The State Of Men’s Marathoning In The U.S.

Which three runners will drape themselves in the American flag at the finish line of the 2016 Trials? At this point, it’s impossible to guess.

So, are you an optimist or a pessimist?

Do you look at the state of elite-level men’s marathoning in the U.S. and get excited? Or is the view depressing?

Today we’re exactly 18 months away from the 2016 U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon races in Los Angeles. Three Olympic team slots are up for grabs and you could argue there isn’t a single runner in the driver’s seat at this point to grab one.

Is that thrilling or terrifying? Because there are two ways to look at it, depending on how full (or empty) your glass is:

— The field is wide open, and that’s great. While the well-known veterans—Meb Keflezighi, Ryan Hall, Dathan Ritzenhein, Abdi Abdirahman—are still forces to be reckoned with, there are so many marathoners in the 2:10-2:12 range today that the trials are going to have unmatched intrigue. Plus, the recent retirement announcements from Jason Hartman and Andrew Carlson could open up a chance for other up-and-coming runners. There are no less than a dozen runners with a legitimate chance at contending for one of those three slots.

— On the flip side, one could make the argument that American competitiveness will end there. Everyone in the field has flaws: Keflezighi, 39, and Abdirahman, 37, aren’t getting any younger, Ritzenhein, 31, continues to struggle with injuries and Hall isn’t the runner he was even two years ago. Not to mention the fact that no other current American runner, so far, has broken 2:10. The warts are real, and there may be enough of them to prevent anyone in the U.S. from being consistently competitive on the world’s stage in the next few years.

RELATED: Who will make the 2016 U.S. Olympic Marathon teams?

The mystery of the 2016 trials should be fun to watch play out, but some say the bigger picture isn’t a rosy one.

“We’re just not that good in the marathon,” says Greg McMillan, a running coach who trained pros through adidas-sponsored McMillan Elite team for several years. “When you look at the list, we only have nine U.S. citizens that have broken 2:10 on non-aided courses [four who are currently running], and only six more on aided courses like Boston. That’s pretty bad. In other countries, they’ll have that many (break 2:10) in a weekend.”

Why can’t the U.S. be more competitive? We live in a sports-crazed country of 300 million people. It has the technology and the resources for cutting-edge training like the Nike Oregon Project. It has the geography for altitude training. And the latest running boom over the last 10 years has drawn more interest to the sport than ever before, both at the entry level and at the competitive level.

Yet when Ryan Hall leaned across the finish line at the 2008 London Marathon in 2:06:17, it represented a high-water mark of sorts (Keflezighi’s major victories aside). No American has come within 90 seconds of Hall’s performance that day on an unaided course—not even Hall himself. And really, nobody seems poised to anytime soon.

To take it one step further, as of Aug. 13, there are 60 runners from around the world who have run faster this year than Meb Keflezighi’s Boston Marathon-winning time of 2:08:37. Not only are there no Americans among the top 60, but Hall, Ritzenhein and Khalid Khannouchi are the only U.S. runners to have ever run that fast.

So while the trials will be a must-see event and will serve as a quadrennial benchmark of American distance running, the drama could very well end there. And everybody has a theory as to why U.S. runners struggle to stack up alongside other countries in the marathon.

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