Twice in recent men’s U.S. Olympic Marathon Team Trials history the weather has been a significant factor. This coming Saturday in Los Angeles that number will jump to three as temperatures in LA have been forecast for the low-70sF (21C) at the 10 a.m. start, going up to 80F (27C) at noon. Not ideal, by any measure, but consider that the average daily range in Rio de Janeiro in August for the Olympic Marathon will be a low of 66F (19C) and a high of 78F (25C), fairly similar to LA this Saturday.
|In 1992 in Columbus, Ohio rivals Bill Reifsnyder and Keith Brantly got into a heated duel and tried to run away from the other 100 starters on a warm and windy day. But at 22 miles the more reasoned trio of Steve Spence, Ed Eyestone and Bob Kempainen ran down the lead duo. Spence, the 1991 World Championships marathon bronze medalist, dropped a 4:49 26th mile to win in 2:12:43. Eyestone made his second Olympic team finishing eight-seconds back, while Kempainen finished another three tics back to make the first of his two teams. Early front-runners Brantly and Reifsnyder came home in the alternate positions (4th & 5th) well behind the top three.
Eight years later in Pittsburgh, the temperature at the start was 61 degrees, but the humidity was a devilish 84 percent. Wisconsin’s Rod DeHaven won that Trials in 2:15:30 over front-runner Peter Delacerda (2:16:18) and Mark Coogan (2:17:04). Due, in part, to the hot conditions and hilly Pittsburgh course, no American had hit the Olympic A standard of sub-2:14, so only the Trials champion with the B standard qualified for the Sydney Games.
So, what do hot weather days create in marathons? Opportunity, as form charts have to be tossed when the temperatures rise. Look how unknown Christine Clark came out of nowhere to win the 2000 women’s Trials in the heat of Columbia, S.C.
Where heat usually breeds hesitance, it will be interesting to see if anyone decides to take a risk on LA’s four-laps Trials layout. With that kind of course there is no getting out of sight for long stretches, but with all the turns through the USC campus near the Coliseum, an extra push early could lead to late race blow-ups, as was seen in the London 2012 Olympic Marathon, another infamously twisty course that athletes said really beat up their legs.
In normal marathon conditions we might expect that the top tier group would sally forth at a healthy speed to eliminate the pretenders right away, and make the first-timers question their ability to hold a hot pace for 26 miles. Chances are that won’t happen now on Saturday.
One new element in L.A. will be the Trials’ driver. Recently retired Ryan Hall has controlled each of the last two Trials. In New York 2007 Hall caught a glimpse of former world record holder Khalid Khannouchi on the Jumbotron as he came through the finish area heading out onto another lap of the Central Park course. Spurred by his respect for Khalid’s vaunted closing power, Hall blitzed the second half in a Kenyan-like 1:01:45 to win in Trials’ record 2:09:02. Khalid finished in fourth behind Dathan Ritzenhein and Brian Sell.
Then in Houston 2012, Ryan put the race into gear right from the gun with a 4:50 opening mile. Then hit the half in 1:03:25 with Abdi, Mo Trafeh, Meb and Ritz. and easily made the team 22-seconds behind Meb’s 2:09:08 win, with Abdi Abdirahman hanging on in third to hold off a slightly-under-trained Ritz, 2:09:47 to 2:09:55.
But as we head into the Trials on Saturday, it may be instructive to look back at last year’s LA Marathon, too, because conditions on that March morning were similar to Saturday’s forecast.
With temps expected to rise into the high 80s last year, LA officials moved the starting time back 55-minutes to 6:30 a.m. Still, the race began at 71°F, and went up to 88F at noon. Kenya’s Daniel Limo won in 2:10:36, running down two other Kenyans at 22 miles. (Again it’s 22 miles or 35K that tends to be a critical juncture in any marathon).
But 2:10 is possible under the expected conditions on Saturday.
Certainly, a Trials’ goal is different (top 3), and the vibe is pitched much higher than the average Skechers Performance Los Angeles Marathon. But it is one lens through which to view these Trials.
Ed Eyestone-coached Jared Ward took third in LA 2015 in 2:12:56, a 2-minute PR, while Matt Llano, was sixth in 2:16:13. But if a Kenyan guy ran 2:10:30s in those conditions, and the top American guy ran 2:13, where should we expect the trials to end? In between? Lower? That’s the range. Let’s see how it plays out strategically.
One thing we know physiologically is that smaller people do better in the heat than bigger people. Meb Keflezighi took silver in the heat of the Athens Olympic Marathon 2004, then finished strong to take 4th in London’s humidity 2012. So while Jared Ward has experience in LA’s warm weather, one might rather be tiny like Deena, Desi, Meb, and debutant Sam Chelanga.
All that said, the No. 1 factor in any competition is talent. Talent is the great discriminator, given it’s been well prepared. So while warm weather will make a difference, it may make its difference across the board. Meaning, 2:09 guys who fall back, will fall back to 2:12, 2:13, while the 2:12, 2:13 guys will fall back to 2:16, 2:17.
Galen Rupp is The Talent in this field. But it will mark his debut marathon. I haven’t investigated, but who knows, maybe Coach Salazar will pull Galen because a hot weather marathon doesn’t teach you anything. It’s just survival. So no matter how you do, you’re not going to get an understanding of how your body will react to the distance in normal big-city marathons, which is where Galen’s future lies.
Heat is a marathon disrupter. Look at Wesley Korir, 2009 & 2010 LA champ, who won in Boston 2012, the last roasting year at the olde race. On that Patriot’s Day, Wesley came from way back on the Newton hills, moved through the carnage to catch the leader Levy Matebo in Kenmore Square at 25 miles, and put away the win. Also, don’t forget Geoffrey Mutai, who in that same race made his bid to make the Kenyan Olympic team.
Here was the guy who blew the sport’s mind with a 2:03:02 course record in the ideal conditions of the year before, and in 2012 with everything on the line blew up in the heat and dropped out at 30K. Again, you don’t learn anything from a hot weather marathon other than whether you can handle it or not.
But thermo-regulation is the key such races. Less weight and height are big factors, because smaller runners generate less heat, and have less surface to cool. Could last year’s fastest American Luke Puskedra (2:10:24) find the conditions and turny course troubling at 6’4″ (1.93m) despite being in fine form?
Women’s defending Trials champ Shalane Flanagan is a wisp of a thing, fellow Olympian Desi Linden has a mini, efficient frame, too, and like American record holder and 2004 Olympic bronze medallist Deena Kastor, grew up in SoCal (Wednesday update: Deena has pulled out!)
Amy Cragg is medium-sized in this shrunken world, but has a unique pedigree for this particular race. She’s been training hard the last eight weeks with Shalane, was a college teammate of Desi at Arizona State, and made her debut in LA 2011 at 2:27:03. Add in her fourth place finish at the 2012 Trials as a little extra motivation, and this one is poised to strike. That women’s lead pack could resemble the Sisterhood of the Travelling Singlets.
Another California girl, Sarah Hall, is appropriately tiny, but only posted a 2:48 in her debut in LA last year before rebounding nicely in Chicago at 2:31:14 in October. But it may take something significantly better (in effort if not time) to make this squad. And the final member of the 2012 Olympic team Kara Goucher has some meat on her bones (in a good way) and finished 11th in the London Games of 2012. How will she take the heat this time coming out of Colorado?
Finally, there is big race experience. Athletes who know how to manage their energy coming into big events have a real psychological advantage. So put it all together and who the hell knows? That’s why it promises to be a great show. Just wish we could arrange something approaching it in the intervening four years.