By Jim Ferstle
"American marathoning has really improved," said Team USA Minnesota coach Dennis Barker after observing the Olympic Trials races in Houston last Saturday. The US will be sending its best, a strong contingent of both men and women to the London 2012 Olympics. A team that has the potential to contend for medals against the African juggernaut, Kenya, that dominated the marathon competition in 2011 and at the 2011 IAAF World Championships.
Barker was impressed at how the two pre-race favorites, Ryan Hall in the men's race, and Desi Davilla in the women's, took control from the start and pushed the early pace. The end result being that both the men's and women's races did not deteriorate into slow, tactical battles, but became races of attrition where only those who could tolerate a pace fitting of an Olympic final were in the mix for the spots on the team. The pace not only prepared those who earned spots on the team for what the race is likely to be like in London, but more importantly, it forced "darkhorse contenders" for a spot on the team, such as Team USA Minnesota's Andrew Carlson, Jason Lehmkuhle, Matt Gabrielson, and Katie MacGregor, to run "right at the red line from the gun," said Barker.
"Matt was standing right behind Ryan Hall on the starting line," said Barker. "When the race began Hall took off. By the first turn Hall was already 40 yards ahead(of Gabrielson). Our guys weren't going into the race to run 2:12, 2:13. They were running for a spot on the team. To do that (because of Hall's rocket start where the lead group came through the half on 2:06 pace) they had to run often outside their comfort zone."
Carlson and Lehmkuhle were both on 2:09 pace through 20 miles and hoping to both survive and/or be able to pick up those in front of them if the early pace was too fast. "No great performance is without risk," said Barker. And Hall put them all at risk--the four in the lead pack(Hall, Meb Keflezighi, Abdi Abdirahman, and Dathan Ritzenhein), but none of them broke completely under the strain. Gabrielson was on 2:11 pace in a grou behind the chase pack. He faced the unenviable and, as the race went on, unlikely task of having to catch both the chase pack and the lead pack for a team spot.Carlson and Lehmkuhle were in the chase pack about a minute and 40 seconds behind the frontrunners.
In the trials for the 2008 team in New York, Lehmkuhle was in a similar spot at the same point in the race. He, along with eventual third place finisher in that race, Brian Sell, were nearly the same distance behind a lead second group that included both Meb and Abdi. Sell was able to close the gap and make the team. Jason beat both Abdi and Meb to finish fifth. It didn't happen that way this time. The "wheels" came off for Lehmkuhle at around 22 miles, Barker said, and it was Carlson's drive to the finish that was most effective, landing the debutant marathoner in sixth place.
"At 20 miles Andrew said: 'I don't think I can make it.' (to Lehmkuhle)," said Barker. "His hamstrings were starting to tighten up on him. Jason told him to relax, and not panic. Two miles later coming out of a corner at around 22 miles, Jason(who had been feeling strong until then) suddenly felt 'Like I couldn't run anymore.'( Lemkuhle said). That's the way the marathon is when you're running on the red line."
It can change suddenly, without warning, for better or worse. Carlson felt better and was able to finish strong. Lemkuhle could not. Similar scenariio for MacGregor, Barker noted, as she was right on the red line for her with the lead pack cranking off 5:30 miles, but when they dropped them into the 5:20s it was too much for MacGregor. "I was really impressed with (Kara) Goucher," he said. "Before the race she didn't appear all that confident and said that she thought she could run 2:25/ 2:26." She hoped that is what it took to make the team.
Goucher's red line got crossed when the pace dropped into the low 5:22s, but Kara was able to hold on during those fast miles, sensing that eventual fourth place finisher Amy Hastings was also having trouble handling that speed. Goucher told herself to hang on, get a gap on Hastings, hoping that she could then slow down to 5:30 per mile pace and make it to the finish. It worked, and she made the team, but it illustrates just how fine a line one treads in these situations.
"The best runners were there(in the mix for the spots on the team), and they ran great," said Barker. "Most people expected the (men's) race to be like 2008 when they went out conservatively, running around 5 minute pace from the start. This year the best people were there, they were ready to race, and they ran great. It's a fearless team (that we're sending to London)."
For Team USA Minnesota the preparation went well. The three guys prepared as best they could, said Baker. He took pages from Buddly Edelen's training and Paul Tergat's. "They both set world records about 40 years apart, but their training was really pretty similar. Tergat rested more so he was able to train faster, but otherwise there wasn't much difference in what they did." The three guys came through it all injury free and gave it their best shot on race day.
Talking to the guys afterward, Barker noted that they all felt prepared. "We covered all the bases," he said. One had a great performance, the other two did not. A 33% success rate, but Barker notes: "Just once I'd like it to get it right for everybody."