The Road To Rio Goes Through Los Angeles: ’16 Olympic Marathon Trials

This past Saturday was monumental for the sport of running in the United States. Not only was it the first time in history that the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials would be aired live on national television, after it’s conclusion, it was the first event to have it’s Olympians be named for the 2016 Games. With temperatures being nearly double of what they were at the 2012 Olympic Trials Marathon (in the 40’s), it added another element to the 26.2-mile battle that ensued on the streets of Los Angeles (LA).

Olympic Marathon Trials Starting Line

Meb toed the line on the men’s side as the reigning Olympic Marathon Trials champion, just as Shalane Flanagan was on the starting line, as the women’s returning champion. Keflezighi, the 40 year old veteran, had all eyes on him, coming in as the race favorite, although some doubted he could even finish in the top 3.

Technically, Meb came into the race with the fastest qualifying time, 2:08:37, from his Boston Marathon win in 2014. The multi-time Olympian and U.S. Champion, looked as cool as the other side of the pillow, as he tied his racing flats, just minutes before the start. But despite his look of calmness, Meb had a tough field of runners that he had to beat, many new, many on the verge of a major break through. The toughest of them all, was eventual race winner, Galen Rupp.

Rupp came into the trials, having never raced a marathon before, but carried the best credentials of the field. He’s the 2012 Olympic Silver medalist in the 10,000m, holds 4 American records on the track, and 8-time U.S. Champion on the track as well.

Meb had control of the race heading into the final 10K, with Rupp near, as well as Tyler Pennel and Jared Ward. Both Pennel and Ward weren’t hard to miss in their bright orange race kits, but weren’t mentioned much pre-race.

Galen Rupp won the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials, in his debut marathon, 2:11:11, finishing the second half nearly two minutes faster than the first. Meb Keflezighi qualified for his fourth Olympics, by finishing 2nd, in 2:12:20. Having fallen back a bit when Rupp opened up a gap just after 22 miles. A surprise to many, Jared Ward, a former BYU All-American, finished 3rd, in 2:13:00. Making this his first Olympic team, at the age of 27.

Galen Rupp, ecstatic, as he crosses the finish.
Galen Rupp, ecstatic, as he crosses the finish.

On the women’s side, much of the talk before the race, was the debate to see if the 2012 race would repeat itself. Four years prior, Shalane Flanagan, Desi Linden and Kara Goucher finished in the top 3, to secure their spots on the Olympic Team, for the United States. Amy Cragg (who has since joined Flanagan’s training group, in Portland, OR) placed 4th, missing the Olympic marathon team by a heart-wrenching one spot. (Although Amy made up for that by making the Olympic team in the 10,000m.)

But times have changed since the 2012 trials in Houston. Athletes have gotten older, some have retired, some injured, but there are many women who have excelled at the marathon distance over the last four years, posing a large threat to the top 4 from the last go around. Sara Hall, Megan Krifchin, Kellyn Taylor and many other women have been posting fast times and were looking to take a spot on the podium.

Olympic Marathon
Teammates Amy Cragg (L) & Shalane Flanagan (R) working together.

Once the race got underway, it looked as if everyone wanted to let Shalane and Amy Cragg control the pace. Both members of the Bowerman Track Club, out front with their white tops and black bottoms, worked together the entire race. They had Kara Goucher, Kellyn Taylor, Desi Linden and Sara Hall just behind them for most of the journey.

As the race steered into the final six to seven miles, the wheels began to fall off for many. Flanagan and Cragg opened up a gap on the field, Goucher found herself in 3rd and Linden sat in 4th, with just over five miles left. The later the race went on, the worse the heat got, on the asphalt of LA.

About two more miles into the race, Cragg felt strong, although her teammate Shalane felt as if she might not make it across the line, her body started to really over heat. Amy handed Shalane water, and told her to pour the whole thing over herself, so that she’d cool off. This might have helped a bit, but Shalane started to fade. Fast charging Linden, passed Goucher to get into 3rd and then Flanagan, to reach the 2nd spot.

Amy Cragg won the race, happy as can be, clutching her husband for a huge hug. She then turned back, looking for Shalane, waiting for her to make the final turn into the finishing straight. Around the bend comes Desi Linden, with a wide smile, knowing that her 2nd place finish is sending her to the Olympics. Now all eyes are on the finish, as Shalane Flanagan comes into sight. Despite not looking her usual strong self, Shalane crosses the line in 3rd, and collapses into Cragg’s arms, completing the 3-women Olympic team. Kara Goucher, 2012 Olympian in the marathon, ended up 4th.

Olympic Marathon
Top finishers; Amy Cragg (L) & Desi Linden (R) post race. 3rd place finisher, Shalane Flanagan, not pictured.