Thursday, February 11, 2016

US Olympic Marathon Trials Predictions

It's once again time for the USA Olympic Trials!  While four years ago, you had the three big favorites in Ryan Hall, Meb Keflezghi and Dathan Ritzenhein, this year, it's nearly anyone's game.  I feel that there are at least 7-8 guys who could make the team and literally a ton of runners who could make the top five (they'd equal a ton if you weighed them all together).

In my opinion, the following are the 12 11 favorites who could snag a top five spot this weekend, I put them in random order and if you're too bored to read all of the crap I wrote, you can scroll down to the end to see my final three picks.

Galen Rupp

I'm excited that Rupp is running.  Not only did I make a beer bet with 4:1 odds with Connor Kamm that Rupp would start but his appearance is going to greatly affect the style of the race. Beforehand, I expected a relaxed, tactical race for at least 10-15 miles before little moves are made, followed by a big push. Having Rupp in the field is going to have people more on edge and they'll think a little bit less of themselves and their own race and worry a little more about him.

Most people think he should be the overwhelming favorite, while others are expecting much less.  I don't know how I feel on the issue. Mo  Farah struggled in his 2:09 marathon debut a while back in London and he normally beats Rupp.  But I never expected Farah to run any faster than 2:07-2:08 because he was coming off a 3:28 1500m a year prior.  Maybe he could be a sub 2:05 guy down the road but he wasn't recently removed from having his huge turbo engine.

I think Rupp will be better suited to the marathon, compared to Farah, as he seems more patient and relaxed without that insane speed.  But then you have to remember that while Salazar has had a ton of success coaching middle distance runners, he has shown to have a lot of trouble with the marathon distance.  People forget that the original goal of the Oregon Project was to develop world class marathoners, and other than Dan Browne setting a marathon PR six weeks after joining the program, everyone else ran slower, completely bombed or retired from the sport.

This is too much writing, so I'm going to sum this up.


  • Fastest middle distance runner in the field.  Like totally on another level.
  • Even if they run 4:55 pace from the gun, that's going to feel very easy on his legs for 20 miles.
  • Has shown to be very tough over the half-marathon distance, running a recent sub 62 marathon, in what appeared to be a Sunday stroll.
  • Marathon rookie.  With that comes way too many unknowns.  How does he handle drinking and fueling?  Can he handle the slow, patent marathon burn? 
  • His coach has struggled with coaching the marathon distance
  • A race course with a ton of turns in warm weather is definitely not Rupp-Certified

Meb Keflezghi

Olympic medalist, Boston Marathon Champ and the list goes on.  He's nearly 41 years old but runs very well on tactical courses, which the Trials is.  He puked a bunch in Boston last year and still ran 2:12 in very breezy weather conditions. His name precedes him, so I don't need to waste a bunch of time typing stuff out.  

Jared Ward

If I had to put all of my money on one person making the team, I'd pick Jared Ward.  He's very consistent and has impressive range for a guy with such a large gas tank.  I also like the approach he has taken over the last couple of years.  After his professional marathon debut, which resulted in a 2nd place finish at the 2014 US Marathon Championships, behind Tyler Pennel, he went on to win the 2015 US Marathon Championships.  He then spent the spring racing a bunch of shorter races and honing his battle skills.  After that, he won the US 20k Championships over a killer field, but then struggled a bit in the 10 mile and 12k championships.

Before Rupp entered the field, I expected the last 10k to be a flat-out dogfight, which would be beneficial to Ward as he did a lot of that last spring.  Even if the pace gets rolling earlier than expected, I feel he won't have any problems. He really seems to have all his bases covered.

His marathon PR is "just" a few seconds under 2:13, but he ran that in hot conditions and ran a very patient race, breaking away from the other US guys in the second half and beating them by several minutes.  I believe that day, he was a potential sub 2:10 guy, in disguise.

Diego Estrada

A lot of people think he is almost a definite for the team, but I'm in the small camp that feels he's more of a speed-based half-marathoner opposed to a strength-based one like Pennel, Ward, Meb, etc.

While he can sometimes be inconsistent in his races, he looked amazing in the 2015 US Half-Marathon Championships, putting a hurting on the field from gun to tape and running under 61 minutes in the process.

I think he has the ability to be a sub 2:10 guy down the road, but it's going to be tough to battle against the deep field, the hot weather and still be able to nail it in his marathon debut.  But heck, he destroyed his professional half marathon debut, so who knows?

Tyler Pennel

Based on the previews and articles I've seen, this guy is criminally underrated. Ever since he ran 61 and change in his half marathon debut, I felt like the marathon was going to be his calling.  How many 61 minute guys are only 13:45ish runners (around his PR at the time)?

He ran 2:13 in his first and only marathon, winning the 2014 US Marathon Championships, with Ward in second.  I remember he and Scott Smith made a huge move around 20 miles and I thought they would both die.  Pennel hung on and he made it look easy to seal the win (with Smith also running very well to finish third). Since then, he's run shorter races, including a sub 4:00 mile, which was his first time under the barrier.

His first race of his Trials build-up was a fifth place performance behind Ward, Chelanga, Ritz and Puskedra in the US 20k Championships on Labor Day.  They ran together from the start and didn't get separated until the end.  Out of the five, I felt like Pennel was the least race-fit.  His next race was the US 10 Mile Championships a month later, where he was a second behind Chelanga, while defeating Ritz.

Just under two months after that, he ran the same time as Chelanga in the US 12k Championships but finished second. In that race, he beat Ward and Estrada.

Pennel always seems to stick his nose out in the front of the race and races with a lot of confidence. And looking at his training leading up to the Trials, he's had a lot of great workouts, which were designed to suit the Trials course well, as he's run workouts with a lot of turns and varied-pace fartleks.

I feel like it would have been better for him to come into the Trials with another marathon under his belt, where he hit the wall or had to grit through the last 10k. His only marathon so far looked way too easy, so he's somewhat of an unknown in a grinding, ugly, marathon race.

Luke Puskedra

Just four months ago, if you told me he would be in 90% of people's top three at the Trials (I totally made up that number but I don't think it's too far off), I would have thought you were insane.  He struggled in his debut marathon and ran well over 2:20. And last June, he ran 2:15, which was a race where a lot of guys set PR's.  And oh yeah, I also thought he was too tall to run a marathon fast. But then the Chicago Marathon happened and he ran 2:10, which would have been at least a 2:09 if it were the same conditions as the 2014 edition.

What's the main change he has made over the last year?  He dropped Salazar as his coach and is now running under Ian Dobson, He also reportedly dropped his mileage from over 175 miles a week under Salazar to about 130.

The big intangible for Puskedra is how he will respond to the pressure.  He entered Chicago about a month before the race and was probably going in without much pressure and a relaxed mindset. Now, he's viewed as someone who should make the team, with even a shot at winning.  It'll be interesting to see how he responds to that and see if he can nail another amazing performance.

Dathan Ritzenhein

He's been my favorite professional runner (along with Max King) for a long time. I've been a fan of him since I saw him run in high school and I like his gritty, old-school approach to training and racing.  If he makes the team, it'll be his fourth Olympics and out of the 2001 High School Big Three (Ritz, Alan Webb and Ryan Hall), he's the last one standing.

He has a marathon PR of 2:07, set at the 2012 Chicago Marathon and is a former American Record Holder in the 5000m with a time of 12:56.  Besides Meb, he's the most experienced marathoner in the race, which will serve him well.

Jeffrey Eggleston

He has the fourth fastest marathon PR with his 2:10:52 at the 2014 Gold Coast Marathon in Australia. He was by far the slowest college runner on this top 12 list but seems to be naturally suited for the marathon distance.  He coaches himself, with his training being influenced by Renato Canova's theories, and he is a very calculated and analytical guy.  He's had some rough go's at the marathon lately but despite his his easy-going demeanor away from competition, he's a fiery competitor in battle.

Bobby Curtis

I'd be a moron if I didn't list at least one Hanson's runner on here.  Those guys are marathon wizards and usually peak very well.  And it's especially helpful when one of those guys has the credentials that Curtis has.  He ran 2:11 in the 2014 Chicago Marathon, which was both his third marathon and third marathon PR and has a 10,000m PR of 27:24.

He should also do well in the weather conditions, as he's been training in Florida the last few weeks. Sure, others have been sitting in saunas and moved to warmer locations recently, but it's one thing to do your peak training in warm weather and entirely another to get some hard, extensive work in it. And I also wonder if moving to a warm location late in the training is a good idea because not only do you not get that tough work in the conditions, but the new environment is a stress to your body during a time you should be relaxing and recovering.

The big question mark I have about him is that while he's normally a pretty active racer, I haven't seen much at all from him over the last year.

Elkanah Kibet

Before last year's Chicago Marathon, no one knew who this guy was.  He had a half-marathon PR over 64 minutes but then busted out a 2:11 at Chicago.  At the time, he was a full-time solider in the US Army and even did a nine-month stint overseas. Now, he's part of the WCAP program and has nothing to worry about expect for training hard.

I actually met him back in 2005 while I was in Kenya and one of the few things I remember is that he told me he was thinking about going to Alabama A&M, which I tried to steer him away from.  He went on to run for Rend Lake Community College and then Auburn University.  I also was about to pee in his water bottle at the starting line of the Chicago Marathon before he told me it was his.

He's spent the last month training in Tuscon with Chelanaga, so it'll be interesting to see how he does. Normally, when you make a big change in your life routine, it either helps you or hurts you.  If it helps him, he has a very good chance at making the team.

Sammy Chelanga

Super nice guy, a family man and really hates to watch horror movies (I roomed with him at the New Haven 20k and not once but twice, he made me turn off a horror movie I was watching). This guy has very impressive PRs of 13:04, 27:08 and 61:19.  He really wants to make a US Olympic Team and his first shot is this weekend.

He trains under James Li with Bernard Lagat and Stephen Sambu and occasionally, Abidi (and recently, Kibet).  He's mentioned that they never really have an easy day and run moderate mileage. That can be great for the shorter stuff, but I'm not sure how it'll work in the marathon.  But his brother was a 2:07 guy, so I'm sure he has received plenty of good advice.

He's been in a lot of intense racing battles on the roads, so he's going to be a force to be reckoned with this weekend.

Fernando Cabada

The twice, 2:11 marathoner surprised people by finishing 7th in the 2012 Marathon Trials and has improved since then.  He's also a pretty unique character and has come far in life.  The thing I love about him is that he's very real and lives his life how he wants to, regardless of what others think.  

The tough thing about the marathon is that you have only one day to shine, no matter how great your training was leading up to it.  Cabada has had rough outings his last two marathons, but he has been training very well and a few weeks ago, ran a 2:18 marathon in a glorified training run and then a week later, ran under 64:02 for the half, after losing his shoe in the last kilometer.

A lot of people knocked him for running a steady marathon four weeks out, but I believe it's no harder than racing a half-marathon in the same time period. And when it comes down it, the steady marathon is a better training stimulus for the marathon race.  

He did the same thing before finishing 7th at the last Olympic Trials and in my best marathon race (2013 Houston Marathon), I ran a steady marathon five weeks out and felt great.  He will be ready.

Final Predictions.

1. Jared Ward

2. Meb Keflezghi

3. Tyler Pennel

This one was very tough.  I don't expect Rupp to finish (hot marathons take longer to recover from and all of the turns on the Trials course will do a number on his legs).  So that led me to Jared Ward. He's an excellent racer, has a great marathon coach/mentor in Ed Eyestone and is race savvy enough to pull it out.

Meb is a true legend, nearly always surprises people and is the best technical racer of the bunch.  But, he's also a few months removed from turning 41 and Father Time is slowly creeping forward.

Third place was insanely tough.  I put Pennel in third because I think he has been a potential 2:10 guy for the past year but just hasn't raced a marathon to prove it.  He also rarely, if ever, has a bad race. He seems like he has a laid-back approach to things, with the old-school racing mentality. It'll be tough to drop the other guys in the field, but I believe his consistency, along with his natural marathoning ability will help him pull through.  Yeah, he was 0-3 against Chelanga last fall, but the marathon is a different beast, and I think he's the type of guy that if he's close to you in the shorter races, he will whip you in the longer ones.

It was very hard to finalize my top three and at one point in time, I had 10 of my listed 12 in my predicted top three at one point.  It's going to be a great race to watch and I think it will be one of the most exciting Olympic Marathon Trials to date.

And oh yeah, a couple darkhorse picks.

#1 Daniel Tapia.  He ran a strong 2:17 last year in LA, to finish fourth among Americans.  He stuck his nose out there a bit and was right behind Ward at 25km. The main reason I'm picking him as a darkhorse is that he's really improved his speed over the last year.  He used to be a consistent 64+ half-marathon guy, but in 2015, he ran under 64 twice. Like the below pick, he's a pure marathoner, so I think his improved speed will translate well to the marathon distance.

#2.  Craig Leon.  You can't be like the USATF and forget about this guy because he races very well and is a natural marathoner.  He has run a ton of 2:13-2:16 times in tough conditions and on tough courses. He wasn't far behind Meb at this past NYC Marathon and has a shot at the top 10.


  1. Oh man I know I'm taking the easy way out by my predictions.
    1. Meb
    2. Ritz
    3. Rupp
    Dark Horse 4 - Pennel

    I'm a huge fan of Pennel, my worry though is he got into injury too close to the race. I also like your pick of Ward and feel these 2 race very similar. Ryan Vail has dropped out.. what about the ladies?
    1. Flanigan
    2. Desi
    3. Cragg or Hall?

  2. I don't think anyone can figure out ladies! But I did tie for the win in the Lets Run 2012 Olympic Marathon Trials Prediction Contest for the ladies.

    The men's race is so much deeper than the ladies, so Flanagan and Desi can bide their time as long as they'd like. They are an obvious 1-2 and I'm going to go with Kellyn Taylor for 3rd.

  3. I was debating between him, Daniel Tapia, Nick Arciniaga and Shadrack Biwott but then I decided to go to Waffle House.

  4. Nice call on Jared Ward. He got very little coverage before the race. He ran a smart race and waited for meb and Rupp to put some hurt on Pennel before making his move. With about 25 mins to go I was cheering for Ward and saying "if he can just get through the next 15 minutes he is going to realize his dream is coming true. Then no amount of pain will stop him."

    Rupp really made it look easy with those 4:55 miles at 24 and 25. He looked smooth as ice even then.

  5. Rupp did look really good and I think he is a medal threat at the Olympics, especially if Kenya really does get banned. And even if they don't, you only have to worry about three Kenyans and three Ethiopians, instead of a dozen of them.

    Ward ran a very patient and tactically sound race. It seemed like he just wanted to finish in the top three and realized that you can't outrun Rupp and Meb.

    In four more years, I think the US will have a much stronger team with faster versions of Rupp, Ward, Pennel and Puskedra and I can see a guy like Jim Spisak turning into a good marathoner.

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