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Olympic Outlook: Women’s Marathon Preview

Will an American runner reach the podium in London?

Will an American runner reach the podium in London?

The Olympic marathon has proven to be a race where runners other than the favorites often rise to the occasion and wind up on the medal podium. Although many marathons around the world have more prize money and the chance for world records, only the Olympics offers an athlete the prestige of representing their country, the lure of winning a medal and the lifelong honor that goes with each one.

Stagnant for the better part of two years, women’s marathoning is finally on the upswing again with six women under 2:20 in 2012 — including five who will be on the starting line in London. The favorites for the gold medal are the second- and third-fastest women in history: Kenya’s Mary Keitany, who won the 2012 London Marathon in 2:18:37, and Russia’s Liliya Shobukhova, who took the 2011 Chicago Marathon in 2:18:20. The fastest woman in history, Great Britain’s Paula Radcliffe, was forced to withdraw from the race this past Sunday due to a lingering case of osteoarthritis in her foot. Also worth keeping a close eye on is Kenyan Edna Kiplagat, the reigning world champion and 2010 New York City Marathon champion who was runner-up to Keitany in London this past spring with a 2:19:50 personal best clocking.

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The United States sends a strong team to London led by Olympic Trials champion Shalane Flanagan, who finished second to Kiplagat in her marathon debut at New York in 2010. Second and third-place Trials finishers Desiree Davila and Kara Goucher, who trains with Flanagan as part of coach Jerry Schumacher’s Nike Oregon Track Club Elite team, are hoping they can follow in Flanagan’s footsteps and help land an American on the medal stand.

Here’s a overview of the American entrants in this Sunday’s women’s Olympic Marathon in London, which will send runners past a variety of iconic landmarks—the House of Parliament, Buckingham Palace, St. Paul’s Cathedral and the Tower of London—on a four-loop course that starts and ends at The Mall, not the Olympic Stadium.

Shalane Flanagan

Flanagan owns the American record in the 10,000m and won the bronze medal in that event at the 2008 Olympics. Now she’s trying to follow in the footsteps of Deena Kastor, who moved up to the marathon and won a bronze at the 2004 Olympics in Athens. She’s already been following in the footsteps of her parents. Flanagan’s mother, Cheryl Treworgy, held the world record in the marathon from 1971-73, while her father, Steve Flanagan, was once a 2:18 marathoner who represented the U.S. at the World Cross Country Championships.

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Age at the Olympics: 31

Trains in: Portland, Ore.

PR: 2:25:38 (2012 U.S. Olympic trials, Houston)

Recent results: 2012 Lisbon Half Marathon, first, 1:08:52

Previous Olympics: 2008: bronze medal, 10,000m; 2004: 11th, 5,000m semifinals

Olympic outlook: If you’re going to put your money on one American to win a medal in the marathon in London, Shalane Flanagan seems to be the best bet. The ferocious Flanagan has a reputation for being able to brutalize her body in a way that most athletes can only dream of, and this rare gift no doubt helped her win the bronze in Beijing despite being waylaid with food poisoning only days before the race. Other reasons to bet on Flanagan? Her runner-up finish at the 2010 New York City Marathon, her debut at 26.2 miles, was the best for an American in 20 years, and she set an Olympic trials record when she won in Houston with a 2:25:38 in what was only her second marathon.

Desiree Davila

Quiet yet determined, Desiree Davila at last got the acclaim she deserves when she made a heroic surge in the final meters of the 2011 Boston Marathon in a bid for the win, only to come up just short of Kenya’s Caroline Kilel. Davila is coached by brothers Kevin and Keith Hanson, who have become known for helping unheralded collegiate distance runners improve at the marathon. Brian Sell was a 2008 U.S. Olympic marathoner while competing for the Hansons Brooks program in suburban Detroit.

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Age at the Olympics: 29

Trains in: Rochester Hills, Mich.

PR: 2:22:38 (2011 Boston Marathon)

Recent results: 2012 New York City Half Marathon, ninth, 1:10:44; 2012 Boston Athletic Association 5K, 10th, 16:03

Previous Olympics: none

Olympic outlook: Davila has been hampered by a hip injury that may keep her from Sunday’s race or at the very least keep her from competing at the top of her game. If she does run, Davila’s signature is to slyly run her own race and then churn out career-best performance after career-best performance while almost nobody is paying attention to her. She was barely mentioned before coming second in Boston last year, and the cameras missed her as she negative-split her way to a 2:27:53 at the world championships in 2009 in Berlin, five seconds behind highly touted Goucher. Like her female teammates, Davila is a bona fide medal threat who possesses the resolve that is required for Olympic marathoning.

Kara Goucher

Goucher announced herself on the world stage when she won a bronze medal in the 10,000m at the 2007 track and field world championships; she set her sights on the marathon after the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. Goucher joined friend and former “rival” (at least from the media’s perspective) Shalane Flanagan last year when she split with Nike Oregon Project coach Alberto Salazar—who Goucher credits with revitalizing her career—to train Jerry Schumacher, who coaches a separate Nike group.

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Age at the Olympics: 34

Trains in: Portland, Ore.

PR: 2:24:52 (2011 Boston Marathon)

Recent results: 2012 New York City Half Marathon, third, 1:09:12

Previous Olympics: 2000: ninth, 5,000m, 10th, 10,000m

Olympic outlook: Goucher has struggled with injuries since giving birth to her son, Colt, in late 2010, but she ran well enough to get on the Olympic team by placing third at the U.S. trials. If Goucher can get back to the form that saw her earn podium finishes at the New York City Marathon in 2008 and the Boston Marathon in 2009, Goucher could be a medal contender.