- Bonnie D. Ford, Enterprise and Olympic Sports
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HOUSTON -- The diminutive Meb Keflezighi has lived a life of sweeping scope, fleeing the impoverished, war-wracked African nation of Eritrea with his family when he was 12 and winning an Olympic silver medal for the United States, his adopted country, at age 29 in 2004. His path to success has been paved with a keen attention to detail, and that is why he asked his brother and manager, Hawi, and his longtime coach, Bob Larsen, to hand his Breathe-Right nasal strips to him right before the start of the U.S. Olympic marathon trials.
This past November at the New York City Marathon, Keflezighi uncharacteristically forgot he had tucked the strips into his left running shoe and developed a nasty blister that later became severely infected. He ran a personal best time anyway, but the worsening wound forced him to take three of the next 10 weeks off and cast doubt on whether he could make the Olympic team at age 36.
Keflezighi has made a habit of outrunning adversity, as he did a few years ago in coming back from a career-threatening pelvic fracture. And his late kick Saturday left 2008 trials winner Ryan Hall and three-time track Olympian Abdi Abdirahman behind and made Keflezighi the leader of the most seasoned U.S. men's marathon team ever, with an average age of 33 and multiple Olympic appearances between them.
All three men ran under 2 hours, 10 minutes, with Keflezighi's 2:09:08 setting the standard. Californian Hall finished 22 seconds later, and the Somalia-born Abdirahman was 39 seconds back. Abdirahman, who moved to Tucson, Ariz., while in high school and calls himself "The Black Cactus," came to Houston with little advance trumpeting; at 33, his personal best at the distance came six years ago.
The women's team is a trio of neophytes by comparison. Trials champion Shalane Flanagan, a 2008 Olympic bronze medalist in the 10,000 meters, was competing in only her second marathon, and runner-up Desiree Davila will be making her first trip to a Summer Games. Kara Goucher, who had to fend off a tenacious challenge from Amy Hastings to finish third, has raced in the Olympics in the 5,000- and 10,000-meter events.
Yet there's no doubt the U.S. will be putting its best team on the line in London. Flanagan, who finished in 2:25:38 on Saturday, and Davila (2:25:55) had established their credentials in the marathon over the past two years, and Goucher (2:26:06), who described herself as "a nervous wreck" leading up to the race, made up for that with enormous desire.
"The last mile was a cross between savoring the moment and just being grateful that I was almost done," said Flanagan, who carved three minutes off her only previous marathon time, a second-place finish in the 2010 New York City Marathon. "I knew Desi was charging hard, and I told myself I had to have one last gear as she came up on me, so I tried to approach it like a track race and know it was the last hard mile."
The Breathe Right incident was slightly embarrassing for a perfectionist like Keflezighi -- "He didn't tell me about it for a while," Larsen said -- but it may have been an inadvertent blessing because it blunted his workaholic tendencies. There was no risk of overtraining in the limited time Keflezighi had after New York, and he had enough in the tank to drop both Abdirahman and Hall in the last three miles.
Hall pushed the early pace as he is wont to do on his good days, and it initially looked as if the top men would run two or three minutes faster than they eventually did on the flat loop course. But halfway through the race, the wind began to pick up and the lead pack of seven dwindled to four, and then the three who would eventually reach the podium.
"I said, 'Hey, let's be on the team,'" said the 5-foot-7, 127-pound Keflezighi, a father of three. "It's not about being first, second or third, it's about being on the team."
They ran together until the last couple of miles, when Keflezighi accelerated, first with Hall, then alone. Meanwhile, 2008 Olympian Dathan Ritzenhein, who has struggled with injuries and form, clawed his way back up to the front after running for about six miles solo in no-man's-land and nearly overtook Abdirahman for third, finishing just eight seconds shy of him.
At the finish line, Keflezighi shed tears with his coach and allowed his 74-year-old father to hoist him on his shoulders. Ritzenhein, who later said he was slowed by spasming hamstrings, crouched at the finish, depleted and temporarily despairing. He will now channel his effort into trying to make the Olympic team in the 10,000.
The women's race started at a leisurely pace, which was fine with Flanagan and Goucher (training partners under coach Jerry Schumacher in Portland, Ore.), but "I could tell Desi was twitchy with that," Flanagan said. Indeed, nine top women soon shed the rest, and by Mile 13, it was down to the final four.
Davila, the 100-pound whippet from Chula Vista, Calif., whose runner-up performance in last year's Boston Marathon was part of a breakout season, dictated for much of the race.
"The game plan was to not let [the pace] get soft and let other people that didn't necessarily belong there be there late," she said.
Hastings, Davila's former Arizona State University teammate, became collateral damage in the late going, even as she kept the leaders honest.
"You had to break people like Amy, unfortunately," Davila said, casting an apologetic glance at Hastings at the postrace news conference, "and that's the only way you do it, is by keeping the pressure on, because everyone in that race is really tough. I did the job I needed to do. It cost me late by having to do a little more work than I've ever done before in a race, but it's another great experience and another tool I'll have in the future."
Goucher called running with Flanagan "calming," making her feel as if she had a buddy in a cutthroat event. The camaraderie among the three women was evident at the finish when they group-hugged with an American flag enveloping them.
The three men are more alike than different, bound by mutual respect, unabashed expressions of religious faith and extensive racing experience -- although the 29-year-old Hall couldn't resist teasing Keflezighi and Abdirahman, reminding them he was still in high school when they made the 2000 Olympic team.
They are also linked by their memories of the late Ryan Shay, felled by a heart condition on the New York City course during the trials for the 2008 Olympics. Keflezighi, whose background has necessarily given him a balanced perspective on life, spoke movingly about his friend and former training partner.
"I saw Stephan [Shay's younger brother] earlier today, and I said, 'We have to run for somebody today, and you know who that is,'" Keflezighi said.
"He would be very proud of us, of me, for the thousands of miles that I have put in with him," Keflezighi continued, his voice breaking. "I didn't make [the Olympic team] in 2008, and he was not there to see it. In life, you have to have hope and you have to live for something. For me, being able to rejuvenate the power and be able to come back and make the team, I'm very happy."
Bonnie D. Ford covers Olympic sports for ESPN.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The men's team is an experienced bunch. The women's trio are somewhat new to the Olympic marathon. Either way, the United States will be putting its best team on the line in London.