VIRGIN ON RUNNING: U.S. Marathon Trials 2016

Fri, 19 Feb. 2016 - 7:14 p.m. MT
Credit: Craig Virgin - American Running Association

2016 U.S. Marathon Olympic Trials Reflections Excitement…Drama…Controversy!

The Event
In the distance running world, Christmas comes every four years―when the Summer Olympics arrive. We are not like most other major sports events (except maybe World Cup Soccer), which have yearly world or national championships. The 2016 Summer Olympic Games will be in Rio next August. Our U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials were held Saturday, February 13, in conjunction with the LA Marathon on Sunday. And for the second time in American Olympic History, the men’s and women’s Olympic Marathon Trials were held together. The first time this happened was in 2012 in Houston and, with most people liking the concept, I expect this trend to continue.

The Schedule
Aside from needing to train through the Christmas/New Year’s Holidays, having the Marathon Olympic Trials in January or February is a great idea. During my competitive time, they were held in May, just 4-6 weeks before the U.S. Track & Field Olympic Trials. Only the top three of each gender make the U.S. Olympic Team in each event with the 4th place finisher serving as an alternate. If you didn’t finish in the top three, that didn’t leave much time to recover from the marathon to double back to either the 10,000 m or 5,000 m races the next month.

Because only three men and three women make the Olympic Team, all the other athletes have over four months to try to qualify for the T & F Trials in either the 10K or 5K events. This gives much more time for their bodies to recover from the ravages of 26.2 miles and then adjust to the training for faster track events. This scenario is definitely more doable than in the “old days” when the Marathon Trials were often held at the same site of the T & F Trials on the last day of the track competition.

Television and Digital Internet Coverage
For the first time in event history, the Olympic Marathon Trials were carried live on network television. The broadcast ran on NBC from 1:00-4:00 PM EST / 10:00-1:00 PM PST. The men’s race took off at 1:06 PM EST while the women’s starting gun was staggered to 1:22 PM EST. The men’s and women’s races were covered simultaneously with fixed cameras and at least four moving camera platforms mounted on motorcycles. There were three announcers in the booth; a color analyst on one of cycle camera platforms in front of the lead packs; and NBC Sports Live Extra featured live stream digital coverage for desktops, tablets, mobile devices, and connected TV’s from the actual network feed.

A common complaint that never seems to be well-addressed or remedied by the networks is the ability to catch the drama unfolding in either the chase pack or the dramatic race for the third (and last) qualifying spot. This year was better, but still not good enough despite having two other camera cycle platforms. In NBC’s defense, I believe there was an issue with traffic congestion among the lapped runners and vehicles with the streets not always being wide enough. NBC did capture some of the drama of Desiree Linden coming up through the chase pack in the final miles to eventually capture 2nd; however, they didn’t show much of Jared Ward moving from 4th to 3rd place at 22 miles and holding on for dear life to that final qualifying spot.

The biggest negative impact that NBC had on the race, from my perspective, was the schedule. Specifically, the start schedule. Because LA was experiencing an unusual heat wave, it would have been much better for the race to have started 1-2 hours earlier to keep the runners out of the peak heat and unforgiving noon day sun as they approached the finish. The LA Marathon on Sunday moved their start time up two hours accordingly, but network TV is inflexible and wanted the live race coverage of the Olympic Trials to start after the noon news hour on the east coast. They wouldn’t compromise, even for just one hour, for the safety and performance of the athletes!

The Race Course
The course was fairly flat, featuring a beginning 2.2 mile loop which then connected to a 6-mile loop that repeated four times until the finish. This was not a fast course (even if you discount the hot weather) because of all the tight turns and raised curbs that the runners had to navigate. There were also several areas on the course where there was loose dirt or gravel that, surprisingly, had not been cleaned up. This was dangerous for the runners’ ankles or hamstrings, especially in the second half of the race when they were exhausted. The start line could also have been a little bit wider as it would only accommodate about 10-15 runners across (approximately 246 women and 210 men qualified for these trials). I never did find out whether it was chip or gun timing being used but because the prize money only went 10 deep, that could have had a huge impact on someone who was starting from one of the last rows.

The Weather
The biggest villain at the 2016 Olympic Trials Marathon last Saturday was the weather as El Nino struck the west coast once again. The runners had to start with a record 67 degrees Fahrenheit and 47% humidity. The temperature rose rapidly and leveled off at 73-75 degrees just past 90 minutes into the men’s race, and earlier for the women. Humidity dropped to a range of 37%-49% during the race. Winds never rose above 3.5 mph in velocity. There was hardly any cloud cover and, as a result, the sun became the real enemy. I never saw so many caps being worn in a major elite race in my career as runners tried to protect their heads from unforgiving sun!

The unusually warm weather dominated race talk all week leading up to the Trials and I’m sure changed a lot of race strategy. I didn’t expect anybody to go out fast from the gun and I was correct. Both races went out slower and the first move that broke up the large women’s lead pack happened around 8 miles. The men were even more cautious, running in a large pack of 15-18 guys until Tyler Pennel made a bold move that broke it up at 15 miles. It is my opinion, one of the people who benefited the most from this cautious early pace in the heat was the older Meb Keflezghi, as it was easier for him to stay in the lead pack that way and simply let the heat take its toll with every mile on the other younger runners. He has proven to be a good clutch hot weather performer and I’m sure the conditions played to his confidence, if that is possible.

Dehydration Takes a Toll. Preparation for Rio?
Even with the more conservative race plans, the weather turned this marathon into somewhat of a Bataan Death March. The numbers tell the tale―105 (50%) of the men’s field did not finish the race while 97 (39%) of the women’s field dropped out. This is significant for a large race with elite athletes only. These figures certainly illustrate the fact of how damaging the heat was on most participants’ athletic efforts.

Most of the drop-outs were complaining about muscle cramps in either the calves or hamstrings, and some had chills. One of my pre-race male favorites, Dathan Ritzenhein, a 3-time Olympian, dropped out at mile 20 but he said he started cramping in his calves as early as mile-9 while still in the lead pack. Then it gradually spread to his hamstrings. Definitely signs of premature dehydration. After the race he was quoted as saying, “I just don’t understand it because it has happened before, but not until late in a race. I just tried to calm myself at that point and thought I could keep things under control. But, it just continued to get worse.” And this is from a proven veteran runner who has done well in his running career. Heat can certainly cause havoc with a distance runner's body.

Shalane Flanagan, one of our top returning Olympians, also had a very tough battle with the heat. She ended up in the medical tent getting IV therapy with electrolytes and missed the entire post-race press conference. Her PR in the marathon is 2:21.14, which is the second fastest time by an American woman, and she has won 18 national championships. Yet she said, “That was the hardest marathon I’ve probably run in terms of the last 6 miles being the hardest. I can’t say it was just the heat, but I think I need to work on better fluid intake for the heat and conditions. I’ll have to work on that for Rio for sure.” Maybe this will be a good lesson if Shalane develops a new pre-race strategy for fluid intake and then adopts a more effective electrolyte drink for intake during the race itself. Hopefully, this near-tragedy helps her to perform much better at Rio.

The Competitive Fields Finish. The end of an era?
It was interesting to see that the Top 4 women’s finishers at the 2012 Trials were back. The only “big name casualty” in the female field was the late withdrawal of 42-year old 2004 Bronze Medalist Deena Kastor who pulled out one week before the Trials, citing a recent glute injury. She and Meb put U.S. marathoners back on the map with their Olympic medals in 2004, which many feel triggered the resurgence of American distance runners on the global stage.

In the end, the Top 4 finishers were the same with only the order changed. They were (in order) Amy Hastings Cragg, Desiree Davila Linden, Shalane Flanagan, and Kara Goucher. The Top 3 are in their prime right now and I believe they all have the ability to finish in the Top 10 at Rio in a “perfect race scenario.”

In the men’s field, only two of the Top 4 returned from 2012―defending champion 40-year old Meb Keflezghi and 4th place finisher Dathan Ritzenhein. American marathon record holder and 2012 2nd place finisher Ryan Hall retired from competitive running last month citing physical and mental challenges and 3rd place finisher 39-year old Abdi Abdirahman pulled out with an injury, saying he would refocus on the T & F Trials in the 10K. Meb and Dathan were both seeking a rare 4th U.S. Olympic Team berth. Only Meb was successful. Had the conditions been better and the pace/times been faster, that might not have been the case.

Meb showed once again that he is the master at staying in the lead pack and adapting “on the fly” to changes in the dynamics of the race as it unfolds. It is simply amazing to me that he is still a true contender at age 40. I’m sure his success can be attributed to his slight build (130 lb) and intense dedication to daily injury preventive measures such as cross training, stretching, icing, optimal nutritional replacement, etc. This dedication to proactive prevention may be a result of sports medicine strategies he learned in 2008 when he faced some serious career-threatening injuries.

2014 Olympic Trials Champion Galen Rupp and 3rd place finisher Jared Ward are only 29 and 27- years-old respectively. Fourth place finisher Luke Peskedra is 26 and 5th place finisher Tyler Pennel (who made a gutsy move at mile 15 to break up the lead pack) is 28-years-old. All three will be running the 10,000 m track race at the T & F Trials on July 1, 2016. Dathan Ritzenhein, age 34, has been a national force in distance running since high school but has proven to be consistently fragile. Dathan is still a huge long distance talent and could still be around four years from now, but I doubt it. Even the older Meb and Abdi can’t fool Mother Nature much longer. As a result, it is no doubt we will be looking at a historic “changing of the guard” in both the men and women in American distance running before the 2020 Olympic Games Marathon.

Just how far does one go for a BFF and teammate? "Sweet Baby Jesus, I'm so thankful for her!"
When Amy Hastings Cragg relocated to Portland and took on Jerry Schumacher as her new coach at the behest and invitation of Shalane Flanagan (who was looking for a training partner), a camaraderie developed between the two runners. Pairing these two fine female athletes of about the same age and close to the same ability has worked out better than anyone could have imagined. Both women made it clear in the pre-race press conference that they had become not only invaluable training partners but best friends as well. Both said they couldn’t imagine only one of them qualifying for the Rio Olympics and not having the other to train with towards a shared goal.

Flanagan and Cragg managed to move up to the front of the crowded lead pack after the first 2.2 mile loop unscathed; they then initiated a move in concert at about 8 miles that broke up the lead pack. It was obvious from the lead camera view that Shalane and Amy were communicating verbally or through body language. It was almost like they were out for just another training run together. By the halfway point they were significantly separated from the rest of the field. The last time I can remember teammates running like that in a marathon was in 1971-1972 when Jack Bachelor was training and racing with Frank Shorter representing the Florida Track Club. Both made the 1972 Munich Olympic Team in the marathon. It just doesn’t happen very often, but it should. It just takes commitment and the right chemistry between teammates.

At 18 miles I detected on the TV screen (and Amy later confirmed in the post-race press conference) that Cragg hit a “bad patch” and I saw Flanagan talking to her more frequently. When they reached mile 20 Cragg looked better but then Flanagan got strangely silent. Within 1-2 more miles I could see Amy turning to Shalane and handing her a water bottle that she had opened and offered with animated encouragement. That’s when I knew that Shalane had “hit the wall” and was in big trouble. Shalane told me before the race, “For the first time in my career, I had not one but two back-to-back injuries that forced me to miss a critical 10-week period in my normal fall build-up. I was even in an [orthopedic] boot for a couple weeks and I have been playing catch-up ever since.” All marathoners wonder what will be waiting for them on the “other side” of the infamous 20-mile mark; that is definitely when “bad things” can happen to even the best of us. In Shalane’s case, I did not know whether it was a result of the heat or of her running out of “fitness” due to her missed training last fall. But, suddenly, at least one of the two female leaders (with no 3rd place runner in sight) was definitely in danger of “bonking” and not even finishing the marathon!

What transpired over the next 2-3 miles was something I will not soon forget. I have never seen such a display of support so late in such a prestigious event between two teammates at the front of a race. Amy definitely slowed down the pace and tried to talk Shalane though her trouble to get her to the finish line. Amy was almost turning sideways to communicate to Shalane and also to check on how close Desiree Linden was getting after she broke away from Goucher to assume 3rd place. Shalane was hardly able to answer and started to look almost catatonic. I could tell that Shalane was telling Amy to “go ahead and leave me and don’t lose your chance at winning” but Amy stayed and just kept encouraging her. Meanwhile TV cameras were showing the image of Linden getting bigger and bigger on the road behind the struggling duo.

Finally, with about 1.5 miles to go, Amy said one last word of encouragement and took off at a much faster tempo and quickly put a gap on Shalane. Linden was now charging like a mad bull and sniffed blood in the water. Desi quickly gobbled up Shalane and set her sights on Amy but Amy’s new pace was enough to offset Desi’s attack over the last mile. Meanwhile we all were wondering whether Shalane would utterly collapse or worse yet, start grotesque physical zig-zag movements like the infamous Gabriella Anderson-Schiess did as she staggered around the Coliseum track using three lanes over the final 400 meters of the 1984 Women’s Olympic Marathon. I kept looking for the sudden appearance of Kara Goucher coming down the road behind Shalane but Kara had waited too long to make her move and had no idea that Shalane was in this much trouble.

Shalane Flanagan is not a 2-time Olympian and holder of a 10K Olympic Bronze medal, as well as five American distance records, without being “tough as nails.” Somehow she kept putting one foot in the front of the other slowly but surely and managed to slog her way over the finish line only to collapse in her teammate’s arms, nearly taking them both down. I truly believe that Shalane would not have finished had Amy not hung back with her as long as she did. The unselfish gamble that Amy Cragg took to slow down and stay with and nurture her teammate paid off as they both qualified for the Olympic Team. Shalane was interviewed by NBC from a wheelchair in the medical tent after the race and had this to say about Amy," She is the epitome of what a best friend is... she was instrumental. There was a point in the race where I thought I would drop out. Sweet Baby Jesus, I'm so thankful for her!" When you combine such fine talent with such mental toughness and the eternal bond of friendship, who will bet against them? Not me! There is no doubt in my mind that, working together like this, both could finish somewhere in the Top 10 (along with Desi Linden) at Rio. As I reflect back on it, this was by far the most moving and emotional moment of the entire Olympic Trials Marathon.

U.S. Superstar Galen Rupp―amazing but still controversial!
I cannot report on the U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon without addressing the winner of the men’s race in his fantastic debut effort. When 29-year old Galen Rupp took advantage of a fairly recently approved method of qualifying for the Olympic Trials Marathon, by running only his second half marathon last December in 1:01.20, I really didn’t take his candidacy seriously. He had never run a marathon before and the U.S. Indoor T & F Champs and World Indoor T & F Champs are scheduled for his backyard in Portland just four and five weeks respectively after the U.S. Marathon Trials. Galen is world class in the 3K, 5K, and 10K and was America’s first Olympic medalist in the 10,000 m event at London in 2012 since Billy Mills won Gold in 1964. Surely, he wouldn’t choose to debut at the Olympic Trials Marathon so close to the Indoor World Champs, right? Why not do the 10K/5K double one more time while his leg speed is still good and save the marathon for 2020? Plus, he could be fresh and ready to roll when the world comes to Portland in March for the indoor championships.

A month ago he declared for the marathon but I still thought it was just a “bluff” and that he was either keeping his options open or maybe playing “mind games” on his competitors. Then when the weather forecast called for severe heat for the Trials, I thought that his detail-conscious and very controlling coach, Alberto Salazar, would either pull him from the start or instruct him not to go past 20 miles if conditions got really bad. I almost resented some of the national running media who dubbed Galen as “America’s best marathoner” even before he had run his first 26.2 mile race and earned the title. But I was wrong and definitely underestimated this young and talented Oregonian who has been such a polarizing figure in American distance running the last few years. Online message boards are dominated by either Rupp “lovers” or Rupp “haters.” There really appears to be no in-between. Regardless, there is no disputing this man is talented.

Like so many marathoners, Galen wore a cap at the start but also had cut small holes in his Nike Oregon Project racing singlet just like his coach, Alberto Salazar, had done during the warm 1984 Olympic Marathon also held in Los Angeles. He seemed comfortable just hanging back in the pack of 14-18 runners early in the race; however, Rupp started to move up to the front after the 8-mile mark. His body language reflected that of a veteran racer, if not marathoner. He acted like he belonged there and maybe was even just “toying with the field” at such a slow pace early in the race. He managed to do all the right things and stay near the front but out of trouble until the big move that was initiated by Tyler Pennell at 15 miles when Tyler proceeded to stick in a 4:47 mile and call everybody’s bluff. Only Meb and Galen went with Tyler convincingly while Jared Ward, Luke Puskedra, and a couple others gave chase but at a slower tempo.

By mile 19 Pennell had fallen off the back of the lead pack and there was a big gap stretching back to the 4th place runner. That left the 40-year old 2004 Olympic Marathon Silver Medalist Keflezighi to duel with the 29-year old 2012 Olympic 10K Silver Medalist Rupp over a distance that the faster Rupp had never run before. What a contrast in character and style: young vs. old, fast vs. slow, tall vs. short, cool/private vs. warm/outgoing, first marathon vs. 23rd marathon. Both were incredibly focused at this physically dangerous point in the race but Galen seemed to be running along just reacting to whatever Meb could throw at him. Galen appeared to be drafting behind Meb just like a track racer does to save energy; however, around mile 20 there appeared to be some physical contact as Galen clipped Meb’s heels more than once. Meb then turned around and exchanged words with him. In the post-race press conference, Meb described the conversation as “not pleasant” and said he finished with the words “It’s not a track, the road is open!” Basically, he told Galen in no uncertain terms (and probably with some profanity injected) to run to his side, his front, but just quit running up his butt!

At around mile 22, Rupp finally made a hard move and gapped Keflezighi enough to create separation. The concentration on Rupp’s face was now obvious as his cadence quickened over the next two miles which were timed in close to 9:43, a much quicker pace and deadly to Keflezighi that late in a marathon run in heat. Galen had thrown off his cap to run bare headed shortly before the move, which mimicked the signature move of Olympian Kip Keino when he would start his sprint in track races in the 1960s. But I don’t think Galen knew he was repeating Keino’s actions. Regardless, Galen was now running like a heat-seeking missile towards the finish line (3 miles away) without any sign of distress from the heat or marathon distance. If Nike ever created a robot runner/racer then surely it would resemble Galen Rupp. He showed no emotion in his face until the final few steps when he fist-pumped his way through the finish line tape. He then walked over to get some water looking fresher than I have seen some people appear who have just finished a short 5K or 10K road race. Meanwhile Meb grabbed an American flag and waved to the crowd in fatigued delirium for the final 600 yards after which he finished about 1:08 behind Galen. Dark horse Jared Ward overtook the fading Tyler Pennell for the 3rd and final qualifying spot and held off Luke Puskedra who claimed the alternate spot in 4th.

Galen Rupp now will have to see if he can recover fast enough to compete in the 3000 m track race at the U.S. Indoor Champs in just one month. If he finishes in the Top 2 against a tough field, he will then run against the best in the world on the same indoor track just one week later. If he can do all this successfully―and not get injured―then it will be even more amazing as Galen becomes the first American to win the Olympic Trials Marathon in his debut attempt since George Young did it in 1968 against a much weaker field.

Finally, I would be remiss to not also mention there was a huge investigative story published jointly last summer by the BBC and ProPublica which predicated a big U.S. Anti-Doping Agency investigation into Salazar/NOP/Rupp. This is still ongoing with no public conclusion reached yet. I surely hope that the USADA can issue a credible finding before the T & F Olympic Trials in July so that those involved can be cleared, or that any further controversy or damage could be mitigated if the investigation results in an unfavorable ruling. These PED suspicions cast a shadow over our sport that continues to haunt us at almost every level including our national and world governing bodies. But this one hits very close to home and has the potential to disrupt our new Olympic Marathon Team like nothing before. It needs to be resolved sooner rather than later.

As I look back on the first U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials I have attended since 2004, I thank the American Running Association and Dave Watt for giving me the opportunity to see some of our finest American distance runners in action. Like all Olympic Trials, it was both dramatic and inspirational, which will keep us all looking forward to Rio this August and chanting…. USA…. USA….USA!

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