Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Going on a limb to pick the US Olympic marathon team...

Bellingham's Jake Riley
(Paul Merca photo)
There is and always will be a special place in my heart for the US Olympic Marathon Trials, which happens this Saturday on a loop course through the streets of Los Angeles. 

The 1984 women’s marathon trials in Olympia kicked off my career in the sports media business. I was the assistant media relations director for the Olympia organizing committee. One of my main duties was compiling, writing and editing the bios of the leading contenders, as well as to coordinate statistical information with our television partner, ABC Sports.

Just as it was 32 years ago, the Trials are a celebration of what’s good about the sport for the runners in the field. They get to line up with the best in the United States. With a combined field of 373 men and women entered for Saturday’s race, they are the best of the elite marathoners in the country.

But the very harsh reality is, of that field of runners, only about 10 to 15 men and women have a realistic shot at qualifying or being in the mix to make the team.

The Trials are the ultimate sudden-death race: top 3 and you’re on the plane to the Olympics in Rio, though places 4 through 10 will walk away with prize money for their efforts (the top 3 get $80, 65 & 55k, while places 4-10 get $25, 20, 15, 13, 11, 9 & 7k).  Those who make the team will have the opportunity to earn bonus monies from their sponsors, as well as getting into the mix for appearance monies from race directors for whatever races they choose to run in, simply because they’ve earned the title of US Olympian.

Saturday’s race is expected to be warm, with temperatures in the low to mid-80s, which will be a factor, especially for those who haven’t done any heat training in the weeks leading up to the race.

Athletes with Washington ties who have declared their intent to run Saturday include: Bellingham native Jake Riley (2:13:16); WSU grad & Club Northwest’s Drew Polley (2:17:23); Western Washington grad Bennett Grimes (2:18:47); Lakes HS grad & Club Northwest’s Joe Gray (63:42 1/2 marathon); and, Bellingham native Chris Kwiatkowski (64:11 1/2 marathon).

On the women’s side, runners with Washington ties include: UW alum Lindsay Flanagan, the silver medalist at last summer’s Pan Am Games in Toronto (2:33:12); Tori Tyler, who ran at UW before transferring (2:38:48); Seattle Pacific alum & Club Northwest’s Ruth Perkins (2:40:04); Club Northwest’s Emma Polley (2:42:07); Spokane residents Victoria Russell (2:42:20) and Rachel Jaten (2:42.29); Seattle’s Sarah Robinson (2:42:36); and Sequim HS grad Stephanie Dinius (73:28 1/2 marathon).

Qualifying for the Trials but opting not to run for various reasons include Washington alums Jake Schmidt and Mike Sayenko; Western Washington alum Sarah Crouch, and Eastern Washington alum Mattie Suver, who won the USA cross country title last weekend, and is entered in the 5000 at this weekend’s Husky Classic.

The Polleys have blogged about their preparations for Saturday's race:  Drew's post is available here, while Emma's is here.  Ruth Perkins' blog is available here.


Though he hasn’t run a marathon in his career, you can never count out a guy like Galen Rupp (left/photo by Paul Merca) who has an Olympic medal in the 10000.  He knows what it takes to run in a championship race, and even though he qualified for the Trials late, there’s no way his coach Alberto Salazar (who I hope knows a thing or two about the marathon) would enter him if he didn’t have a legitimate chance to make the team.  Having said that, if he is out of contention, I can see Alberto telling him to drop out and pick another battle to fight, namely next month’s USA indoor nationals in Portland.

As long as the pace stays reasonable, there’s a good chance that the wily veteran Meb Keflezighi will find a way to finish in the top three.  There’s no need to try and win this race—after all, third is just as good as first.

My heart tells me to go with Dathan Ritzenhein, who was fourth at the Trials in Houston four years ago, but I’m going with Oregon alum Luke Puskedra, based on his performance in last October’s Bank of America Chicago Marathon, where he ran 2:10:24.  I think Puskedra’s got the most up-side of the top contenders in the field who have run at least 2:10.


With 2004 Olympic marathon bronze medalist Deena Kastor declaring earlier Wednesday that she was injured and wouldn’t participate in Saturday’s race, Shalane Flanagan (left/photo by Paul Merca), Desiree Linden, and Amy Cragg are in my opinion, head and shoulders above any of the other women in the field.

Though Flanagan had some minor injury issues in the buildup to the Trials in the form of a stress reaction in her foot, she is probably the safest bet to make the team, and has the fastest time of the field, a 2:21:14 from the 2014 Berlin Marathon.  

Likewise, Linden, who has been relatively quiet since finishing fourth at last year’s Boston Marathon in 2:25:39, is just as safe a bet to make this team, assuming she hasn’t had any injuries that her camp’s kept quiet about.  The Arizona State alum knows how to run in the heat.

Cragg, who was fourth at the Trials in 2012 and has a PR of 2:27:03, made the move from Rhode Island to Oregon and the Bowerman Track Club to train with Flanagan.  Cragg, who also is an Arizona State alum like Linden, has experience running in the heat, which could factor into Saturday’s results.

The one runner who could upset the apple cart is Flanagan’s former training partner and two-time Olympian Kara Goucher. The veteran reunited with her college coach Mark Wetmore and has the confidence associated with two half-marathon wins during the Trials build-up—a 1:11:13 at Big Sur in November, and a 1:11:10 in San Antonio in December.

NBC Sports (KING 5 in Seattle) will offer live coverage of the US Olympic Marathon Trials, as well as coverage on 


Unknown said...

Paul, we run the race (or play the game) because there is always a chance an underdog can make it. Witness the Broncos, or Billy Mills for that matter. Competitors have dreams that can sometimes overcome talent.

Steve Surface said...

Paul, hard to disagree with your picks. Although, I think the heat and 105 turns on the course make it likely that there will be upsets in the top 3 of both races.

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