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Thursday, January 12, 2012
U.S. women's Olympic marathon trials preview

By Peter Gambaccini
Special to espnW

The U.S. Olympic marathon trials on Saturday in Houston will determine which three women will represent the United States in the 26.2-mile race at the London Olympics this summer. We're pretty sure that Desiree Davila and Shalane Flanagan will be two of them. Does it matter who gets first and who gets second? Well, there's pride, and there are bragging rights, and there's the difference between $50,000 for first and $40,000 for second place. But the chief point of the trials is to earn the right to race in London. At the 2004 Athens Olympics, Meb Keflezighi won a silver in the men's marathon and Deena Kastor took home a bronze in the women's, although neither had won their respective Olympic trials earlier in the year (they each placed second).

But Davila and Flanagan, a pair of very different athletes who could turn these trials into a two-women race, will each want to make an emphatic statement with a victory in Houston. Flanagan has been a star forever, all the way back to high school and to college at the University of North Carolina, where she won NCAA titles in cross country and track. She was a bronze medalist in the 10,000 meters at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, and a bronze medalist again, behind two Kenyan superstars, at the 2011 world cross country championships.

Flanagan's one venture at the marathon came in New York City in 2010, when she finished second behind Kenya's Edna Kiplagat, who would become the 2011 world champion in that event. Flanagan's was the highest finish by an American woman in the five-borough marathon in 20 years. Flanagan fought gamely in the final miles and stole the runner-up spot from Mary Keitany, who went on to triumph at the 2011 London Marathon and who just may be the top female marathoner on the planet right now.

Flanagan has the perfect pedigree: Both of her parents represented the United States at the world cross country championships, and her mother set a world record in women's marathoning's fledgling days in 1971. Diminutive as Flanagan is, she's an astonishing athlete; the middle of this video clip illustrates her impressive physical strength and flexibility. And she just doesn't fail much, at all. Flanagan knows what she's doing. She and her coach, Jerry Schumacher, came up with the notion of having her prepare for Jan. 14 by entering a pair of half marathons, San Antonio in November and Miami Beach in December, with tired legs after weeks of hard training. The idea was to simulate running the last half of a full marathon tired. Flanagan won both of the 13.1-mile races, the one in Miami Beach in a very fine 1:09:58. She can put herself through a grueling test and come out sparkling.

Kara Goucher
Kara Goucher, who has moved up to the marathon since racing the 5,000 and 10,000 meters at the 2008 Olympics, gave birth to a son in September 2010.

Unlike Flanagan, Davila wasn't a phenom in her youth. She was a solid but not outstanding runner at Arizona State, but her progress as a professional marathoner has come in large increments. In 2010, she placed fourth in the Chicago Marathon in 2:26:20. And then at the 2011 Boston Marathon, in a spectacle that was more genuinely thrilling than 98 percent of what people tell you is thrilling, Davila came down the final stretch in a pitched battle with Kenya's Caroline Kilel, the two trading leads back and forth multiple times. There were several moments when it did indeed look like Davila was going to be the first American woman to win Boston in a quarter-century. She barely lost to Kilel, who ended up exhausted and prostrate on the pavement. Davila, meanwhile, looked none the worse for wear, and was giving a television interview within moments. She'd run 2:22:38, and in doing so had firmly announced that she is world class. Davila is a medal threat now in any marathon, including an Olympic one. No wonder she didn't look disappointed. Well, not very.

Like Flanagan, Davila doesn't seem to have overtly bad race days. And she has diversified in 2011, lowering her 5,000-meter time on the track to 15:08 (yes, that's very fast) and very nearly qualifying for the 2011 world championships in the 10,000 (she was fourth at the U.S. championships, one spot from qualifying for worlds). As this video indicates, Davila is in formidable shape. In the past, she's been a come-from-behind marathoner, not even showing up among the leaders until the final miles in Boston. But regarding Houston, she says, "I think the field at the trials will be much more evenly matched up in the front, and I won't have a problem sitting in there. I also don't have a problem leading if the pace is not honest or I feel uncomfortably slow and it invites people who don't necessarily belong in there. There are a lot of different things I feel like I can do in the race."

It may be up to Flanagan and Davila to decide how hard they want to run in these marathon trials, how much they want to take out of each other, how important it is to turn in a superlative effort more than half a year before the London Olympics. We're not picking a winner here. But we are picking a top two, and Flanagan and Davila, or Davila and Flanagan, are the choice, barring some unforeseen cataclysm. And neither has been injury-prone in recent years.

So who's going to be the third member of the 2012 U.S. women's Olympic marathoning trio? At their respective peaks, Kara Goucher and Deena Kastor would rank well above any of the remaining contenders. The preternaturally amiable Goucher, who by many measures is the most popular American woman in marathoning, was third in New York City in 2008 and third (and battling for the lead in the final mile) in Boston in 2009. Then, even with all the training she'd missed after giving birth to her first child in September 2010, she was a strong fifth in a personal-best 2:24:52 in Boston this past April. Kastor, of course, is one of the two greatest American women's marathoners in history, along with Joan Benoit Samuelson; Kastor won the Chicago and London Marathons, holds the U.S. record of 2:19:36, was a 2004 Olympic bronze medalist, and was the winner of the 2008 U.S. marathon trials.

But we can only guess as to whether either or both of these women will be in peak form on Saturday. Things were proceeding smoothly for Goucher until she injured her hip right before the world championships in August. She went ahead and ran 10,000 meters in the event anyway, but required time off to heal when she returned. Her major road race appearance since then was at a half marathon in Miami Beach in early December, where she ran 1:12:59 -- three minutes behind Flanagan. Not scintillating, but right on schedule in her build-up to the trials, Goucher said at the time. But has she maintained her trajectory of progress? We'll wait to find out.

Kastor, the 2004 Olympic bronze medalist, actually broke her foot in the early stages of the 2008 Olympic marathon. Ten months ago, in March, she gave birth to her first child. There haven't been any sparkling road-race performances from her since then, and at the starting line in Houston, she will be just a month short of her 39th birthday. Thus, we have no recent evidence to verify that Kastor is fit. But she's tenacious, talented, an intelligent racer and a proven champion -- and she has stated that she's coming to Houston not just to make the U.S. team but to win the trials. A bet against her could be an unsafe wager indeed.

If neither Goucher nor Kastor is ready, the next two likely candidates for the third Olympic spot are Magdalena Lewy-Boulet and Amy Hastings. Lewy-Boulet amassed an enormous lead in the first half of the 2008 trials, and while commentators suggested her tactics were suicidal, she was in fact going at the pace she expected the other top athletes to be running at -- the rest of the field was running too slowly. Lewy-Boulet ended up second and earned her trip to Beijing. Since then, she has excelled at a range of distances, helping the U.S. win consecutive team bronze medals at the world cross country championships, in 2010 and again in 2011, and improving her marathon best to 2:26:22 in Rotterdam in April 2010. "Solid" and "consistent" aptly describe her. And like Davila, she has lowered her track bests for 5,000 and 10,000 meters considerably, which means she's better prepared to handle quick paces and fast finishes.

Hastings is a former NCAA indoor 5,000-meter champ at Arizona State, where she was a teammate of Davila's. They're still close pals, and have done some high-altitude training together in the Sierras in California. Hastings ran 2:27:03 for second place at the Los Angeles Marathon last March; after a sudden storm, she was at one point racing through rainwater nearly up to her knees. Hastings then returned to the track, worked on her speed and made the 5,000-meter final at last summer's world championships. Expect her to stay in contention in Houston for a long, long time.

Davila, Flanagan, Goucher, Kastor, Lewy-Boulet, Hastings. A top-three finish by anyone outside those six would be surprising. A pair of young athletes did break 2:30 for the first time in 2011. Stephanie Rothstein, who has a business selling gluten-free "Picky Bars" with her friend, 5,000-meter standout Lauren Fleshman, ran 2:29:35 last January; she'll turn 28 Saturday. Clara Grandt, 24, a West Virginia University graduate, clocked a 2:29:54 in Boston last April. Those are promising results, but not solid evidence that they're ready to challenge for the top three.

The race's wild card, the woman who could upset the favorites' form chart, is Janet Cherobon-Bawcom, born in Kenya and now a U.S. citizen living in Georgia. It's possible to qualify for these trials on the basis of 10,000-meter or half marathon times, rather than a full marathon, and Cherobon-Bawcom took that route. She was a terror on the U.S. roads in September and October, winning USA Running Circuit titles for 10K, 20K, and 10 miles. But the likes of Davila and Flanagan and Goucher didn't enter those events, and Cherobon-Bawcom's marathon credentials from the days before her American citizenship are meager. Still, she's grown accustomed to winning on the roads. Do we really think she'll be a serious challenger for the top three in Houston and a trip to the London Olympics? Probably not. Expect Saturday's women's trials race to be the Desiree Davila and Shalane Flanagan show, with Goucher, Kastor, Lewy-Boulet and Hastings battling it out for third billing.

New York City-based journalist Peter Gambaccini has covered distance running for Runner's World and other outlets for the past 30 years, and is the author of a book about the history of the New York City Marathon.