The Olympic Marathon Trials have been tried and decided. By finishing in the top three, your 2016 Olympic marathoners are Galen Rupp, Meb Keflezighi and Jared Ward on the men’s side, and Amy Cragg, Des Linden, and Shalane Flanagan on the women’s. Should one of those Mister or Miss Americas be unable or unwilling to perform their duties, the fourth placers—Luke Puskedra and Kara Goucher—would be tapped.
Selecting a marathon team by gathering all the candidates and having them run a marathon is a uniquely American process. In almost every other country, an athletic federation selects the team based on runners’ recent performances, and often, dodgy politics. “[A Marathon Trials] is more fair, but it can also be cruel,” multi-Olympian Shalane Flanagan said before the race, referring to the fact that heroic accomplishments over the previous months and years are meaningless; a runner’s performance on the day of the Trials is all that matters, and many outstanding runners go home heartbroken.
Saturday’s race was a stir-fry—a dish of BFFs, extreme patience, torch passing, smack talking, holey shirts and holy cow impressive running—simmered on the hot cement of downtown Los Angeles.
Here’s the recipe.
Amy Cragg moved across the country at the end of 2015 to join a group of distance runners in Portland, Ore. More specifically, she moved across the country to train with Shalane Flanagan, widely considered America’s best female marathoner. And goodness, didn’t they hit it off—day after day, mile after mile, up early, dog tired, always there for each other. “I’m really fortunate to have Shalane,” Cragg said. “The accountability and the friendship; training is always enhanced by sharing it. This has been a really fun build-up.”
Before the race, both women were clear: the plan was one for all, all for one. Wearing matching tan lines they went to the front from the gun, running lockstep, clicking off 5:35 miles just as they’d done hundreds of times in practice. The two stretched their lead, at one point more than a minute up on third place Des Linden. Cragg said later that she hit a rough patch on the third of four six-mile circuits that Flanagan talked her through, so when she noticed Flanagan struggling in the 23rd mile, she glanced over and asked if she was okay. “She said, ‘No, I’m not. I’m not sure I can do this,’ and it seemed like a struggle to even say that,” Cragg said post-race. “I know how tough she is, so I just started saying things like, ‘One mile at a time, we’re going to do this.’ But then I looked over at her and she was bright red, and I thought she might be overheating. I was nervous then, so I said, ‘I’m getting you a water bottle and I want you to dump the whole thing over your head.’”
Cragg went above and beyond the call of a BFF in those last agonizing miles, slowing down, continuously lending encouragement, reaching out, motioning, and yes, grabbing a water bottle, opening it and handing it to her suffering teammate. Others in the press corps opined this was a stretch of friendship you’d never see among male teammates. Cragg definitely lost some time and was in danger of losing her lead to the hard-charging Des Linden before finally, with a final pep talk, leaving her teammate’s side. “It hurt so bad when I got up on my toes and started going,” she said, though she looked strong and ecstatic.
Cragg was the Olympic Trials Marathon champion in 2:28:20, sweet redemption after 2012’s fourth-place finish, and extra-sweet because she got to share team glory with Flanagan, who gutted it out for third in 2:29:19, behind second-place Des Linden, 2:28:54. Flanagan collapsed in Cragg’s arms and was carried to a wheelchair. With a bag of ice around her neck, Flanagan said of Cragg, “She is the epitome of a best friend. There was a point where I didn’t think I could finish. Sweet baby Jesus, I’m so thankful for her.” Flanagan was whisked to the med tent for IV fluids, a first in her long career.
Two competitors, 20 miles in, where the rubber meets the road, flayed, drenched, looking for weakness, close, so close they bump, how much more, licking cracked lips: 40-year-old Meb Keflezighi knew what was coming. It was his 23rd marathon. Twenty-nine-year-old Galen Rupp did not; it was his first marathon. The heat and distance had already claimed some victims by 16 miles, when youngster Tyler Pennel decided to play his cards. Only Rupp and Meb went with him. Pennel enjoyed three miles of glory before being dispatched by never-say-die Meb and boy wonder Rupp (Pennel hung on impressively for fifth place), so it was down to two. Meb and Rupp.
It’s telling that the super-personable, ever-smiling, charming family man is on a first name basis with the world, while Alberto Salazar’s pet project, Nike Oregon Project star pupil Galen Rupp is affectionately known as Rupp. Meb won a silver medal in the 2004 Olympics, he’s won the New York City Marathon and Boston. His marathon best of 2:08:37 is practically pedestrian by international standards, and his times at shorter distances similarly good but not great. No one’s busting out the GOAT title; instead, fellow Olympian Des Linden called Meb a hero. He’s genuine, he’s authentic, he’s likable, and because corporate sponsors have not overlooked these qualities, Meb is probably the most recognizable distance runner in the sport. People like him, they trust him, they’re inspired by him, and—my god, USA Track and Field should be on their knees in gratitude—he’s managed a decades-long career without a single whiff of impropriety. You could not ask for a more perfect poster boy. Poster man.
The same cannot be said of Rupp. Oh, his spot at the top of the U.S. distance heap was firmly sealed as of this weekend, alright. No argument there. And he may even be a nice enough guy, but who would know? Salazar keeps him on a short leash, and Rupp seems very willing to go along with it. If Salazar says no press conference, he eschews the press conference. When he does issue a statement, it sounds like it was drafted by the Nike legal team. Rupp’s a puppet, (#ruppet) and everything he does or says smells like his minder. Then there’s the fact that Nike Oregon Project is under investigation for possible Therapeutic Use Exemption and testosterone improprieties. All in all, Rupp is a great runner and probably our best hope for medals, but the public face of the sport? Eeeuuuw.
Meb cannot go on forever. True, that’s been said for the last five years, but still. With Ryan Hall’s recent retirement, everybody is casting their eyeballs around, looking for someone to pass the torch to. This conundrum came into sharp focus as the veteran and the fastest American distance runner threw down at 20 miles.
Working the shadeless slab, both gladiators grabbed wet towels and sucked on them, providing cooling moisture without the possibility of choking. My notes, as I watched the live feed from the media center, read: “19 miles 4:52, Meb turning screws, Rupp tosses cap at 20 miles, Rupp is 29-years-old, Meb has run 22 marathons, Rupp hurting at 21, Ward passes Pennel, Meb is crushing Rupp, Rupp pouring water on head…” It was almost too good to be true. The guy’s 40 years old, for heaven’s sake.
The feeling in the media center and along the course was that—sweet—someone was going to make Rupp work for the win, and no better person than a nice guy, a master’s runner, the shy child of Eritrean immigrants. Side-eyes, stink eyes, bumping, and smack talk happened. Asked it about it at the post-race press conference, Meb said, “He [Rupp] bumped me a couple times. I said, ‘It’s not a track; the road is open.’ It was not a friendly conversation. I was like, ‘Dude, if you want to run on the inside, run on the inside, take the lead. There’s plenty of room here.’”
At 22 miles, Rupp seemed to say to himself, Oh yeah, that’s what everyone’s been talking about. He felt that twinge of discomfort, noted it, and eased on down the road, opening up 35 seconds, then a minute on Meb, maintaining his signature fluid, up-on-his-toes stride. Rupp’s last miles were a thing of athletic beauty. The only indication he’d stressed himself in any way was a gingerly navigated final hairpin turn. As the camera focused on the definitive answer to the long discussion about how this phenomenal talent would handle the sometimes tricky step up to 26.2 miles, we could see that his jersey, already whisper thin and lightweight, was roughly scissored full of holes, apparently for even more aeration. Excessive? Over the top? Nope, a little peak at Salazar through those holes. Rupp finished his debut marathon by slashing the tape in 2:11:12, an impressive first marathon, especially considering the heat. Meb crossed second (for his fourth Olympic berth) in 2:12:20, and Jared Ward claimed the final Olympic spot in 2:13.
Minutes later, Rupp enthused, “I had a blast out there. A 10K/marathon double is definitely possible [at the Olympics]. It’s a doable double.” Meb watered down the prostrate third Olympian, Jared Ward, and gave thanks to God and his wife.
Between miles 15 and 16, Cragg and Flanagan got clear of the field, and closing in on 17 miles they had almost a minute on third place Des Linden, the second seed in the field and a well-respected beast. There are basically two strategies in a marathon—you can cover every move and go with every surge, confident it won’t drain the tank excessively. Meb does this. The benefit is, he doesn’t need to play catch up; he’s at the front, regardless of the pace. In a way, this strategy is easier on the mind but harder on the body. The other strategy is to doggedly stick with a pre-determined race pace and plan, no matter what other runners do. This is brutally hard on the gray cells. It requires that the runner, Linden for example, watch as her two main competitors, working in tandem, pull ahead—first a few steps, then 30 feet, then out of sight. Will they tire? What if, when she gets to 20 miles and steps on the gas as planned, nothing happens? What if she’s not conserving energy and running smart, but rather letting dangerously fast women get an insurmountable lead? It’s mental hell, and Des Linden went there, alone, for more than 10 miles.
Asked post-race if she worried about letting Cragg and Flanagan go at 15 miles, Linden responded, “It was not so much letting them go as running my race. I’d talked with my coaches and we’d circled 5:40s with no move until 20 miles. They were clicking off 5:35s and I thought that was unsustainable. You have to really trust in the plan, buy into it. I mean, the marathon is tricky but also predictable. You don’t know how things like the heat will affect you at 23 miles, but if you go faster than your plan, the result is predictable. I just really trusted in the plan.”
Mile 16, 17, 18—Linden, sweat-soaked, looked especially small and vulnerable on the wide shadeless plain of Figueroa Street, with Flanagan and Cragg more than a minute up, out of sight, and Kellyn Taylor and Kara Goucher more than 20 seconds behind. The two ahead credited teammate synergy for their success, but Linden had to deal with the exhaustion, the doubts, bad patches, the heat and the stretching miles by herself.
“I was prepared for it,” she said. “I’m fortunate to have a group to train with, but I do a lot of training on my own. Ultimately, you just have to get it done by yourself.”
At 21 miles, Linden was 1:02 behind Flanagan/Cragg. At 22 miles, 58 seconds; at 23 miles, 51 seconds; 24 miles, 35 seconds; 25 miles, 18 seconds and closing hard. That’s when Amy Cragg could do no more for her teammate and took off on her own. By 26 miles, Linden had passed the struggling Flanagan for second place, and finished smiling and satisfied.
Announced as the hottest Olympic Marathon Trials on record (that would be, since 1968), at noon as most runners were still on the course, it was 75 degrees in the shade. In Los Angeles’s dry conditions, the difference between shaded air and sun-baked pavement can easily be more than 10 degrees. The heat was probably a factor in the high drop-out rate: 61 of 166 men, and 49 of 202 women started but did not finish. Most, if not all, the top-seeded contenders had prepared for the heat by some combination of training in a warm-weather location, running on the treadmill and wearing more clothing than usual. Fourth-place finisher Luke Puskedra cranked the heat to 80 degrees in his Eugene, Oregon home during his training. While overall, finishing times were predictably slower than usual, the top three men’s and women’s times were, impressively, commensurate with other years when the weather has been much less hostile.
Brutal and beautiful, cruel and celebratory, the Olympic Trials Marathon serves as a quadrennial state-of-the-competitive-sport address. Oh, and it also selected a very solid Olympic marathon team.
photo credit: Getty Images