Angeles reveal a future Ryan Hall on the horizon? In 2007, the two-time Olympic marathoner turned in a 2:08.24 at the Flora London Marathon--the fastest debut marathon time ever by an American. He subsequently became the U.S. men's second fastest marathon runner in history (2:06:17). Last month, Hall announced his retirement from the sport at 33, an age when many distance runners are reaching their peak.
Will a marathon "rookie" make the marathon team? Several Americans in contention for a team spot, including 10,000-meter American recorder holder Galen Rupp, qualified for the Marathon Trials via the Marathon Trials' half marathon qualifying standards.
The qualifying period for '16 U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials ran from August 1, 2013 to January 17, 2016. In order to qualify for a berth on the starting line, U.S. men had to turn in a 2:15:00 or better "A" standard or 2:19:00 or better "B" standard marathon. They could also qualify by recording a 1:05:00 half marathon. The women's standards are marathon: 2:37:00 "A"/2:45:00 "B," half marathon: 1:15:00.
A total of 476 athletes qualified (217 men, 259 women). The states with the most qualifiers are Colorado with 58 (31 men, 27 women) closely followed by California with 54 (27 men, 27 women). USATF's Colorado Association sports the most declared athletes for the Trials with 46 (23 men, 23 women) followed by the Pacific Association with 30 (13 men, 17 women).
So here's a look at some of the top athletes who will line up on the Trials starting line in downtown Los Angeles--plus several potential surprisers. In separate races (for men, followed by women), they will first navigate a single 2.2 mile loop, followed by four 6-mile repeat circuits into South Los Angeles that will pass by Exposition Park and the LA Coliseum.
Besides Olympic team berths, $600,000 in prize money will be at stake with $80,000 going to the men's and women's champions.
Meb Keflezighi (San Diego, CA) has, seemingly, done it all. Boasting a 2:08:37 PR that he registered at the 2014 Boston Marathon, the defending Olympic Marathon Trials men's champion appears to only get better with age. Meb has diligently prepared for the 2016 Trials at altitude in the mountains at Mammoth Lakes, Calif., his longtime adopted second home, under the steady guidance of Bob Larsen, his coach since his collegiate days at UCLA.
About his race day plans, Keflezighi said: "There's a lot less pressure for me right now. Before it was always a dream of making the team, or trying to win a medal for our country. This Trials race won't determine what my career will be. That's already been solidified.
"I always have plans going into the race and a list of things that can potentially happen. I've been very rewarded by the decisions I've made, whether they were in Athens, New York, Boston, or the Trials. You assess the competitors and see what they're doing. You can't have a single plan going in. You have to make adjustments along the way. You have to be ready for anything or anyone. You can't discount anybody, whether they're veterans or newbies."
Bob Larsen added: "Meb always brings his 'A' game to the race and makes his own decisions on the course. That's the beauty of Meb. They're going to have to get by him to make that team. We have very talented guys going to the starting line and then here's a 40-year-old. It's almost like he's out of place, but even recently he's been running fast. And, so far, the workouts have been going well, so he's got a shot. And so does Deena."
Dathan Ritzenhein (33, Belmont, MI) is on a mission. A three-time Olympian and former American record holder in the 5,000m, Ritzenhein was the top finishing American in the men's marathon at the 2008 Olympic Games in Bejiing, finishing in ninth place in 2:11:59. Then, he placed a heartbreaking fourth at the 2012 Olympic Marathon Trials in Houston, one spot shy of making the U.S. Olympic marathon team. Although "Ritz"--who was formerly coached by Alberto Salazar--subsequently made the '12 Olympic squad in the 10,000 meters and placed 13th in the Olympic Games 10,000m final, he has patiently waited for another opportunity to make the U.S. team at 26.2 miles. In 2012, he ran 2:07:47, his PR, at the Chicago marathon and he enters the '16 Marathon Trials with the second fastest qualifying time, a 2:09:45 (Chicago, 2013).
Luke Puskedra (26, Eugene, OR) is a relative newcomer to the marathon scene. After a devastating 2:28:54 debut at the 2014 New York City Marathon, he turned heads with a swift 2:10:24 fifth place finish at the 2015 Bank of America Chicago Marathon--the fastest marathon time by a U.S. man in 2015. As for the future of American marathon running, keep a close eye on Puskedra in Los Angeles. If he runs to his potential, the former University of Oregon standout will be with the leaders contending for an Oly team berth.
Jeff Eggleston (31, Boulder, CO) has represented the U.S. three times at the IAAF World Championships Marathon. In 2014, he had the second fastest U.S. marathon time (2:10:52 at Australia's Gold Coast Marathon), making him one of the top performers entering the '16 Trials.
"I'm excited and grateful to be running in my first Olympic Trials," Eggleston said. "Four years ago I couldn't make it to the starting line in Houston because of an injury. It was very disappointing. I've run in my share of championship style races before, but the Olympic Trials is something new and exciting for me. In racing, I always make it a goal to perform better than my ranking. On paper I think I'm seeded number four, so the goal is to do my best for number three or better in L.A."
Eggleston trains in Boulder, most of the time alone.
"My preparations for the Olympic Trials haven't been much different than my previous marathons," he said. "Track work, threshold running, and
long runs. I think I've been more conservative with training this time around."
Diego Estrada (26, Salinas, CA) tops the list of men headed for the Marathon Trials via USATF's 1:05:00 men's half marathon qualifying standard. Estrada, who will be making his marathon debut at the Trials, scored a convincing win at last year's USATF Half Marathon Championship in Houston, crossing the finish in 1:00:51.
"I think there's a little bit of Houston magic in the legs for LA," Estrada said about his upcoming Marathon Trials race. "I've done everything within my power to prepare for the race, and I feel confident, but the event is still a mystery to me. So I'm very optimistic but I want to be realistic. All my personal bests get better the longer I go and I'm just hoping to continue the trend."
Estrada has also qualified for the 2016 U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials in the 5,000m and 10,000m. His PRs on the track are 13:15 (5,000m) and 27:30 (10,000m).
"Ultimately, I want to be a marathoner," Estrada continued. "And I feel that the Marathon Trials is a good place for me to debut. Rather then flying overseas and trying to hit it out of the water in the first one, I'll be surrounded by fellow Americans in a more controlled environment. And, I plan on being at the Olympic Track & Field Trials in July for the 5,000 and 10,000 even if I finish in the top three in LA."
And, what about Galen Rupp (29, Portland, OR), the American record holder at 10,000m (26:44.36) who abruptly--and to the surprise of many--announced his plans in late January to compete in the Marathon Trials? Anyone in his right mind has to consider the Alberto Salazar-coached athlete a serious contender for a slot on the Olympic marathon squad--although he's never run a marathon. He's raced only two half marathons, but the first, a 1:00:30 at the NYC Half in 2011, vaulted him into the #5 spot all-time in the U.S.
Only one man has earned a spot on Team USA in his marathon debut, and that was quite a while ago: George Young in 1968.
Additional top contenders (with qualifying times):
Ryan Vail (Portland, OR - 2:10:57 qualifying time) - The Oklahoma State University grad ran his marathon PR and Trials qualifying time at the 2013 London Marathon where he placed 10th. Last June, he placed 5th in the 10,000m at the U.S. Outdoor Track and Field Championships in 28:22.21 behind Rupp's 28:11.61 winning effort.
Bobby Curtis (Rochester Hills, MI) - In 2014, the 2008 NCAA Champion at 5,000 meters turned in a 2:11:20 at the Chicago Marathon to place himself in contention. And, he has leg speed with a 10,000m PR of 27:24.67 (seventh fastest American in history) which will come in handy in a pinch finish.
Elkanah Kibet (Fayetteville, NC) - The Kenyan native joined the U.S. Army in 2012 and was subsequently deployed in the Persian Gulf region. Upon his return to the U.S. in 2015, when he resumed focused training, he entered the Chicago Marathon for his marathon debut where he finished 7th in 2:11:51.
Fernando Cabada (Clovis, CA) - After completing his collegiate eligibility in 2006, later that season Cabada capped a breakout year with a spectacular debut over the marathon distance in Fukuoka, Japan where he turned in a 2:12:27. He ran his 2:11:36 marathon PR at the 2014 Berlin Marathon, qualifying for the Trials.
Nick Arciniaga (Flagstaff, AZ) - The 2016 Olympic Trials will be Arciniaga's 19th marathon, making him one of the most experienced contenders in the field. In 2013, he won the USA Marathon Championship title, and has twice finished in the top 10 at both Boston and New York. He has the 9th fastest marathon qualifying time in the field (2:11:47).
"To make the team, I'll have to run my best marathon race ever," Arciniaga said. "Tactically and time-wise, everything has to be close to perfect. There are many other experienced and inexperienced guys who will run well. I'll just have to hope that I'll race smarter than them. For me, it's going to take running my own race. If I let the leaders take me out of my comfort zone, I won't have the strength in my legs to finish strong the last 10K."
The credentials of women's favorite Shalane Flanagan (Portland, OR) go almost without saying: Three-time Olympian, defending Marathon Trials champion, second-fastest U.S. women's marathoner in history (2:21:14 at the '14 Berlin Marathon), 2008 Olympic bronze medalist at 10,000m, 18-time U.S. champion who holds six U.S. records. Flanagan was the top American finisher at the 2012 Olympic Games Marathon in London, finishing 10th in 2:25:51.
[Deena Kastor withdrew on Feb.10, 2016]
Deena Kastor (Mammoth Lakes, CA), the U.S. women's record holder at the marathon (2:19:36) can't be discounted as a contender for a marathon team slot headed to Rio. No matter that the 2004 Olympic Games marathon bronze medalist is now 42 years old. It wasn't long ago that the three-time Olympian thought she might ease her way into retirement. Instead, Kastor has gone on a rampage since turning 40 that includes a U.S. master record in the marathon (2:27:47 at the '15 Chicago Marathon) and world masters records in at least six distances. If both Kastor and Meb are on their "A games" in LA, we might see not one, but two, masters athletes make the U.S. Olympic marathon squad.
Desiree (Davila) Linden (Washington Township, MI) goes into the Marathon Trials following a sterling 2015 Boston Marathon where she led the race for 23 miles and placed 4th overall and top American in 2:25:39. In 2014, Linden registered a 2:23:54 at Boston, the second fastest American behind Flanagan at 2:22:02. In 2011, she ran 2:22:38 at Boston, her PR.
A native of Chula Vista, CA, Linden trains with the Hansons-Brooks Distance Project in Michigan, finished second at the 2012 Olympic Marathon Trials but didn't finish the Olympic Marathon in London. She stepped off the course after 2 miles, unable to continue and was later diagnosed with a stress fracture of her right femur. With the second-fastest qualifying time (2:23:54), Linden has said that she's going for the win in LA.
Amy (Hastings) Cragg (Portland, OR) comes into the Trials with the third fastest marathon qualifying time, 2:27:03 which she scored while placing fourth at last year's Bank of America Chicago Marathon. She also ran 2:27:03 in 2011 at the Los Angeles Marathon, her debut at the distance. Then she placed 4th at the 2012 Olympic Marathon Trials--a heartbreaker since her performance was one place short of making the Olympic team. She went on to win the 10,000m at the '12 U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials and placed 11th in 31:10.69 at the '12 London Olympics. Hastings recently moved to Portland, OR from Providence, RI with her husband--3-time Irish Olympian at 5,000m, Alistair Cragg--where she trains with Shalane Flanagan, Not a bad training partner if you're shooting for an Olympic team spot.
Kara Goucher (Boulder, CO) enters the '16 Marathon Trials with a 2:37:03 qualifier that she earned at the 2014 New York City Marathon. Thirty-five women have faster qualifiers, but don't count out Kara. She is a two-time Olympian. At the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, Goucher placed 9th in the 5,000m (15:49.39) and 10th in the 10,000m (30:55.16). In the 2012 Olympic Marathon Trials she was third (2:26:06) and placed a respectable 11th in the Olympic Games Marathon (2:26:07). With a marathon personal best of 2:24:52 and several fine half marathon victories in the past several months, Goucher's experience and knack for performing well when it counts most means she's a threat to make the team.
Anne "Annie" Bersagel (Victoria, MN). A Fulbright Scholar who earned a law degree at Stanford, Bersagel competes on the international scene while pursuing a professional career. A standout in Pacific Association/USATF competition while doing graduate work at Stanford, she currently lives in Oslo Norway (the land of legendary marathoner Grete Waitz) with her husband where she works full time for a pension fund and insurance company. After a disappointing DNF at the 2012 Olympic Marathon Trials, Bersagel has the 6th-fastest qualifier going into the 2016 Trials--a 2:28:29 she recorded while winning the 2015 Dusseldorf Marathon in Germany. In that race, however, she fell at 10K, injuring her knee. After surgery in June, she was on crutches for six weeks but is now on track for the Trials.
"It looked pretty bleak last fall," Bersagel admitted about her prospects, "but I ran my first half marathon in Dallas in December and then returned to California for another tune-up race with a 1:15:09 win at the Star Wars Half Marathon at Disneyland."
When asked if she gathers inspiration from Grete, a towering superstar of women's distance running who passed away in 2011 at the age of 57 after battling cancer, Bersagel said: "Of course! I have to admit I wasn't following running when she was active, but she is definitely a legend. I never met Grete, but I see Jack Waitz (her widower -Editor) in Norwegian running circles all the time."
Sara Hall (Redding, CA) comes into the Marathon Trials after competing in Olympic Trials at three other distances (5,000m in 2004, 1,500m in 2008, and 3,000m steeplechase). Hall debuted at the marathon distance at last year's Los Angeles Marathon on a warm day and finished in a disappointing 2:48:02. She chopped 16 minutes off that time at Chicago, her second attempt at the marathon distance, with a 2:31:14 10th place finish. The Trials will be Hall's third marathon, and with 15:20.88 5,000m and 32:35.87 10,000m marks on her resume, plus 4:32 miler's speed, she has plenty of room for improvement. Who knows, with husband Ryan on the sidelines cheering her on, can Hall take another big chunk off her marathon PR--which will be required to make the marathon team?
"I'm very excited about my first Olympic Marathon Trials. After watching Ryan compete in the last two, and great memories from them, I can feel the excitement building about toeing the line myself," Hall said. "Naturally, with a marathon buildup, I've raced less and you never run the full distance in training as you do in track. So, you always have a little more hope about what you can run in competition. I don't know what it will take to make the team in LA. There are a lot of talented women in the field."
Last fall, the Halls adopted four Ethiopian sisters who attend school in Redding, so they haven't traveled to Mammoth Lakes, CA where the couple has stationed themselves for altitude training in the past.
"I'm very happy with my training for the Marathon Trials in Redding," Sara said. "It was done all at sea level which was a nice change and allowed me to do everything faster and get a better sense of where I'm at."
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Mark Winitz has written about running and track and field, organized programs for runners, and served as a consultant and publicist for road races for almost 40 years. He is a longtime activist within USA Track & Field and is a certified USATF Master level Official/Referee. He also assists road racing events through his company, Win It!z Sports Public Relations and Promotions in Los Altos, CA.