2016 Women’s U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon Preview: Who Are The Leading Underdogs?

By LetsRun.com
February 11, 2016

(Editor’s reminder: Be sure to enter our free Marathon Trials contest: LRC LetsRun.com Running Warehouse $200,016 Marathon Trials Prediction Contest)

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 continue today with a look at the women’s field. As we did with the men, we’re breaking it up into two parts. You may not have realized it, but until Deena Kastor withdrew on Wednesday, four of the five fastest female marathoners in U.S. history were scheduled to run the Trials on Saturday:

All-Time Fastest Female U.S. Marathoners
1. 2:19:36 Deena Kastor (2006 London)
2. 2:21:14 Shalane Flanagan (2014 Berlin)
3. 2:21:21 Joan Benoit Samuelson (1985 Chicago)
4. 2:22:38 Desi Linden (2011 Boston)
5. 2:24:54 Kara Goucher (2011 Boston)

Samuelson (who still managed to crank out a 2:54:03 in Boston last year at age 57) won’t be on the line in LA, and neither will Kastor, but the list puts in perspective how much better the top women are on paper than the rest of the field: Magdalena Lewy-Boulet, the next-closest woman on the list, is 90 seconds back of Goucher’s pb. Based on their pbs, we’re putting Flanagan, Linden, Goucher and Flanagan’s training partner Amy Cragg (2:27:03, #10 all-time U.S.) in a separate article.

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That’s not to say we’re totally discounting the women in this article, however. Flanagan and Linden are the heavy favorites to go 1-2 in some order, but there are a number of lesser-known women who could theoretically grab that third spot on Saturday. We highlight them below.

Below, we tell you what you need to know to follow the races this weekend before digging into our analysis.

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

Close Calls: Women Who Could Make the Team with a Great Race

Kellyn Taylor — Hoka One One, 29 years old, 2:28:40 pb (2015 Houston), 71:01 half
Last marathon: 6th 2015 Houston (2:28:40)

Taylor after her successful debut in Houston last January Taylor after her successful debut in Houston last January

Taylor is coming off the best year of her life in 2015, not a bad way to head into the Olympic Trials. In January 2015, she debuted with a 2:28:40 in Houston, earning sixth overall (13 seconds behind 2:24 woman Fatuma Sado). More importantly, in that race Taylor defeated fellow Trials hopeful Serena Burla by over three minutes. Considering Burla went on to take 10th at the World Championships seven months later, that’s a very nice scalp.

Following Houston, Taylor PR’d in the 10,000 (32:29), took seventh in the 5,000 at USAs and earned a bronze medal at the same distance at the Pan American Games. She then won the NACAC 5,000 and knocked over 40 seconds off her half marathon pb by running 71:01 in Philadelphia in October. She rounded out the year with a 73:20 half in San Antonio in December, but before you freak out about how slow that sounds, it’s important to know that she was under strict instructions from coach Ben Rosario to run it as a workout in the 72:30 – 73:30 range (she was just there to pick up a bonus offered by the Competitor Group).

Based on her stellar 2015 season, we were already high on Taylor but what Rosario emailed us on Wednesday put us over the top.

I told you guys this way back after San Antonio but Kellyn Taylor is going to be very difficult to beat. For anyone. She’s a total natural at the marathon. She was dropping a guy from Flagstaff that was helping pace her in practice right before he won the RnR AZ marathon in 2:25. He messaged me right after and said, “Kellyn would’ve beaten me out there.” I’m telling you…pick her to make the team if you want to sound smart!!

We don’t know if we can bring ourselves to pick Taylor for the team, but she’s only gotten faster since debuting in Houston, and her debut was pretty good to begin with.

Serena Burla — Mizuno, 33 years old, 2:28:01 pb (2013 Amsterdam), 70:08 half
Last two marathons: 10th 2015 World Championships (2:31:06); 7th 2015 Houston (2:31:46)

Burla in NYC in 2013 Burla in NYC in 2010

Speaking of women who have gotten faster since Houston, we present Serena Burla. Though Taylor spanked her in that race, Burla responded by slashing 30 seconds off her 10,000 pb at Stanford in May, running 32:17, before heading to Beijing and taking 10th in the World Championships marathon in August. That performance bodes well for Burla’s chances; finishing top 10 in the World is impressive, but doing it in hot conditions similar to what one can expect in Los Angeles on Saturday shows that the heat won’t faze the 33-year-old.

In fact, it will be hard for anything to faze Burla, a cancer survivor who had to get one of the muscles in her hamstring removed as part of her treatment in 2010. But Burla is more than a feel-good story; she’s a legitimate contender for the team. In addition to her marathon success, she has strong half marathon credentials (she was the 2014 U.S. champ and owns a 70:08 pb). Her 72:39 at the Houston Half Marathon in January could be a red flag (she lost to top American Sara Hall by 2:32) though it’s always tough to tell how much value to place on a tuneup race as you never know in what part of an athlete’s training cycle it falls.

Burla has only broken 2:31 twice in her career, but if the weather is as hot as the forecasts predict (70s and 80s during the race), her toughness will put her in the mix for a spot to Rio.

Longer Shots

Annie Bersagel — Under Armour, 32 years old, 2:28:29 pb (2015 Dusseldorf), 70:09 half
Last two marathons: 1st 2015 Dusseldorf (2:28:29); 10th 2014 New York (2:33:02)

Bersagel is not your typical Trials contender: she’s a full-time lawyer based in Oslo who also happens to have run 2:28:29 for the marathon. That result, from Dusseldorf in April, was a great sign, but just two months later Bersagel was forced to undergo microfracture surgery in her knee, knocking her out for a big chunk of the summer and fall. Even though Bersagel has been running for a couple of months now, her abbreviated buildup (which is also lower in volume than in the past) does not help her chances. Bersagel was not one of the favorites in the Trials to begin with, and though it’s impressive that she’ll be on the line in LA (doctors originally told her that wouldn’t be a possibility), her chances at an Olympic spot may have ended when she went under the knife.

Becky Wade — Asics, 26 years old, 2:30:41 pb (2013 California International), 72:18 half
Last two marathons: 
8th 2015 Los Angeles (2:37:30); 1st 2013 California International (2:30:41)

Wade’s debut at age 24 was impressive as she went from never having competed in a race longer than 10,000 meters to running 2:30:41 and winning the 2013 California International Marathon over 2:25 Kenyan Sarah Jeriwoi. However, Wade did not race at all in 2014 and her 2015 all right but not exceptional (72:18 for 11th at U.S. Half Champs; 2:37:30 for 5th at U.S. Marathon Champs). As one of the youngest contenders, her ceiling is still relatively high, but to contend for the team, she’ll need to recapture her 2013 form and then some.

Hall at the 2015 Houston Half Marathon Hall at the 2015 Houston Half Marathon

Sara Hall — Asics, 32 years old, 2:31:14 pb (2015 Chicago), 70:07 half
Last two marathons: 
10th 2015 Chicago (2:31:14); 22nd 2015 Los Angeles (2:48:02)

What to like about Hall:

  • She’s coming off a 42-second pb in the half marathon last month in Houston, where she finished as the top American (5th overall) in 70:07.
  • Her 2:31:14 in Chicago last fall went far better than her debut in Los Angeles last spring.
  • Her experience in the steeplechase and cross country (top American last year at World XC in 20th) should help her on a turn-filled course designed to break runners’ rhythms.
  • It would be a GREAT story if Hall could make her first Olympic team a month after husband Ryan, the U.S.’s fastest marathoner ever, retired from the sport and just five months after the Halls adopted four children from Ethiopia.

What not to like:

  • In her debut marathon, in hot conditions in LA last year, Hall ran just 2:48:02. It won’t be quite as hot in LA on Saturday but it will still be toasty; can she really go from 2:48 to the Olympic team in less than a year?
  • Hall’s 2:31 in Chicago may have been a big improvement on her first marathon, but she still finished 3:27 behind 42-year-old Deena Kastor in that race, and Kastor was far from a lock for the team before she dropped out.
  • Does Hall have the endurance for the marathon? Six years ago, she was a 1500 runner. Hall has terrific range up to the half marathon, but the marathon is a different beast.

The affable Hall is a sentimental favorite, and her run in Houston was promising. But there are lots of women with more marathon success in front of her, so her chances of making the team are low.

Maegan Krifchin — Mizuno, 27 years old, 2:33:30 pb (2015 Hamburg), 69:51 half
Last marathon: 7th 2015 Hamburg (2:33:30)

Based in Washington, D.C., and training with Burla, Krifchin has run only one career marathon (2:33:30 in Hamburg last April) but of all the Trials entrants, she ran the fastest half marathon in 2015. That 69:51 effort earned her the win in the Rock ‘n’ Roll Philadelphia Half, where she took down a solid field that contained the likes of Neely Spence GraceyAlisha WilliamsBrianne Nelson and Kellyn Taylor.

The 27-year-old Krifchin, who focused on the middle distances while in college at Syracuse (she ran the 1000 indoors and the 1500 outdoors) will need to make a big jump from her result in Hamburg to contend on Saturday. But running sub-70 in the half marathon is no joke; keep an eye on Krifchin over the next few years.

Esther Atkins — Skechers, 29 years old, 2:33:15 pb (2014 Boston), 73:46 half
Last two marathons: 24th World Championships (2:38:15); 1st 2014 Twin Cities (2:34:01)

Atkins (formerly Esther Erb) has taken over four minutes off her pb since finishing 27th at the 2012 Trials and added a U.S. title in the marathon in 2014. She’s got experience running in the heat (24th at the ’15 World Champs) and is coming off a half marathon pb (73:46) in Jacksonville on January 3. But it is going to take a sub-2:30 effort (perhaps 2:30 if the sun is really brutal) and Atkins has not yet shown that she’s capable of that.

Clara Santucci — Saucony, 28 years old, 2:29:54 pb (2011 Boston), 72:21 half
Last two marathons: 1st 2015 Pittsburgh (2:34:06); 5th 2014 Chicago (2:32:21)

Here’s what Santucci, seventh at the 2012 Trials, has done in the marathon since that race:

Date Location Time Place
5/26/2013 Ottawa 2:33:25 9th
10/13/2013 Chicago 2:31:39 8th
5/4/2014 Pittsburgh 2:32:25 1st
10/12/2014 Chicago 2:32:21 5th
5/3/2015 Pittsburgh 2:34:06 1st

That consistency is admirable, but unfortunately it won’t get her to Rio. For Santucci to have a shot at making the team, she’ll need to pair a terrific race with slip-ups from some of the top contenders.

Older Runners with a Small Outside Shot

Janet Bawcom at 2013 NYC Half Marathon Cherobon-Bawcom at 2013 NYC Half Marathon

Janet Cherobon-Bawcom — Nike, 37 years old, 2:29:45 pb (2012 Olympic Trials), 69:55 half
Last two marathons: DNF 2013 New York; 5th 2012 Olympic Trials (2:29:45)

The Kenyan-born Bawcom has impressive credentials. She’s a 31:12 10,000 runner and represented the U.S. at that distance at the 2012 Olympics. She was 5th in the last Olympic Trials marathon, clocking an impressive 2:29:45, a PR by over seven minutes. And she has run solidly recently in the half marathon, finishing third at the U.S. Champs last year, second at the U.S. 20k Champs (basically a half marathon) and clocking 71:49 on January 17 to win the Rock ‘n’ Roll Arizona Half. But since the start of 2011, Bawcom has completed just one marathon: the 2012 Trials. As great as that race was, it’s hard to imagine her 37-year-old body holding up for another performance like that — one that, it should be pointed out, still left her 3:39 shy of an Olympic spot.

Heather Lieberg — Oiselle, 36 years old, 2:34:09 pb (2014 Twin Cities), 73:10 half
Last two marathons: DNF 2015 World Championships; 5th 2015 Los Angeles (2:35:32)

Lieberg has made tremendous progress over the past five years. In 2010, when she debuted in the marathon at age 31, she ran just 2:54:27. Her next race was even slower: 2:56:45. In fact, it would take her a total of four marathons just to crack 2:50. But she ran a 7+ minute PR of 2:39:55 at the California International Marathon in 2013 and got down to 2:34:09 at Twin Cities the next year, the first of two consecutive runner-up finishes at the U.S. Marathon Championships. Lieberg’s story is inspiring, but a third straight runner-up finish at USAs on Saturday would require a miracle.

Renee Metivier Baillie — Mizuno, 34 years old, 2:27:17 (2012 Chicago), 71:51 half
Last two marathons: 4th 2014 California International (2:34:17); 6th 2012 Chicago (2:27:17)

Baillie has the is the fourth-fastest marathoner since the last Olympics (only Flanagan, Linden and Cragg have run faster) but she’s over three years removed from that performance and has only run one marathon since — a 2:34:17 at CIM in 2014.

Brianne Nelson — adidas, 35 years old, 2:34:24 pb (2014 Twin Cities), 70:16 half
Last two marathons: 6th 2015 Los Angeles (2:36:07); 3rd 2014 Twin Cities (2:34:24)

Nelson was right behind Lieberg, finishing third at each of the past two U.S. Marathon Championships, but this field is a lot deeper than the ones she faced in St. Paul in 2014 and LA last year.

Adriana Nelson — Asics, 36 years old, 2:28:52 pb (2008 London), 71:09 half
Last two marathons: 13th 2015 Boston (2:38:47); 9th 2014 Frankfurt (2:33:54)

The 36-year-old Romanian-born Nelson’s best days — including a runner-up finish in Chicago in 2007 — are behind her but she ran 2:31 in Boston last year and has run solid if unspectacular half marathons recently (four between 72:08 and 73:15) in 2015.

But no matter what she does in the Trials, Nelson’s most impressive performance this year will be what she did on a run last week: talking a young man out of suicide.

The Two Ethiopians-Turned-Americans

Misikir Demissie— 29 years old, 2:25:21 pb (2011 San Diego), 70:21 half
Last two marathons: DNF 2015 Singapore; 2nd 2015 Mexico City (2:41:28)

With a 2:25 pb, Demissie has to be mentioned, but the former Ethiopian (who also briefly represented Bahrain), now training with Scott Simmons‘ American Distance Project in Colorado Springs, is unlikely to make the team. She DNF’d her last marathon in Singapore in December and only ran 73:38 in her tuneup at Rock ‘n’ Roll Arizona on January 17, almost two minutes back of Janet Cherobon-Bawcom.

Apart from the DNF in Singapore, her 2015 marathons were okay: a 2:37:28 win at the Lala Marathon in Torreon, Mexico (3,700 feet) and 2:41:54 for 2nd at the Mexico City Marathon (7,400 feet). Demissie’s pb makes her a wildcard in Los Angeles, but she’s very much an unknown quantity.

Belainesh Gebre — 28 years old, 2:26:17 pb (2011 Chicago), 68:51 half
Last two marathons: 2nd 2012 Nagano (2:35:19); DNF 2012 Los Angeles

We know even less about Gebre than we do about Demissie. Gebre has some strong credentials — 3rd at the 2011 Chicago Marathon, a 68:51 half best and a 2:26:17 marathon pb — but she’s been mostly off the radar after taking 2014 off to have a baby. Last year, she ran 74:56 to win the Long Beach Half Marathon on October 11 and most recently posted a 75:51 for 4th at the Carlsbad Half Marathon on January 17. Those aren’t the results of an Olympic contender but we can’t definitively count Gebre out since so little is known about her.

Tell us what you think.

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Discuss this article in our forum: Women’s marathon preview: Will anyone but Linden, Flangan, Goucher or Cragg make the team?

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