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Excitement Mounts As Olympic Trials Marathon Fast Approaches

The state of American marathoning is strong as excitement builds toward next February's U.S. Olympic Trials.

The 2016 U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon is on Saturday in Los Angeles and speculation about how things might transpire at the front of the field is nearing its peak.

Four members of the 2012 U.S. Olympic marathon team—only Meb Keflezighi for men; Shalane Flanagan, Desiree Linden and Kara Goucher for women—are slated to be on the starting line in L.A., and there’s good reason to believe all of these individuals will be in the mix to punch a ticket to the Olympic Games in Rio later this summer. A record $600,000 in prize money is also up for grabs among the top male and female finishers, with the payouts extending 10 deep on both sides.

Keflezighi returns as the defending champion in the men’s race, and despite the fact that he’ll be 40 years old when he steps to the starting line, there’s no reason not to label him the favorite. His 2:08:37 winning time at Boston in 2014 is the fastest time—and only Major marathon win by an American—in the 2016 qualifying period, and the 2004 Olympic silver medalist has shown very little signs of slowing since joining the Masters ranks in May. He’s coming off a seventh-place finish at the New York City Marathon and also finished eighth (second American behind Dathan Ritzenhein) at the Boston Marathon in April. As long as Keflezighi is on the starting line in L.A., he can’t be counted out.

Two-time Olympian Ryan Hall, runner-up to Keflezighi at the Trials in 2012, announced his retirement on Jan. 15, citing chronically low testosterone levels and persistent injury issues as the reason for his exit from the sport at age 33. Abdi Abdirahman, who held off Ritzenhein in Houston to finish third and qualify for his fourth Olympic team, scratched from the race on Feb 1., after experiencing a setback in training.

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The absence of Hall and Abdirahman makes the men’s race a wide-open affair with no less than 15 runners with a legitimate shot of landing on the podium. And while he didn’t make the Olympic marathon team in 2012, it’s worth bringing Ritzenhein into the conversation from the get-go. The 32-year-old three-time Olympian, who finished fourth at the 2012 marathon trials but later made the Olympic team in the 10,000m, is hoping to carry the momentum of a solid 2015 racing campaign into the Olympic year. Ritzenhein’s 2:07:47 clocking at the 2012 Chicago Marathon falls outside the official qualifying window, but he did run 2:09:45 there a year later, making him the only other sub-2:10 qualifier in the field along with Keflezighi. Ritz was the top American at April’s Boston Marathon, where he finished seventh—one spot and over a minute up on Keflezighi. Making his fourth Olympic team and landing a spot on the starting line of the 2016 Olympic Marathon in Rio is high on his priority list.

“I love racing all distances, but there’s something about the Olympic Marathon,” Ritzenhein told the media in a conference call last fall. “The excitement just captivates you and I want to be a part of that real bad.”

Reigning U.S. marathon champion Jared Ward, who also won national titles at the 20K and 25K distances in the past year, doesn’t have one of the fastest personal bests in the field (2:12:56), but he’ll carry the confidence of his recent racing successes with him all the way to the starting line. He also knows what it’s like to race well in hot weather, having triumphed at last years U.S. Marathon Championship in L.A. in toasty conditions similar to what’s forecasted for this weekend.

“Winning the national title gave me a lot of confidence,” Ward admitted. “I loved L.A. and all the people out there. I’m really looking forward to competing at the trials. I see it being hard for someone to be a surprise because the list of guys who have a shot is so long.”

RELATED: Jared Ward Takes Winding Road To Olympic Trials Marathon

The 27-year-old from Provo, Utah thinks the current depth of U.S. marathoning makes for a wide open race, and he’s right. Including himself, there are now 12 men who have run under 2:13 during the Olympic Trials qualifying period, and another seven under 2:14. Luke Puskedra carries the momentum of a fifth-place, 2:10:24 Chicago finish last fall with him to the starting line, and while another sub-2:11 runner, Jeffrey Eggleston, will be looking to elevate their careers to the next level. Ryan Vail, whose 2:10:57 personal best put him amongst the pre-race favorites, announced on Wednesday that he won’t race due to a femoral stress fracture.

The big wildcard on Saturday will be Olympic 10,000m silver medalist Galen Rupp. The 29-year-old made his marathon intentions official on Jan. 29, adding an interesting twist to an already unpredictable men’s race. Rupp, who qualified for the Trials with a solo 1:01:20 half marathon effort at a low-key race in Portland on Dec. 13, will be making his marathon debut.

“It’s definitely a new challenge and it’s a little daunting just because I’ve never done it before,” Rupp said during his announcement on USATF.TV. “It’s such a big step up in distance but I’m really excited to give it a shot and I think with everything we’ve done to prepare me that it’s going to turn out alright.”

Also worth considering are Diego Estrada, who won last year’s U.S. half-marathon championship in 60:51 and will be making his marathon debut at the Trials, and 2:14 marathoner Tim Ritchie, who just blew away the field at the Rock ‘n’ Roll Philadelphia Half Marathon with a massive 1:01:22 personal best. While a fast half marathon doesn’t always translate to instant success over 26.2 miles, if someone like Estrada is still in the mix with a few miles to go, watch out. There’s also new U.S. citizen Elkanah Kibet, a former Auburn All-American from Kenya, who ran 2:11:31 in Chicago in October; Matt Llano (2:12:28), the U.S. runner-up behind Ward last year in L.A.; Llano’s HOKA Northern Arizona Elite training partner Scott Smith, who is aiming to improve on his 2:14:40 personal best; and Craig Leon (2:13:53), who turned in a strong race with an eighth-place finish in New York City earlier this month. Brett Gotcher, six years removed form his 2:10:36 personal best, was fifth at the 2012 Trials and is hoping he can improve a couple places on Saturday. The sheer volume of potential contenders is so staggering that there are just too many to name.

RELATED: Resurgent Brett Gotcher Taking Hard Road To The Trials

On the women’s side, there’s Shalane Flanagan and Desiree Linden—who went 1-2 at the 2012 Trials in Houston—and then there’s everybody else. Times aren’t everything in marathoning, but they can’t be ignored, especially when the results back them up in a big way. Flanagan and Linden are the clear-cut favorites to make another Olympic team in the marathon, and with good reason.

Since winning the 2012 Trials in event-record time (2:25:38) and finishing 10th at the Olympic Marathon in London, Flanagan has not let her foot off the gas. The 34-year-old has added more national titles in cross country, road and track to her already extensive racing resume, and has posted the two fastest marathon times by an American female during the Olympic Trials qualifying period (2:22:02 and 2:21:14 at Boston and Berlin, respectively, in 2014).

“I think we [my coach and I] will work back from the trials knowing that’s an important race to be ready for and what fits in making sure I’m ready for that day,” Flanagan told last fall. “I still have a lot of aggressive goals.”

Flanagan was fourth at Boston in 2013, seventh in 2014 and ninth this past year (although she could move up a spot in 2013 and 2014 pending whether or not drug cheat Rita Jeptoo is stripped of her titles), and also took third at Berlin in 2014 when she ran the second-fastest American time in history. No other American woman has been as successful at World Marathon Majors races with the exception of Linden, who became the only American ever to beat Flanagan in a marathon this past April in Boston.

The diminutive Linden, who finished fourth at this year’s Boston Marathon in 2:25:39—two minutes and five places ahead of Flanagan—was runner-up to her rival at the 2012 Trials in Houston but was forced to drop out of the London Games due to a femoral stress fracture. The 32-year-old, a longtime member of the Hansons-Brooks training group in Rochester, Mich., says she hit the reset button after the disappointment of her last Olympic experience and is looking forward to competing for another chance to represent the red, white and blue on the world’s biggest stage in Rio next summer. “This is like starting over,” Linden said of her mindset heading into the 2016 Trials training cycle. “It was awesome to call myself an Olympian but I don’t feel like I lived up to that label.”

Linden finished 10th at the 2014 Boston Marathon in 2:23:54—the second-fastest marathon run by a U.S. woman during the Trials qualifying period. That mark is over three minutes faster than that of third-fastest qualifier, Amy Cragg, the fourth-place finisher at the 2012 Trials who was Linden’s college teammate at Arizona State. More on her in a bit.

Kara Goucher, the third member of the 2012 Olympic marathon team, has traveled a rocky road since finishing 11th—right behind her former training partner Flanagan—at the 2012 Games in London. She placed sixth at the 2013 Boston Marathon in 2:28:11, but then left her Portland-based Nike training group and returned to Boulder, Colo., where she currently trains under her collegiate coaches, Mark Wetmore and Heather Burroughs. Injuries have prevented Goucher from showing her once-dominant form over the past two years—she finished a disappointing 14th at the New York City Marathon in 2:37:03—but she’s had some bright spots too, most recently at last weekend’s Big Sur Half Marathon, where she won in 1:11:13.

“This is the starting place for me leading up to the (Olympic) Trials,” Goucher said after her victory. “It’s a good place to start; it’s the fastest I’ve started in years.”

Leading a tight group of women who have run between 2:27 and 2:30 is the 31-year-old Cragg, who equaled her personal best of 2:27:03 to finish fifth at Chicago in 2014. She’s had a good run on the roads the past two years, winning national titles at 10K in 2014 and 15K earlier this year, and posting runner-up finishes at last year’s 20K championships and this year’s 5K championships. But she’s struggled as well, dropping out of Boston in April and finishing 14th at the U.S. 20K championships this past fall. Fueled by the disappointment of 2012, and now training with Flanagan as a member of the Nike Bowerman Track Club, Hastings is keen on punching her ticket to Rio in L.A. this February.

American marathon record holder and Olympic bronze medalist Deena Kastor, who ran 2:27:47 at last October’s Chicago Marathon to break the U.S. Masters record (Kastor is 42), announced on Wednesday that she will not be competing in Saturday’s race due to a glute strain.

In addition to Flanagan, Linden and Cragg, only five other women have run under 2:30 during the trials qualifying period, and one of those athletes, Laura Thweatt—who ran 2:28:23 at her debut in New York in November—has said she will keep her focus on the track and not run the marathon trials. The unheralded Annie Bersagel, who lives in Oslo, Norway, where she works as an attorney, could very well run her way onto the Olympic team in February. She ran per PR of 2:28:29 at the Dusseldorf Marathon in April, winning for the second straight year and also captured the U.S. marathon title in 2013 at the Twin Cities Marathon. Serena Burla has ran 2:28:01 and was 10th overall at the world championships in Beijing this past summer. Reigning U.S. Marathon champion Blake Russell, who made the Olympic marathon team in 2008, will not race due to a recent hernia surgery.

Kellyn Taylor, who trains with Hoka Northern Arizona Elite in Flagstaff, Ariz., debuted in 2:28:40 earlier this year and has run under 1:11 in the half marathon, while another relative marathon newbie, as Sara Hall (2:31:14 at Chicago in October), also figures to be in the mix. Hall rebounded nicely at Chicago this fall after a forgettable debut in L.A. last spring. While forecasted temperatures and a loop-style course may slow down finishing times a touch, it’s going to take a low-to-mid-2:20s type of effort to make the Olympic marathon team and there are bucketloads of women knocking loudly on that door.

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The state of American marathoning is strong heading into Saturday’s Olympic Trials Marathon. Some old favorites will once again be looking to wrap themselves in red, white and blue while a large group of ambitious up-and-comers hope to catapult their professional careers into orbit by way of an Olympic berth. If you’re not in L.A. to watch the action up close, be sure to tune into NBC at 10 A.M. PST to see how it all shakes out.