The Women’s Olympic Trials Saturday were dramatic, emotional and downright thrilling. You couldn’t write a better screenplay, and this is real life. The top four contenders finished in that order. This isn’t a come from nowhere Cinderella story. If you’d glanced at any pre-race running articles and then only noted the finish line results, you might have shrugged or thought “o well, no news there.”
And you would be so wrong. The trials were held in L.A., not starting until mid-morning. Heat was a factor. It was in the seventies and the sun was shining bright. A beautiful day for many pursuits, but not distance running. Rio is bound to be hot, so perhaps there was some method to this scheduling, but anyone who has completed a marathon in those conditions knows how brutally the heat impacts most runners, even Olympians.
Shalane Flanagan and Amy Cragg, teammates on the Bowerman Track Club, held the one-two lead after 20 miles. Shalane, a past Olympian considered the stronger runner, seemed to be bolstering Cragg. Amy finished 4th at the last Olympic Trials, just missing a spot on the team. The pair continued looking formidable into the last 10K of the race.
Shalane then started to fall back. Spectators described her as turning “bright red.” She slowed. Later, Shalane explained that while she was taking in fluids, she didn’t think they were absorbing. “I could feel them sitting in my stomach and sloshing,” she told a Runner’s World reporter. At one point, perhaps around mile 22, she told Amy that she may be in trouble and that Amy may just have to “take off.” Shalane related how Amy told her: “No. I’m going to stay right with you, one mile at a time.”
Amy did just that, hanging right with the deteriorating and slowing Shalane. Kara Goucher and Desi Linden were coming up behind the pair. Kara was falling off, but Desi seemed to be drawing on a store of energy to burn, closing the gap over the final miles, with Kara still in sight behind her. Amy continued to stick with Shalane while casting worried glances behind her.
With her husband and coach screaming at her to run to the finish, Amy did, claiming the victory.
Shalane somehow managed to keep her legs going. Desi passed her in the last mile. Shalane hung on, later describing the state she was in as being “slightly delirious.” Crossing the finish line, she collapsed—on Amy, who with Desi, was yelling and urging Shalane onward. Shalane told the RW writer that she kept thinking “just get to Amy, get to Amy.” She went on: “when I saw her, the relief of just crossing the finish line, …I thought, ‘Oh God, I’m going down.’ I saw Amy and I don’t know what she was doing, but that was like my safe harbor.”
The times of the four women: Cragg in 2:28:20; Linden in 2:28:54 (with a 75:04-73:50 negative split) and Flanagan in 2:29:19. Kara finished a minute behind in 2:30:24. The only better ending would be one allowing all four to go to Rio.