It was hot! With apologies to Jimmy Buffett, “We spent four busy days in a bright LA haze and we just want to be back on our side (of the country).”
When we established the ASICS Greenville Track Club-ELITE post-collegiate, Olympic development program in July of 2012 one of our goals was to have our athletes qualify for the USA Olympic Team Trials. We achieved that goal with four athletes, two men and two women, qualifying for the marathon by running under the qualifying standards at the half marathon distance. Americans could qualify by running a marathon under 2:19:00 for men and under 2:45:00 for women, OR by running under 1:05 and 1:15:00 for men and women respectively.
Although I was previously not in favor of having an athlete qualify with the half-marathon performance, I grew to accept it’s legitimacy when Ricky Flynn joined our program in December of 2013. Ricky had qualified for the 2012 Olympic Trials marathon by running a 1:03:44 half marathon. Then he ran his first, and only, marathon at the 2012 OMT in Houston, TX. Not only did he prove that he could finish a marathon, he actually placed 12th overall with an excellent time of 2:13:41.
In this current Olympic quadrennial, we planned for Ricky to meet the “B” standard (which is for those qualifying by half marathon or running between 2:15:00 and 2:19:00 over the marathon distance for men) by running the Garry Bjorklund Half Marathon in Duluth, MN in June 2014. As planned he qualified there with a sub-1:05:00 (1:04:50) performance.
At our team retreat in Maggie Valley, NC during late August, we discussed our individual goals and left thinking that we might have one or two of our newer members attempt to qualify via the half-marathon route. The potential candidates each were successful at the 5 and 10K distances in college, but had the ability to move up in distance.
So, in early September I began looking for possible half marathons that offered the possibility to run fast in a competitive field. There are not as many opportunities as one would think. And two of our women had never run a competitive race longer than the 10K—less than half the distance of the half marathon. One potential opportunity was the Jacksonville Bank Half Marathon in Florida. However, the event’s featured distance was the marathon. With a call to Richard Clark Fannin, who coordinates the elite athletes for the prestigious Gate River 15K, we discussed putting together a small group of elites to pursue the OT qualifying standards.
The rest is history. RCF did a magician’s job of attracting over 110 athletes to participate in what he named the Olympic Trials Marathon Project. And on a cool and raining early January morning over 41 men and women athletes qualified for the 2016 USA Olympic Team Trials marathon in Los Angeles, CA.
On a Wednesday in mid February six of us departed 25-degree temperatures in Greenville and arrived in LA to a very warm 80-degree day. Our group included Ricky Flynn, Mark Leininger, Dylan Hassett, Nicole DiMercurio, Coach Laura Caldwell and myself. Of the four athletes, only Ricky had completed a marathon. While experiencing the very warm conditions, we were pleased that we had brought our 32 special fluid bottles for Saturday’s race.
While waiting for our bags at LAX we were greeted by Elkanah Kibet, who won last year’s TD Bank Reedy River Run 10K and had later run his first marathon in Chicago in 2:11. He told me that he had been heat-training n Arizona and hoped it would be hot so that he had a better chance of making the Olympic Team.
On Thursday, we checked in at USATF and the athletes received their welcome packets before going through the process of checking each apparel item that would be worn on race day. That included tops, bottoms, hats, warm-up items and T-shirts. Besides a small manufactures’ logo, each item could only have a small (40cm2) team/club logo displayed. To assist us our apparel sponsor, ASICS, had provide new tops, bottoms and hats for our four athletes. With LA’s intense sunshine, hats would be necessary to help limit their body temperatures on Saturday.
Then it was a drive down the course to Expo Park and the famous LA Coliseum and the USC campus (that’s University of Southern California for readers from the state of SC). While we attempted to decipher the course maps, the sun beat down upon runners from all over the country and many told their personal stories of how cold it was when they left their homes to come to LA. Almost everyone expressed their concern over the 10:06 am (men) and 10:22 am (women) starting times for the race. As we would be informed on multiple occasions, it was because NBC would be covering the event live for the first time in history and that it would be good preparation for the Olympics in Rio, Brazil. Following the business portion of the morning, we drove to Santa Monica for lunch at the famous Dogtown Coffee and then a visit to the beach. We might as well acclimate to the heat.
Thursday night we attended the Athletes/Sponsors dinner at the California Science Center and had dinner beneath the Endeavor Space Shuttle, which hangs from the ceiling in a very large room. Between reading about details regarding the construction of the aircraft, we mingled with the other coaches and athletes with some entertaining musical artists. Soon to be four-time Olympian Meb Keflezighi welcomed everyone, as did some of the USATF leadership.
Friday’s itinerary included our women runners being interviewed for a film documentary about the pack of women who qualified at the Jax Bank Half Marathon. We hope to see videographer Wendy Shulik’s final version in the near future and may have a showing at a future Greenville Track Club meeting. While the women were being interviewed, Ricky and Mark were eating breakfast at the athletes’ hospitality room and then Ricky received treatment for a nagging leg injury.
Laura and I attended to labeling and beginning to fill our fluid bottles, which would be placed on eight carefully selected tables along the course. We had decided to use a mixture of gels and water for LA. Our great friends at Run In Greenville had given us a variety of GU products for this endeavor and it was much appreciated. While Laura and I worked on the bottles many of the other elite athletes joined the process and also went through uniform check-in.
It was good to see and talk with Galen Rupp, who is the USA’s best current distance runner. As a former Portland, OR, resident, I had known and followed Galen since his high school days. He told me he was ready to go in his first attempt at the marathon. From his confident works and smile, I immediately made him my pre-race favorite to make the USA team of three. I had already selected Meb as one of those three despite his age of 40. In the marathon experience usually is a high success factor.
Luke Puskedra came into the room with his wife and young child and almost immediately asked if he could take a full case of bottle water as he would need all of it. That’s 24 bottles of water, but he is one of the tallest competitors in LA for the trials. Also, arriving was Jared Ward. He had won last year’s ASICS LA Marathon on the Stadium to the Sea course, and had shown that he could run well in the heated conditions that could prevail again in LA. I decided to add him to my short list of the three favorites.
After our athletes had completed their pre-race shakeout runs, we completed our fluid bottle preparation and delivered them to the “fluid control” room. Each athlete signed in, presented their bottles for storage, and were instructed on how the process would work. With over 400 entrants (since the men and women would be running at the same time) this was the most ambitious fluid distribution process in history. Remember, each athlete would have up to eight of their own special bottles along the course with only eight bottles or less on any given table. That is a lot of tables.
Friday afternoon we attended the mandatory Technical Meeting, at which every detail was addressed; from what time breakfast would open and close to possible drug testing and processing in the event you were one of the top five finishers in Saturday’s races.
The most time was spent on reviewing the course. It would begin with a 2.2 mile loop going north amongst the tall buildings of downtown LA and then proceed with four six-mile loops which ran up and down Figuoria Street and through the USC campus and adjacent to the LA Coliseum. After the first smaller loop, there would be very little shade.
Saturday arrived and so did the sun. Unfortunately for us, Ricky’s leg injury had not healed enough to attempt to run. So it was just Mark and I as we walked from our hotel to the starting area about a mile away. We used the time to once again discuss race strategy. While we had believed he was ready to run between 2:16 and 2:20, we decided to be very conservative since the sun was already heating the sidewalks and roads. With reluctance, we decided to begin well off our former pacing plans.
As Laura walked with Dylan and Nicole, they discussed similar strategies. Since Laura had experienced multiple Olympic marathon trials her advice should have been golden. We were not allowed in the athletes’ warm-up area, but had our own coaches’ box next to that space. The crowds were large and noisy. We could not hear on our phones and were too busy to return many of the texts from friends and supporters. As one would expect in LA, the start was an exciting production. Almost every athlete was cheered as a celebrity, much like the musicians that would be in the same area for the Grammy’s on only two days later.
Following the excitement of the men’s start at 10:06 the women assembled in the holding area to await the men’s completion of the 2.2-mile loop. About 12 minutes later the men completed the loop and crossed the starting line for the second time. Mark had followed instructions and was fourth from last in the field of the country’s best distance runners.
At 10:22 the women began their quest to make the Olympic Team. Laura and I made our way, with some other coaching friends, to see our athletes along the long stretches of Figuoria. When Dylan and Nicole passed us they were not too far behind the lead pack, but running much faster than we had wanted them to do. In our training plan we had estimated that both could definitely run sub-2:40 and possibly a few minutes faster, even though it was their first attempt at the marathon. However, the recently predicted high temperatures had changed those plans. We wanted them to adjust to run 15-20 seconds slower per mile. But by five miles they were close to 6:00 pace, which fueled our fears.
The men’s race developed into a large front pack, which included ASICS Furman Elite’s Wilkerson Given, a 2013 Furman grad, who had also qualified via the half marathon and would be running his first full one. Wilkerson is known to run with the lead pack for as long as possible and that was very true again.
We also had some other interesting stories within the race. Nicole’s boyfriend, Tyler Pennel of Reebok/ZAP Elite, was a potential favorite. Tyler was definitely a contender and ran strong up at the front. As predicted, Meb was always there as was Galen Rupp.
However, behind the lead pack the runners had begun to string out. The blazing sun was already having an affect on a huge number of highly trained athletes. The 5:00-5:10 per mile pace that many of them had planned to run was just too much to sustain in such conditions.
The women’s pack was broken when Bowerman Track Club teammate Shalane Flanagan and Amy Cragg pushed the pace and opened an ever-widening gap as they completed the first two of the four six-mile loops. HOKA Northern Arizona Elite’s Kellyn Taylor looked solid in third. However, it is a marathon and it can be cruel.
Just after 25K, Pennel decided to drop the pace and covered the 17th mile in 4:47. Meb and Rupp followed. Ward ran a very hard 4:50, but managed to stay in contention. Tyler’s lead grew to a reported 40 meters, but was to be short-lived as Meb and Galen reeled him in and began a two-man battle. It wasn’t a battle for long as Rupp’s sub-27:00 10K talent took the toll on the aging fan-favorite. Rupp would go on to victory in his debut marathon (qualifying with via the half marathon proves positive again) running 2:11:12. Meb would follow in second in 2:12:20 to make his 4th Olympic team.
The surge after 25K had broken the pack, but it also may have been the undoing for Tyler Pennel. It was a gutsy move, but both a hard charging Ward and Puskedra passed him as they placed third and fourth. As a side note, it may be that fatherhood was the difference as the top four finishers are all proud fathers.
Wilkerson Given had remained in the lead pack through 25K, but attempting that pace had exhausted his energy stores and he faded to 54th place over the final brutal miles. Another gutsy effort and a final time of 2:27:50, but losing over 16 minutes to Rupp over the final ten miles.
Mark Leininger, seeded 115th, had followed our strategy well. Although running much slower than we had desired before arriving in LA, he gradually moved up through the field. He placed 60th with a time of 2:28:17. So our two representatives from Greenville finished with 30 seconds of each other—with completely opposite strategies. There are many ways to skin the cat.
While the women’s race became very interesting as Shalane began to experience the negative effects of the conditions, Desi Linden began to make her move and looked strong. She had passed Taylor , and was also holding her lead on everybody’s favorite Kara Goucher. Amy Cragg attempted to motivate and assist her teammate Flanagan, but realized Linden was closing the gap. Cragg then used her strength to pull away from Shalane and earn the $80,000 first prize and the first spot on the Olympic Team. What a difference from four years ago, when she placed a devastating fourth as Amy Hastings. The top five women were the same top five finishers from 2012, although in a different order. Linden was now second and Flanagan third with Goucher fourth this time and just missing another Olympic Team.
Our ASICS GTC-ELITE women were learning the harshness of the marathon. Nicole passed halfway in 1:20:47, which was still a very good effort for the conditions. However, the last six miles which she had been warned about were every bit as bad as advertised. She managed to finish in 2:52:10 for 82nd place. Dylan also experienced the wall after passing the half in 1:21:08. She struggled, but finished in 113th place with a time of 2:58:46. Both women will run much faster in their future careers.
As many of our coaching friends commented after the race, “It was carnage out there.” Each elite training group or program had gone to extreme planning and details to prepare their athletes for these trials. However the heat had taken its toll on most.
As we collected our athletes and gear in the athletes restricted area following the races, I saw Elkanah Kibet, who had placed 19thst, lying by bags of ice. He looked up at me and said, “Mike, it was very, very, very hot.”
Mike Caldwell is director/coach of ASICS Greenville Track Club-ELITE. This blog was originally written for and published in the Spring 2016 issue of PACE Running Magazine.