Top Americans Come To Vegas Ready To Roll

With a 62-minute half-marathon PR, Patrick Smyth will be the man to beat on Sunday. Photo: PhotoRun.net

Twenty-five men and 8 women going for Olympic Marathon Trials qualifiers.

Written by: David Monti

(c) 2011 Race Results Weekly, all rights reserved. Used with permission.

With a 62-minute half-marathon PR, Patrick Smyth will be the man to beat on Sunday. Photo: PhotoRun.net

No running event stirs the passion of American athletes like the Olympic Trials Marathon, the world’s only one-day qualifying race which selects a complete Olympic Marathon team.  Held every four years, the Trials is both a stepping stone to potential Olympic glory for the top three finishers who will earn team berths, and a goal unto itself for those who merely qualify for entry.

“For better or worse, there is a special energy standing on the starting line of an Olympic Trials event,” explained marathoner Jason Lehmkuhle, who competed in both the 2004 and 2008 Marathon Trials, finishing tenth and fifth, respectively.  “There’s extra nerves, extra pressure, and an extra reward. That’s what it’s all about.”

The 2012 Trials for men and women will be held in Houston next January 14th, and 150 men and 198 women have already qualified, according to a tally kept by MarathonGuide.com.  But dozens more athletes –mostly men– who still hope to make the Trials see Sunday’s Zappos.com Rock ‘n’ Roll Las Vegas Half Marathon as their best chance.  It is also likely their final chance because the qualifying window closes 30 days before the Trials.

“It’s the last chance ranch,” quipped television commentator Toni Reavis in New York City last month.

The flat, out-and-back course in Las Vegas, combined with low humidity and comfortably cool temperatures in the late afternoon, make it the ideal place to try for a qualifying mark, which is 1:05:00 for men and 1:15:00 for women.  Twenty-five men and eight women, respectively, hope to run at least that fast on Sunday, according to the race organizer, Competitor Group, Inc.

Some, like Tommy Greenless of Walnut Creek, Calif., have come achingly close several times before.  Greenless clocked 1:05:23 in Eugene, Ore., last May and 1:05:11 in Seattle last June. He said in an e-mail message last night he’s “done a lot to prepare” for Sunday’s race.

“It would mean so much to me if I made it,” Greenless explained.  “In college, I was most proud that I was able to compete in 12 Big Ten Championship meets and this would be my second U.S. Marathon Trials (he finished 81st in the 2008 Marathon Trials in New York City).  “I haven’t always run the fastest times out there, but it is the daily/weekly/monthly/yearly outcomes that I’ve enjoyed over the years in my running.”

Joe Moore, who just moved to Minnesota from Raleigh, N.C., has also come very close to qualifying.  At the City of Oaks Half Marathon in Raleigh last Nov. 6, the former Kansas State athlete ran a personal best 1:05:17 on a course which he found more difficult than he expected.

“They changed the course and I thought it would be faster than it was, but I thought it was harder,” he said in a telephone interview last night.  “I got locked in at five-minute miles and couldn’t drop it.”

Running with another athlete who had already made the Trials standard, Ricky Flynn, Moore watched his chance to qualify slip away in the final miles.  He was able to speed up before the finish, but just not enough.

“Well, I knew at 12 miles (19K) that I was going to have to run a 4:30 or 4:35 last mile to do it, and I ran 4:45,” he lamented.  “It was a little discouraging.”

Unlike Greenless, the 27 year-old Moore has never made an Olympic Trials.  He ran 2:21:50 at the Bank of America Chicago Marathon last October, a time which was under the 2:22:00 standard required to make the 2008 Trials.  But USATF tightened the marathon standard to 2:19:00 for the 2012 Trials.  Making the Trials would be a career achievement for Moore, who said that his training is structured so that he will peak in Houston and not in Las Vegas.

“What I’m trying to do is planning on making the Trials by doing marathon training, but still be tapered and ready to qualify (in Las Vegas),” he said.  “I still kept mileage up pretty high, then taking a couple of (easy) days before the race.  I’m trying to prepare for this race by keeping the next one mind. That’s the plan.”

For John Ricardi, an 8:36.69 steeplechaser who works part-time for a retail running store in Bloomington, Ind., qualifying for the Trials is more important than actually running it.  Ricardi said that he and his coach would decide what to do after the race in Las Vegas.

“My goal is to hit the Olympic Trials standard, then play it by ear,” he said speaking by telephone last night.  “I’m not sure if I’d run the Trials.”

Ricardi, 25, ran 1:07:30 at the GoodLife Fitness Victoria Marathon last October, well off of the 65-minute standard.  However, he said that his training indicates that he can make the time in Las Vegas.  He clearly feels the pull of the Trials.

“I think a lot of it stems from just growing up and watching the Olympics and seeing what that means,” he said.  “You have super far-reaching goals to be an Olympian… and the Trials is a big step in that process.  For a lot of people, even if they are not competitive, taking that first step is the culmination of a dream. It’s just a select few.  When something isn’t easily obtained, there is an aura about it.”

There’s little downside for athletes like Greenless, Moore and Ricardi to enter the Trials.  Under USATF rules, every qualifier for the men’s race is an “A” qualifier (2:19:00, 1:05:00 and 28:30.00 for 10,000m), and “A” qualifiers get full funding for travel, hotel and meals for the race in Houston.  (The situation is different for women where the half-marathon standard of 1:15:00 only represents a “B” qualifier which does not come with financial support.)  For that reason, Ricardi just might enter for the experience, then turn his attention back to the track.

“I think there’s a lot of plusses to go even if you feel you won’t finish or not,” Ricardi reasoned.  “As a whole, I don’t see a lot of negative things for participating in this event.”

For Lehmkuhle, and the other 11 men and 18 women entered in the Las Vegas race who have already qualified for the Trials, the race on Las Vegas’s famous Strip is a chance to test their fitness for next month’s big race.

“We like to plan one half (marathon) midway in the build up,” Lehmkuhle said in a telephone interview.  “The Vegas race works perfectly for us.  I feel like I’m in pretty good shape, but we are in the middle of a marathon build up.  A good race would be 1:02-something.  I wouldn’t be worried if I ran a minute slower than that.”

Lehmkuhle, 33, said he had been to Las Vegas five or six times for “various bachelor parties,” but had never raced there.

“Needless to say, I haven’t done a whole lot of running in Vegas,” he joked.

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