Column: U.S. marathon trials outlook is clear for women, unpredictable for men

Shalane Flanagan

Shalane Flanagan, shown finishing the Berlin Marathon, is a favorite in the U.S. Olympic trials marathon on Saturday.

(Markus Schreiber / Associated Press)

Amy Cragg taped a map of the U.S. Olympic marathon trials course onto her bathroom mirror, giving her frequent opportunities to visualize every bit of the 26.2-mile journey she will run Saturday through downtown Los Angeles.

“I love going in and knowing what to expect and feeling prepared,” Cragg, who’s determined to erase the memory of her fourth-place finish at the 2012 trials, said Friday.

Shalane Flanagan, Cragg’s training partner in Portland, Ore., has been anticipating this day for a while, too.

“This race has been on my mind since I finished the last Olympic trials,” said Flanagan, who won the 2012 trials and finished ninth at the London Games. “I’m excited to just get out there and do what I know I’m capable of.”


Flanagan, Chula Vista native Desiree Linden and Cragg have the fastest qualifying times and are favored to win the three Rio Olympic nominations at stake in the women’s race, which starts at 10:22 a.m. at Gilbert Lindsay Plaza. Annie Bersagel, who trains in Norway and has a 2:28:29 qualifying time, and Serena Burla of Stafford, Va. (2:28:01) also are considered contenders since 2004 Athens bronze medalist Deena Kastor withdrew because of an injury.

Predictions are murkier for the men’s three Olympic nominations in a field shaken and stirred by the retirement of Ryan Hall and Matt Tegenkamp, an injury to Abdi Abdirahman, and a late decision by 2012 10,000-meter Olympic silver medalist Galen Rupp to make his marathon debut.

UCLA alumnus and 2004 Athens silver medalist Meb Keflezighi remains formidable at 40 and enters with the fastest qualifying time, 2 hours 8 minutes 37 seconds, set while winning the 2014 Boston Marathon. But the predicted heat and toll of a loop course that contains a lot of turns could produce surprises in a race that starts at 10:06 a.m.


“I think anything could happen,” said Bobby Curtis, a first-time trials competitor who had the sixth-best qualifying time. “A lot of people have been saying this is like a changing-of-the-guard-type race. I think there’s some people who don’t have impressive credentials that are going to surprise to the upside. There could also be some people like Galen or Meb who have awesome credentials, but for some reason it just doesn’t come together.

“I think the race is more or less wide-open, and the heat just compounds that effect because it makes the outcome unpredictable.”

Dathan Ritzenhein of Rockford, Mich., vying for his fourth Olympic berth and first medal, had the second-fastest qualifying time, 2:09:45. He said the heat and turns could be big obstacles.

“Your feet get blisters, and stuff like all those twists and turns, that could be hard,” said Ritzenhein, who is coaching himself. “I remember them having the 180 in Houston [at the 2012 trials], you’ve got do that thing five times. Every time you start and stop, it’s just like a car. Your miles per gallon go down. And it’s the same thing here…. I think the course is going to be a challenge.”

Keflezighi thrived in the heat and humidity of Athens but as he acknowledged, he’s older and can’t do the fast, grueling workouts he once did. “But wisdom and strength and experience pays off. And that’s how I won the Boston Marathon,” he said of his 2014 victory. “I feel confident going into this race…. I feel confident about my speed right now coming in, and my endurance. I’m just thankful to be healthy and thankful that I don’t have to prove anything.”

Flanagan, the 2008 Beijing bronze medalist in the 10,000, had a stress reaction in her right foot earlier this season but ran a half-marathon two weeks after getting back on her feet. “I feel really fortunate to be here because we pushed the envelope to be ready,” she said. “There was no holding back, it was just full throttle once I got up and running.”

There will be no holding back for Cragg as she tries to avoid a repeat of her 2012 disappointment. “It took me awhile to get over that one, honestly,” said Cragg, who switched gears and made the U.S. team in the 10,000, finishing 11th. “I was so dead-set on making the marathon team. I still truly believe that it’s my event.”

She will get a chance to prove that Saturday.


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