Like a kid in a candy store, I could hardly contain myself the first weekend in November. I was fortunate enough to travel with some friends to this year’s men’s Olympic Trials Marathon in New York City. In a race that determines the three members of our Olympic Marathon team, it’s obvious that I was curious what the outcome would be. In addition to the race itself, I was also looking forward to seeing the course, the amount of crowd support, the race tactics employed by the favorites, as well as watching our local runners compete on their biggest stage. As the weekend drew closer, my biggest concern was that the race wouldn’t live up to the hype. Fortunately, unlike most Hollywood blockbusters, the race did not disappoint.
First, my hat goes off to the USATF for deciding to run the Trials the day before the New York City Marathon. With the U.S. experiencing another running boom, I think this was a great way to keep up the momentum. They set up a very spectator-friendly five-loop course in Central Park, which allowed spectators that were willing to run half a mile back and forth across the park the chance to see the runners every 2-3 miles. Someone mentioned that it was like being able to watch a two-hour cross-country race. For those that just wanted to remain in one place, they were able to see the runners five times. I doubt you can do that at any other marathon in the world. And even though the course layout definitely helped bring more people to the event to watch, I was still able to get right on the edge of the road and see the runners up close.
This year’s field had a little bit of everything; a two-time former world record holder, all three Olympic marathoners from 2004, including the reigning silver medalist, multiple 10,000 meter Olympians, veterans looking to take one last shot at their dream, a handful of up-and-coming stars and a whole bunch of guys whose long-term goal was just to qualify for this race. As a result, it was considered the deepest field since 1984.
As I read all the hype leading up to this year’s race, I really started to look forward to how the race would play itself out. There seemed to be a consensus that two strategies seemed the most likely; 1) keep the pace modest and sort out the top-3 over the final 3-4 miles of the race or 2) go for it early and watch the carnage fall off the back of the pack. The first strategy would favor the guys with faster track times like Meb Keflezighi, Abdi Abdirahman and Dathan Ritzenhein, while the second strategy would favor the strength runners like Ryan Hall, Brian Sell and Khalid Khannouchi.
Apparently someone forgot to tell the runners this because they decided to come up with their own strategy. After a two mile jog – and by “jog” I mean my two mile “race pace” – the pace gradually began to pick up. Even with the drop in pace, the main pack went through 10K in a pedestrian 32:25. With such a slow pace early on, I wondered how five of the race’s favorites (Meb, Abdi, Hall, Ritz and Dan Browne) were able to break away from the pack. After the race Khannouchi explained what happened, saying the break was quick and sometimes you fall asleep.
As the pack of five continued to work together, it was really fun watching the chase pack, which was made up of contenders like former World Record holder Khannouchi, Olympian Alan Culpepper, crowd favorite Brian Sell, Pete Gilmore and Minnesota’s Jason Lehmkuhle. At mile 14 Khannouchi was 25 seconds behind the leaders. He seemed to be getting antsy and he decided to go after the leaders alone. Two miles later he was only 17 seconds behind the top-5, while Culpepper and Gilmore dropped out, leaving Sell and Lehmkuhle to work together 31 seconds behind the leaders. And while the rest of the race was beginning to string out, many of our local favorites (Michael Reneau, Chris Lundstrom, Ryan Meissen and Zachary Schendel) were working with a huge pack of about 20 runners between 50th and 70th place.
At the 2004 Trials, Sell took the lead early in the race only to be swallowed up at mile 22 and eventually fade to 12th place. Even though that move didn’t work, he gained a cult-like following and it was easy to tell he was a crowd favorite at this year’s race. It was also easy to sense that the crowd was getting restless with their hero sitting in eighth place with less than 10 miles remaining. Luckily the fans wouldn’t have much longer to wait for something to happen.
Thanks to the technology of the jumbotron, Hall was able to see Khannouchi slowly creeping up towards the leaders. While the 35-year old may have lost a step or two over time, he was still the leading qualifier coming into the race as well as the only person to ever run sub-2:06 three times. Hall’s response was to simply accelerate away from everyone else as his 5K splits dropped from 15:05 to 14:48 to 14:28 – that’s 4:51 pace down to 4:39 pace. As a result of this move, the pack of five that was together at mile 16 was demolished. Hall put 39, 52 and 70 seconds on Ritz, Browne and Meb, respectively, in the span of three miles. In addition, Abdi dropped out, Sell passed Khannouchi to move into fifth place and Lehmkuhle held tough in the seventh position.
With only the 47th best qualifying time, many people may have been surprised to see Lehmkuhle only 40 seconds out of third place 20 miles into the race. However, for those of us lucky enough to live in Minnesota and follow his training and racing more closely, there was a feeling that he was due for a breakthrough performance. Barring a major meltdown, which he’s all too familiar with, the best 2:16 marathoner in the U.S. was about to have the race of his life.
By now the race was getting so strung out that we were only able to watch the top 10-15 runners before having to run to the other side of the park in order to catch Hall, who was well on his way to victory in an Olympic Trials record, 2:09:02. That would be his third jaw-dropping performance of the year. In January he broke a 21-year-old record as he became the first American under an hour for a half marathon (59:43) and he followed that up at the London Marathon with the best debut ever by an American (2:08:24).
As the runners passed the 35K mark, they began their last lap around Central Park. With Hall and Ritz off the front, attention turned to the battle for the third and final spot on the Olympic team. Sell was still in fourth place, but licking his chops as he was only a mere seven seconds behind Browne. Somehow I got the feeling that this is exactly how Sell visualized the race playing out. And since the last sighting, Lehmkuhle and Khannouchi were both able to pass Meb. They were together, 25 seconds behind Sell.
I made one last dash across the park and see that Sell had indeed passed Browne and moved into third place. Khannouchi and Lehmkuhle also passed Browne and although they wouldn’t be able to catch Sell, who’s nearly a minute ahead of them with only 2K to go, only two seconds separated the two runners as they battle for the alternate spot on the team. Although Khannouchi would go on to beat Lehmkuhle by 20 seconds, he paid Lehmkuhle and Sell a compliment afterwards when he said he didn’t realize those two would be so strong later in the race and that he wished he would have worked with them a little longer, instead of running by himself.
As I was standing at 40K watching all the runners one last time, it was apparent that many of the runners with local connections were able to move up significantly during the second half of the race. A look at splits afterwards shows that Lehmkuhle, Chad Johnson, Donovan Fellows, Michael Reneau and Chris Lundstrom were all able to run negative splits.
I wish I were able to end my recap there. Unfortunately, the race was overshadowed by the untimely death of Ryan Shay, who collapsed and died about 5.5 miles into the race. As I watched the runners at about 15K I could see numerous emergency vehicles about 200 meters up the road. I had no idea what was going on, but soon learned that Shay had collapsed. I think Brian Sell summed up everyone’s feeling when he said they’d all give up their spots on the Olympic Team to have Shay back. My thoughts and prayers go out to his family and friends.