Bernard Lagat

Missing the Olympic marathon team can mean a wait of 4 years, or a few months

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As Des Linden saw three women ahead of her late in the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials — in a race where only the top three go to the Olympics — she considered dropping out for the second time in her 20 career marathons.

“For one split-second,” she said. “I hate to even think this, but there’s a point in the race where it’s like, well, s— I’m running [the] Boston [Marathon on April 20]. Should I just shut it down and jog in?

“But it mattered to me, and that’s why I came out here. I still fought all day. You’re already too far into this, and it means a lot. Pull your head out of your ass and go.”

Linden said she didn’t give up until the last 100 meters of the 26.2-mile race. Not until Sally Kipyego crossed the Atlanta Centennial Park finish line 11 seconds ahead of her, clinching the last spot on the U.S. team for the Tokyo Games.

Linden, the most decorated woman in the record field of more than 400, came thisclose to becoming the first U.S. woman to make three Olympic marathon teams.

MORE: Olympic Marathon Trials results

For Linden and the other favorites who missed the team, there will be more races, more marathons. But this race, the trials, will not happen for another four years. Linden will be 40 come the next Olympic year. Then again, 43-year-old Abdi Abdirahman finished third in the men’s race.

“If you asked me four years ago, I wouldn’t have planned on being here,” said Linden, whose career was reinvigorated by making the 2016 Olympic team and then winning the 2018 Boston Marathon. “Meb [Keflezighi] made the team at 41 [in 2016]. So that’s certainly popped in my mind.”

Bernard Lagat is 45 years old and a five-time Olympian. He finished 18th on Saturday, failing to break his own record as the oldest U.S. Olympic runner in history (which Abdirahman ended up snatching).

Like Linden, Lagat plans to return to marathon training after a short break and race 26.2 miles again this spring (though Lagat has not chosen a specific one). Before trials, Lagat did not rule out returning for June’s Olympic Track and Field Trials in the 10,000m, according to Sports Illustrated.

“I feel like with how I ran today, 2:14 in a [hilly] course like this in a windy day, I want to give 100 percent, one more good run somewhere in Europe,” he said. “I’m not going to stop.”

Jordan Hasay, the second-fastest U.S. female marathoner in history, knew something was wrong from the first mile.

A hamstring injury affected her build-up. Then this week, a lower-back issue flared. She tried to block it out, but Hasay dropped from the lead pack just before the halfway point.

“It was just all about finishing,” said Hasay, who ran in purple and gold in honor of Kobe Bryant. “It sucks when you’ve got an hour to go, and you’ve got to keep running.” 

She crossed more than 10 minutes behind winner Aliphine Tuliamuk in 26th place. She was enveloped in the arms of men’s winner Galen Rupp, with whom she shared a coach in Alberto Salazar before Salazar was banned last fall in a doping case. Salazar is believed to be appealing. Neither Rupp nor Hasay were implicated, and both have a clean drug-testing record.

Other women’s favorites who struggled dropped out to preserve their legs for the track trials 10,000m. Hasay was determined to finish after withdrawing on the eve of the 2018 Boston Marathon (heel) and two miles into the 2019 Chicago Marathon with a torn hamstring.

“I worked this hard to not sit and watch this on TV,” said Hasay, who at 28 seemingly has years of marathoning ahead of her.

Jared Ward, who was third at the 2016 Olympic Trials and sixth in Rio, was considered arguably the safest pick to make the marathon team. The men’s field wasn’t seen as deep as the women, and no man could match his consistency the last two years.

But Ward, an adjunct statistics professor at BYU, was 27th. Once Ward dropped from the leaders and saw his Olympic dream fade, he thought of his four kids between ages 1 and 7.

“I want my kids to know that when things get tough, we can still do hard things,” he said of finishing. “We don’t have to pull the plug when things get hard. So I feel a sense of accomplishment.”

Ward noted that he will always have that magical day at the trials in Los Angeles four years ago. And that, at 31, he is 12 years younger than Abdirahman.

“I was ready to pull the plug and consider a different marathon, but the streets were just yelling for me,” Ward said. “My mantra going into this race was, ‘Beyond me.’ There’s more to this than me.”

Emily Sisson, arguably the women’s pre-race favorite, and Molly Huddle, the American record holder at 10,000m, did not finish. Sisson and Huddle, who share a coach and sometimes train together, made strategic decisions after losing contact with the leaders around the 20th mile.

They don’t have to wait four years. As soon as Sisson and Huddle walked off the course on Saturday afternoon, they became favorites to make the Olympic team in the 10,000m at the track trials in June.

“Have unfinished business in the marathon, so I’ll be back,” was posted on Sisson’s Instagram, “but for now it’s time to rest & refocus.”

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Bernard Lagat reminded of Atlanta Games at U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials

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ATLANTA — As 45-year-old Bernard Lagat sat inside a hotel overlooking Centennial Olympic Park, he spoke one sentence that prefaced the start of his Olympic journey more than two decades ago.

“We are doing this in a special place,” he said of the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials, which finish at the park on Saturday (12 p.m. ET, NBC, NBCSports.com/live and the NBC Sports app).

Lagat is an underdog, but has a chance to make a sixth Olympic team by placing in the top three. He can break his own record as the oldest U.S. Olympic runner in history.

Lagat was reminded this week of the Atlanta Olympics that got away.

In 1996, the Kenyan-born runner was coming off his freshman year at Jomo Kenyatta University Agriculture and Technology in Nairobi. He studied mathematics and computer science.

Lagat debuted at the Kenyan Olympic Trials. He remembered finishing seventh in the 1500m, having exhausted himself by clocking a 3:37 semifinal.

“They had fancy shoes, nice clothing,” he said of the pros. “Me, I was like hand-me-down spikes.”

Lagat’s coach at the time, Nganga Ngata, arranged for him to transfer to Washington State later that summer. But first, Lagat watched on TV the Olympic 1500m final — famous for then-world-record holder Noureddine Morceli and current world-record holder Hicham El Guerrouj making contact at the bell; El Guerrouj fell, Morceli won.

Days later, Lagat headed to Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in Nairobi. He was to fly to the United States for the first time, embarking on a journey that would lead to U.S. Olympic teams in 2008, 2012 and 2016 after he represented Kenya in 2000 and 2004.

Before a 21-year-old Lagat boarded his flight, he encountered a reception. The Kenyan Olympic team was arriving back from Atlanta after collecting eight medals, including in every men’s distance-running event.

“They had all these celebrations, traditional milk and the gourds,” Lagat said. “Oh, it was amazing. … That fire, seeing them coming home with medals, and I thought, I want to be like those guys.”

Lagat went on to earn eight combined Olympic and world championships medals between the 1500m and 5000m. Lagat qualified for one last Olympics on the track in 2016, going from sixth place at the bell to win the trials 5000m. He was fifth in Rio.

Then he turned to the marathon. Lagat has raced two of them. He clocked 2:17:20 in New York City in 2018, saying he was “running blind” with inexperience. He ran 2:12:10 at the 2019 Gold Coast Marathon in Australia, ranking him outside the 20 fastest Americans in this Olympic cycle.

Lagat went back to Kenya last month to train for the trials with the likes of world-record holder Eliud Kipchoge. Lagat soaked up so much that he likened it to a six-week school term.

At one point, Lagat was part of a 30km training run with Kipchoge. By the end he rounded a bend and saw the Olympic favorite just 60 seconds ahead.

“You think about Eliud being 60 seconds ahead of you in a 30K?” an incredulous Lagat said. “I thought, I’m done. Now I can buy my flight and go back to USA. I’m ready.”

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At U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials, competitors also include shoe companies

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ATLANTA — The story of the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials, for so long about who finishes first, second and third to qualify for the Games, has an added primary question here on Saturday.

What shoes will those runners be wearing?

An arms race within a foot race, as two-time Olympian Des Linden put it, was, unknowingly at the time, sparked at trials four years ago. There in Los Angeles, some Nike-sponsored runners raced in unreleased prototypes of what later became known as the Vaporfly.

Reported studies claim the latest version — the unusually tall Alphafly with extra foam and a carbon fiber plate — can boost a runner’s efficiency by several percentage points.

Other shoe companies have been playing catch-up to the technology, releasing their own prototypes and new versions ahead of Saturday’s trials (12 p.m. ET, NBC, NBCSports.com/live and the NBC Sports app).

In versions of the Vaporfly: Kenyan Eliud Kipchoge broke the marathon world record by 78 seconds in 2018. Kipchoge became the first person to break two hours for a marathon in 2019 in a non-record-eligible event (in an Alphafly). The next day, Kenyan Brigid Kosgei lowered the 16-year-old women’s marathon world record by 81 seconds.

“[Marathon] times don’t make sense anymore, necessarily,” Linden, who is sponsored by Brooks Running, said Thursday as she bids to become the first woman to make three U.S. Olympic marathon teams. “It’s hard to figure out if it’s the athletes, if it’s the shoes or what combination it is that you’re watching.”

The shoes caused World Athletics, the sport’s international governing body, to say that there was “sufficient evidence to raise concerns that the integrity of the sport might be threatened.”

On Jan. 31, World Athletics ruled that, for this spring and beyond, any shoe must have been available to buy for at least four months prior to competition use. It also limited the height of shoes, though, according to Nike, its Vaporflys and Alphaflys, including the version Kipchoge wore for his sub-two marathon, meet those limits.

“I feel like every conversation I have is: What shoe is that person wearing. Do you think that helped them run faster? I feel like the conversations are taking away from the athletes,” said Emily Sisson, a New Balance runner among Saturday’s favorites. “People don’t really still know even how much work these shoes are doing. Innovation is great, and can be great for the sport, but at the same time, I don’t like seeing shoes getting bigger and bigger and with more plates and things like that. … I’m hoping eventually the conversations will start drifting back to the athletes, not what shoes are they wearing.”

A tweet this week suggested that Nike is offering every one of the men and women racing on Saturday a free pair of Alphaflys. A record 771 runners qualified.

Most of the Olympic team contenders are not sponsored by Nike. Many intend to race in recent versions of their own sponsors’ shoes, believed to have similar technology to Nike’s.

“Three or four years ago, the shoe industry was turned on its side with the shoe that was released that was 15 years ahead of its time,” said Saucony-sponsored Rio Olympian Jared Ward, one of the favorites in the men’s race, along with Nike-sponsored Galen Rupp. “For decades, I feel like the emphasis was on making shoes lighter and lighter and lighter, and that was all we were focused on. Then, all of a sudden, there was this idea that maybe adding weight the right away is going to actually help performance.”

Ward, a BYU adjunct statistics professor, did his own research on the Nike effects, though he said he has never worn them.

He plans to race Saturday in a version of a Saucony shoe that he first competed in at the New York City Marathon on Nov. 3. He was the top American male runner in sixth place in his fastest time in three New York City starts by 99 seconds.

“I feel like the Saucony is very much competitive,” Ward said. “The results that I’m seeing in terms of energy-cost benefit are enough to make me smile.”

Linden said she will wear a Brooks shoe version that will soon be available for purchase. She has had them for about a month. Before this high-tech shoe era, Linden never had such a short amount of time with her race shoes before a major marathon. Linden, the 2018 Boston Marathon winner, starts her 20th marathon on Saturday.

“That’s the thing with the shoes right now. It’s not only does the athlete’s speed matter, the company’s speed matters,” said Linden, noting at a recent Boston Marathon that she had her shoes six days before the race. “How quick are they turning around the new innovations and the newest, greatest thing? It’s a bit of an arms race within a foot race.”

Two of Nike’s top male U.S. marathoners, Bernard Lagat and Leonard Korir, said as of Thursday night they had not decided whether they will race in the new Alphafly or a previous Vaporfly version.

“The most advantage that I get is that when I run 20 miles, or even 25, if I wear that, I can recover faster,” Lagat said of the Alphafly.

There’s no defined answer as to how much a specific shoe can boost a specific athlete — same as it’s always been. Saturday will crown six U.S. Olympic team members and provide another set of data to analyze.

“I’m sure studies are going to surface everywhere comparing everybody’s versions of the shoe,” Ward said. “So we should have answers to that before long.”

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