It's Trials Eve, and the athletes, seemingly poised and composed, have been available and cordial with the media as race day approaches. Their candid assessments of their capabilities, the competition, and what this event means to each of them have been revealing - and prompt an array of observations
Max King. The four-time XTERRA World Trail Run Champion, King could prove to be the "X Factor' Saturday. His qualifying time - 2:15;34 at the 2010 Under Armour Baltimore Marathon - is not likely to strike fear in the hearts of the men's elites. But that time - a winning performance in only his second road marathon - could be misleading. "My trail work has made me stronger, given me increased stamina, which should help me in the later stages of the race," say King, a 31-year old Cornell grad. But his love of the trails has not caused him to ignore the type of surface-specific training so essential to race day rhythm. "40% of my mileage has been road-oriented, so I think I am prepared in that regard," notes King. "I'd like to see a fast race with a good solid pace. We'll have to wait and see, but I feel I could crank out a 2:10." - a time King believes is good enough to make the team.
Brian Olinger. This national class steeplechaser professes his readiness to make the big jump from the oval to the marathon. Has he ever run a marathon? Not yet. How about a half? Nope. Olinger has never raced more than 7 miles - qualifying with an impressive 10K time under the newly-installed qualification process. While no one would doubt his considerable track skills ranging from the 3000 Meter Steeplechase to the 10,000, many would question his readiness to race 26.2 road miles with America's best marathoners. While according due respect to the marathon distance and Saturday's impressive field, Olinger candidly observes, "I am training well; I have nothing to lose; and I am here to make the Olympic Team." Olinger plans to watch the race unfold very carefully and is prepared to cover early moves. "With this talented field, where 3 guys go, I think you have to attach yourself to that group. I agree with those who observe that no one is really going to come back on this field," notes Olinger. The Columbus, Ohio resident "would like to be in the game with 5K to go." And with his demonstrated middle distance speed, if he is in the hunt over the final miles, you'd have to like his chances.
Caroline White. Nobody's story is quite like Caroline White's. A pole vaulter in high school, Caroline went on to even greater heights at the Air Force Academy where she became a "jumpmaster" on the Air Force Parachute Team. A Rhodes Scholarship finalist with a thirst for adventure, Caroline has been a strong age-group placer at Kona in the Ironman Triathlon. With a qualifying time of 2:37:32 in the 2011 Boston, Caroline has a personally crafted vision of success on Saturday: "I'd like to P.R. with a top 25 finish. I'd love to link up with a pack setting a conservative pace, assess my rhythm at 16 miles, and finish strong. I am honored to be here with the country's best runners - all of whom are a reflection of the personal drive it takes to get here."
Desiree Davila. The women's top qualifier is handling the spotlight and the incessant questioning with the poise of a champion. Coming off her second place finish in the 2011 B.A.A. marathon - which featured that unforgettable lead-changing duel down Boylston Street - Davila is exhibiting a placid, matter-of-fact approach that belies the pressure that has to go with being the odds-on favorite. "I have a rough idea of the splits I'd like to hit. I am looking for a measured, honest pace - nothing like, say, 5:13 pace which would be too fast. Kevin and Keith [Hanson} are planning to station themselves on the Main Loop to let me know how I'm doing and where the other women are. I am pretty good at picking out their voices in a crowd," she notes. Experience will help. "At the '08 Trials in Boston, I thought I had a chance to make the team. I was with the lead pack until Deena broke it up at 18." What will it take to make the team? "You'll have to run fast. I think maybe 10 women will be under 2:30. I am hoping to make smart decisions on the fly as the race unfolds."
Abdi Abdirahman. There is an increasing amount of buzz about this wily veteran. It would be unwise to discredit the chances of this three-time Olympian who has a career that features 13 national titles. While it is true that Abdi has never made the U.S.Olympic marathon squad and his 2:14:00 qualifying time - posted at the 2009 USA Men's Marathon Championships - seeds him only about 14th, he has a reputation as a fearless front runner with good 10,000 meter leg speed. It is unlikely that he would ever allow the early pace to dawdle. As the reigning U.S. 20K Champion, Abdi has shown that he still has gas in the tank. Watch for him to be up there in the early going. "I'd like to see us go out in 65 minutes, no 64 minutes, and just keep that pace up." he smiles. Abdi passed up a meaningful payday by bypassing the Chicago Marathon last fall. Why? " I wanted to focus on this race." Keep an eye on Abdi.
Cooling Down. Kudos are in order for the Olympic Trials Organizing Committee which has orchestrated the run up to Saturday's big races with solid preparation, a variety of events, and a great eye for detail. Thursday night's reception at the Houston Museum Of Natural Sciences was an immaculately-planned, yet casual affair which served as a great reunion of a broad array of individuals from all across the country - all of whom share the common bond of an unabashed love of running. To combine the 40th anniversary of the Houston Marathon with the honor of hosting the Olympic Marathon Trials - the inaugural running of both races, on the same day, and in the same city - has to create an unmatched moment of pride and appreciative reflection for this special city. Houston deserves - and will likely witness - two electric Trials races tomorrow. It's a little too early to drop the confetti, but exciting racing tomorrow [and Sunday] and two more days like these past few will allow Houston to celebrate one of the best road racing weekends in quite a while.