Houston hosts U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials
Houston made history last Saturday morning when, for the first time ever, the U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon races for both men and women were held on the same course, on the same day. For the competitors, the road to the London 2012 Olympic Games began in front of the George R. Brown Convention Center on the Avenida de las Americas. In just a few short hours, the course outlined throughout the Space City determined which three men and women would represent Team USA on the biggest athletics stage in the world.
As the national anthem resonated over the loudspeakers, 114 elite marathon men took their places on the starting line. Two minutes later, at 8 a.m. the gun went off, thus commencing the men's trials. Fifteen minutes later, 189 women toed the same starting line donning arm sleeves, sunglasses and faces of determination.
Mid-30-degree weather, coupled with downtown Houston's flat course, boded well for fast, honest races. There was even talk of records falling as a result of the near-perfect conditions.
The 26.2-mile course began with a 2.2-mile loop around the downtown district followed by three consecutive eight-mile loops around Allen Parkway. The course was created to mirror the marathon course at the London Olympics.
In the men's race, Ryan Hall led from the gun. Hall, the 2008 Trials champion, set a fast early pace of 4:50 for the first mile. The 29-year-old, determined to make this Trials come down to a race of guts, pushed the pace to a blistering 4:43 at the fourth mile as the lead pack of seven distanced itself from the chase pack of three.
Though Hall was the obvious favorite to win, as both the reigning champion and fastest qualifier with a time of 2:04:58, his competition was not to be underestimated. Meb Keflezighi ran the second-fastest qualifying time of 2:09:13 only a little over two months ago in the New York City Marathon. The Eritrean native-turned-American citizen also won the silver medal in the 2004 Olympic Marathon in Athens.
Dathan Ritzenhein was another favorite. A Michigan native, "Ritz" came into Saturday's race with a 2:10:00, the third-fastest qualifying time behind Hall and Keflezighi.
By the eighth mile, the lead pack of seven dwindled to five. A surprising member of the lead pack was Abdi Abdirahman, a dark horse coming into the Trials. Abdirahman, known as "The Black Cactus," entered the trials with a mere 2:14:00 set back in 2009, placing him as the 14th-fastest qualifier. A veteran in the sport, Abdirahman was vying on Saturday for a spot on his forth-Olympic team.
Keflezighi, Hall, Ritz and Abdirahman swapped the lead between them until Ritz dropped at mile 20. At mile 24, Keflezighi made a decisive move unmatched even by Hall. The Houston Trials made history again as Keflezighi broke the finish-line tape with a personal best of 2:09:08. At the age of 36, Keflezighi became the oldest winner in Trials history.
For Keflezighi, this trials contrasted with the NYC Trials four years ago, when he missed out on a ticket to Beijing with a disappointing eighth-place finish. Hall took second behind Keflezighi in 2:09:30, and the Black Cactus outlasted a late kick from Ritz to finish third in 2:09:47.
In the women's race, the pace began at a pedestrian 6:11 first mile. Desiree Davila, one of the triumvirate of favorites along with Shalane Flanagan and Kara Goucher, took over the lead at mile two, dropping the pace 22 seconds to a more honest 5:49. A lead pack of nine women developed, and in the mix was cancer survivor Serena Burla and American record-holder and Olympic bronze medalist Deena Kastor.
Davila was the fastest qualifier with a time of 2:22:38, set in the 2011 Boston Marathon. Davila's qualifying time in addition to her recent track-season personal records in the 5,000- and 10,000-meter races made her a clear favorite.
In spite of welcoming her first child in 2010, Goucher proved her marathon fitness in the 2011 Boston Marathon with a time of 2:24:52. Only a few months ago Goucher also strategically changed coaches to train with Flanagan.
Flanagan's marathon debut in the 2010 NYC Marathon ended in an impressive 2:28:40. Though she hadn't run another marathon since, Flanagan had earned a reputation for her ability to perform in big races, such as her bronze-medal 10,000-meter performance in the 2008 Olympics.
Davila's 5:25 pace at the half-marathon mark reduced the lead pack to four women: herself, Goucher, Flanagan and Amy Hastings. At mile 19, the "big three" dropped Hastings and battled it out in a tactical race for first. Much like the men's race, the top three seemed to be decided with six miles left, but first, second and third were still up in the air. Flanagan's surge at mile 25 finally dropped Davila and Goucher, and Flanagan went on to win with a personal best of 2:25:38. Davila held off Goucher's attempt to pass from behind, finishing in 2:25:55, with Goucher at 2:26:06.
With the men's and women's Olympic marathon teams decided, Team USA is now London-bound this summer with high expectations for the podium. The slew of personal records garnered last weekend may be the right boost of confidence needed for the Americans to finally topple the Kenyans and Romanians from the gold-medal spots.
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