2016 Men’s U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials Preview: Meet The 20 Men Who Have A Shot At Going To The Olympics If Any Of The “Big 3” Falter

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Meet The 20 Longshots & The Men on the Bubble Who Will Make Saturday’s Race A Must-Watch Event

By LetsRun.com
February 10, 2016

After four years of waiting, the 2016 U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials are almost upon us. On Saturday, the top marathoners in the United States of America will assemble outside the Staples Center in Los Angeles and begin a 26.2-mile journey that, for three men and three women, will culminate with a plane ticket to Rio de Janeiro and a spot on the United States team for the Games of the XXXI Olympiad.

We’ll have plenty of coverage on the Trials all week long on LetsRun.com. Our previews begin today with a first look at the men’s race. Everyone already knows about the Big 3 – Ritz, Rupp and Meb – guys so accomplished full names aren’t even needed. If they run up to their capabilities, they will almost certainly be your three Olympians. But a lot can happen in a marathon and if one or more of them falters, then others will make the Olympics.

Since the Big 3 will get a ton of publicity, we want to start our coverage by focusing on the other guys. This article covers the rest of the field – well at least those we think have any shot of making it – everyone from the truly long shots to the men who could realistically make the team with a great race and/or a slightly off day by the favorites. Later, we’ll look at the three favorites in the men’s race. On the women’s side, we’ll also do an article on “those with a chance” and then another one on the favorites.

Below, we tell you what you need to know to follow the races this weekend before digging into our analysis. But before you read the preview, enter our free prediction contest: LRC LetsRun.com Running Warehouse $200,016 Marathon Trials Prediction Contest.

What: 2016 U.S. Olympic Team Trials — Marathon

Where: Los Angeles, California

When: Saturday, February 13. Men’s race begins at 1:06 p.m. ET; women’s race begins at 1:22 p.m. ET.

How to watch: NBC will broadcast both races live beginning at 1:00 p.m. ET. You can also stream the races online or on your mobile device via NBC Sports Live Extra.

Prize money (same for men and women)
1st $80,000    2nd $65,000    3rd $55,000
4th $25,000   5th $20,000     6th $15,000
7th $13,000    8th $11,000      9th $9,000
10th $7,000

LRC Olympic Trials coverage * Full list of entries * Official race website

Course map

olympic-trial-course-map-v2e

Click on image for larger image

On the Verge of Greatness: Guys Who Could Make the Team with a Truly Great Race (or If One or More of the Favorites Fail To Deliver)

Luke Puskedra — Nike, 26 years old, 2:10:24 pb (2015 Chicago), 61:29 half
Last two marathons: 5th, 2015 Chicago (2:10:24); 6th 2015 Grandma’s (2:15:27)

Puskedra first hinted at his tremendous marathon potential when he ran a 61:36 half marathon during his senior year at Oregon in 2012. His marathon debut in New York in 2014 did not go well (36th in 2:28:54) and almost caused him to quit the sport, but after reuniting with college coach Andy Powell last year, Puskedra began training again and ran the fastest marathon by an American in 2015, 2:10:24 in Chicago.

Puskedra was fortunate that Chicago stopped using rabbits last year. Instead of winding up in no-man’s-land when the rabbits took off at 2:04 pace, Puskedra could hang with the more conservative lead pack, which dragged him to a 2:10. That’s not to discount Puskedra’s performance at all; we’re merely pointing out that the opportunity to run well was there and Puskedra seized it with both hands.

Puskedra has come a long way since his 2:28 debut in New York in 2014

Puskedra has come a long way since his 2:28 debut in New York in 2014

And it’s on the strength of that performance that we’ll make the case that Puskedra is the most likely guy from outside the Big Three (Meb, Ritz and Rupp) to crash the party and head to Rio. Below is a list of the fastest marathons by Americans since the last Olympic Trials.

1. 2:07:47 Dathan Ritzenhein (2012 Chicago)
2. 2:08:37 Meb Keflezighi (2014 Boston)
3. 2:09:45 Dathan Ritzenhein (2013 Chicago)
4. 2:10:24 Luke Puskedra (2015 Chicago)
5. 2:10:52 Jeffrey Eggleston (2014 Gold Coast)
6. 2:10:57 Ryan Vail (2014 London)
7. 2:11:06 Meb Keflezighi (2012 Olympics)
8. 2:11:20 Dathan Ritzenhein (2015 Boston)
8. 2:11:20 Bobby Curtis (2014 Chicago)
10. 2:11:31 Elkanah Kibet (2015 Chicago)

Outside of Ritz and Meb, Puskedra and Kibet are the ones who stand to improve the most; Puskedra is the youngest by far (at 26, he’s almost four years younger than Vail) and Kibet was limited in training by his Army responsibilities (see below). Puskedra also has the benefit of running well recently; Kibet and Ritz are the only other Americans who broke 2:12 in 2015. While some coaches — Kevin Hanson in particular — would argue that running a fall marathon before a February Trials doesn’t leave an athlete with enough room to recover and raises the risk of injury, Puskedra seems to be doing fine as he ran a personal best of 61:29 for the half marathon in Houston on January, clobbering the next American in the race by over a minute.

While some on the messageboards wondered if Puskedra ran too fast too close to the Trials, Puskedra is not concerned (“believe it or not, I wanted to actually run a faster time,” he told Runner’s World) and neither are we: four weeks is enough time to recover from a half marathon.

LRC Verdict: To us, it’s a simple formula: fast marathon pb + fast half marathon pb + good recent fitness = a good shot to make the team in Rio. Puskedra may not have the marathon experience of Meb or Ritz or the raw talent of Rupp, but he’s got the right skill set for the marathon and is riding a wave of confidence. He doesn’t need anyone to make a big mistake on Saturday: if he runs his best race, and one of the Big 3 slips up a little, he’ll be on the team to Rio.

Elkanah Kibet — U.S. Army WCAP, 32 years old, 2:11:31 pb (2015 Chicago), 64:01 half
Last marathon: 7th, 2015 Chicago (2:11:31)

Kibet wasn't on anyone's radar a year ago but his run in Chicago changed that

Kibet wasn’t on anyone’s radar a year ago but his run in Chicago changed that

Kibet’s 2:11:31 in Chicago last year was overshadowed by the performance of Puskedra, but that doesn’t mean he should be overlooked in Los Angeles. He spent the last four years balancing running with his military commitments in the U.S. Army — including a tour in Iraq and Kuwait from June 2014 to March 2015 — but was accepted into the Army’s World Class Athlete Program (WCAP) after Chicago which has given him much more freedom to train. He moved to Colorado Springs in December but since January has been training under James Li in Tucson, Ariz. (he will return to Colorado after the Trials).

Kibet was logging 120 miles per week in Colorado and has been in the 100-110 range since relocating to Tucson. And now that he has strong training partners such as Sam Chelanga and Stephen Sambu to push him and time to focus totally on recovery between runs (as opposed to sandwiching his runs around his work schedule), Kibet feels stronger and faster than he did before Chicago last fall.

“I feel confident,” Kibet told LetsRun on Monday. “I wake up and I tell myself, I am ready. I know there are a lot of competitive guys, but I tell myself I’m ready.”

Kibet says that unlike Chicago, where his goal was to run 2:10, in LA he’s focused solely on making the team, which means hanging with the leaders for as long as possible. Kibet’s track record is short — prior to Chicago, his best performance was a 64:01 half marathon in 2012 — but his 2:11 on its own is reason to consider him a contender at the Trials. When you factor in that he has a greater potential for improvement than almost anyone at the Trials, Kibet has one of the best chances to make the team among guys on the bubble.

LRC Verdict: The change in training plans and a full-time focus on running likely will likely result in either a big breakthrough or big disappointment (might he have overtrained now that he’s only been running). A big improvement from 2:11 should make the Big 3 nervous.

For more on Kibet’s story, check out our October 2015 profile of him here: LRC For The Love Of Running: How Elkanah Kibet Went From A Deployment In Iraq To 2:11:31 At The Chicago Marathon In Less Than A Year

Jared Ward — Saucony, 27 years old, 2:12:56 pb (2015 Los Angeles), 61:42 half
Last two marathons: 3rd 2015 Los Angeles (2:12:56); 2nd 2014 Twin Cities (2:14:00)

Ward is a guy who has slowly been building momentum since graduating from BYU in 2014. In October 2014, Ward ran 2:14:00 in his second career marathon to finish second at Twin Cities (which doubled as the U.S. Champs that year), 28 seconds behind Tyler Pennel. In his first race of 2015, he busted out a 61:42 half marathon to finish second in the U.S. Champs in that event as well and he followed that up two months later by earning his first U.S. title, running a personal-best 2:12:56 at the LA Marathon (which doubled as the U.S. Champs), finishing third overall and over three minutes ahead of the next American. Ward, who is coached by two-time Olympic marathoner Ed Eyestone, tacked on wins at the U.S. 25k Champs (in May) and the U.S. 20k Champs (in September) to cap a banner year.

Ward’s 2:12:56 pb may not look like much stacked up to Ritz’s 2:07:47, Meb’s 2:08:37 or even Puskedra’s 2:10:24. However, Ward ran that on a day when temperatures rose into the 70s and 80s; Weather.com currently forecasts the high in Los Angeles on Saturday as 80 degrees, and with a local start time of 10:06 a.m., it’s going to be warm throughout the race. So Ward’s experience in the heat should help him.

Ward’s most recent race (a 63:47 half marathon at the Dallas Marathon Duo to Rio Relay) was solid, especially considering he likely was not going all-out. Even if it’s hot again, a 2:12:56 might not be good enough to get him on the team to Rio, but if he can continue his trend of improving every marathon, he’ll be one of the guys ready to pounce if someone like Ritz or Meb falters.

LRC Verdict: Ward was on fire on the U.S. road circuit in 2015. That being said, dominating the U.S. road circuit and making the Olympic team are two different animals as the Olympic-level talents only sporadically even bother to compete on the U.S. road circuit. We know why many will be tempted to pick Ward in our Olympic Trials prediction contest but we urge you to be cautious. 2:12:56 is a long way away from the 2:10-type effort it will likely take (at a minimum) to make the team.

Bobby Curtis — Hansons-Brooks Distance Project, 31 years old, 2:11:20 pb (2014 Chicago), 61:53 half
Last two marathons: 
DNF 2014 Fukuoka; 9th 2014 Chicago (2:11:20)

Curtis will be looking to make his first Olympic team on the streets of Los Angeles

Curtis will be looking to make his first Olympic team on the streets of Los Angeles. Photo courtesy Brooks.

When Curtis is on his game, he’s one of the finest distance runners in the United States. In the past five years, only one American has run faster than his 27:24 10,000 personal best — Galen Rupp. Curtis doesn’t have that track speed anymore as he has transitioned to the marathon full-time (he was 17th in the 10,000 at USAs last year) but he was second at USA XC last year — ahead of Dathan Ritzenhein and Ben True, among others — and his 2:11:20 in Chicago in 2014 (the last marathon he finished) was definitely a step in the right direction.

When we spoke with Curtis’ coach Kevin Hanson last month, he said that Curtis’ LA buildup has been the best of any that he’s done since joining the Hansons-Brooks group in 2013 and now that Curtis has experience and belief in the system, Hanson believes his pupil is better prepared than ever for the 26.2-mile distance.

Curtis hasn’t raced recently (he DNF’d the Philly Rock ‘n’ Roll Half in October due to injury; before that, his last race was 4th at the Peachtree Road Race in July) but Hanson is okay with that, believing that the absence of a fall marathon means that Curtis won’t be as susceptible to injury. If Curtis has made the leap that Hanson anticipates, he should be in the thick of things in LA (he’s gone from 2:16:44 at 2011 NYC to 2:13:24 at 2013 Fukuoka to 2:11:20 at 2014 Chicago in the three marathons he’s finished).

LRC Verdict: 27:24 is quite fast – 7th fastest in US history – so he’s certainly got the talent to do it. The question really becomes, “Is he a marathoner or simply a 10,000 guy who wants to be a marathoner?” If it’s the latter, we blame it on his height. As we’ve pointed out before, there aren’t very many six-foot-tall elite marathoners and Curtis is six feet – MB: Fastest Marathoners over six feet tall (1.83m or taller). If you are a Curtis fan, don’t let his height discourage you, Luke Puskedra is way taller – 6’4″ (1.93m) and Curtis is actually only 1.82m – so one centimeter under our arbitrary cutoff.

Diego Estrada — Asics, 26 years old, 60:51 half
Marathon debut

Diego Estrada wins the 2015 USA Half-Marathon Championships in Houston in 1:00:51 in his debut at the distance (photo by David Monti for Race Results Weekly)

Diego Estrada wins the 2015 USA Half-Marathon Championships in Houston in 1:00:51. (photo by David Monti for Race Results Weekly)

Estrada stamped himself as a prospect to watch with his dominant 60:51 victory in his first serious half marathon at last year’s U.S. Champs in Houston; one year later, he’s stepping up to make his debut at the full distance. And Estrada wants to make one thing clear: he’s planning on making this move permanent.

“I want to be a marathoner more than anything,” Estrada told LetsRun on Monday. “I’ve already made an Olympic team (for Mexico in the 10,000 in 2012) and I’d love to make one for the U.S. just to feel like more of an Olympian, but I want to be a marathoner and I’m trying to convince my coach that’s the route I want to take. I want to have his 100% support on it, so I want to do a good job [in Los Angeles].”

Estrada said he’s managed to do 95% of what his coach Joe Vigil has asked of him in this buildup. His training has not differed significantly from what he has done in years past as a 10k/half marathon runner, though he has sustained high mileage (for Estrada, that’s 100 miles per week) for two months. That’s less than some of the other contenders in LA, but Estrada is okay with that.

“It’s not that I’m a lazy person, it’s just me and Coach both agree that I have found more success running a lower volume of miles and just focusing on quality runs,” Estrada said.

In the beginning, that meant a lot of work at marathon pace (4:55/mile, roughly 2:09 marathon pace) and early on, those sessions felt like “cake” to Estrada.

“What’s a 4:55 mile if you’ve been running on the track under 13:20 [for 5k]?”

But as he’s added volume, it’s gradually become more difficult. Still, Estrada has managed to run around three quality sessions per week, mostly tempos or long intervals at marathon pace plus a long run with a good chunk at marathon pace. Notably, on his 26th birthday, Estrada decided to run 26 miles, with the middle 20 at marathon pace.

Afterward, he realized that sharing the result on Twitter may not have been the best idea — it creates high expectations and adds pressure. But Estrada understands that it’s not about the workouts; it’s about what he does on Saturday.

“Workouts [can] go well [but] there’s outside factors that go into the race,” Estrada said. “For instance in LA, the temperature is gonna be warmer than what I would like for my debut so I might not run as fast as that workout…When life throws something at you on a set day where you have to show up and you have to go on that day, it’s a little difficult sometimes.”

LRC Verdict: Estrada has the right attitude and his PBs (27:30/60:51, both run in 2015) suggest that his potential in the marathon is strong. His tuneup race (63:28 half in Houston on January 17) did not go well, though he’s not overly worried about that fact as he said he was not 100% in that race, declining to go into specifics. Estrada could very well make an Olympic marathon team in the future, but it’s still a lot to ask of someone in his debut.

Sam Chelanga — Nike, 30 years old, 61:04 half
Marathon debut

Sam Chelanga (left) edges Tyler Pennel at the finish line of the 2015 .US 12-K National Road Racing Championships in Alexandria, Va.; both men were timed in 34:35 (photo by Jane Monti for Race Results Weekly)

Chelanga picked up two U.S. titles last year on the roads; here he outkicked Tyler Pennel for the 12k Championship in November (photo by Jane Monti for Race Results Weekly)

Chelanga’s credentials at the shorter distances are nearly impeccable. His PRs are 13:04, 27:08 and 61:04; Galen Rupp is the only American in history to have run faster in all three events. Chelanga also won two NCAA XC titles while at Liberty University. Granted, he’s a few years removed from those accomplishments (his 10k best is from 2010, his HM from 2013 and his 5k from January 2014), but he put together a strong second half of 2015 as well. In July, Chelanga finished as the top American at the Falmouth Road Race just days after earning his U.S. citizenship before finishing 2nd, 4th, 1st and 1st in the U.S. 20k, 5k, 10-mile and 12k championships, respectively (he ran 63:47 to finish with Ward at the Duo to Rio Relay at the Dallas Marathon, though that was not an all-out effort).

Everything in the previous paragraph suggests Chelanga has the potential to become a great marathoner, and he feels pleased with how his buildup for the Trials has gone.

“I think I couldn’t do anything better than I have done so far,” Chelanga told LetsRun over the phone on Monday.

Chelanga stayed in Tucson, Ariz., for the duration of the buildup, training with Abdi Abdirahman (before an injury caused him to withdraw), Stephen Sambu and, for the last month, with 2:11 man (and fellow Trials hopeful) Elkanah Kibet. Chelanga and his coach, James Li, have taken a cautious approach to the buildup, stressing quality over quantity. Chelanga has averaged between 80 and 100 miles a week but said “we didn’t pay attention to the mileage.” If Chelanga’s body told him that he’d be better served by resting rather than adding a double session, he’d take the rest of that day off, choosing instead to focus on his quality days: a medium long run of 14 to 16 miles, a traditional long run of 18 or more (he got up to a long of 24) run at a moderate pace (between 5:40 and 6:00/mile) and plenty of tempo runs.

Chelanga has reached out to a few other runners, including Abdi, about what to expect. What has he learned? There is no formula for success in the marathon. Different stuff works for different runners, and as a result Chelanga is making sure to weight all of his decisions — both in training and on race day — very carefully.

“I like to race close to the front but in this one I have to be very careful because I just don’t know what happens when you get past, say 15 miles,” Chelanga said. “I’ve only raced 13.1 so I don’t know exactly what’s going to happen. I’m very, very cautious about this.”

After waiting five years to become a citizen, Chelanga is simply excited to get the chance to race for a spot on the Olympic team.

“You can call me the underdog or [a] nobody, I’m not even going to take offense,” Chelanga said. “It’s fine. I’m not thinking like ‘I’ve gotta go win.’ The marathon is a different animal. Be careful how you tackle it, whatever [place] you get, be thankful. I appreciate more the opportunity to take a shot at it than the outcome. That will take care of itself.”

LRC Verdict: Given his talent, we’re certainly not calling Chelanga a nobody. Chelanga should be a formidable presence in the lead pack and on his best day, he’s certainly got a shot to make the team. However, his ‘cautious approach’ suggests that a top three spot might be slightly out of reach for Chelanga in this, his debut marathon.

LRC profile on Chelanga from 2015The Accidental Runner: Sam Chelanga’s Amazing Journey From Poverty In Rural Kenya To American Citizen And US Olympic Favorite

We Liked Their Chances a Lot More a Year Ago

Nick Arciniaga — Under Armour, 32 years old, 2:11:30 pb (2011 Houston), 63:22 half
Last two marathons: 
16th 2015 New York (2:22:07); 14th 2015 Boston (2:18:02)

If this marathon were taking place in February 2015, we’d be a lot higher on Arciniaga. He’s enjoyed success in non-rabbitted marathons (7th in Boston in 2:11:47 in 2014, 8th in 2:11:56 at the 2012 Olympic Trials) and has run between 2:11:30 and 2:11:56 four times in his career. But one of Arciniaga’s biggest strengths, his consistency, was lacking in 2015. In Boston in April, he got caught in no-man’s-land and struggled to 14th in 2:18; then in New York in November he had another bad day, taking 16th in 2:22. If Arciniaga can recapture his 2014 form (7th Boston, 10th, NYC), he’d be a real contender, but it’s hard to pick a guy coming off two straight subpar marathons.

LRC Verdict: Arciniaga was born 12 years too late. If this was 2000, he’d easily be on the Olympic team.

Ryan Vail — Brooks, 29 years old, 2:10:57 pb (2014 London), 62:04 half
Last two marathons: 
9th 2014 New York (2:15:08); 10th 2014 London (2:10:57)

UPDATE: Vail is now out of the Olympic Marathon Trials after developing a femoral stress fracture.

Vail finished 9th in New York in 2014 but has not raced a marathon since then

Vail finished 9th in New York in 2014 but has not raced a marathon since then

Vail’s 2014 season was so good that it took a guy winning the Boston Marathon to knock him from the #1 spot in our U.S. marathon rankings. The versatile Vail has also managed to maintain his speed while excelling at the marathon, finishing in the top six in the 10,000 at USAs on the track in each of the past five years (including a high of third in ’14) and making four World XC teams since 2009.

Unfortunately for Vail, he suffered a navicular stress reaction after USAs last year that sidelined him for six and a half weeks. After he recovered from that, a sacral stress fracture limited him to mostly cross training last fall and shortened his marathon buildup to 12 weeks — he didn’t get up to 100 miles until the final week of December. Vail’s recent training (which you can follow on his informative blog) has been solid, in particular a 16-mile tempo at 4:58 pace on January 24 to cap a 140-mile week.

“I think I am fairly close to being back to my pre-NYC and pre-London fitness,” Vail wrote on January 20.

If that is indeed the case, Vail has a shot, but missing significant training in the six months prior to the Olympic Trials is a tough setback that will be difficult to overcome.

LRC Verdict: We’re sure Vail wishes he had an extra 3-4 weeks given he got a later start due to his injuries, but there is a lot to be said for coming into form as a race approaches.

Jeffrey Eggleston — adidas, 31 years old, 2:10:52 pb (2014 Gold Coast), 62:41 half
Last two marathons: 
DNF 2015 World Championships, DNF 2015 Gold Coast (he did run 2:14:17 at 2015 Boston)

Eggleston’s 2:10:52 in Australia was the second-fastest marathon by an American in 2014, but since then he’s struggled with three DNFs in four starts. His only marathon finish: 2:14:17 for 12th (fourth American) in Boston last April. A couple of those DNFs are excusable — he was going for a fast time in Fukuoka and simply couldn’t hold on, while the conditions at last year’s World Championships were very hot (37% of the 67-man field dropped out). And Eggleston’s 62:41 half in Houston last year, while not amazing by American standards, was a 19-second personal best.

LRC Verdict: Eggleston’s odds would be a lot better if the year was 2012 not 2016 as there are a ton of additions to the field via either nationality changes (Estrada, Chelanga, Kibet, etc.) or a move up from the track (Rupp, Curtis) that have greatly reduced his odds.

Longshots: These Guys Have Run Well in the Past, But Would Need All the Stars to Align to Have a Shot at Making the Team

Fernando Cabada — 33 years old, 2:11:36 pb (2014 Berlin), 62:00 half
Last two marathons: 
1st 2016 Carlsbad (2:18:14); 10th 2015 Chicago (2:15:36)

Cabada has a solid personal best (though he benefitted from running on a fast Berlin course) but his recent major performances don’t suggest he’s someone who will make the team on Saturday. He was 10th in Chicago last fall, over five minutes behind Puskedra, and before that 25th in Boston in April, over 10 minutes back of Ritz. Plus he ran a 2:18 marathon 27 days before the Olympic Trials; can he recover in time (MB: WTF Is Fernando Cabada thinking???)?

Cabada is optimistic as he said recently he wants a PR (MB: It’s official, Fernando Cabada has volunteered himself to be the sacrificial lamb of the Marathon Trials).

LRC Verdict: It should be remembered Cabada came up big at the last Olympic Trials as he PR’d by 34 seconds and finished 7th in a then pb of 2:11:53. We’d be surprised if he PRs at a second straight Trials.

Matt Llano — Hoka One One, 27 years old, 2:12:28 pb (2015 Berlin), 61:47 half
Last two marathons: 
13th 2015 Berlin (2:12:28); 6th 2015 Los Angeles (2:16:13)

Matt Llano ahead of his PR in Berlin last fall

Matt Llano ahead of his PR in Berlin last fall

If the U.S. selected its team by picking the three fastest marathoners of 2015, Llano would be the first man out — his 2:12:28 in Berlin ranked behind only Puskedra (2:10:24 in Chicago), Ritzenhein (2:11:20 in Boston) and Kibet (2:11:31 in Chicago). Of course, that’s not how USATF does things, but it’s not a bad thing to have the #4 time in the country heading into an Olympic year.

There are more reasons to be excited about Llano. After boldly saying he wanted to take down Ryan Hall‘s U.S. debut record of 2:08:24 in Chicago in 2014 (Llano faded to 2:17:43), the 27-year-old, openly gay Richmond grad (and high school teammate of Matthew Centrowitz) has made steady progress in his two subsequent marathons, running 2:16:13 in hot conditions to take 6th in LA last year (second in the USATF Championship portion of the race) before heading to Berlin in September and running 2:12:28 on the fast layout. ePer John Kellogg‘s conversion chart, Llano’s half marathon best of 61:47 is worth somewhere in the 2:11 range for the full 26.2-mile distance, so if the marathon is Llano’s best event, there’s still room for progress.

LRC Verdict: As one of the younger contenders in the field, Llano still has a relatively high upside. But he was never a stud in college (14:00/28:43) and though that’s not a prerequisite for success in the marathon, of the last two Olympic Trials, Brian Sell is the only guy who made the team that wasn’t a total NCAA stud (interestingly, Sell’s pbs of 13:59/28:36 are very close to Llano’s). And outside of the big dogs, why would you pick Llano to make the team over people like Jared Ward, a guy who beat him by 3+ minutes in LA last year and ran similar in those tough conditions (2:12:56) to what Llano did on Berlin, the world’s fastest marathon course? For Llano to even have a chance, he’ll have to be significantly fitter than he was in Berlin — and hope a couple of the favorites slip up.

Tyler Pennel — Reebok/ZAP Fitness, 28 years old, 2:13:32 pb (2014 Twin Cities), 61:44 half
Last marathon:
 1st 2014 Twin Cities (2:13:32)

Pennel won his marathon debut in October 2014 to become the U.S. champ but has not raced a marathon since then. Instead, he ran a track season in 2015 (breaking 4:00 in the mile for the first time in June and running a 5,000 pb of 13:32) before embarking on a successful road racing campaign that saw him take second at the U.S. 10-mile and 12k champs.

LRC Verdict: It should be pointed out that Pennel finished behind Sam Chelanga in all four of his U.S. road championships last fall and though Pennel has run one marathon to Chelanga’s zero, we’re still giving the edge to Chelanga. Pennel has made a ton of progress over the past two years, but he’ll have to make another big leap to crack the top three in LA.

Shadrack Biwott — Asics, 30 years old, 2:12:55 pb (2014 Frankfurt), 61:25 half
Last two marathons: 
14th 2014 Frankfurt (2:12:55); 3rd 2013 Twin Cities (2:13:26)

The brother of 2:04:27 marathoner Duncan Kibet, Biwott has excellent genetics and his 61:25 HM pb makes him competitive in the U.S. But Galen Rupp’s former Oregon teammate hasn’t done anything recently to suggest he’s a serious Trials contender.

LRC Verdict: Don’t totally discount him. His 62:30 at the Houston Half on January 17 was a solid performance, though, and if he can improve on his 2:12 in Frankfurt two years ago, he has a shot at the top 10.

Jake Riley — Hansons-Brooks Distance Project, 28 years old (on Thursday), 2:13:16 pb (2014 Chicago), 62:56 half
Last marathon: 11th 2014 Chicago (2:13:16)

LRC Verdict: Bobby Curtis is the Hansons man most likely to make the Olympic team, but Riley has run every step of this buildup with Curtis and could surprise.

Tim Ritchie — Saucony, 28 years old, 2:14:50 pb (2013 Twin Cities), 61:23 half
Last two marathons: 
25th 2013 Boston (2:21:31); 6th 2013 Twin Cities (2:14:50)

Ritchie is a successful half marathoner, finishing 5th, 3rd and 9th at the U.S. Half champs from 2012 to 2014 and busting out a 61:23 in Philly in October 2015.

LRC Verdict: That 61:23 would normally make us very excited but 26.2 miles might be a bridge too far for Ritchie. His marathon pb is just 2:14:50 and it’s hard to imagine a guy who tops out at 85 miles per week making the Olympic team.

Jonathan Grey — Boulder Track Club, 27 years old, 62:25 half
Marathon debut

LRC Verdict: Grey will be debuting in LA and though his 62:25 half marathon pb isn’t earth-shattering, he almost beat Garrett Heath at the U.S. Club Cross Country Champs on December 12 and came out on top against a solid field at the Jacksonville Half on January 3, running 62:47.

Gabriel Proctor — Asics, 25 years old, 2:13:45 pb (2014 Chicago), 61:40 half
Last two marathons: 
32nd 2015 Berlin (2:15:54); 12th 2014 Chicago (2:13:45)

LRC Verdict: With a 61:41 half pb (albeit on a downhill course; he’s run 62:22 on a legal course), the Ethiopian-born Proctor has potential in the marathon, but if he’s going to challenge for an Olympic team, it will be in 2020, not 2016.

Craig Leon — Mizuno, 31 years old, 2:13:53 pb (2013 Chicago), 64:02 half
Last two marathons: 8th 2015 New York (2:15:16); 5th Pan American Games (2:19:26)

LRC Verdict: We’ll mention Leon because of his eighth-place showing in NYC in November (second American behind Meb), but it says here if you’re 31 years old and have pbs of 2:13:53 and 64:02, you’re not making the Olympic marathon team.

Brett Gotcher — 31 years old, 2:10:36 pb (2010 Houston), 62:09 half
Last two marathons: 
18th 2014 Boston (2:17:16); DNF 2013 Rotterdam

LRC Verdict: Gotcher was 5th in the 2012 Trials, running 2:11:06, but has completed just one marathon since then (18th in Boston in ’14). He’s been building up seriously for this race and did run a 62:49 half last year in Houston, but he’s still a long shot for Rio.

Scott Bauhs — 29 years old, 2:32:35 pb (2015 Los Angeles), 61:30 half
Last marathon: 
12th 2015 Los Angeles (2:32:35)

Bauhs, who made Team USA at 10,000 meters in 2011, has struggled recently and did not fare well in his debut marathon last year in LA (2:32). On a positive note, however, he enters the Trials on an upswing as his 62:23 win at the Rock ‘n’ Roll Arizona Half on January 17 was his best performance in several years.

More interesting is what Bauhs wrote to LetsRun in an email following our discussion last week of the men’s race at the Trials.

While I don’t disagree with Letsrun’s assessment of the who the favorites are, I can tell you that there is a feeling among the second tier of us guys like Tyler Pennel, Bobby Curtis, Ryan Vail, Matt Llano, Jared Ward, myself and many more believe that the time has come for a changing of the marathon guard of sorts. We know that no one is going down easy, but of all the marathons run by Americans in 2015, none of them seem outside of our collective ability to challenge. It’s not like 2012, when the second tier of guys were mostly hoping from a slip-up from the top guys. Now, many of us feel that we can beat a good race by the favorites. Betting on the field to make it to Rio over anyone in particular, is a very reasonable bet. No matter what happens Saturday, I hope that 2016 is the year that we start to see the success that we’ve had on the track start moving over to the marathon, and I hope to be a part of that.

LRC Verdict: We both agree and disagree with Bauhs. We agree that the Trials will certainly be more interesting if an underdog can break up the favorites. That being said, we don’t really think it’s that much different than 2012. Yes, for the most part, the contenders are ‘mostly hoping for a slipup’ from the Big 3 even though we do believe both the talent level and depth of the challengers is higher in 2016 than in 2012.

But the depth of the challengers doesn’t change the odds too much. If there is a 2:07 marathoner in a race, the odds of him winning aren’t that much different if he’s challenged by 5 or 6 2:10-12 guys (2012) or 15 to 20 (this year). If the 2:07 guy runs his best, he wins 100% of the time. If he bombs, he wins close to 0%. So the real question is to think, “How often will he bomb?”

The biggest statistical difference however the 2016 and the 2012 Trials (you can read our 2012 preview here) is that in 2012, in hindsight one could say there was a Big 4 of Hall, Meb, Abdi and Ritz whereas this year there is only a Big 3 of Rupp, Meb and Ritz. The 4 versus 3 difference changes the odds of there being a ‘longshot Olympian’ greatly.

During LRC’s weekly staff call on Monday, we estimated there is more than a 50% chance that at least one of the Big 3 misses out. That just felt right to us but since then we’ve backed it up with a little bit of math. If you say that each of the Big 3 has an 80% chance of running good marathon and finishing in the top 3, then the odds that all three make is is 51.2% (.8*.8*.8).  So there would be a 48.8% chance that someone else – one the guys on this page make it. But if the odds are 75%, the underdog odds rise up to 57.8%.

If there were 4 studs (as one might argue there were in 2012) with an 80% chance of producing a quality marathon, then the odds of less than 3 of them running a quality race is only 18.1% according to the Binomial Probability Formula. So underdog fans, take heart. The odds of an upset are much greater this year than in 2012.

Tell us what you think. Vote in our poll and then talk abou the underdogs in our fan forum.

MB: These guys have a chance – Meet the 20 Trials qualifiers who have a shot at Rio if anyone in the Big 3 falters