Deena Kastor doesn't believe in favorites when racing marathons. It is a philosophy born of experience, though it seems almost laughable when considering the field for the US Women's Olympic Marathon Trials. Compared with the rest of the 162 runners expected on the Boylston Street starting line early Sunday morning, Kastor competes on a different level. She qualified with an American-record 2 hours 19 minutes 36 seconds at the 2006 London Marathon. More than 12 minutes separate Kastor and Elva Dryer, the next-fastest qualifier in the field.
No favorites? Please.
Kastor stands so far ahead of her competition that there appears a decline in US women's marathon running - at the very least, a lack of depth. Since the Trials qualifying window opened Jan. 1, 2006, Kastor, 35, is one of only two American women to run faster than 2:30, a time that traditionally separates the elite from the world-class. The other, Jen Rhines, has opted to skip the Trials and focus on the 5,000 meters in track.
"Sometimes people take the lower road, take the easy way out and concentrate on the 10K and the 5K," said Joe Vigil, a longtime elite distance running coach who guided Kastor to her first Olympic marathon berth. "The marathon is a glorious event, and it's the biggest challenge anyone could have to try and succeed in the marathon. It takes more commitment."
Vigil wasn't directing his comments to Rhines or Katie McGregor, a 2:32:36 marathoner who opted to train for the 10,000 rather than compete in the Trials. But what does the lack of depth and top qualifiers choosing track mean for US women's marathon running? Some say it's time for hand-wringing. Others say wait until the Trials to fairly judge the talent pool.
"Deena is so far above us that, perhaps, it looks like the rest of us have a long way to go," said Dryer. "But in the marathon, that can happen. There is a learning curve for the marathon. Who knows? Maybe Sunday we'll see some breakthrough performances by a number of runners that will change the story."
But beyond Kastor making her second Olympic team in the marathon, Dryer wasn't keen on predictions. With a mix of young talent, fast track, half-marathon runners, and a few marathon veterans, the breakthrough performances could come from any one of about 10 runners. Could the top three finish under 2:30? Putting aside the prospect of a more tactical race, the question goes to the core of the debate about US women's marathon running.
"There aren't a lot of women right now who can go under that 2:30 barrier," said Keith Hanson, coach of the Hansons-Brooks distance group with five women qualified for the Trials. "That's where the complaint comes from that they're weak. There are a bunch of women probably in the 2:30 to 2:34 range."
As a top contender for an Olympic berth, Kate O'Neill sees the situation differently. Since she qualified in her debut marathon with a 2:36:15 at the sweltering 2007 Chicago Marathon, O'Neill expects much faster times from herself and others at the Trials. O'Neill trains with Kastor in Mammoth Lakes, Calif., and understands better than most what it takes to be among the best marathoners.
"The talent is there for US marathoners," said O'Neill. "I know the potential is there for a lot of people to run well under 2:30."
Success comes slowlyWhen it comes to deceptively slow qualifying times, O'Neill is far from alone. Blame the weather, which delivered a 1-2 punch to US women marathoners last year.
The 2007 Boston Marathon featured some of the worst conditions in its history as rain and 50-mile-per-hour wind gusts almost forced officials to cancel the race. As the site of the USA Women's Marathon Championships, a number of top American marathoners were primed to run fast times. That never happened. They were just happy to meet the "B" qualifying standard of 2:48. Then, record heat and humidity shut down the Chicago Marathon, a race famous for producing record times. Once again, US women were denied an opportunity to finish fast.
"My qualifying time was just that - a qualifier," said Desiree Davila, who qualified at Boston in 2:44:56. "But the low 2:30's is a definite possibility at the Trials. I'll be able to mix it up with the top people."
Davila is mentioned whenever the conversation turns to young up-and-coming marathoners. She is a running argument against a decline among US women's marathoners, though she has raced 26.2 miles only once. She did, however, run 1:12:10 at the USA Half Marathon Championships in January. At 24, Davila represents the future, along with O'Neill (27), Michelle Lilienthal (26), Kristin Price (26), Samia Akbar (26), and Ann Alyanak (29).
"At the next Olympics, Desi is going to be younger than Deena was when she got her bronze medal," said Hanson, who coaches Davila. "You have to look at it from that perspective. Do I think she could develop to that level? Certainly, she could.
"In the women, we are in transition. The men have broken through that transition and are going to continue to get stronger and stronger. With the women, I see it as somewhat linear. Right now, they're flat, but I definitely see signs of it being on the rise with women stronger over the next decade."
There will be a lot of time to gain experience in the marathon, an event that usually requires years and multiple races to build the mental and physical endurance. Of the top 10 qualifiers, only five have run more than three marathons. A lack of marathon experience among some top contenders also makes it difficult to figure out who will race well.
After qualifying in 2:31:48 at the 2006 Chicago Marathon, Dryer slowed to 2:35:15 at the 2007 New York Marathon. But after making the 2000 US Olympic team in the 5,000 meters and the 2004 Olympic team in the 10,000 meters, Dryer brings a different kind of experience to the Trials.
Asked how much she still needs to learn about the marathon, Dryer said, "I don't think I'll know until I run this next one. The first one was a leap of faith and I came out of it feeling there were so many things I could improve on. Same thing with New York. Having done it a couple times, I feel my body getting stronger and as the body gets stronger, the mind gets stronger."
Popular questionBut in a sport second, perhaps, only to baseball in the way it pays attention to numbers, times matter in the marathon. When two of the fastest qualifiers - Rhines and McGregor - choose track, people notice. The marathon may be declining in prestige and popularity among women more than anything else. Ultimately, that is harder to fix than slow performances.
"Coaches have to plant the seeds in a person's mind," said Vigil. "It's a matter of culture. In Japan, it's the goal of every young lady to want to run the marathon. In this country, it's not the goal to run the marathon."
Dryer tried the marathon only after success in distance track events, reassessing the direction of her career after the 2004 Athens Olympics. She wanted to give all three distances a shot, though she worries she may have waited too late to focus on the marathon. She knows the tough choices facing distance runners such as Rhines and McGregor, especially since the timing of the mid-April Marathon Trials and late-June track trials made competing in both unwise.
"Even though I can do a very good job in the marathon, a 2:29 isn't the equivalent of my best times in the 3,000 and 5,000 meters," said Rhines, who finished third at the 2004 Marathon Trials. "I put a lot of work into the marathon and realized it was not my best event."
Added McGregor: "I wasn't ready to give up wanting to make the Olympic team in the 10K, so I decided to give it one more shot. Even though I'm 30 years old, I still feel I'm young enough to have a lot of marathons left in me. I can always go for a marathon in another four years."
After all, the marathon rewards patience.
Shira Springer can be reached at email@example.com.