Olympic Trials Week is Here!!!! LetsRun.com Debates the Women’s Race

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by LetsRun.com
February 9, 2016

It’s one of the greatest weeks of the year as far as LetsRun.com is concerned. It is the week of the Olympic Marathon Trials. LetsRun.com was founded when LetsRun.com’s Weldon Johnson quit his economic consulting job and moved to the mountains of Flagstaff, Arizona, in January 2000 to train for the Olympic Marathon Trials with a pipe dream of making the U.S. Olympic team. Soon he was joined by his brother Robert, and a website was born.

Wejo’s dream came up short but it lives on with all the runners of hoping to make the U.S. Olympic Marathon team this weekend.

Last week LRC debated whether Galen Rupp was the favorite in the men’s race. Whetting running fans’ appetites with Marathon Trials debate only got people clamoring for more.

One emailer was succinct and to the point:

I enjoyed your story on the Marathon trials favorite, but it only covers the men’s side.  Will you do one for the women’s side? (Is it uninteresting since 2016 qualifiers look exactly like 2012?)

So with that as a segue, we turn to a little debate on the women’s Trials.

Wejo: Speaking of dreams, in honor of the Olympic Marathon Trials we have restored “Where Your Dreams Become Reality” to the homepage.

But enough with sentimentality. It’s time to debate the women’s race. And to answer our emailer’s question, no, the women’s race is not uninteresting. It’s the Olympic Marathon Trials. People have been striving for the last four years for the chance to make the Olympic team, there is a ton of drama and interest in that.

Flanagan and Cragg with Desi Linden before the 2015 Boston Marathon

The one thing the women’s race does not have is a big new name like Rupp to shake up the apple cart. You have two heavy, heavy favorites to make the team in Shalane Flanagan and Desi Linden, who are head and shoulders ahead of everyone else. But there are a ton of sideplots: Who wins: Shalane or Desi? Can Kara Goucher or Deena Kastor make another Olympic team? Does Amy Cragg get revenge for her 4th place finish last time? Can someone else break through the pack?

But let’s start up top. Shalane or Desi who wins?

Jonathan Gault: Desi Linden is my pick. Until last week, I think it was close to dead-even between Flanagan and Linden but then it came out in Runner’s World that Flanagan has been banged up in this build-up. She had a stress reaction that didn’t heal until the first week of December and has also had pain in her back and Achilles.

Okay, you might be thinking, every marathoner has aches and pains during their buildup. Well not Flanagan.

“It was stuff I haven’t had to endure before in marathon training,” Flanagan told Runner’s World. “I’ve had pretty flawless buildups.”

Given that Flanagan is the second-fastest American of all time (2:21:14), I’m still not worried about her missing the team. She had such a headstart on most of the field in terms of overall fitness that I think only a serious injury could have derailed her. But those nagging injuries are enough for me to pick Linden for the win.

Make no mistake, this is a race that Linden wants to win. She’s never won a marathon or a U.S. championship of any kind, and this is probably her best shot to date. When I spoke to her last month, she seemed to be in a good place and has improved in every marathon since DNFing the Olympics in 2012, most recently taking 4th in Boston in April 2015 after leading most of the race. In that race, she also beat Flanagan for the first time in her career.

I like that Linden is a smart, experienced racer and I think that her style is well-suited to a Trials race. In Boston, Linden led most of the way because she knew she didn’t have the speed to win if it came down to a hard last 10k as she was battling 2:19 and 2:20 women.

But that was a bit of an outlier. In other marathons — for example, 2011 Boston or 2014 New York — Linden has excelled by running her own race and attacking over the final kilometers. Because Linden’s PB (2:22:38) is so much better than everyone else in the field’s except for Flanagan and Deena Kastor (who is 42 and nowhere near PB shape), she should have the luxury of being able to run (relatively) relaxed for the first 20 miles or so before cranking it up at the end. Flanagan may have a better PB and better track speed, but I don’t think she will have as much desire as Linden to really push it in over the final kilometers, especially if her buildup hasn’t gone perfectly.

“I’ve had the luxury of winning the race and I know how special that is, but at the same time, as soon as the top three women cross the finish line, you’re all the winner,” Flanagan told Runner’s World. “Amy [Cragg] and I are so focused on the top three and whatever we need to do to be in the top three, that’s all that matters.”

Wejo: I’m going to disagree and say Shalane is the favorite. You are high on Desi because Shalane’s buildup has not been perfect, but how do we know anything about Desi’s buildup?  With imperfect information about both athletes, I’m going to go with the athlete with the bigger engine and I think Shalane Flanagan has the bigger engine.

Desi for me is sort of like Meb. Constantly defies my expectations. Not sure why I don’t raise my expectations, but I think I’m in love with track speed which isn’t a prerequisite for marathon success.

She did come damn close to winning the Boston Marathon 5 years ago. Watch if you want a little inspiration:

Steve Soprano: Weldon, what are you talking about with “imperfect information”? Unless we’re out there with the athletes everyday for the three months leading up to the Trials, our information is always going to be “imperfect”. We just have to go on what we have, and what we have in this instance is Desi talking about wanting to win this race and Flanagan talking about qualifying.

In her interview with Jon, Desi said she’s “been completely healthy” since a minor calf issue in the summer and that she’s had “really solid workouts every time out and the mileage is there.” Flanagan meanwhile revealed that she had a shorter buildup due to the injury and has had minor back and Achilles issues during the buildup. It sounds pretty clear to me which one has had the smoother go of it. Yes Weldon, you are right that we don’t know that Desi didn’t get hurt in the last month, but I’m not going to change my prediction based what could have possibly happened; I’ll stick with what I know did happen.

So in case it isn’t already clear, I’m 100% on board with Jon and think Desi is the favorite for the win. When I read that Runners World article about Flanagan’s injury and her quote about how being top 3 is “all that matters”, Linden automatically became a lock for the win in my mind. When I put the article on the homepage I wrote the headline, “Does This Make Desi The Clear Favorite?” with a question mark. The question mark was only there because I have to be less opinionated on the homepage since I speak for LetsRun.com rather than for Steve Soprano. Well, now I’m speaking for me and I can say as far as I’m concerned, that question mark is deleted.

Let me make clear though, I think Flanagan will definitely qualify and I expect her to be the runner-up. She’s good enough that even with a set-back, she should be better than everyone besides Desi. And she’s apparently been training well enough to work out as well or better than Amy Cragg, so I’m not worried about Flanagan not making the team; I just don’t think she’s going to win.

Wejo: Calling Desi the clear favorite is pretty strong. Most athletes have some sort of issue in their marathon buildup. And when I’m talking about imperfect information I’m just talking about how we are putting a lot of info in what the athletes are tellling us versus being able to observe tune-up races.

Rojo: Before I get started, can I for the record state that I didn’t celebrate as follows when Weldon failed to make the 2000 and 2004 US Olympic teams.

I only say that because I was accused of it by a buddy today.

Debating who is the actual winner between Desi and Shalane is almost beside the point as in reality they both will be the winners. The point of a trials race is always to qualify and I think that will happen.

A perhaps more interesting question is, ‘Who gets the third spot?’ Is it Shalane Flanagan’s ex-training partner Kara Goucher (who was third in 2012) or Shalane Flanagan’s current training partner, Amy Cragg (who was 4th in 2012). Those two to me seem much better than anyone else in the field on paper.

The emailer wondered if it will be boring if the same three make it as in 2012. In the women’s race there isn’t a huge new stud like Rupp or even new semi-studs like Chelanga, Puskedra, Estrada, etc. but that doesn’t mean it’s boring.

Compared to Cragg, Goucher is the bigger talent and more accomplished but I’m a little nervous as she really hasn’t done anything since 2013 when she ran 2:28:11 for 6th in Boston and she’s the oldest of the ‘Big 4” at age 37 (Flanagan is 34, Cragg and Linden are 32).

But Goucher recently seems to have found her groove again with Mark Wetmore and Heather Burroughs. In 2013, two months before that Boston race, she ran 71:49 for a half marathon in New Orleans.  In the buildup for these Trials, she ran 71:13 in November and 71:10 in December so she’s likely in sub-2:28 shape and that puts her in strong contention to make the team as the only marathoners with qualifying times under 2:28:00 are Flanagan (2:21:14), Linden (2:23:54), Cragg (2:27:03) and Kastor (2:27:47) and I just don’t think Kastor makes the team the day before her 43rd birthday. (I’m 42 and can’t run within an hour of my 2:23 pb). A recent Competitor.com article said Goucher is in “prime shape” and enjoying the base base she’s had since giving birth in 2010.

Wejo: Just because you can’t run within an hour (I think it’s probably two hours) of your PR doesn’t mean Deena can’t make the team. Let’s not pretend her 2:27 was a long time ago; she ran 2:27:47 in October in Chicago and ran a 15:48 5k last year. Late last year, I heard she was entering into full Deena mode: discount her at your own peril. But carry on.

Rojo: It’ll be interesting to see if Cragg gets a bump in performance by training with Flanagan as she has seem to have been stuck at 2:27 for her entire marathon career. She debuted in LA in 2011 at 2:27:03 and has never beaten that time although she’s run another 2:27:03 (in Chicago) and a 2:27:17 in Houston at the last Trials. Goucher has four times run 2:26:07 or faster.

If Goucher isn’t quite as good as she used to be and Cragg is a little bit better, then it’s really close between the two (Goucher beat Cragg by 1:11 in 2012). I’d like to see some new blood but am inclined to give Goucher the benefit of the doubt for the final spot. I think the odds of a disaster are much higher for Goucher than Cragg but I also think her upside is still a tiny bit higher.

37 may sound old for a runner but it needs to be remembered that Meb won Boston at 38.

And I very much think the three Olympians come from the ‘Big 4.’ Besides Kastor, there are only three four other women who have run under 2:30 (Serena Burla, Annie Bersagel, Kellyn Taylor) in this Trials cycle (editor’e note: an email has alerted us that Renee Metivier Ballie ran 2:27 in Chicago in 2012) unless you consider the two Ethiopian-born runners who just became eligible to run for America Misikir Demissie (2:25:21 pb, 29 years old ) and Belainesh Gebre (2:26:17 pb, 28 years old), but neither of the Ethiopians appears to be in great shape.

Wejo: Actually Rojo, that is not correct. Adriana Nelson ran 2:28:52 at the 2008 London Marathon. You may not realize it because she wasn’t American at the time. She was Adriana Pirtea. And she’s come as close as anyone not named Deena to winning a World Marathon Major.

Anyone remember this from 2007 Chicago Marathon where she celebrated her win prematurely and lost?

It’s cringe-worthy to watch.

Rojo: Well this more than makes up for that!!

Overwhelmed with emotions right now. Something happened on my run last night I never would imagine I would ever come across. I was on my easy run and I normally take the same route every time. But I had this urge to go to a different trail…like something was pulling me to this other dirt path. While I was running and admiring this beautiful trail, I happened to notice a figure sitting on the edge of the cliff which startled me. I saw he had a rope around his neck and looked like he was ready to jump. ? I am not sure how I had the courage to do this, but I ran over to him and asked if everything was okay and he responded he’s not okay. I spoke with him and asked him to remove the rope around his neck. It was not an easy moment at all as I was picturing the worst to happen right in front of me…He said he was about to jump. He is 26 years old and having a tough time right now. No job and family to support him. Once he removed the rope off his neck, I grabbed his arm and I walked him to his car and spoke to him for about an hour. One thing that surprised me was what he said to me “I never have been able to talk so deeply with someone in my entire life…” I felt very sad but very grateful to be there that moment. He left and I went home overwhelmed with emotion. A couple hours later I went back to cut the rope off the cliff and drop it down. This was one of the craziest things I’ve experienced in my life. And it’s a reminder to me that people need help sometimes. And if anyone ever feels this way, PLEASE go and seek help. You can call 1 (800) 273-8255 National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. ___________________________________________________ #youarenotalone #suicideprevention #live #life #love

A photo posted by Adriana Nelson (@adi_nelson) on

  1. I didn’t forget her I just said, “In this Trials cycle.”

Wejo: Wow. Really wow.

I hadn’t seen that.

I was hoping she’d do well anyway as I’ve met her and her husband Jeremy at trade shows for Roll Recovery which is the company they founded.  Then Roll Recovery came out this week and said it will pay the $30 entry fee for all the Olympic Trials qualifiers.

It’s total bush league for USATF to charge them $30.

Steve Soprano: Agreed Weldon. Didn’t the Nike deal make USATF enough money that they don’t have to nickel and dime athletes?

Wejo: Exactly. Not only is there the $30 surcharge, there are the sanctioning fees (thousands of dollars) USATF demands if a race is going to count as a Trials qualifier.

The athletes should stick together and demand not to pay it. In the NBA, there are minimum salaries for players. Someone needs to look after the lowest of the Trials qualifiers.

Steve Soprano: Anyway, saying one more thing about the race for first, Rojo, you and Shalane seem to agree that if you’re in the top three, “you’re all winners”. Well, that kind of thinking is exactly why Desi is my pick to win. Because if you finish 2nd or 3rd, you’re technically not the “winner”. Only one person gets to “win” the race and in a race where it’s extremely easy to “settle” for top 3 rather than go for the glory of victory, my money’s on the athlete that wants it more. That is the person who is going to try and drive it home over the last 10K to break everyone else.

Linden herself admitted after the 2012 Trials that she held back a bit to “protect second” rather than go for the win. Well this time, that’s exactly what I see Flanagan doing.  You could argue that I shouldn’t be reading too much into interviews because athletes can say whatever they want, but it’s not hard to compare the way athletes talk going into races historically. Flanagan seems to have a completely different mindset than the past when she has gone into a race like the Boston Marathon and it was evident that she desperately wanted to win.

Wejo: You are starting to convince me Steve that Desi might be a little bit more hungry.

Steve: Rojo, I do agree with you though that a more interesting question than who is going to win is who is going to get third. I wish that Molly Huddle was running the women’s race so we could have another exciting element like we have with Galen Rupp on the men’s side. Then we could have all the same Rupp debates for Huddle and talk about whether she’d challenge Linden and Flanagan, just qualify, or completely bomb in her debut. Unfortunately, that is a debate for another time and what we have is a clear top-2 and several other athletes who are fighting for the last spot.

Rojo: Oh if Huddle was running, I wouldn’t have any doubts. I’d pick her for the team for sure. Just like Rupp.

Steve: I agree that on paper, the main contenders seem to be Amy Cragg, Kara Goucher and Deena Kastor. I’m by no means discounting those other women as I wouldn’t bet on Cragg, Goucher and Kastor all ending up top 5. I think another woman who doesn’t have the sub-2:28 PR could qualify. You didn’t even mention Sara Hall or Becky Wade and I think they’ll both be in the mix, but since space and time are limited, I’m going to keep my analysis to the “Big 5”.

Rojo: Sara Hall making the team would be a GREAT story. And I’m into the notion that the all of the 180-degree turns will benefit someone who is used to their rhythm being broken which is true for Hall given her steeple background. But then again, she wasn’t really great at the steeple. Sometimes I wonder if her and steeple is like Ryan Hall and the 1500/mile. They wanted to do that but it wasn’t really a great physiological match. But maybe she was good at her rhythm being broken and it was just too short of an event for her. And Becky Wade is a fellow Dallas person like myself!

Wejo: It is crazy how we only are talking about five people. Hall and Wade have a chance with a breakthrough to make it, but wouldn’t be my next people to mention. Kellyn Taylor (2:28:40) is on the upswing and faster than Hall and Wade in the marathon. But when we discuss the favorites to make the team, they’re not going to get much of a mention. We’ll have more on them in our previews this week.

And then there is Laura Thweatt who ran 2:28:23 in New York. Oh wait, she’s not running and neither is Neely Spence Gracey. We could have a whole separate article on them passing up a shot at the Olympics.

Steve: Rojo wrote “Big 4″ and I said “Big 5”, did one of us miscount? Yeah, I think you did Rojo when you discounted Deena Kastor. I’ll change my tune from earlier and agree with Weldon that you’re doing so “at your own peril”. She just ran 2:27:47 in October; who else can say that? Goucher’s last marathon was 2014 and it was almost 10 minutes slower than Deena’s. Cragg’s last marathon (that she finished; she DNF’d Boston 2015) was Chicago 2014, so a year longer ago than Deena’s, and it was also in the 2:27 range. And Flanagan’s last marathon was Boston 2015 and interestingly, guess what her time was? 2:27:47. I think Deena will be very competitive and would not be shocked to see her make it to Rio.

Kara Goucher and Shalane Flanagan were training partners for the 2012 buildup.

She’s not my pick for 3rd though and neither is Kara Goucher. I’ll admit my bias that I’m a big fan of the Gouchers and as a fan I’ll be rooting for Kara to make the team. But as an analyst, I’m not very keen on her chances. As Rojo says, she seems to be on the upswing with a couple decent half-marathons and apparently a good block of base training. She has experience on her side as well and she finished 3rd here in 2012 so she has all that going for her. But going against her is the fact that her last marathon was a 2:37 bomb at NYC 2014 and really, you have to go back to 2013 to find a time when she was running very well. Rojo, you point out her 71-minute half-marathons in this build-up as indication that she’s in sub-2:28 shape, but I don’t know where you get that. According to JK’s conversion chart, a 71:00 half might be worth something in the 2:32 marathon range. And yeah, she might have ran a 71-minute half before her last good marathon at Boston 2013, but she also ran a 71-minute half before her bomb at NYC 2014. So for better or worse, I don’t think you can read very much into a tune-up half when projecting full-marathon performances. I’d like to see Kara make the team, but in my mind her chances are equal to or worse than Deena’s.

No, my prediction for the third Olympic qualifying spot is Amy Cragg. Why? Well she tied her 2:27:03 PB in her last marathon, she has recent decent track performances (4th in the 10,000 at USAs while Goucher and Kastor are a long way away from their track days), and she was 4th in this race last time and will definitely be motivated not to finish there again. But more important than all of that is what you said Rojo about her getting a bump from training with Shalane Flanagan. That worked out well for Kara Goucher back in 2012 and I think it will do the same for Cragg now. They even talked about using teamwork to help pace each other at the Trials (remember when Flanagan did that to help Lisa Uhl qualify on the track in 2012?). Rojo, you sound concerned that Cragg has been “stuck” at 2:27 her entire career, but I don’t see that being an issue this Saturday in LA since I think 2:27 will get you a ticket to Rio.

Rojo: I don’t think you guys are getting what I’m talking about the ‘Big 4’. Much like on the men’s side with the “Big 3”, all I’m saying is that if those four run up to their potential, no one else in the field (save for maybe the Ethiopians-turned-Americans) can beat them. If two or more of the Big 4 run like Carolina played in the Super Bowl on Sunday, then someone else will be on the team and Kastor has a real good shot. But she needs help.


An earlier version of this article mentioned Lauren Kleppin as a contender to make the team. The article has been updated to reflect the fact that she has scratched from the race.

 


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