Marathon trials promise drama -- but not necessarily Olympians
Posted: Thursday February 5, 2004 6:43PM; Updated: Thursday February 5, 2004 6:59PM
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- After the last runner finishes the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials late Saturday morning, you'd think the top three would be ticketed for Athens next summer. Well, they might be. Then again, who knows?
Hey, track and field -- athletics to the rest of the world -- is never quite that simple. For starters, it depends on the top guys meeting the Olympic qualifying standard (only Rod DeHaven made it to the 2000 Sydney Games).
Here's the dicey part: The Big Three -- Dan Browne, Alan Culpepper and Meb Keflezighi -- are accomplished track runners who might hold off on committing to the Athens marathon until seeing how they show in the 10,000 meters at the track and field trials in July.
Just imagine the quandary this hands team officials. With an orientation weekend for Athens marathoners scheduled for early May in California, they're under a directive to book flights as soon as the team is picked so they can snag cheap fares. But who will run the marathon may not be finalized until, well, July.
"Everyone is saying it is the Olympic [marathon] trials and we're picking our team, but that may not be true," said Dave Martin, chairman of the national marathon committee. "We're going to have a race and then we may have a bunch of indecisiveness."
Of course, the United States is believed to be the only country that selects its Olympic marathoners based solely on a trials format, and maybe that's part of the problem. Others might argue it's the only way to go in a country where democracy rules, that it can only be based on performance, that such a weighty decision can't be dropped in the laps of coaches and shoe company honchos.
And they're right. Except that here, the system eliminates a Khalid Khannouchi, the former world record-holder, who won't be at the Birmingham starting line because of nagging foot and knee injuries. Khannouchi has been eyeing the Olympic marathon ever since gaining U.S. citizen in 2000.
How big a team loss are we talking about? Consider that Khannouchi is the only person ever to run under 2:06 three times -- while Culpepper brings the fastest qualifying time to the field of 2:09.41and only nine others in Birmingham have run under 2:15.
"Yeah, it changes the dynamics of the race because he is such a big-time marathoner," Culpepper said. "And I definitely think it opens up a spot because someone of his caliber, even if he were coming in at 75 percent, would be a 2:10-type runner."
So with Khannouchi back home in Ossining, N.Y., the race shapes up as a potentially more dramatic event.
The course is slightly downhill and fast, thus it wouldn't be a shock to see 10 to 15 runners beat the Athens qualifying time of 2:15. Not having to worry about the standard should make for a more strategic race, leaving top contenders to manage their own fitness against the distance and the competition.
The marathon, of course, is such a crapshoot that you can bet on an unheralded character peaking at the trials. And you have to factor in injuries. Already, there's talk that Keflezighi, one of the favorites, may be nursing a tender hamstring.
Weather is another interesting variable. The forecast isn't pretty, with lows projected in the mid 20s and a high in the low 40s (the ideal temperature would be the low 50s). This is in stark contrast to what awaits next August in Athens, where the trek from Marathon to downtown Athens is hilly and the heat intense.
What you find no one griping about is the warm reception of the Birmingham organizing committee -- local housing has afforded elite runners to train in the city -- or the very fast, fan-friendly course. In fact, the course had so much downhill that it was recently tweaked to avoid the designation of "aided" by the international track federation.
Organizers also proved smart in borrowing a page from the cycling crowd in the course design, opting for a criterium or loop course. After a gentle drop that covers the first 9.5 miles through a residential area into Birmingham, the runners make three repeat loops through the downtown streets before finishing in the shadow of city hall. A criterium course is new to running and debuted to favorable reviews at the European Championships in Munich a couple years ago.
The idea is to create a festive scene inside the tight loop, as well as allowing fans to easily move about and catch glimpses of the runners a half dozen times each loop.
"Our sport needs spectator friendly and all the help it can get on that side," Culpepper said. "That adds to the allure of the race. And just from the mental side it helps you stay focused better knowing you do these loops and you're not just off on the course out in the middle of nowhere."
Darn right, the sport needs a shot of juice. We're talking incredibly dedicated athletes who log upwards of 130 miles a week at the peak of training. But it's a tough sell when we're not sure the first three across the line are Athens-bound.
Mike Fish is a senior writer for SI.com.