Houston, Texas – The U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials are over, and the focus now turns to the Games in London in August. The American marathon team is strong and experienced – men and women both – as good as any in recent cycles. And while the road in London will be long and fraught, and by no means a betting probability for the Americans, the self-selected six from Houston, especially the runners-up Ryan Hall and Desi Davila, raced as if Houston was no more than a stepping stone, with the next step up the Olympic podium itself.
The legacy left by reigning Olympic Marathon champion Sammy Wanjiru of Kenya, the sadly departed spiritual leader of the recent Kenyan marathon boom “I AM SAMMY WANJIRU!”, was first seen in Sammy’s seemingly reckless, but gold-medal-winning attack of the Olympic Marathon course on a warm, sunny day in Beijing 2008. His from-the-gun blitz changed the perception of how a marathon could be run and won, just as Tanzanian Filbert Bayi’s gold medal and world record (3:32.16) at the 1500 meters in 1974 at the Commonwealth Games in Christchurch, New Zealand still quickens the heart as the turning point in that event’s tactical evolution away from a purely sit-and-kick to an early-race surge methodology.
And so while Meb Keflezighi may have won the U.S. men’s Trials race on Saturday in a new PR 2:09:08, Ryan Hall (2nd, 2:09:30) deserves the extra star on his collar for dictating a race tactic that he knows he, Meb, and Abdi Abdirahman (3rd, 2:09:47) will most likely have to answer in London on August 12th. Ryan predicted it would take a sub-2:10 to earn a place on the London team despite all historic evidence to the contrary – the fastest previous third place finish in an Olympic Trials Marathon was 2:10:55 by Texan Kyle Heffner in 1980. What we didn’t know at the time was that Hall was going to lay down a 2:06-paced charge through the first 20K (60:02, 4:50/mile), instantly separating the real contenders from the hopefuls, and even putting his top echelon rivals outside their comfort zone. Only Hall and Abdi Abdirahman had sub-2:09 personal bests coming in – and Abdi’s (2:08:56) was over three years old at that. So while the last miles slowed as the wind and fatigue rose (31:36 final 10k, 5:03/mile), the early pacing had long since defined the outcome.
For fourth-place finisher Dathan Ritzenhein (PR, 2:09:55) it was probably the worst tactic he could have hope for, as he came into Houston trained and fit, but off absolutely no real racing for a year as he recovered from foot surgery. So while his camp touted his build-up, Dathan was missing the sharpness racing brings, which Hall’s tactic revealed, and which may have proved just enough of a disadvantage to leach away Dathan’s chances once Abdi proved he’d found enough of his own fountain of youth to hold onto Ryan and Meb to make his third Olympic team.
While the American women started off in the more traditional Trials shuffle in Houston than the men, hitting mile one in 6:11 – in 2008 in Boston, the opening mile fell in 6:03 – Desi Davila soon took on the Ryan Hall role, upping the ante beginning in mile three (5:35), then winding the pace up from there ( 5:22, mile 4). From a mega-pack in miles one and two, Desi (2nd, 2:25:55) soon pared it down to the serious four by halfway (1:13:30), herself, eventual champion Shalane Flanagan (PR, 2:25:38), third-placer Kara Goucher (2:26:06), and alternate Amy Hastings (2:27:17). Also like Hall, Davila suffered in the end for the work she’d done out front into the wind through the bulk of the race.
But for both genders, and for Hall and Davila especially, Houston was a welcome sign indicating that these Trials were just that, a lead-up race, not an end in themselves. Yes, there are rewards that will come for Meb Keflezighi and Shalane Flanagan as 2012 Trials champions, but the spirit of Ryan and Desi in mirroring the efforts they expect to see in London against the best in the world testifies to the seriousness of their medal intentions. And as someone said to me over the weekend, it’s probably easier to win an Olympic medal these days than it is to make the podium in one of the World Marathon Majors. The fields in the Olympics are limited to three runners per nation, stripping away many Kenyan and Ethiopians who would normally run in big city majors in Boston, London, Berlin, Chicago, and New York City.
Notwithstanding, the sport of distance running teaches us many valuable life lessons. One of its hallmarks tell us to have realistic expectations, with intermediate goals leading to ultimate goals. At the same time, belief in oneself is the predicate for any success in life, no matter what the field of endeavor. If you don’t believe you can do it, you end up being right every time. That’s why the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials of 2012 in Houston were so heartening. Rather than the Trials seeming like little more than an American mini-Olympics, thanks to Ryan Hall and Desi Davila the Americans gave us a taste of how they will approach their journeys in London.
“We know the world is strong,” they seem to be saying, “so beat us if you will. But beat us you must, for we six won’t be giving anything away. We will be racing for the podium, and if that means challenging from the gun, let’s go, if that’s what it takes.”
And that is certainly worth a wave of the flag.