Defending women's champion Deena Kastor makes her move in the 2008 Trials race. Photo: PhotoRun.net

The top three finishers in both the men’s and women’s races will represent the United States in the marathon this summer in London.

Written by: Mario Fraioli

On January 14, the nation’s top marathoners will gather in Houston, Texas to compete for six coveted spots on next summer’s Olympic Marathon team. The top three finishers in both the men’s and women’s races will represent the United States in the marathon this summer in London.

Reigning Trials champions Ryan Hall and Deena Kastor return to defend their 2008 titles, but it will not be an easy task for either one of them. As the marathon has gained popularity amongst the country’s best distance runners over the last four years, many new stars have emerged in the sport—meaning there are a number of capable athletes who will challenge the defending champions for victory in Houston.

To qualify for the Trials race in Houston, men had to run under 2:19 for the full 26.2-mile marathon distance, or break 65 minutes for the half marathon, in the past two years. Women had to run faster than 2:46 for the full marathon, or 1:15 for the half marathon, to gain entry into the race. As of today, 383 athletes (158 men, 225 women) had qualified for both races.

With race day right around the corner, here’s a breakdown of 12 of the top runners to watch at this year’s race.

Shalane Flanagan

Will Shalane Flanagan be the first woman across the finish line at the Trials? Photo: PhotoRun.net

The Olympic Marathon Trials race will only be Flanagan’s second stab at the distance, but the Marblehead, Mass., native dazzled in her debut, finishing second at the 2010 ING New York City Marathon in 2:28:40. A bronze medalist in the 10,000 meters at the Beijing Games, Flanagan has made it clear that her goal is to once again reach the medal stand in London. She won the Rock ‘n’ Roll San Antonio Half Marathon in November in 1:10:49, then took the Latin Music Miami Beach Half Marathon a month later in 1:09:58 at the end of a heavy training week. Although other in the race have more marathon experience, Flanagan is the favorite in Houston.

Kara Goucher

Kara Goucher would love to represent the U.S. in the marathon at next summer's Olympics in London. Photo: PhotoRun.net

The Houston race will be Goucher’s first trip to the Olympic Marathon Trials, but she’s no rookie when it comes to racing the distance. Fifth at the 2011 Boston Marathon in a personal best 2:24:52, Goucher has shown she hasn’t lost a step since returning from maternity leave early last year. After representing the U.S. in the 10,000m at the World Championships last summer, Goucher took some time off to let old injuries heal. She also left her longtime coach, Alberto Salazar, to train with the aforementioned Flanagan and be coached by Jerry Schumacher. There’s no doubt that this dymanic duo would love to punch their ticket to London together.

Desiree Davila

Four years ago Desiree Davila was happy to qualify for the Olympic Trials. This time around, anything short of a spot on the team would be a disappointment. Photo: PhotoRun.net

The fastest qualifier in the women’s field by way of her 2:22:38, second-place finish at last year’s Boston Marathon, Davila has quickly established herself as one of the top marathoners in the country. The Rochester Hills, Michigan-based runner has come a long way since she finished 13th in 2:37:50 at the 2008 Trials in Boston. In 2011 she ran personal bests at every distance from 5K to the marathon, and is one of the leading contenders to finish in the top-3 in Houston. Davila has said she is a “completely different athlete” than she was four years ago.

Magdalena Lewy-Boulet

Lewy Boulet is hoping to make her second Olympic team in Houston. Photo: PhotoRun.net

The runner-up at the 2008 Trials in Boston, Lewy-Boulet will be aiming to make her second Olympic team on January 14. The 38-year-old ran a personal best of 2:26:22 at Rotterdam in 2010, making her the third-fastest qualifier in the field. This past summer, she clocked her fastest 5,000 and 10,000-meter times ever on the ultra-competitive European track circuit, proof that there’s still plenty of life left in her aging legs.

Deena Kastor

Can Kastor make her fourth Olympic team on January 14th? Photo: PhotoRun.net

The defending champion and a 2004 Olympic bronze medalist, the 38-year-old Kastor will have her hands full with the most competitive women’s Olympic Marathon Trials field in history. After giving birth to her first child last year, Kastor has effectively raced her way back into shape, winning the Dodge Rock ‘n’ Roll Los Angeles Half Marathon last October in 1:11:48. Will that fitness be enough to make her fourth Olympic team? We’ll find out on January 14.

Amy Hastings

Amy Hastings, aka "Little Deena" will be aiming to make her first Olympic team on January 14. Photo: PhotoRun.net

Like the aforementioned Flanagan, Hastings has only run one marathon, but she ran it so well that she’s one of the contenders worth keeping a real close eye on in Houston. Hastings debuted at the distance last March in Los Angeles, crossing the finish line in 2:27:03 to finish second to Ethiopian Buzunesh Deba. Since her dazzling debut, Hastings took 34 seconds off her 5K personal best, running 15:14 last summer. A teammate of Deena Kastor, Mammoth Track Club coach has dubbed Hastings “Little Deena” for her similarities to the 2004 Olympic Marathon bronze medalist.

Ryan Hall

Hall dominated in winning the 2008 Olympic Marathon Trials and is the favorite heading into this year's race. Photo: PhotoRun.net

Hall made a statement at the last Olympic Marathon Trials in New York City, winning the race in a Trials-record 2:09:02, two minutes up on second-place finisher Dathan Ritzenhein. He went on to finish tenth at the Olympic Games in Beijing, and has placed in the top-5 at the last three Boston Marathons, highlighted by his 2:04:58, fourth-place finish last year. Hall finished fifth at the Chicago Marathon in October, running 2:08:04, giving him the two fastest qualifying times amongst the men’s Trials entrants.

Dathan Ritzenhein

Dathan Ritzenhein will be aiming to make his third Olympic team in Houston. Photo: PhotoRun.net

The oft-injured Ritzenhein is finally healthy heading into his second Olympic Marathon Trials race on January 14, and that should prove worrisome for other Olympic hopefuls. Second at the 2008 Trials, Ritzenhein was out of action for an entire year following the 2010 New York City Marathon with an Achilles injury. He has since mended, and has been training hard in Portland under the guidance of coach Alberto Salazar, who has helped Ritzenhein run to personal bests in the 5,000m, 10,000m and the half marathon since the two started working together in 2009.

Meb Keflezighi

Meb Keflezighi is hoping his experience can help him make another Olympic Marathon team. Photo: PhotoRun.net

A perennial fan favorite, Keflezighi is hoping to rebound from the disappointment of the 2008 Olympic Marathon Trials, where a hip injury slowed him to an eighth-place finish. The 36-year-old, who captured silver at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, most recently ran a personal best of 2:09:13 at the New York City Marathon in November. With only 69 days between that race the Trials, the big question is: will Meb have enough in his legs to make another Olympic team?

Brett Gotcher

Houston has been kind to Brett Gotcher in recent years. Can he regain the magic he first found here three years ago? Photo: PhotoRun.net

When Brett Gotcher is in Houston, big things happen. In 2009, the Flagstaff, Arizona-based athlete ran a personal best 1:02:02 to take third at the U.S. Half Marathon Championships. A year later, he ran the fourth-fastest American debut marathon of all-time, clocking 2:10:36 at the 2010 Houston Marathon. Since then Gotcher has quietly flown under the radar, however, and has been relatively quiet since his second at the U.S. 25K Championships in 2010.

Galen Rupp

 

Can Galen Rupp make the Olympic Marathon team in his first try at the distance? Photo: PhotoRun.net

A surprise late declaration to the race, Rupp will be running in his first marathon when he lines up for the Olympic Marathon Trials on January 14 in Houston. The 25-year-old Rupp qualified for the race with his 1:00:30 runner-up finish at the New York City Half Marathon in March. Last summer he shattered the American record in the 10,000 meters, running 26:48 in Belgium to take 11 seconds off Chris Solinsky’s sub-27 minute mark. Rupp’s entry to the race is a curious one (he trains with Alberto Salazar’s Oregon Project along with Dathan Ritzenhein), as he’s one of the overwhelming favorites to make next summer’s Olympic team in the 5,000 and/or 10,000 meters. Despite his lack of long distance road racing experience, if Rupp decides to make a move in Houston, other competitors would be wise not to let him get too far away.

Jason Hartmann

At 6-foot-3, no one will lose sight of Hartmann in Houston. Photo: PhotoRun.net

The fifth-fastest qualifier in the field, Hartmann will be running in his second Marathon Trials on January 14. The Rockford, Michigan native, who was a high school teammate of Dathan Ritzenhein, finished tenth at the Trials in 2009. He won the 2009 Twin Cities Marathon in 2:12:31, and followed that up with a 2:11:06 personal best at the 2010 Chicago Marathon, where he finished as the top American in eighth place overall.

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