Thoughts on the Marathon Trials

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Graphic copyright Tracy Green, 2016

For the first time in history, the Olympic Trials Marathon was aired on live television. If you’re a running geek, this was a very exciting change. In past years, you either got highlights or a bad online feed if you were lucky. (At least in 2008 I got to watch the women’s race live!)

In Louisville, we had a race watch party — a fun opportunity to get a diverse group of runners together for beers and cheers. I had ultra runners, former collegiate runners, past coaches — from age 30 to 60, or thereabouts.

It was the hottest trials marathon, about 66* at the start and topping 70* at the finish. However, conditions in Rio probably won’t be much different so we might as well have a team of runners who have shown they can handle these type of conditions. And many couldn’t I’m still looking for data from past years, but I calculated a drop rate of 25% for the men and 37% for the women.

By now, the main results are well-known. Galen Rupp showed that maybe he should’ve considered moving up to the marathon before with a dominating performance in his 26.2 debut. Meb reminded us that running is fun, displaying overwhelming joy as he came down the final stretch to make his fourth Olympic team. And, the surprise finish to me was Jared Ward in third — although looking at his resume, I should’ve known who he was. He definitely had the credentials to be up there, but had apparently been flying under the radar.

On the ladies’ side, teammates Amy Cragg and Shalane Flanagan led the way, running side-by-side (in some photos they look like one person) almost the entire way. For a while, the race between Desi Linden and Kara Goucher was the real nail-biter, as many of us wanted to see both of them make the team. With the women’s field, there were so many strong, fierce runners that I couldn’t pick any favorites — I wanted everyone to be on the team somehow. It would’ve been even harder if Deena Kastor had made it to the start (she was a late withdraw due to injury). Cragg showed what teamwork is about and Flanagan ran until she collapsed to hang on for third. As a marathoner, I know that feeling of being completely spent and delirious at the end of a race. It’s hard to see someone go through it and Linden, too, was standing at the finish yelling for Flanagan to finish. It’s a race, a competition, yes — but that doesn’t mean you want to see someone else hurting like that.

It wasn’t a great day for our athletes with local ties — only Bobby Curtis finished. He was 3-4 seconds behind the leaders for much of the race but faded to finish 63rd in 2:29:04. Michael Eaton posted a time for mile 26 (2:38:29) but did not record a finishing time, so it appears he dropped out just before the finish. Meanwhile, Allison Morgan was an earlier drop, posting a 20k split (1:17:23) but stopping before the half-way point.

My “teammate” (same coach) Jesse Davis, 2014 winner of the Indianapolis Monumental Marathon, gutted it out for 70th in 2:29:39. After the race, Davis posted on Instagram that marathoners know the importance of having multiple goals for a race (I wrote about that concept before Monumental). “Today, I reached my plan D, which was to just finish,” he wrote. “I’m happy I did, because this medal — no matter how the race went — will always mean something to me.”

Also, I was fascinated by the qualifiers who finished with times over 3 hours. Apparently Runner’s World was too and wrote a story about it.

The team is made of the top three finishers with the fourth place finisher as the alternate. Things could get interesting.

First, what will Rupp do? He’s the seven-time national 10k champion and it seems likely he’ll compete that distance at the track trials this summer. His coach, Alberto Salazar, also coaches Great Britain star Mo Farrah — who won gold in the 5k and 10k in 2012 (with Rupp silver in the 10k). After those Olympics, Salazar speculated Farrah might attempt a 10k/marathon double. Clearly Salazar has mulled that idea over, and it may well be that Rupp gives it a go (and would certainly be interesting if he was joined by Farrah, who has run one marathon — London in 2014, finishing in 2:08:21).

The 10k is a week ahead of the marathon, so the double seems possible, albeit miserable. For curiosity’s sake, I’d like to see it happen just to see if you can be in Olympic-medal shape for those two very different distances. Depending on how the Kenyan and Ethiopian teams shake out, I’d say it’s unlikely either Farrah or Rupp contend for a medal in the marathon.

Meanwhile, Goucher — who finished fourth in the marathon trials — said she’ll target the 10,000.

“I didn’t fight this hard to just fold right now,” she told reporters, referencing a hard-fought comeback to top form after a disappointing finish at the 2014 New York City Marathon that nearly caused her to retire.

And then you always have the question mark of who will make it to the line in Rio, much less the finish line. There’s about 6 months to recover and retrain, not to mention heat acclimation and avoiding the Zika virus. Any of those top finishers who were nursing and injury before — or are after Saturday — don’t have much time to heal and make adjustments to prevent it from happening again.

In 2012, Meb’s fourth-place finish was a Hallelujah moment — awesome for the U.S. but also awesome just because he’s an awesome, completely-deserving guy. So that was great. But meanwhile, both Ryan Hall and Abdi Abdirahman both dropped out. The women fared much better, with Flanagan and Goucher finishing 10th and 11th — but Linden (neé Davila) dropped.

Personally, I would be happy just to see six American runners finish in respectable times. I say respectable because if you’re hurt or sick or anything else that’s going to lead to a really sub-par time, you might as well avoid further damage and drop. But to have them finish in the top 25 — all of them — would be a good year.

Run2Win’s stat recap is really good. Amongst his data: Runners who qualified with half-marathon times and marathon times had similar finishing rates (60% and 69% respectively) but those who came in with the full-distance qualifier place significantly higher (a median of 70th place for half-marathon times versus 34th). Rupp, who ran his marathon debut at the trials, is a notable exception — and he also posted a huge negative split on the day of 1 minute, 50 seconds.
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