BEST MARKS, by Mark Winitz-Will Californians Deliver Again at the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials? courtesy of California Track & Running News (, note by Larry Eder

Hall_RyanLeds5mile_Houston11.Jpg2011 U.S.A. Half Marathon Champs, Aramco Houston, photo by

Thirteen days from now, the 2012 U.S. Marathon Team Trials will be held in Houston, Texas. The races on Saturday, January 14, 2012, will determine who will represent the United States,  in one of the iconic events of our sport.

Team U.S.A., the track & field team in particular, has the best won-loss record of any team in the U.S. The renaissance of our middle and distance runners over the past decade was a long time coming, and is a constant reminder that our country has more ability in a major metropolis, in athletics, than many countries around the world.

Who will make the men and women's team? That, dear readers, will be decided in thirteen days. There will be surprises. There will be moments that bring smiles to one's face as well as, tears to one's eyes. Some have been training for this day since the 2008 Trials. Some have come into this race over the last six months. Some have realized that the marathon distance is their destiny. Some have yet to realize that. Both races, held in Houston, Texas on the same day, will be televised by NBC that same afternoon (please check your local listings). 

Mark Winitz, a frequent contributor to California Track & Running News as well as American Track & Field (he also wrote for American Athletics, our first title), wrote this piece for the January 2012 issue of California Track & Running News ( We hope that you enjoy it!

BEST MARKS by Mark Winitz - Will Californians Deliver Again at the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials?


Or maybe, the real question is: Can they possibly deliver even more this time? In 2008 it was easy for me to predict that Golden State women had a decent chance of sweeping the top three spots at the women's Marathon Trials in Boston. They did, as Deena Kastor (Mammoth Lakes), Magdalena Lewy Boulet (Oakland), and Blake Russell (Pacific Grove) led the way to Beijing. A few months before, at the men's Trials race in New York City, Ryan Hall (Redding), one of the pre-race favorites, ascended the winner's podium.

Will California, once again, showcase its deep distance talent at the 2012 U.S. Olympic Team Marathon Trials in Houston on Jan. 14 where separate trials races will determine the three men and three women who will represent the U.S. at the Olympics in London? That's an easy one to answer. At our editorial deadline a month before the Trials, 383 athletes (158 men, 225 women) had met the qualifying standards for entry into the event. Among the qualifiers, 65 athletes hail from California. That's 17% of all qualifiers. No other state comes close to these numbers (although Colorado, with a population of 5 million compared to California's 37 million, posts 45 qualifiers).

In quality, too, California has no peers.  NikneCalifornians bring the benefits of Olympic experience to the 2012 Marathon Trials: Kastor, Lewy Boulet, Russell, Hall, Meb Keflezighi (Mammoth Lakes), Bolota Asmerom (San Leandro ), , Dan Browne (Chula Vista/Mammoth Lakes),   Jen Rhines (Mammoth Lakes), and Linda Somers Smith (Arroyo Grande).

Although international experience at the top levels of our sport certainly provides an edge, it doesn't necessarily predict success at a one-chance trials event at the often-unpredictable marathon distance. With young American athletes eager and capable of taking the reins, perhaps in unprecedented numbers, the most competitive marathon trials in U.S. history is likely in store.

"Having run the Marathon Trials in 2004 and 2008 will hopefully help with the nerves for Houston," said Russell, who, like Kastor and Lewy Boulet, juggles motherhood around her demanding training schedule. "Going into the 2008 trials, I accurately predicted the [women's] marathon team before the gun went off. But this trials will be much different with returning veterans and many notable newbies to the distance. It will be an exciting race, to say the least."

Conventional wisdom says that the top three slots at the marathon trials will be composed of one runner in the very top U.S. ranks, one highly ranked (but not necessarily favorite) competitor, and one "surpriser." But that perception is changing as new, young talent comes to the fore. With the qualifying window about to close as of this writing, the top three men's qualifying times at the full marathon distance were all set by marathon veterans: Hall's 2:04:58 set at the 2011 Boston Marathon, Keflezighi's 2:09:13 at the 2011 New York City Marathon, and Dathan Ritzenhein's (Oregon) 2:10:00 from the 2009 London Marathon.

Yet none of the top qualifiers are taking their credentials for granted. Not even Keflezighi, the 2004 Olympic marathon silver medalist. Not even Hall, who tamed what had been thought of as a slow and difficult course at the 2008 Men's Marathon Trials in New York City, breaking the Olympic Trials record with a winning time of 2:09:02.

"I don't even like to mention names because you never know who your biggest rival might be," said Hall. Some people out there haven't even run a marathon before." (See the explanation below regarding qualifying standards for more on this topic.)

To be sure, a bevy of young, relatively new talent is also among the top qualifiers. For example, former Aptos prep Brett Gotcher, age 27 (now an Arizona resident), recorded a 2:10:36 debut marathon at Houston in 2010. Gotcher's McMillan Elite teammate, Nick Arciniaga, 28, lowered his PR to 2:11:30 at last January's Houston Marathon, where he placed second. Arciniaga is a Fountain Valley High School and Cal State Fullerton grad.

How about 26-year-old Mo Trafeh (Duarte, CA)? Although an "infant" at the marathon distance, Trafeh outkicked Hall and won the 2011 USA Half Marathon Champs in Houston on a course designed to emulate the four-loop course athletes will tackle at the trials and also in London at the Olympic Games. Plus, Trafeh's 1:00:39 half marathon personal best (2010 NYC Half Marathon) converts to an impressive 2:07:01 26.2 miler.

Going into the women's trials race, Lewy Boulet, 38, has the third-fastest qualifying time (2:26:22, 2010 London Marathon). Kastor, also 38, will be a sentimental favorite. After all, the three-time Olympian is a 2004 Olympic marathon bronze medalist and the U.S. marathon record holder (2:19:36). Russell, 36, considered retirement after the birth of her son, Quin, in 2009 when she struggled with sleepless nights tending to the infant. But Bob Sevene, the legendary coach who has coached Russell for 12 years, has guided her back into form.

Like the favored men, these women and others will face younger talent--such as Minnesota's Desiree Davila (age 28, 2:22:28), Oregon's Kara Goucher (33, 2:24:52), and Shalane Flanagan (30, 2:28:40), plus California's Amy Hastings (27, Mammoth Lakes), whose 2:27:03 at the 2011 Los Angeles Marathon was the third-fastest debut at the distance by an American woman.

So, can Californians come through in unprecedented fashion in Houston and top their four U.S. Olympic marathon team spots that they earned in 2008? My answer: an emphatic YES!

Interesting 2012 Marathon Trials Facts

•The Men's and Women's LDR Committees of USATF have very different sets of qualifying criteria for the Marathon Trials. Men have one set of standards only, considered "A" standards. Men who have achieved these standards (marathon: 2:19:00 and under; half marathon: 1:05:00 and under; 10,000m: 28:30 and under) get their expenses paid for the trials. Women may achieve an "A" standard (marathon: 2:39:00 and under), for which their expenses are paid, or a "B" standard (marathon: 2:39:01-2:46:00; half marathon: 1:15:00 and under; 10,000m: 33:00 and under) for which expenses are not paid. These differences account for the fact that more women qualify for the trials than men.

The Men's LDR Committee set its "A" standard-only policy before the 2012 trials based on MLDR chair Glenn Latimer's assertion that the bar needed to be set higher to encourage excellence, and two-time Olympian Dan Browne's view that men shouldn't be in the trials if they're unable to run faster than Deena Kastor's 2:19:36 U.S. women's record. The Women's LDR Committee has chosen to retain a "B" qualifying standard to allow more women to participate in the trials, even if they have little or no chance of making the podium.

•The San Francisco-based Impala Racing Team boasts 13 women who have qualified for the Olympic Marathon Trials, perhaps the most female qualifiers of any running club in the country.

•Linda Somers Smith, 50, of Arroyo Grande, is the oldest women's qualifier for the 2012 Trials. The 1996 marathon Olympian qualified for her seventh consecutive marathon trials at the 2010 Los Angeles Marathon with a time of 2:36:33. As far as we know, no other woman has qualified for seven U.S. Marathon Trials (not even Joan Benoit Samuelson, who qualified six times).

• The 2012 U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon will be the first time that both the men's and women's marathon trials will take place on the same day, at the same site. On Sat., Jan. 14, the men will start at 8 a.m. (6 a.m. Pacific) and the women will start 15 minutes later.

• NBC will broadcast two hours of same-day coverage from 3-5 p.m. Eastern. The comprehensive coverage will be the first time that both men's and women's Olympic Trials are televised on the same day.


PR: 2:04:58 (2011)
Goals: "I've had two of my three best marathons in the last year leading up to the Olympic Trials. I'm approaching the trials the same way that I approach all my marathons. I'm continuing to go after a breakthrough and get myself as fit as I've ever been. The goal is to show up on the starting line as fit as possible, run my heart out, and let the cards fall."

Strategy: "I don't really like to have a strategy. My strategy is to be as fit as possible. The more fit you are, the more possibilities you have, and the more ways you can run. My idea is to be ready for anyone who makes any type of move and be able to respond. And then, if I'm in a position to make a move myself, to do whatever my body tells me is the right time. So, I go into these races with a very open mind. I think that's the key."

Confidence: "Having run a lot of marathons, I know that I can run a lot of different ways and be successful. And, I think having been to the trials before will help me get back [to the trials podium]."


PR: 2:09:13 (2011)
Ambition: "I'll have something to prove in Houston. My goal is top three."
Philosophy: "Like the marathon, life can sometimes be difficult, challenging and present obstacles; however, if you believe in your dreams and never, ever give up, things will turn out for the best."

Experience: "It's always an honor to try your best and represent your country. Experience should help me be in the mix. It will come down to the last 10K to be a contender and make the team. I hope to be one of them."

Editor's Note: The 2004 Olympic marathon silver medalist fractured his pelvis during the 2008 Olympic Marathon Trials and was left literally crawling. He finished in eighth place. His close friend and fellow marathoner, Ryan Shay, suffered a cardiac arrest at the trials and died that same day.

PR: 2:19:36 (2006)
Quality and Depth of Competition: "My anticipation is growing as the trials near. The Houston organizers are doing an amazing job at catering to athletes and fans. This will be the toughest trials race in our marathon history as the field is super-talented. Right now I'm at the height of my training and I know I will have prepared the best I can come January. I just hope my best is good enough to make my fourth Olympic team. It's safe to say that between the men's and women's marathon talent in our country, we will earn more than one medal in this event in London."
PR: 2:26:22 (2010)
Goals: "This Women's Olympic Trials Marathon is shaping up to be the most competitive trials race the U.S. has ever seen. My only goal is to finish in the top 3, regardless of time, but in order for that to happen, I'll most likely have to be in PR shape. So I'm hoping to be in the best shape of my life 4 weeks from now."
Preparation: "So far training has been going fine. I've been healthy for the most part. I've only run two races, which is less than I normally run in a marathon buildup. The 5K in NY went well, the Half Marathon was not as fast as I'd hoped, but anytime you get to win a race it's a good day."

PR: 2:29:10 (2005)
Toddlers and Training: "After Beijing, it seemed like an eternity before I had to worry about the next Olympic Trials, and now here they are right around the corner. I can't say everything since the 2008 trials has gone according to plan, but then when do things always go perfect? Life has been a little bit different since Beijing with a very sweet and active 2-1⁄2-year-old boy to chase. Though I vaguely remember the days when I used to come in from a run and relax, I'm now rushing back to take Quin to the park or play along the ocean. Although I'm busier and more tired, I wouldn't change a thing."

Training Approach: "I'm happy with how my training has been going the last few months. I've logged some good miles and put in some solid marathon workouts. My coach, Bob Sevene, always emphasizes that it's the whole package, not just a few workouts or long runs. Ultimately, consistency is the key. I've learned to take marathon training one week at a time, and not to panic when you don't feel great all the time."

PR: 2:29:32 (2006)
Dark Horse?: "It wasn't in my original plans for 2012 to run the marathon trials but after a disappointing race at the ING New York City Marathon I decided to regroup and give it a go. I'm back up to speed now and feel like I have a personal best effort in me. I view myself as a dark horse in the race for the podium positions. I have the experience and capability, but I've been inconsistent at the marathon distance. It will take a phenomenal effort from all three women who make this Olympic marathon team. I'm looking forward to being part of it."

PR: 2:30:06 (1996)
Realism: "I'm excited to be going to my seventh Trials. I believe I'll do well but will not be competitive. The field is incredible. It is definitely the fastest and deepest women's field of any trials, and we'll end up with an incredible team. Unlike prior years, the dark horses are actually proven runners rather than unknown ones. As for my expectations, I believe I will run well but likely won't be in the top 20, even on my best day. So, I just plan to run a conservative race, with hopes of breaking 2:40. I'm in shape to do that or a bit faster."

--Compiled by Mark Winitz; Photos by Victor Sailer/

Mark Winitz welcomes your comments and contributions for this column. Contact him at 650.948.0618 or email. Mark has written for CTRN since the mid 1980s and has been running, writing about running, and organizing programs for runners for 35 years. He is a longtime activist within USA Track & Field. He also assists road racing events through his company, Win It!z Sports Public Relations and Promotions in Los Altos.

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