Will we see another surprise on the streets of 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.
In the men’s race this Sunday, the specter of the late, great Sammy Wanjiru will no doubt be felt be felt on the streets of London. The Kenyan revolutionized marathoning when he ignored tactics and blasted the pace from the gun four years ago in Beijing, winning the gold in an Olympic-record 2:06:32. On paper, Kenya and Ethiopia have the deepest teams in the field, but the Olympic marathon has produced several dark horses, such as Athens in 2004 when Italian Stefano Baldini took gold, while American Meb Keflezighi surprised many by nabbing silver.
Keflezighi returns to the Olympic Marathon this year after failing to qualify in 2008. He surprised many by winning the U.S. Olympic Trials this past January in Houston, breaking the tape there in a personal best 2:09:08, making him the oldest U.S. Olympic Trials champion in history. He defeated pre-race favorite Ryan Hall, who was the runner-up in 2:09:30 and Abdi Abdirahman, who finished third in 2:09:47 to make his fourth Olympic team.
The Americans will have their work cut out for them, however, as East African powerhouses Kenya and Ethiopia send stacked teams. Kenya will be led by Wilson Kipsang, who won the London Marathon this past April in 2:04:44, just 4 seconds off the course record. He’ll be joined by Abel Kirui, two-time reigning marathon world champion and Emmanuel Mutai, the 2011 London Marathon winner and course-record holder. Ethiopia will be led by a trio of sub-2:05 runners. Ayele Abshiro, who ran 2:04:23 at the Dubai Marathon in January, will be joined by Dino Sefir, who ran 2:04.50 in the same race. The team is rounded out by Getu Feleke, who clocked 2:04.50 at Rotterdam in April.
Here’s a overview of the American entrants in this Sunday’s race 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.
Sidelined with a hip injury after the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials in 2007 that would have ended the careers of most athletes, Keflezighi, a native of Eritrea, battled back to win the New York City Marathon in 2009 and the 2012 U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials, becoming the oldest athlete in history to do so. Keflezighi and his coach, Bob Larsen, have been together for nearly 20 years. Larsen is the co-founder of the Mammoth Track Club, which was created to develop American Olympic medalists in distance running, a feat that Keflezighi and fellow member Deena Kastor accomplished in Athens.
Age at the Olympics: 37
Trains in: Mammoth, Calif.
PR: 2:09:08 (2012 U.S. Olympic Trials, Houston)
Recent results: 2011 New York City Marathon, sixth, 2:09:13; 2012 New York City Half Marathon, 13th, 1:01:41
Previous Olympic results: Silver medal, marathon, 2004; 12th, 10,000m, 2000
Olympic outlook: While he has the slowest PR of the men’s U.S. Olympic marathon team, he also has had the best results, as Keflezighi is a smart racer who shines in championship events. But if Keflezighi is going to earn a second Olympic medal, he’ll likely need a tactical race, as he simply isn’t as fast as any of the pre-race favorites who have run nearly 5 minutes faster. Of course, Keflezighi has proven the pundits wrong before—he managed to win the Trials in PR time only 69 days after getting sixth at the New York City Marathon, and all this at the ripe old age of 36.
Once touted as the next great hope for American marathoning, Hall has produced fast times in his career but has only made the podium of one major marathon, when he finished third at Boston in 2009. Hall made the stunning announcement in 2010 that he was leaving his longtime coach Terrence Mahon and the Mammoth Track Club. A devout Christian, Hall has written and spoken extensively about how he is now using God and prayer as his guide to running fast.
Age at the Olympics: 29
Trains in: Redding, Calif., and Flagstaff, Ariz.
PR: 2:04:58 (2011 Boston Marathon)
Recent results: 2011 Boston Marathon, fourth, 2:04:58; 2011 Chicago Marathon, fifth, 2:08:04
Previous Olympics: 2008: 10th, marathon
Olympic outlook: Hall likes to run fast and hard, and he isn’t afraid to take off at an imprudent pace from the gun. This running style could bode well for him at the Olympics, as the revolution started by the late Sammy Wanjiru has male marathoners throwing tactics to the wind. If the frontrunners set a blistering pace at the start, expect Hall to go with them.
A naitve of Somalia who emigrated to the U.S. with his family in 1990, Abdirahman is representing the U.S. in the Olympics for a fourth time — something only one other American male distance runner has ever accomplished. Abdirahman, who calls himself “The Black Cactus,” didn’t start running until he attended community college in Arizona. He eventually made his way to the University of Arizona, where he met coach Dave Murray and really started to discover his long-distance running talent.
Age at the Olympics: 35
Trains in: Tucson, Ariz.
PR: 2:08:56 (2006 Chicago Marathon)
Recent results: 2012 Healthy Kidney 10K, fifth, 28:56
Previous Olympics: 2000: 10th, 10,000m; 2004: 15th, 10,000m; 2008: 15th, 10,000m
Olympic outlook: Abdirahman has become something of a media darling of late—and not for his chances at qualifying for a medal. A Wall Street Journal article poked fun at Abdirahman’s habit of skipping runs, eating whatever he wants, his penchant for partying and his laidback, lover-of-life personality—traits that the article accurately points out have likely contributed to his longevity. He’s the sixth-fastest marathon in American history, but it will be a stretch for Abdirahman to reach the medal stand on Sunday.