On February 13, the nation’s best distance runners met in Los Angeles for the U.S. Olympic marathon trials. The marathon –– especially one of this importance, where the next Olympic team is chosen –– has the tendency of handing out lessons about running. The experiences of the top three women’s finishers have some important lessons for all of us.
No Such Thing as a Sure Bet
Let’s start with finisher number three: the highly decorated Shalane Flanagan. Flanagan, who won the 2008 Olympic bronze medal in the 10,000 meters, is the national record holder in the 10,000 meters and 15,000 meters. She also holds the second fastest U.S. women’s marathon time –– 2:21:14. Running commentators assumed that Flanagan would be on the 2016 marathon team and if there was a sure bet, she was it.
The first lesson we can learn from Shalane’s race is that there are seldom sure things in distance running. To be fair, Flanagan herself would probably agree with this statement. Although her buildup to the trials marathon was compromised by some niggling injuries that undermined her training, Flanagan explained that she “was feeling fantastic all the way up until the last (six-mile) loop.” It was clear during the first 20 miles that she and her training partner Amy Cragg were dictating the race. A surge by the duo at 12 miles broke up the front pack and kept the pace honest and it really looked like Flanagan and Cragg would cruise in together to claim the top two spots on the Olympic marathon team. During the last six-mile loop, however, Flanagan began to suffer from the heat and the effects of dehydration. She went from smooth and effortless to labored. By mile 23, she was delirious, suffering from chills, had ringing in her ears, and couldn’t see straight. With “something huge on the line” as she pointed out, Flanagan was able to push through and finish in third place, after being passed by Desi Linden during the last mile.
What can we learn from Flanagan’s experience?
This was the hottest Olympic Marathon Trials on record, with the temperature reaching 73 degrees during the race. The Rio Olympics promises to be warm and humid despite the fact that it will technically be held during South America’s winter season. Flanagan’s big takeaway from last weekend’s effort was that she needed to figure out her hydration requirements for running in a warmer-weather marathon.
Shalane’s problems on the final six-mile loop were telegraphed when she began to notice that she was not absorbing her fluids. They were sitting and sloshing in her stomach. She was “in a really bad place.” The speculation is that her drink may have been too sweet for the hot conditions. This is something to keep in mind for your own marathon racing and long-run efforts in the heat. Avoid sugary sports drinks that can actually compromise the stomach’s absorption of fluids. This is one of the reasons why you always hear elite runners talking about diluting their sports drinks with water. Doing this will speed absorption and maintain proper hydration levels. Test all of your race nutrition in race conditions. Don’t try anything new on race day.
The second lesson that we learned from Shalane’s third place finish was that a running partner can get you through some rough patches. Flanagan may have made some mistakes, but her teammate and training partner from the Bowerman Track Club, Amy Cragg, stayed by her side during most of the rough final miles, encouraged her to fight through potentially will-sapping dehydration, and was able to guide her to some semblance of pace during the final miles. There is a convincing argument to be made that without Cragg urging her on, Shalane collapses, drops out, or finishes off the podium. Flanagan also recognized Cragg’s support in her finish-line interview, when she exclaimed, “Sweet baby Jesus, I am so thankful for her.”
Trust Your Race Plan
Second place finisher Desiree “Des” Linden was also on most commentators’ “sure bet” lists. Linden’s career as a marathoner has seen steady improvement since her 2:44:56 debut at the 2007 Boston Marathon. Career highlights include placing second in the 2011 Boston Marathon with a 4-minute PR of 2:22:38. In 2012, Linden placed second in the Olympic Marathon trials and punched her ticket to the London games. A femoral stress fracture, however, caused her to drop out early on in the Olympic Marathon. After approximately a year of recovery, Linden was tackling marathons again with a fifth place finish at the 2014 NYC Marathon and a fourth place finish at the 2015 Boston Marathon. During the summer of 2015, Des returned to the track to win a silver medal in the Pan American Games 10,000 meters. Some additional speed should serve her well in this summer’s Olympic Games. Linden admitted after last weekend’s race that it was “the toughest 26.2 miles ever. It felt longer.”
What did we learn from Des Linden’s second place finish?
Although Linden was set on winning the trials marathon after several notable second place finishes throughout her career, she was not drawn into the lead pack’s faster pace. When the race is actually transpiring, it can be difficult to stick with a pre-developed plan. As Linden commented, “It was a mental battle when those guys got away. You’re wondering if your tactics are right, if they’re sound.” Before the race, Linden and her coaches, Kevin and Keith Hanson had determined that 5:40 per-mile pace would set her up to challenge for the win and, most importantly, gain that Olympic team spot. When the leaders started clicking off 5:35s, Linden stuck with her pacing, recognizing that she would be able to finish strong. Experience and discipline allowed Linden to negative split her race, work up to the leaders, and ultimately pass everyone except winner Amy Cragg.
By contrast, Kellyn Taylor, a promising yet inexperienced marathoner with HOKA, chucked her race plan and found herself in the lead and then was subsequently passed by Linden for the third qualifying spot at mile 16. If you watched HOKA’s video series on their marathon trials team, it was clear that Taylor was a serious contender, but found herself unable to hold back, even in practice. Patience is a virtue that sometimes has to be learned the hard way.
Let Your Setbacks be Your Call to Greatness
Olympic Trials Marathon victor Amy Cragg had a distinguished collegiate career (one of her teammates at the University of Arizona was Des Linden) but is also an Olympic veteran, having represented the United States in the 10,000 meters at the 2012 London Olympics. Her potential as a marathoner was evident from the beginning, as she placed second in her debut marathon, running L.A. in 2:27:03. Her promise as a marathon champion, however, was delayed by some lackluster efforts, including a twentieth place finish at New York City in 2013. A win at the Peachtree Road Race in 2014, however, was the start of a comeback that saw her place fifth at the Chicago Marathon, again in 2:27:03. Cragg’s running is on the upswing, the result of hard work and increasingly consistent racing.
What can we learn from Amy’s Olympic Marathon Trials victory?
Not only did Cragg demonstrate that persistence pays off, but she also recognized that setbacks require that you make some training adjustments. Although achieving great success on the track and roads under the guidance of Ray Treacy in Providence, Rhode Island, Cragg realized that to get to the next level she needed to train with the marathoner she wanted to most emulate: Shalane Flanagan. In November 2015, she made the switch to the Nike-sponsored Bowerman Track Club, coached by Jerry Shumacher. Most importantly, she started training with Flanagan. Simply put, to compete with the best, you need to train with the best and this resulted in a great team effort, as Shalane and Amy were able to support each other as teammates through the inevitable tough patches of the marathon.
When finally putting the lessons of the women’s 2016 Olympic Marathon Trials together, what it means for the rest of us, is this: Have a racing plan and stick with it (trust your training); remember to assess your hydration and nutrition for the specific race conditions; find good runners to train with and good teammates to race with (they will also become your friends); and find some meaningful motivation for each race that you run. Incorporate these lessons and who knows how far you can take your own running.