Saturday’s U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Marathon in Los Angeles can be likened to the can-can — the high-kicking cabaret dance that modern Olympic Games founder Pierre de Coubertin likely saw in the nightclubs of Paris.
But the dance, in which up to three men and three women will earn spots at the Rio de Janeiro 2016 Olympic Games, would be a series of questions:
• Can a first-time marathoner who won 2012 Olympic silver in the 10,000-meter (Galen Rupp) excel at 26.2 miles, and can he finish in the top-three amid temperatures in the high 70s?
• Can a 40-year-old UCLA legend (Meb Keflezighi) make the U.S. team for the fourth time, and can he recapture the magic that helped him win Boston in 2014, a year after the bombing tragedy?
• Can the three women who made the 2012 U.S. Olympic Marathon Team (Shalane Flanagan, Kara Goucher, Desiree Linden) repeat in 2016, or can the wife of recently retired distance great Ryan Hall (Sara Hall) keep the family legend going?
As of Wednesday, 168 men and 202 women had declared for the live-televised event (NBC at 1 p.m. Eastern) — all having a recent marathon time of no more than 2 hours, 19 minutes (men) or 2:45 (women), or comparable half-marathon marks.
In a letsrun.com poll, the top three picks to win the men’s race were former Oregon star Rupp, the rookie at this distance who holds the American 10,000-meter record; Dathan “Ritz” Ritzenhein, a 10K Olympian who was fourth in the marathon trials four years ago; and 2012 trials winner Keflezighi, the former UCLA Bruin who won Boston at 38 but now is three months shy of 41.
Bob Larsen, longtime coach of San Diego-based Keflezighi, told Runner’s World: “I keep telling people that I am too old to coach (at 77) and he is too old to run. But somehow we muddle through.”
Among the two dozen qualifiers who aren’t running in the trials are 2012 U.S. Olympic Team members Abdi Abdirahman (left calf injury) and Hall, whose 2:04:58 from the 2011 Boston Marathon remains the fastest American mark. (Though the Boston course is not eligible for official records.)
At July’s track and field Olympic trials in Eugene, Oregon, Rupp plans to run the 5K and 10K. He has said that if he finishes in the top three there, he might scrap the marathon. So if Rupp earns an Olympic berth this weekend, the fourth-place man in LA could still have a shot to run for Team USA on Aug. 21 in Rio de Janeiro.
The Olympic race, on the final day of the Games, starts at 9:30 a.m. The LA race, thanks to television needs, starts at 10:06 a.m. for men and 10:22 for women. Brutal heat such as Beijing’s in 2008 is not expected, but the National Weather Service was forecasting temperatures of 72 degrees at 10 a.m. and 77 at noon — challenging conditions. Few clouds and little wind are forecast, but the humidity was expected to start at 31 percent but drop only a little at noon.
The Los Angeles Times reported that some entrants have trained recently in warm Florida and San Diego, and Runner’s World quoted a physiologist as saying: “A heat-acclimated runner can expect to perform 2 to 3 percent better in a warm marathon, and up to 5 percent better if the weather turns even hotter.”
The fastest women by qualifying time are 2012 Olympic team members Flanagan (2:21:14) and Linden (2:23:54), the top American at Boston this year (fourth). The No. 3 time was posted by Amy Cragg (2:27:03), who as Amy Hastings was fourth at the 2012 trials but made the 10K team and placed 11th in London. But 2004 Olympic bronze medalist Deena Kastor (2:27:47), who turns 43 Sunday — the day of the Los Angeles Marathon on a different course — withdrew Wednesday with a gluteus injury.
Flanagan, 34, is the daughter of track photographer Cheryl Treworgy, who as Cheryl Bridges in 1971 set a women’s marathon world record. Flanagan will be shooting for her fourth Olympic team after running on the track in 2004 and 2008.
The 12th-fastest qualifier is Sara Hall (2:31:14), Ryan’s wife, who has made the finals in three track Olympic trials but never the team.
A 15-member Runner’s World panel predicted the top 10 men and women in L.A., agreeing with the reader poll on top three, but adding these for the top six: 6-foot-4 Luke Puskedra (2:10:24); Kenya native and 10K star Sam Chelanga, who became a U.S. citizen last August; and Jared Ward, who a year ago ran a personal record 2:12:56 in hot conditions at the LA Marathon.
The same expert poll put Flanagan, Linden and Cragg as top three women, followed by two-time Olympian Kara Goucher; three-time Olympian Kastor; and Serena Burla (2:28:01), who in 2010 underwent surgery for a rare cancer called synovial sarcoma. An egg-sized tumor was removed as well as half of her hamstring muscle.
Ken Stone is a San Diego-based freelance writer and founder/editor of masterstrack.com. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.