Zoila Gomez, Khalid Khannouchi, Blake Russell, Trent Briney. What do those four runners have in common? They were the fourth place finishers at the 2008 and 2004 US Olympic Marathon Trials. Fourth place. When talking about Olympic spots, fourth place is the most painful place….in essence, the first loser. The top three go on to compete in the Olympics. Fourth place just leads the hundreds of others who must wait four more years for another chance.
For Dathan Ritzenhein (aka “Ritz,” who was a 2008 Olympian) and Amy Hastings (no Olympics yet), they reluctantly add their name to the Gomez, Khannouchi, Russell, and Briney list. If it’s any consolation, four years after her fourth place finish, Russell qualified for the next Olympics in the marathon. In addition, both Ritzenhein and Hastings can still race at the 2012 US Olympic Track & Field Trials in June to try to make the Olympic team on the track. Both of them have pretty solid chances of making the team in either the 10,000 meters or 5,000 meters. Ritzenhein is a former American record holder at 5,000 meters and was sixth at the 2009 World Championships in the 10,000 meters. Hastings is coming off a season in which she made the World Championship final in the 5,000 meters in Daegu.
“Trying out for the olympics (sic) is being willing to serve your heart on a platter along with a knife and carving instructions.” That was US professional runner, Lauren Fleshman’s Facebook status the other day. Fleshman would know. Although she has been the USA Champion for 5,000 meters twice (2006 and 2010) and competed at three IAAF World Championships (2003, 2005, and 2011), she has endured two disappointing “tryouts for the Olympics” (also known as the Olympic Trials). In 2004 she was injured and unable to compete. In 2008, she faded to a non-Olympic team qualifying fifth place.
The US has a very objective system to qualify for the Olympics. Four years of training comes down to one race. It’s all or nothing. It insures that the US Olympic marathon and track & field athletes have earned their spot on the team, having endured the pressure that accompanies the Olympic Trials. Before the 2012 US Olympic Marathon Trials, I read a line that stuck with me, “trying to add the word Olympian to their name.” By placing in the top three, one qualifies for the Olympics and does have the word Olympian associated with their name for the rest of their life. That’s quite the reward, but with such a mighty reward comes pressure and the potential for disappointment – thus “serving your heart on a platter with a knife and carving instructions.”
As it turned out, of the six qualifiers (three men and three women), only one truly added Olympian to their name. That would be Desiree Davilla. For the other five, this is a return trip to the Olympics. This will be Meb Keflezighi’s third Olympics, Ryan Hall’s second, Abdi Abdirahman’s fourth, Shalane Flanagan’s third, and Kara Goucher’s second.
It is no wonder that Ritzenhein and Hastings were so distraught at the finish line of the Olympic Marathon Trials. Both of them shed tears as the reality that they did not miscount, they were fourth, set in.
Ritzenhein, who was only eight seconds behind Abdirahman for the coveted third place spot, was described as disconsolate at the finish by bloggers covering the race. Despite running a PR, in post race interviews he said things like “Obviously being fourth is the worst place to be, and I’m trying not to react in the completely negative, but the marathon has been a continued problem. I’m not saying that I will never run another marathon but I am going to shift my focus back to the track. I am really going to focus on the disciplines and distances that I am good at.”
Hastings, who finished over 70 seconds behind Goucher, said in a Runners World interview that she had known for the last two miles that she was not going to finish in the top three but that she held back tears for miles 25 and 26 because crying then would affect her breathing. But the tears rained down when she finished. Still, she composed herself to attend the post-race press conference as the official USA Olympic Marathon alternate. That takes some class.
There’s something noble about being fourth at the Olympic Trials. I wish I were the fourth best at something out of everyone in the USA. If that something happened to be an Olympic event, all the better, but I’d settle for being fourth American at anything. The sting of fourth place will be there for a while for Ritz and Hastings but hopefully over time they will be proud that they gave it their best and they will rebound to battle for an Olympic spot in the future.
At a press conference on Monday, March 1, 2010, USATF CEO Doug Logan announced that Houston would host the men’s and women’s US Olympic Marathon Trials on Saturday, January 14, 2012. This is the first time in history that the men’s and women’s marathon trials will take place at the same venue. The races will take place on a spectator friendly rectangular criterium-style course that is yet to be determined but likely will take place on the outskirts of downtown Houston. Each race will offer $250,000 in prize money.
The announcement came as a bit of a surprise after the successful marathon trials for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. New York (which hosted the men’s marathon trials in November 2007 one day before the NYC Marathon) and Boston (which hosted the women’s marathon trials in April 2008 one day before the Boston Marathon) were thought to be the front runners to host again.
Indications are that Houston won the bid due to finances. Boston bid for the women’s race and New York bid for the men’s race. Houston bid for both and also indicated that it would be willing to host just one race if that was the decision of the committee. The Houston Chronicle reported that Houston bid $1.7 million to host both and $1.4 million to host just one. This money covers event logistics, prize money and athlete travel. The Houston Marathon’s Managing Director, Steven Karpas, indicated that fixed costs like permits, police coverage, course preparation and support made it not much more expensive to bid for both races as opposed to just one.
Ed Torres, one of two athlete representatives on the committee that selected the host site, stated in a LetsRun.com interview that one of his jobs was to solicit athlete feedback. Apparently a major drawback to Boston was timing. In 2008 there were just 119 days between the women’s trials in Boston and the women’s Olympic marathon. That’s borderline not enough time to properly recover from the trials and train for the Olympics. The schedule in 2012, with the London Olympic marathon scheduled for two weeks earlier than it was in Beijing would have made it close to 100 days between the trials and the Olympics.
Money was another consideration. Boston Marathon Executive Director Guy Morris said in an interview about the finances, “…and we paid them last time. But this time, even though we were just as enthusiastic about holding a Marathon Trials race in Boston, we wanted more support. In the end, obviously, money talks.”
Winning the bid is huge for Houston and the Houston running community. Kapras has already stated, “We want to treat the athletes like rock stars. 2012 is our 40th anniversary and we wanted to do something big. What’s bigger than holding both Trials events the same day?”
Houston is no stranger to strong marathon running. From 1981 (when Bill Rodgers won the race) until 1996, the men’s winning time was always between 2:10 and 2:12. It was the host to the 1992 women’s marathon trials. In 2000, the winning men’s time was 2:11:28. But then in 2001, the race changed and did not offer prize money, it appeared that it would drop off the national scene. However, the race reintroduced prize money in 2004 and in 2005 the Houston Aramco Half Marathon hosted the men’s US half marathon championship. In 2006, Chevron came on board as the marathon title sponsor, thus the official name of the race is the Chevron Houston Marathon. Included among the big-time performances in Houston over the last three years are Ryan Hall’s American record of 59:43 in the half marathon (2007), Deriba Merga running 2:07:52 (2009, between placing 4th at the 2008 Olympics Marathon and winning the 2009 Boston Marathon), Meb Keflezighi’s return to the national scene with a US half marathon championship and PR (2009), Teshome Gelana setting a course record with a 2:07:36 and leading six men to sub-2:10 races (2010), Shalane Flanagan running 1:09:41, the fifth fastest women’s half marathon in US history in her debut at the distance (2010), a 2:10:35 marathon debut by Brett Gotcher, the latest runner to break on to the US marathon scene (2010), and Teyba Erkesso’s 2:23:53 for a second straight win and the course record (2010).
While most of the comments from elite athletes about Houston winning both bids have been very positive, some have pointed out the financial impact that a winter marathon trials race will have on them. Any runner of Ryan Hall or Dathan Ritzenheim’s caliber receives appearance fees just for competing in a major marathon. They can also supplement their income by earning prize money based on their performance in the race. Runners often run a fall and a spring marathon for the appearance fees. For Olympic qualifying these runners usually give up a payday to run the marathon trials, which has prize money but no appearance fees. For example, Ryan Hall ran the November 2007 Olympic Trials in New York, the April 2008 London Marathon, and then the August 2008 Beijing Olympics. With the marathon trials in January American athletes are likely to skip appearing at both a fall and a spring marathon in order to be properly trained and recovered for the trials and the Olympics.
Adam Goucher may have put it best when he said, “From what I’ve heard, the biggest issue is the financial side of it for the athletes. When you’re marathoning, you’re not really doing very much else. When you run these marathons is when you make your money. So if you missed out on Chicago or New York and then you can’t run Boston because you’re not recovered enough (from trials in January), that’s the only thing.”
Another issue is whether it is good or bad for the sport to have both the men’s and women’s trials taking place at the same time. Separate races means two opportunities to get the sport in the news. A single race may possibly generate more interest than normal, but it may also be that one race will “steal” some attention from the other.
Pamakid runner Adrian Jue ventured to Houston in January 2010 to run the Houston Chevron Marathon. He had very positive things to say about the race management.
“The post-race events inside the convention hall were amazing. I got my medal, breakfast buffet, souvenir beer glass, finisher’s shirt, and sweat-bag in less than 10 minutes. The volunteers at the sweat bag area were on rollerblades to retrieve bags quickly. The post-race food was pretty good too; I wish I had the appetite. All you can eat scrambled eggs, potatoes, sausages, bagels, cookies, chocolate milk, soft drinks, and beer.”
It certainly seems that Houston has the necessary history, financial backing and race infrastructure in place to put on a world class event in 2012.