They trained together, dreamed together, pushed each other through grueling workouts when neither thought she could possibly run another inch. If Amy Cragg was too tired to lead the way one day, Shalane Flanagan would set the pace, knowing Cragg would take her turn the next time and strengthen the partnership they forged last October after Cragg moved from Providence, R.I., to run alongside Flanagan in Portland, Ore.
They shared pain and exhilaration, each feeling she would be incomplete if only one made the U.S. Olympic team for the Rio de Janeiro Games. In an individual sport they became a selfless team, sharing water bottles and cooling towels Saturday as they ran smoothly as 1 and 1A for most of the Olympic marathon trials race through the toasty streets of downtown Los Angeles.
"She's helped me so much the past four months. I've kind of just been hanging on to her," Cragg said.
Each had powerful motivation. Cragg burned to banish memories of her fourth-place finish at the 2012 U.S. marathon trials. Flanagan was driven to grab her fourth Olympic berth. And for a while the race initially went as easily as a 26.2-mile run can go when temperatures climb into the high 70s. "We kind of started running together like it was practice," Cragg said.
But as they pounded through the loop course, Flanagan's blond ponytail swaying from side to side and Cragg's brown curls piled atop her white visor, what was routine suddenly became a formidable challenge.
Flanagan began to labor about 23 miles in and soon was in distress. Cragg turned to her repeatedly, coaxing and cajoling, reluctant to break away while Flanagan was in peril.
"Before the last water stop I looked at her and she was turning bright red and I knew the heat was getting to her," Cragg said. "That's where I told her, 'I'm going to get you a water bottle. Dump the whole thing on your head.' So I handed her a water bottle and that's where I started getting a little bit concerned because once that starts happening you never know if you're even going to finish."
That Flanagan completed the race was a testament to an inspiring bond that will take them to the Olympics together.
Cragg won Saturday in 2 hours 28 minutes 20 seconds, followed by a patient Desiree Linden, who passed Flanagan in mile 26 and finished in 2:28:54. After Cragg and Linden embraced, Cragg turned to encourage Flanagan, who sank to her knees after clocking in at 2:29:19. When Flanagan was seated in a wheelchair to rest, Cragg stood by her side again.
"Today it was one of the bravest and most courageous runs I've ever seen," Cragg said, "because definitely something was going on and she had to focus on every single step she was taking to get to the finish line and still she made it happen."
Flanagan couldn't have done it without Cragg. "She's the epitome of what a friend is," Flanagan said before receiving treatment that included intravenous fluids. "There was a point where I thought, 'I'm dying. I can't do this,' and she talked me through it. Sweet baby Jesus, I'm so thankful for her."
For Cragg, who made the London Olympic team in the 10,000 and finished 11th, helping Flanagan at the end was instinctive.
"On the third lap I started going through a rough patch and she turned to me and was like, 'We've got this. We're going to be right there for each other. We're going to be on the team,'" Cragg said.
"That's been our dream — not to get on the team ourselves but both of us there. We were running together and she got me through that rough patch, and on the last lap I think she kind of started going through a rough patch as well, and so it was the same thing. I was like, 'She did it for me, I'm going to do it for her. I'm going to get her through this. I'm going to talk her through it a little bit.'"
The discourse between Galen Rupp, the men's winner in his marathon debut, and runner-up Meb Keflezighi, the 23-time marathon marvel, was much less civil.
The two exchanged words several times, with 40-year-old Keflezighi — the 2004 Athens Olympic silver medalist — scolding Rupp about running too close. "It's not a track. The road is open," Keflezighi said. "It was not a very friendly conversation…. Take the lead or stand aside."
Cragg took the lead Saturday but Flanagan will stand beside her in Rio, ready to return the water bottle and the favors that Cragg so graciously and memorably extended.