LOS ANGELES (12-Feb) -- On a day that will be remembered for the harsh wrath of mother nature and its crippling heat, Galen Rupp and Amy Hastings ran their way to the Rio de Janeiro Olympics here at the 2016 U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon. Rupp booked his ticket in dominating fashion, cruising to win his debut marathon in 2:11:12, while Cragg completed a pulse-pounding, drama-filled race in 2:28:20.
IN MARATHON DEBUT, RUPP SCORES SIGNATURE WIN
With temperatures soaring into the mid-70s and a blistering sun overhead, Galen Rupp ran confidently in the first marathon of his career. As he so often does on the track, the 29-year-old Nike Oregon Project athlete tucked himself into the lead pack for the first ten miles, conserving as much energy as possible. Pre-race, Rupp donned an ice vest, special cooling mittens, and a white hat. Water-soaked towels and an intentionally cut-up uniform provided the best relief as he pounded the pavement alongside America's best marathoners.
Splitting the half-marathon in a conservative 1:06:31, it was evident that no one wanted to test the conditions or the experienced field. Meb Keflezighi, attempting to make his fourth Olympic team, ran with poise, while debutante Diego Estrada pushed with exuberance. Dathan Ritzenhein, sporting the same white Nike kit as Rupp, looked content striding with the group of 20.
It was 2013 USA marathon champion Tyler Pennel who was first to surge at 25-kilometers, aggressively stringing out the field in swift fashion. The only athletes to respond were Rupp and Keflezighi, chasing down Pennel as they traversed the twisting section through the University of Southern California's campus.
"Tyler made that race. To make that move was a deciding factor," said Keflezighi. "You always know that when five guys go, three guys go, one's going to falter."
After a 4:47 17th mile, Pennel came face to face with the marathon's cruel hand. Hitting a rough patch, he'd fade out of the picture and ultimately to fifth place at the finish (2:14:57). That left Keflezighi and Rupp.
The next to face troubles was the 40 year-old Keflezighi, dealing with cramping and stomach issues. He also faced the nagging distraction of Rupp clipping his heels.
"It's not a track; the road is open," Keflezighi recalls telling Rupp during the race. "It was not a very friendly conversation."
A 4:47 split for mile-23 gave Rupp a clear lead, one that he'd build upon throughout the course's final 6-mile lap. Breaking the tape with an explosive fist pump, Rupp finished first in 2:11:12. He became the first to win the U.S. Olympic Trials in his debut marathon, and like his coach Alberto Salazar, tasted victory in his debut marathon.
"I'm just thrilled with the way the race went. It's a tremendous honor to be able to represent this country at the Olympic Games," Rupp told reporters. "I'm just thrilled with the outcome of this. To cross the line first, it was definitely difficult out there. There were a lot of great competitors and it was a tough race."
Behind Rupp an enthusiastic Keflezighi came down the final stretch waving an American flag and pumping his fist with ferocity, celebrating his runner-up 2:12:20 finish. The 23-time USA champion, a father of three, was motivated to finish on the podium for his three daughters, Sara, Fiyori and Yohana, and wife Yordanos. The family hugged just beyond the finish line.
The third and final Olympic spot went to Jared Ward, the defending national champion from Provo, Utah. He'd collapse to the ground a step across the line in 2:13:00. The conditions had taken their toll, yet couldn't wipe the smile off Ward's face.
"You know, coach (Ed Eyestone) was a tough runner," said Ward. "We train really, really fit and we run tough. At the end of the race, its tough. And, at the end of a hot marathon like that, it's the faces of my family, those people who I love, those who have invested so much in my athletic journey, that are out there popping into my face over those last 600 (meters). And trying to run like a horse and not die."
Finishing in the dreaded fourth position was Luke Puskedra in 2:14:12.
Looking ahead, Rupp confirmed his intentions to compete at next month's IAAF World Indoor Championships (should he qualify), as well as the U.S. Olympic Track Trials. At the latter competition he will attempt to qualify for Rio de Janeiro in the 5000m and 10,000m. Rupp has until July 11 to decide what events to run at the Olympics, so long he finishes in the top three in Eugene.
"The first job obviously was to qualify for this," Rupp said. "I think doubling the way the schedule is is definitely a real possibility. I think the 10,000m still might be my better event. I don't know. This is kind of an interesting build-up."
In ten years, fans will likely look back at today's race and remember the dominant fashion of Rupp's victory, as well as Keflezighi's epic swan song. But the event will also be remembered for the carnage that took out some of the best runners in America. Among those to drop out were Dathan Ritzenhein, Diego Estrada, and Sam Chelanga; both Estrada and Chelanga were making their marathon debuts.
TEAMWORK & MOTIVATION PROPELS CRAGG TO WOMEN'S TITLE
With three miles left in her second U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon, Amy Cragg had an important decision to make: stay back and rally her struggling teammate Shalane Flanagan, or charge ahead and try for victory. Cragg did a little bit of both, keeping Flanagan focused on the task at hand before powering away to the win. What resulted was a meaningful moment.
"It was a huge relief," Hastings told Race Results Weekly speaking both about her win and Flanagan's finish. "Now I just hope she's OK."
For 21 miles the women's race looked like a Bowerman Track Club training run in Portland, Ore., with Flanagan and Cragg covering step by step together far out front. Building a lead of more than a minute, the pair looked poised for a convincing victory. Thoughts of Kenny Moore and Frank Shorter's tie at the 1972 Trials came to mind -- could the pair cross the finish as one, sharing the glory?
Those visions vanished on the final six-mile loop. Flanagan, who appeared fine for much of the race, suddenly turned bright red. Cragg watched her best friend hit the marathon's wall head on, and became increasingly worried about her well-being.
Earlier in the race, Flanagan had provided verbal support for a hurting Cragg, assuring her that they'd work together to make sure both could be 2016 Olympians. Now it was Cragg's turn to return the favor.
Looking in Flanagan's direction step after step, Cragg barked words of encouragement. The pace slowed to a crawling 6:05 split between mile 24 and 25, with Cragg refusing to leave Flanagan's shoulder. Together they'd make it within two kilometers of the finish, all the while a fast-closing Desiree Linden came into the picture.
Cragg left Flanagan behind only after turning around to see Linden and Kara Goucher approaching. Her husband Alistair Cragg screamed what the gap was from the sidelines, furthering her decision to go. She did so with hesitancy at first.
"It was incredibly tough [to leave Shalane]," Hastings told RRW. "I was so nervous for her at that point. She didn't look good, she just didn't look good. I was really nervous."
Rebounding from a heart-breaking fourth place finish at the 2012 Trials, Cragg cranked the tempo up a notch and won going away in 2:28:20. A second after celebrating, she turned to see if Flanagan could make it.
Despite losing a spot to Linden, Flanagan would qualify for her fourth Olympic team by finishing third in 2:29:19. In a television interview with NBC, Flanagan described Cragg as a saving grace.
"She is the epitome of what a best friend is," Flanagan told Lewis Johnson, slightly slurring her words with a bag of ice on her neck. "Sweet Baby Jesus I'm so thankful for that."
Flanagan sought medical attention following the race, and was unable to speak to the media at the race's press conference. She did speak with USATF's Jill Geer, who relayed the following message from Flanagan:
"That was the hardest marathon I've probably run in terms of the last six miles being the hardest. I just got done getting an I.V. I've never had one of those before. Clearly it took it's toll on me today and I had to fight to just make the team. I can only say it was just the heat, but I think I need to work on better fluid for the heat and conditions. I'll have to work on that for Rio as well."
Linden's finish was also meaningful considering her first Olympics were cut short when she dropped out of the race due to injury.
"That was the toughest 26.2 ever," said Linden, whose time was 2:28:54. "It was absolutely a grind out there. It was a mental battle... It worked out. I just stayed tough and kept looking up, and am super happy to be on another team. You can't take these teams for granted at all. I'm thrilled to get to put on another USA uniform."
Fourth place went to an emotional Kara Goucher, running tough all the way through the finish in 2:30:24. Finishing fifth for the second consecutive Marathon Trials was Janet Bawcom (2:31:14), and Kellyn Taylor was sixth (2:32:50). The top-5 women were the same as in the 2012 Trials in Houston, with the order revised. Bawcom was fifth in both races.
A total of 166 men and 198 women started the USA Olympic Marathon Trials, with only 105 and 149 finishing, respectively.
Gary Morgan Reports From the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials in. L.A.
Alberto Salazar, coach of Marathon Trials winner, Galen Rupp
Visibly Crushed by her fourth place finish
Watching Desi Linden's second place finish was riveting.
Meb Keflezighi's Coach Bob Larsen
Bob Larsen has been with Meb a long time and was never worried
Just like old man river Meb Keflezighi keeps rolling on.
Women's Marathon Winner
3rd in the USA Olympic Trials Marathon