- Bonnie D. Ford, Enterprise and Olympic Sports
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HOUSTON -- Reputations and past performances and personal bests all get tossed to the side like empty water bottles at Saturday's U.S. Olympic marathon trials, where the top three runners make the team and everyone else goes home.
The format has its risks. What if the country's most fit and accomplished man or woman comes down with the flu that week, or trips over a crack in the road? Some countries prefer to crunch numbers and let their running brain trust decide. But for sheer spectacle -- and as a dress rehearsal for the stress of the Olympic Games' most venerable event -- the American way can't be beat.
A total of 301 runners (113 men and 188 women) will participate in these trials, which mark the first time the men's and women's teams will be selected on the same day based on results from the same course. It's a double-header that Chicago Marathon director Carey Pinkowski called a "celebration of American distance running" and a great showcase for the discipline's rejuvenation over the past few years.
The men will start at 8 a.m. on what is forecast to be a sunny morning with temperatures in the mid-40s to low 50s; the women start 15 minutes later. The Houston course, a 2.2-mile downtown loop followed by three 8-mile loops, is flat and fast, roughly replicating the layout and terrain in London.
There are roughly six to eight runners in each race who appear to have the edge to nail down spots on the team that will compete in London, but the dynamics in each field are very different. The men's race is harder to call and stocked with less seasoned marathoners or debutants who have proven themselves at shorter distances.
Ryan Hall, who won the 2008 trials with a breathtaking breakaway in New York City, is widely acknowledged as the class of his group again. Hall, 29, who ran a scintillating personal best of 2:04:58 (fourth overall) in the Boston tailwinds last spring, last raced in the Chicago Marathon in October, finishing fifth in 2:08:04. Self-coached since late 2010, the outspokenly devout Christian said he is faring better on his own.
"From day to day, I feel a lot more freshness in my legs," Hall said Thursday. "I'm always in a recovered state. I just remember before when I was training, getting to the point where easy days were such a hard thing for me to get up for. I'd be feeling totally trashed and taking two-hour naps and just really super-tired all the time. Now I'm not that way; I feel much more energetic."
Soft-spoken 2004 Olympic silver medalist Meb Keflezighi, 36, notched a personal-best time of 2:09:13 in the New York City Marathon this past November. However, that effort took its toll, as Keflezighi became perhaps the first athlete in history to suffer a foot injury caused by Breathe Right nasal strips.
Keflezighi told reporters on a recent conference call that he routinely tucks the strips into one of his running shoes to make sure he doesn't forget them -- but he forgot they were there until he hit Mile 1 in New York and thought, "Uh-oh." The chafed area on his left foot became infected after the race, and his altered stride as a result caused a sore knee. Keflezighi was forced to take three weeks off during his short recovery time. Still, he said he's ready, and has the support of "people around me who believe in me more than I believe in myself."
Several experienced marathoners, including 2008 Olympian Dathan Ritzenhein, could figure into the mix. And there are a number of intriguing dark horses, such as Brett Gotcher, who ran a 2:10:26 in Houston in 2010, and marathon rookies Mohamed Trafeh and Brent Vaughn. Hall said he and other top entrants won't make the mistake of underestimating them.
"Mohamed likes to run aggressively, so I see him being very much a part of this race," he said. "Brent has been a very talented runner that's had some great success this last year, so I picture him up in the front pack, as well. You really don't know what kind of talent these guys have over marathon distance, so you've got to be ready for them."
As for his own race, Hall said he intends to be aggressive, a trademark of his style that was not on display in Chicago.
"I've got to be me out there, the Ryan who's excited and chomping at the bit -- that's the me that you've seen at the Boston Marathon when I'm leading and pressing and making the pace hard," he said. "Plus, I don't think I'll have the luxury of running conservative."
The U.S. women's field is the strongest in a history dating back to 1984, when the Olympic marathon became a medal event for both genders. Veteran and 2004 Olympic bronze medalist Deena Kastor predicted that any trio coming out of this race has the potential to put at least one on the podium in London.
Most prognosticators think the top three in Houston will come from a quintet that includes two runners-up in major marathons in the past 18 months -- Desiree Davila (Boston, 2011) and Shalane Flanagan (New York, 2010) -- Kastor and past Olympians Kara Goucher and Magdalena Lewy-Boulet. Amy Hastings, who clocked a 2:27:03 in her first marathon in Los Angeles last year, Janet Cherobon-Bawcom and Stephanie Rothstein should be in the conversation, as well.
Davila, the California-bred, Michigan-based runner whose career has been on a gradual but continuous uptick, came into her own last year with personal bests at four distances on the road and track. The most notable was her personal marathon best of 2:22:38 in Boston, where she traded leads with eventual winner Caroline Kilel of Kenya in an extraordinary stretch duel.
"I'd say from [the trials] four years ago, across the board I'm a completely different athlete," Davila said Thursday. "It was my second [marathon] and I was trying to be aggressive and do something maybe I wasn't quite ready for. I made rookie mistakes, like not taking fluids and maybe pressing a little too hard when I didn't need to. I kind of almost panicked when I found myself in the hunt, and it took me by surprise. I think every time out I've gotten a little better at the little things that caused me to blow up at the trials. All of that will hopefully come together this time around."
Davila said that before the 2008 trials, she thought she might be able to sneak onto the Olympic team with a 2:32. Not so this year, where she said it could take a 2:24 to win and a 2:28 to place. "That's the kind of team you want to be a part of," she said. "If you can make it in Houston, you're going to be on one of the best Olympic teams ever."
Four years ago, the men were selected in New York in November and the women in Boston in April. The split-the-difference timing of the Houston races will give those who qualify for the Olympics ample time to recover, but it also altered plans for some top marathoners who didn't want to risk racing in one of the fall majors. Similarly, the runners who make the Olympic team will eschew another marathon before London.
The pros and/or cons of that schedule may not be apparent until the athletes cross the finish line this August, but New York Road Runners president Mary Wittenberg said the assemblage in Houston has proven something even before the gun goes off: American marathoning is in "another stratosphere" than it was a decade ago when the distance here was mired in a trough.
"The trials have always been our All-Star Game, the one time when we see all our very best gathered in one place," she said. "Not only are we going to see superstars, but a great glimpse of the future and a look at the talent we're going to see in the 10,000, as well. It's a dramatically different picture than 10 years ago."
Bonnie D. Ford covers Olympic sports for ESPN.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The new format of the U.S. Olympic marathon trials may toss aside past performances and personal bests, but the sheer spectacle puts the event and American runners on a much bigger stage.