Jon Gugala wrote this exactly a month ago. I really liked it then, and I like it more now. I consider it a Think Piece. Jon’s challenge from me, was to give some historical significance for the women’s race at the Trials.
Read it carefully, dear readers, before the hate mail starts. As Jon tried to communicate to you, our readers, how both the athletes felt about their performances and he felt about their races, there is, of course, some artistic license, but I believe that Jon shows how different Shalane, Desi, Kara and Amy are. And he shows that these very different runners are making our sport even stronger. Fascinating reading….
What the 2012 Olympic Team Trials Marathon Will Mean for U.S. Women
by Jon Gugala
One hundred and eighty-three women toed the line on January 14 in Houston, Tex., at the start of the 2012 U.S. Olympic Team Trials Marathon. Over the next 26.2 miles, thirty-five women would race faster than they ever had before. Five American women ran faster than 2:30:00, which has never happened in a race before, Trials or otherwise. And the top four women were all under the shattered course record. By the numbers, U.S. women’s marathoning hasn’t ever had a better day.
But this year’s Trials, while being something to celebrate in the present, will have greater significance in the history of the sport. Houston represented the beginning of a new chapter in American distance running, and the Trials were only its opening paragraph.
photo by PhotoRun.net
Shalane Flanagan, the daughter of a former World Record-holder in the marathon Cheryl Bridges (nee Treworgy) and 2:18-marathoner Steve Flanagan, did not disappoint. After all the moves were made–which Flanagan covered seemingly without strain–she made her own, a 5:24 25th-mile, and it was over. She led three other women under the previous course record of 2:28:25 (Colleen De Reuck, 2004), including runner-up Desiree Davila, 2:25:55; Kara Goucher, 2:26:06; and Amy Hastings, 2:27:17.
Flanagan, 30 years old and in just her second marathon, earned her first Trials win at the distance in as many attempts, punching her ticket for her third Olympic team. And she notched a PR 2:25:38 (a three minute best from her 2010 NYC debut 2:28:40). And she set a Trials record.
The first thing the 2012 Trials will be remembered as will be the date that Shalane Flanagan asserted her dominance over the pantheon of U.S. women marathoners. The 2012 Trials were her Mount Olympus, the equivalent of Ryan Hall’s race-statement from the 2008 men’s race.
This wasn’t out of left field; Flanagan came in the heavily-touted favorite (Shalane Flanagan’s Destiny) after the two fastest fall tune-ups in the field (69- and 70-minute half marathons), a summer 10,000m USATF Championship, and a bronze medal at the World Cross Country Championships in March, 2011. “I knew I was capable of something like this,” she said, “and I believe I’m capable of something even faster because this was tactical.
“It’s encouraging to know that I’m making progress with each marathon.”
That’s right: after a runner-up in the 2010 NYC marathon and a decisive victory in the Trials–the running equivalent of batting a thousand–Flanagan says she hasn’t gotten it right quite yet.
But Flanagan wasn’t able to completely enjoy the moment. There was no glory lap for her, and for good reason: 28-year-old Davila.
“Desi was charging hard, and I just told myself I had to have one last gear if she came up on me,” Flanagan said. “So I tried to approach it like a track race, and know that it was the last hard mile, and if Desi pulls up, I’ve got to have something.”
For Flanagan, there was no celebratory flag-waving like men’s winner Meb Keflezighi because Davila is a lurking monster that will eat your puppy.
If there was one individual that has inherited the spirit of Joan Benoit Samuelson, the 1984 Olympic gold medalist, it’s Davila. Remember the ’84 Olympics and Benoit’s mile-four break that she would never come back from. Then examine the start of the 2012 Trials.
After a 6:11 opening mile and a gob of women 12-abreast that filled the channel of the Trials course, someone had to step up. Someone had to keep the race honest. It wasn’t Flanagan. It wasn’t Goucher or Hastings. It was Davila. “I figured, let’s get this thing going,” she said. Davila dictated the pace for much of the race, and was more responsible for the course record than Flanagan was.
Sure, Flanagan won, Davila did not. You could argue that Flanagan’s was the better strategy. No argument there.
And Prefontaine never won an Olympic medal.
Davila is the inspiration coming out of the Trials, and in a sport that consistently struggles to build its fan base, maybe what we need is more like Davila, gutting it out at the front, keeping it honest. Any maybe, someday, like Benoit, making the break that no one goes with to their regret.
At the 2012 Trials, Davila confirmed that she is the real deal; that the 2011 Boston Marathon, where she was the runner-up in a PR 2:22:38, was no fluke; and that she is not playing paddy cake. She is mean and will grind you out. “You had to break people like Amy, unfortunately, and that’s the only way you can do it, by keeping the pressure on,” she said. “I did the job I needed to do.”
But for Davila, the 2012 Trials will have a significance that lasts for the rest of her career. It’s because she lost. (Desi Davila)
“Going into the last mile, it was this internal conflict where I really wanted to make a push and see what I had left, and at the same time I knew Kara was right behind me, and I knew that Amy had made huge surges throughout the race and I couldn’t assume she had been dropped,” Davila said. “It was like, ‘Should I pu
sh again, or protect this spot?’
“Ultimately, it was like, ‘Relax, finish it up, and get the job done.”
As she said this to the assembled journalists at post-race press conference, Davila, retreating into her black jacket, looked like she was going to cry, big eyes ready to tear over and a puckered lower lip. She seemed more disappointed than fourth-place Hastings.
Davila didn’t come into the Trials to make the Olympic team. Davila came to the Trials to win, as she did when she came to Boston in 2011, and as she will at the Olympics in London. Anything else for her, as it was in Boston, represents failure.
In Boston, she didn’t have the legs. In Houston, she didn’t have the guts. And that’s what she’ll remember.
“I didn’t really have enough confidence in being able to catch Shalane and making another surge, and I didn’t want to lose the spot that I had,” Davila said.
Davila potentially had the fitness to challenge for the win, and when opportunity was there, lacking “confidence,” she played it safe. At this point in Davila’s career, the win is the carrot that is driving her. Her loss in Houston is something that she will ruminate on as she returns to the dirt roads of suburban Detroit in preparation for London 2012.
And then there’s Kara Goucher. RunBlogRun predicted she’d be in the hunt (Hungry Like the Wolf), and true to form, Goucher, the quintessential competitor, was in the lead pack the whole time.
Riding Flanagan and Davila’s coattails was fine with Goucher. “I never really imagined myself winning this race based on my short period of time to train for it,” she said.
Goucher endured a mid-year stress reaction. She adapted to a new coaching philosophy with the Jerry Schumacher group. And she’s the only woman in the top four that has a kid.
But it didn’t matter.
In the race, Goucher did all she needed to do and not a bit more. She let the Flanagan and Davila go, secured her spot from Hastings, and enjoyed the view. That the circumstances were allied against her didn’t matter; she’ll reenter training with momentum toward competition at the Summer Games, where, history tells us, she is most deadly.
Finally, for Hastings, she’s proven that she will emerge as a marathon powerhouse in the coming years. The 27-year-old (the youngest in the top four), in only her second race, refuted the notion of a sophomore slump, going with the moves and even making a few of her own. She will be the athlete with the steepest improvements in the coming years.
In Houston, after dropping back and nearly losing contact–again, as she’d yo-yoed with the lead pack previously–Hastings surged to the front and led a 5:25 21-mile split. “I was trying to test the waters and see where everyone was,” she said. “I was trying to see if I pushed the pace anyone would drop. It didn’t work out, but I’m fine with the way I raced.”
What is so commendable about Hastings’ performance is she did just that: she raced, as she did in her first experience with the distance at the 2011 Los Angeles marathon, where she settled for runner-up in 2:27:03.
Hastings shows a dynamic range of distances she’s able to compete in. The runner-up in the 5000m at the 2011 USATF Championships, she lopped off 34 seconds from her previous best, setting a PR of 15:14.31. She also advanced to the finals of the event at the 2011 World Championships. While her Olympic plans for the marathon may have ended, they’re favorable elsewhere.
Expanding into the top eight, there were plenty of stories from the 2012 Olympic Team Trials that will resonate over the next four years.
First, Deena Kastor is back. Running a 2:30:40 for sixth is a respectable performance from the most recent mom in the top eight. Expect to see her in a World Marathon Majors race soon, and running faster. And who knows? She might even return to the Trials track this summer, psyching out girls ten-to-fifteen years her junior.
Also, Clara Grandt, who broke 2:30 in her debut at the 2011 Boston marathon (2:29:54), confirmed that her performance bona fide by running 2:30:46 for seventh. She was the youngest athlete, at 24 years old, in the top ten. Clearly, she has a bright future ahead of her, and will emerge in the next four years as the next big thing.
Janet Cherobon-Bawcom, the 33-year-old former Kenyan who earned her citizenship in November, 2010, was the women’s x-factor going into the race, and she showed she’s not just hype, finishing an impressive fifth in 2:29:45–her first sub-2:30 result. This girl doesn’t even have a shoe sponsor.
Finally, Alissa McKaig, 25, who has previously run a pair of unremarkable races (2:37:29 in New York, 2010; 2:38:23 in Daegu for the World Champs), finally popped a good one, with her 2:31:56, eighth-place finish.
But the overarching issue is that 2012 shattered a long-standing Trials truth that will never recover.
Historically speaking, before 2012, if you are a woman and you run sub-2:30 at the Trials, you will be draped in the American flag and clearing your schedule for the end of summer. After 2012, this is no longer true. Now, you are only guaranteed top five.
And, though only time will tell, it may have even shattered the importance of that number for American women, period. Put the top-three women in a time-trial race with good conditions, like London or Berlin or Chicago, and they will go faster. 2:30 is now truly nothing but a number.
What the top five women did on January 14 may prove to be in American women’s road racing something akin to what Sammy Wanjiru did to Kenyan men’s at the 2008 Olympic marathon with his 2:06:32 Olympic record. By redefining accepted possibility, America’s corps of women marathoners is now writing their own story, and not merely following in the footstep
s of the past.
The 2012 Olympic Team Trials have showcased the revolution in American women’s running, pure and simple. Never has the U.S. been deeper in talent, showcased in the three-loop course in Houston. The women have reached a new pinnacle, and where they go in that rarified air is at their discretion. The aberrations of Kastor and Benoit-Samuelson have now filled in by this next generation, and what we have is a pack of mid-2:20s women nowhere near the peak of their talent. They will take us not only into the 2012 London Olympics, but also into a new era.
photo by PhotoRun.net
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