LOS ANGELES—The women’s field at the 2016 U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon ran a hard race in the brutal and relentless Los Angeles heat. In the end, the runner who finished one spot shy of the podium at the 2012 Trials got her redemption in 2016: Amy Cragg, who won Saturday’s race in 2:28:20.
Desiree Linden stormed from behind to take second, and Shalane Flanagan placed third to round out the U.S. team that will compete in the Rio de Janeiro Olympics in August.
Within the first 5 miles, after the gun had gone off at 10:22 a.m., Cragg and Flanagan immediately took to the front of the pack and showcased a strong stride, fluctuating from a steady 5:37- to 5:50-mile pace. From the onset and for much of the race thereafter, it was obvious that the two Nike teammates who trained together through the build-up had dialed in their strategy to work together and grab two of the three spots for the Olympic team.
At mile 10, Flanagan and Cragg surged ahead of the group, leaving other top contenders such as Linden, Kara Goucher, Kellyn Taylor and Serena Burla behind.
It wasn’t until mile 25 when Flanagan started to lose steam and feel the heat. Cragg did what she could to talk her training partner through the rough patch and seeing Flanagan overheat, grabbed her a water bottle to pour over her head. Eventually, though, she had to leave Flanagan behind.
“With about a mile to go, I was keeping an eye on Des and I knew Kara wasn’t far behind her,” the 32-year-old Cragg recalled. “And I knew that was not a position I wanted to be in—the third/fourth position. Then I saw Des coming up and that’s when I decided I really needed to make a move, so I went forward.”
Cragg, who made the 2012 U.S. Olympic team in the 10,000-meter run, crossed the finish line victoriously in 2:28:20 and earned the $80,000 first-place prize check.
Linden passed Flanagan and raced ahead to take second in 2:28:54, running into Cragg’s arms.
“That was the toughest 26.2 miles ever,” said the 32-year-old Linden after the race. “It felt longer.”
An exhausted and overheated Flanagan then appeared around the final turn, falling across the finish line in third place and into Cragg’s embrace. Her time was 2:29:19.
“Sweet baby Jesus, I am so thankful for her,” Flanagan said of Cragg’s support through the final miles.
Needing immediate medical attention, Flanagan was swept out of Cragg’s arms and taken to the med tent. She gave a brief statement after the post-race press conference that she was unable to attend, saying “That was the hardest marathon I’ve probably run in terms of the last 6 miles being the hardest. I just got done getting an IV and I’ve never had one of those before. Clearly it took a toll on me today and it was a fight to make the team.”
Flanagan also added how she’ll need to work on her fueling in Rio de Janeiro, where it could exhibit even hotter and more humid temperatures. Temperatures ranged from 67 degrees at the start of Saturday’s race to 78 degrees near the finish, on a course with little to no shade.
Besides the top three finishers heading to the Olympics, the rest of the field put up a good fight as well. Kellyn Taylor, a 29-year-old firefighter-in-training from Flagstaff, Ariz., positioned herself in third next to Flanagan and Cragg during the first 10K. She ended up finishing sixth in 2:32:50.
Throughout the first half of the race, Goucher seemed to settle somewhere in the middle of the lead pack with Sara Hall and Serena Burla. Occasionally, she broke wide of the group and surged up to third to catch Linden, but couldn’t hold it. Goucher finished fourth in 2:30:24, narrowly missing her third U.S. Olympic team berth.
Burla, a cancer survivor and mother from Washington, D.C., placed eighth in 2:34:22.
“If you made mistakes early, especially in the heat,” Linden said, “they’re magnified during the last miles.”