This is Not a Zoo, U.S. Men's Marathon
LONDON - The idea of zoos in the United States is a controversial topic. "Leave the poor animals in their natural environment, wild and free," zoo critics say. And while I'm not going to get into my viewpoints on the whole thing, I will say that it must be nice for an animal--say a lion--to know that as it advances in years, its meals will continue to appear day after day, and that the younger, faster lions will not be allowed to steal its food so that eventually it starves to death, lonely and skinny. Because that's what happens in the wild. Nature is a heartless bitch.
On Sunday, Stephen Kiprotich of Uganda broke Kenyans Abel Kirui and Wilson Kipsang Kiprotich for Olympic gold, finishing in 2 hours, 8 minutes, 1 second, to 2:08:27 and 2:09:37, respectively. But far behind them, the U.S. marathon team was quietly anti-climaxing. Ryan Hall and Abdi Abdirahman, second and third at the 2012 U.S. Olympic team trials, would drop out before the half, and Meb Keflezighi, the trials winner and the remaining representative, would claw up through the pack to finish fourth in 2:11:06--a great result and a fine cap to his Olympic career, which he announced ("99.9% sure") after the race.
The two American dropouts and Keflezighi's Top American honor were a severe disappointment for me, one that could only be assuaged by free beer, which I drank a lot of in the World Marathon Majors reception above the marathon course. And all that free beer helped me realize something: the current generation, as represented by Keflezighi, Hall, and Abdirahman, has served its purpose, and it's time for a new generation to take its place, just like it was after the 2008 Olympic women's marathon.
Recall that that American black eye from 2008: 35-year-old Deena Kastor, who had taken the bronze in Athens four years earlier, would drop out in Beijing at 5K with a sudden broken foot (Kastor's reason, paraphrased: "Complications from too much sun block." My response, paraphrased: "Do you think I'm taking crazy pills."). Trials runner-up Magdalena Lewy-Boulet, 34, would also not finish, and the U.S.'s lone result was Blake Russell, 32, in 27th.
Something had to change. Kastor was a great talent in her prime, but her prime was in 2006 when she set the American record for the distance. What we were waiting for was the next generation, which wasn't yet ready. Fast-forward four years and now Shalane Flanagan, Kara Goucher, Desiree Davila, and Amy Hastings have all asserted themselves. At the 2012 trials, Kastor could only manage sixth. This is the cruel, natural order of things.
The 2012 trials selected the oldest marathon team ever: Keflezighi was 36 (he turned 37 in May); runner-up Hall, the youngest, was 29; and Abdirahman, in third, was 35. These were experienced men with a total of nine Olympics between them. But just like any wine aficionado knows, there is a certain point when a bottle peaks, and though it may take years to reach that point, when it has, it's not getting any better.
Look closely and you can see the next generation waiting in the wings. Oregon's Luke Puskedra, in his first road race ever, ran 61:36 at the 2012 Aramco Half Marathon in Houston. It's the third-fastest time for a U.S. man this year. Chris Derrick, who was fourth at the trials 10,000m, is now free from the fetters of the collegiate system. Derrick's former Stanford teammate Jake Riley has already signed on with the road specialists Hansons-Brooks Distance Project, and is joined by Oklahoma State All-American Colby Lowe. Lump into that the young men from the marathon trials, which include 27-year-old Brett Gotcher and McMillan Elite teammate Nick Arciniaga (28), 25-year-old Ryan Vail, and 24-year-old Ricky Flynn, add a juicy rumor (Headline: Galen Rupp Running the Marathon?), and there's your storyline for the 2016 trials marathon.
The Olympic marathon has been a long time coming for Americans Meb Keflezighi, Ryan Hall, and Abdi Abdirahman--maybe too long. Now that the Games are over, what we need is for the next generation to rise up. Come on, boys. This is the dry, sun-parched African veldt, where the old die lonely and hungry and skinny, and the young sharpen their teeth on wildebeest bones. This is not a zoo.