LONDON -- The best-laid race plans of the most talented group of U.S. runners ever entered in the women's Olympic marathon dissolved in rain and a small hailstorm of bad luck Sunday, resulting in a podium shutout for the sixth time in the eight Summer Games the event has been run.
The veteran of the trio at the distance, Desiree Davila, stepped off the course after the first 2.2-mile lap, hobbled by the first major injury of her career. Oregon-based training partners Shalane Flanagan and Kara Goucher ran with the lead pack early before their bodies betrayed them on the twisting urban course that took a tour bus route past many major landmarks.
When Goucher, a closer, tried to push her pace in the last few miles to move up one place and achieve her goal of a top-10 finish, the runner she spotted in the distance was her own teammate, puncturing her motivation.
"It actually broke my spirit," Goucher said, her voice breaking slightly. "Because I thought one of us had a shot. I trained so hard. I didn't even know women trained the way that I've trained with Shalane. I didn't know it existed. And I really thought that with the right window of opportunity, one of us could deliver, and unfortunately it didn't come to be."
Flanagan, a 10,000-meter bronze medalist on the track in 2008, was racing in just her third marathon and admitted she still feels green at age 31, even though she finished a strong second in New York City less than two years ago in her debut.
"It was tough just to let people pass me, and I had no oomph to go with them," Flanagan said. "I tried to react, like in a track race, but it is really different for me in the marathon. You already have a lot of miles in your legs and it is so, so, so hard. I just was hoping I could chomp away and get closer, and I did at times, and I fell off at times. I was yo-yoing all over the place."
Goucher, who ran through muscle spasms that traveled from her calves up into her lower back, could barely hold herself upright immediately after the race. She said the discomfort reminded her of another recent endurance event.
"I honestly haven't felt that kind of pain since I pushed out a baby," said Goucher, who gave birth to her son Colton in the fall of 2010 after 15 hours of labor. "Shalane cramped very badly as well [in the] same place. So we're both a little confused and annoyed."
It was a vexing day for many, marred by weather and injury-related in-race withdrawals for several top women, including three-time Chicago Marathon winner Liliya Shobukhova of Russia. Rain pelted the women for much of the first hour, then subsided and returned sporadically.
A large lead pack of women lollygagged -- relatively speaking -- until the midway point. Flanagan and Goucher found themselves at the front and went with that flow through a deafening corridor of fans, especially around the finish line on the Mall close to Buckingham Palace.
"Both times I tried to go back to the second and third row, I got pushed and grunted at and stepped on, so I thought, 'What the heck, I'll go ahead and lead the Olympic marathon,'" Goucher, 34, said with a wry smile.
The Americans fell off the pace when the eventual medalists began to push and Flanagan's strategy to try to stay at the front fell victim to her cramps. Goucher, who said she came in as a "realist" hoping mistakes by others would enable her to sneak in, found herself lacking her usual kick. The second half of the race was run more than three minutes faster than the first -- a big difference on a flat course, and one that wore down even the favored Kenyans and resulted in an Olympic-record time of 2:23.07.
In the last mile, Ethiopia's Tiki Gelana, winner of marathons in Amsterdam and Rotterdam over the past two years, surged away from Kenya's Priscah Jeptoo and Russia's Tatyana Petrova. London Marathon champion Mary Keitany of Kenya, a pre-race pick for many, faded to fourth.
Attrition in the loaded field began even before the race started when British star Paula Radcliffe, the world record holder, ended weeks of speculation by pulling out because of a foot injury.
Davila, the 98-pound mighty sprite who set an American women's course record in Boston last year, tweaked her right hip a month ago and has been desperately trying to salvage her form since. She ran indoors on a high-tech treadmill designed to minimize impact and had a prescribed cortisone shot. All the while, she struggled with whether or not she should make the trip at all.
The two women who finished fourth and fifth behind Flanagan, Davila and Goucher at the U.S. marathon trials in January, Davila's close friend and Olympic Village roommate Amy Hastings and Janet Cherobon-Bawcom, both qualified for the 10,000-meter track event in London and gave up their alternate slots in the marathon to run it.
"If there was a fourth-place person who was very, very fit and they said they were training for this, and if someone got hurt and they were ready to step in, I wouldn't be here, but there isn't," said Davila, who stood all alone in a huge interview pen, looking even tinier than usual in a bulky navy blue windbreaker. Helicopters droned in the distance over the lead pack where she'd hoped to implement the tactics based on a thorough reconnaissance of the course and its more than 30 rhythm-breaking turns.
At one point last week, her coach, Kevin Hanson, told the Detroit Free Press that Davila would have to withdraw. "He was just trying to make it easier on me," Davila said. "Every 10 minutes, I was changing my mind." Ultimately, she decided to start the race because she has earned it -- as much in the past month as the previous four years.
"I've been training through pain and having ups and downs and highs and lows," she said. "I do feel like you have to cross the line to be an Olympian, to have that title, and I feel like I've earned that, the last month especially, I put everything I had into getting here.
"I think I'll be back. I think I have another Olympics in me, and it's valuable to know what the Village is like and what the starting room is like. Everything's been really bittersweet. You know, you have this idea of what it's all going to be like, and it's all really positive and your dreams come true and a month out it changes real quick."