LONDON – There were no medals and no personal records for the U.S. women’s Olympic marathon team, but Shalane Flanagan and Kara Goucher’s 10-11 finish was a major improvement over Beijing where the lone American finisher (Blake Russell) placed 27th.
“The ultimate goal was to get on the podium,” Flanagan said, soaked and cramping after finishing her third career marathon in 2:25:51.
The U.S. had many reasons for optimism. At the 2010 New York City Marathon, Flanagan placed second in her 26.2-mile debut. Goucher had placed third in both New York City (2008) and Boston (2009). And Desiree Davila was two seconds shy of winning the 2011 Boston Marathon after a gritty battle to the line.
But a hard rain, a turny looped course, and an African surge that Tiki Gelana of Ethiopia turned into gold in Olympic record time (2:23:07) was a brutal combination.
The team’s first victim was Davila. The Michigan-based runner dropped out at 2.2 miles with pain in her right hip. “I could tell on the first turn that it wasn’t going to be right today,” she said. Last week, it was unclear whether she would even start.
“One of the hardest things [was racing] knowing that there was a really good chance I would DNF,” Davila added. “I’ve never done that before, but I guess the ultimate reward is knowing I’m now an Olympian because I crossed the start line.”
Meanwhile, Goucher (in a red cap) and Flanagan (in a blue cap) stayed toward the front of a large lead pack for the first 13 miles. Flanagan reached the halfway point in 1 hour, 13 minutes, 13 seconds, just 1 second ahead of Goucher.
At 25km, (about 15.5 miles) Goucher started to lose ground.
By mile 17, the three Kenyans, two Ethiopians and a Russian made it a six-woman race. Six soon became five, and about 1 hour 29 minutes into the race, despite a hard push by Flanagan, the US medal chances had vanished.
At 30km (about 18.64 miles), Flanagan was in seventh place, 11 seconds off the lead, and Goucher was in 12th, with 30 seconds to make up. In the marathon, those margins appear as empty, gaping road – enough to make one think.
“I was just yo-yoing all over the place,” Flanagan said, as she bounced from sixth to seventh place while trying to catch the leaders with less than four miles to go.
“I tried to reel them in really slowly,” Flanagan said. “I hoped I’d chomp away. I wanted a battle. It’s a bummer I wasn’t in it,” she said.
“Tenth, eleventh, it’s not what you dream of,” Goucher said, “but the course was more difficult than I thought it would be.”
“This course was insane,” Flanagan echoed. “[It] trashes your legs. We practiced for it, but I had to talk myself through some tough spots and not give into the pain. It was like putting your hand on a stove” and denying the instinct to remove it. “The last four miles were the hardest.”
Although the weather blew hot and cold, Flanagan said. “It’s like Portland,” where she and Goucher train under the guidance of coach Jerry Schumacher. “One minute I was wearing a hat; the next minute I was hot. I got cold and tingly chills on that last lap” when the downpour resumed.
“I definitely left it all out there” Goucher said after finishing her first Olympic marathon. “It was the most pain I’ve been in since giving birth,” she said, referring to September 2010, when she had her son Colt.
In the end, Gelana brought Ethiopia its first women’s Olympic marathon gold since Fatuma Roba’s victory in 1996. Priscah Jeptoo of Kenya claimed silver in 2:23:12 (five seconds back). Late-surging Russian Tatyana Petrova Arkhipova, a former steeplechaser, earned the bronze.
Aimee Berg is a freelance contributor for TeamUSA.org. This story was not subject to the approval of the United States Olympic Committee or any National Governing Bodies.