The marathon is notoriously fickle. So many things can go wrong over 26.2 miles. Cramps. Sugar low. Blisters. Accidentally leaving a Breathe Right nasal strip in your racing shoe.
That last problem afflicted Meb Keflezighi at the New York City Marathon in November. He stashed the strip in his left shoe for safekeeping and forgot to remove it at the start of the race. Keflezighi finished a creditable sixth, but the chafing opened a wound in his foot that became infected, leaving the Eritrean-American with just five weeks of solid preparation before the U.S. Olympic Trials in Houston.
Keflezighi also had to cope with the specter of the 2008 marathon trials, during which he fractured his right hip and failed to qualify. That injury had required a year and a half of therapy. But now the runner known for enduring so much is the one who has achieved just about everything, at least in American marathoning: an Olympic silver in '04; the first win in New York City by an American man since the Reagan presidency in '09; and an Olympic trials title last Saturday in 2:09:08, a personal best at age 36.
With two miles to go Keflezighi pulled away from the other two London qualifiers, Ryan Hall, 29, and Abdi Abdirahman, 34, and had a big enough cushion (22 seconds) at the end to grab an American flag from a spectator.
The three heavy favorites among the women broke away by the 20-mile mark. Shalane Flanagan, who won bronze in the 10,000 meters at the Beijing Olympics in '08, ran a trials record 2:25:38; she was followed by Desiree Davila, an emerging marathon star who fell two seconds shy of winning Boston last year, and Kara Goucher, a bronze medalist in the 10,000 at the '07 world championships.
The race started sluggishly—a 6:11 opening mile kept most of the 182 competitors in the pack. But by the third mile Davila, not known for a strong sprint finish, started pushing the pace.
The newly minted Olympians represent the U.S.'s deepest team in decades. None of them will be medal favorites, but then neither was Keflezighi in '04. The marathon, after all, can be fickle.