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NEW YORK -- It's not exactly a baton pass, but the elite Americans at the forefront of the New York City Marathon women's field do represent a new group charging into the next four-year Olympic cycle.
None of the three women who represented the United States in London this summer -- Shalane Flanagan, Kara Goucher and Desiree Davila -- will compete in New York on Sunday. Davila just began training again after an injury spoiled her Olympic race, while Goucher and Flanagan opted not to run a fall marathon after busy seasons.
That will shift the spotlight to three athletes on the next tier. Two, Julie Culley and Amy Hastings, made the Olympic team on the track in the 5,000- and 10,000-meter events, respectively. Culley is making her debut at the marathon distance. Hastings finished fourth at the Olympic marathon trials. Molly Pritz is back after an impressive 2:31:52 debut last year.
All three spoke with ESPN.com in October.
About a year ago, after two uneven seasons on the track and some success on the road, Culley's venerable coach Frank Gagliano assessed her form and gave it to her straight.
"We should really start thinking about doing the marathon," he told her. "You're not getting any younger."
Culley, now 31, raised her eyebrows. "This, coming from a 75-year-old?" she joked.
"It does look kind of funny going straight from the 5K to the marathon," she said. "I've never even tried the 10K on the track. But when we talked about [this season], we staged the year a little bit to do marathon this fall. My club, the New Jersey-New York Track Club, is partly supported by the New York Road Runners, so it was always going to be New York."
Culley, a New Jersey native, trained this fall in northern Virginia to be with her boyfriend, Chris Farley, a race organizer and running store owner. She will take the start Sunday following her most successful season. She opened the year by running the New York City Half-Marathon, won the 5,000-meter event at the U.S. Olympic trials and followed that up by running a personal best in the semifinal in London. A recurring hamstring injury flared up in the final, where she faded to 14th.
"Realistically, I don't think I'm going to go into this thinking I'm going to have one of the best debuts anyone's ever had," she said. "I've only had an eight-week buildup going into it, and tapering really hard for the 5K, it was almost two months between long runs.
"I want this to be a platform for better performances. A good experience, good exposure to the event, but I'm not going into it the way Shalane [the 2010 NYC runner-up] did, ready to make a huge statement about the versatility I have as an athlete."
There was a time Culley never would have pictured herself running 26 miles through the five boroughs. Burned out after her competitive days at Rutgers, she had signed up for a stint with AmeriCorps in Denver starting in early 2005 when Loyola (Md.) University athletic director Joe Boylan, a former Rutgers hoops coach, contacted her about a track coaching job. "It kept me in the sport," she said. "I don't think I would have come back."
Working at an indoor meet at Bucknell University in 2006, Culley felt an odd, rebellious feeling come over her: She did not want to hold a stopwatch, or be a spectator, any more. She began training again the following year, feeling wiser and more motivated after the break.
Last year, Culley was a passenger in a VIP pickup truck just ahead of the lead pack, facing backwards with a bird's-eye view of the blistering early pace set by Kenya's Mary Keitany. Culley's game plan for Sunday, where she's shooting for a time of 2:34, is somewhat cautious.
"Go out conservative and negative-split and hopefully survive it," she said. "I don't want to end up crawling the last six miles, especially with this consolidated window of training. I don't want to disrespect the distance. There's a solid American field, and I'm not arrogant enough to say I'm going to be with them from the get-go."
Culley said she'll go back to the track and try to make the world championship team next year, but anticipates 2014 will be a year to focus on the marathon. "I think I'm going to love it," she said. "I know that I'm going to love it. But I'm not ready to give up on the track. I feel like I have a lot more to give there."
New York City will mark Hastings' third marathon, and second of 2012. But it seems like years since her emotional fourth-place finish at the U.S. Olympic marathon trials in Houston last January, where a late kick by Davila, her best friend and former Arizona State University roommate, nudged her off the pace and off the podium.
Hastings regrouped quickly, qualified for the Olympic team on the track and got to room with Davila again in the Olympic Village in London. She finished 11th, with a personal-best time of 31:10.69 in the 10,000.
The week after the Games, Hastings, 28, confirmed she had decided to leave her home base for the previous four years, the Mammoth (Calif.) Track Club and coach Terrence Mahon. She moved back in with her parents in Kansas while allowing a foot injury to heal and was still pondering her next step when David Monti, who recruits elite athletes for the New York City Marathon, called to invite her. Hearing Hastings was a solo act, he suggested that she relocate to Providence, R.I., to train with experienced marathoner Kim Smith of New Zealand. Smith welcomed her in early September, just a few days after getting married.
Nothing about Hastings' perpetually cheery manner indicates that her turbulent season has ruffled her or made her less optimistic about her long-term prospects at this distance. "I did what I thought I had to do [at the marathon trials]," she said. "What I learned from that race was that it's not the end of the world. You can pick yourself up and keep going."
Hastings debuted in the marathon with a second-place finish of 2:27:03 in blustery, wet conditions in Los Angeles in 2011. "I really had no idea what pace I was going," she said. "It was such bad weather. All the mile markers were blown away. I just listened to my body, and it worked out better than I thought."
She thinks she can come within two minutes of that time in New York City -- a significantly slower and more tactical course than the other two she has run. "More than anywhere else, New York is a race where the first 20 miles is the first half, and the last six miles is the second half," Hastings said. "I'm pretty excited about that last 10K. I've done a 10K in Central Park and I'm pretty familiar with that last part of the course.
"My buildup has been so different than the other two, it makes me a little bit nervous. But my workouts are where they should be. I just want to get in there and race. I'll definitely keep an eye on the other American girls, but I'd just like to be competitive with whoever's there.
"This is a course that if you don't run smart, it'll eat you up."
Like Culley, Hastings says she's not done on the track and plans to mix it up next season. "I really want to break 15 minutes in the 5,000 -- that's something I've wanted to do since my junior year of college," she said. "But I think, eventually, my best event is going to be the marathon. I see 2014 as more of a marathon year."
This self-confessed former "super-nerd" always hoped she'd make it to the big stage in New York. But until a few years ago, she thought her best shot was as a ballerina.
"I sometimes still choreograph dances in my head while I'm running," said Pritz, 24, who grew up in Williamsport, Pa., admiring Anna Pavlova and elbowing her way through the ultra-competitive ballet scene.
"If I didn't have the lead part, or enough solos, I didn't know what to do with myself," she confessed.
After spending most of her first 18 years consumed with that goal, however, Pritz found herself burned out and in need of something that would make her "feel strong and powerful as a woman, and improve myself in every way possible." She joined the track team as a high school senior for fun, and also competed on the cross-country team at Bucknell University her freshman year, but did most of her college running without a formal start or finish line.
Academics were her priority. Pritz majored in geology and still sounds pretty nerdy when she talks about her passion, aqueous geochemistry. She didn't really start mining her running talent until she graduated and joined the Hanson-Brooks club in suburban Detroit. That affiliation ended late last year due to a "personal conflict," Pritz said.
"I don't have any hard feelings. Kevin Hanson is a wonderful coach who inspired me more than anything, and I never would have won the 25K national championship [in 2011] if it hadn't been for them," she said.
Without a sponsor or coach a year ago, Pritz ran a 2:31:52 in the New York City Marathon -- good enough for 12th place, and the fastest time by an American woman in a field that was somewhat depleted by the proximity of the Olympic trials two months later. Pritz, undeterred by the short interval, thought she had a top-5 shot at the trials but was derailed when she "tripped on nothing," fell and fractured her kneecap. She started in Houston after just 10 days of training, knowing she had no chance to finish, but gutted out 12 miles.
"It leaves you unsettled," she said. "As miserable as I was there, I'm trying to use it as fuel. Now I try to celebrate the little goals along the way, but stay hungry. When I won the 25K championship, I don't think I appreciated it enough."
Pritz's streak of bad luck continued through the first few months of 2012. A bad case of pneumonia knocked her out of the NYC Half-Marathon, and she broke her ankle in a track workout.
By that time, Pritz had decided she wanted to go it mostly alone for a while, and moved to the fitness mecca of Boulder, Colo. She is coached by North Carolina-based Mark Hadley and does most of her long runs on her own, but has support from the group that trains under Brad Hudson of the Boulder Center for Sports Medicine and works out with a rotating cast of women that regularly features former Wake Forest and ASU runner Allie Kieffer.
Finally healthy again, Pritz is aiming for a 2:26 in New York, and would like to bring that time down another two minutes before the 2016 Olympic trials, where she intends to "not just be in contention, but be one of the favorites."