By David Rogers. February 12, 2016. LOS ANGELES, CA — Los Angeles, California is bracing for an influx of visitors as it hosts the largest ever field of qualifiers for the U.S Olympic Trials of the men’s and women’s Marathon events, including a large contingent of athletes, coaches, family members, sponsors and support staff from Blowing Rock-based ZAP Fitness/Reebok elite running team.
Blowing Rock News coverage of the U.S. Olympic Trials for the men’s and women’s marathon is made possible by a sponsorship from Blowing Rock Medical Park and PLUS Urgent Care, divisions of UNC-Caldwell Memorial Hospital.
The United States Track and Field Federation and the Los Angeles Marathon announced that a record 373 of America’s fastest and most accomplished marathoners will run in Saturday’s (February 13) men’s and women’s events in downtown L.A. A record $600,000 in prize money will be distributed among the top 10 finishers in each of the men’s and women’s divisions.
Money aside, the big draw for this event is that the top three finishers among men and the top three among women will be named as the first six members of the U.S track and field Olympic team headed for Rio de Janeiro, Brazil and the 2016 Olympic Games, August 5-21.
According to a report by Runner’s World magazine penned a week ago, 168 men and 202 women had declared their intention to run in the Los Angeles Marathon trials. Including independent runner Esther Erb Atkins, eight Blowing Rock athletes met the qualifying standards to compete in the Marathon trials, but only five will be among those competing for berths on the U.S. Olympic Team. The High Country list includes Atkins, as well as ZAP Fitness/Reebok team members Tyler Pennel, Griff Graves and recently added to the team roster, Johnny Crain, on the men’s side and North Carolina State alum Joanna Thompson in the women’s field.
We want them to run the second half faster than the first half.
In a telephone interview with Blowing Rock News on Wednesday, ZAP Fitness/Reebok head coach Pete Rea expressed optimism for the prospects of all four of his runners.
“This will be Joanna (Thompson) and Johnny’s (Crain) marathon debuts,” Rea disclosed, “so more important than winning is their simply running a smart race. By that I mean, we want them to run the second half faster than the first half.
“Especially in the Olympic Trials,” ZAP/Reebok’s lead coaching mentor continued, “running a smart race requires discipline and patience, as well as athletic ability. In these races, many runners will go out with an all or nothing mindset. Nobody remembers who finished 84th out of 200 in the Olympic marathon trials, so the less disciplined will go out hard and hope they can survive until they finish standing on the qualifiers’ podium. If they don’t, then it doesn’t matter if they finish 20th or 200th.”
Rea’s counsel to his less experienced marathon runners is that the patience and discipline required to follow their race plan will result in an optimized effort.
“At the 10-mile mark,” Rea offered, “there will be dozens of runners in contention because there will be a bunch of them really over-doing it in the first half. At the 18-19 mile mark, there will be a lot of carnage out there. The disciplined, patient runner with a faster second half than the first will be picking them off, one by one, as they close to the finish line.”
At the 18-19 mile mark there will be a lot of carnage out there.
Rea outlined a couple of unique challenges to the Los Angeles race, but suggested that the expected temperatures in the high 70s and low 80s will actually be good preparation for the Olympic Games and other international events this year because it will be close to the conditions expected in Rio.
“We’ve been training in Tallahassee, Florida, the last couple of months,” Rea shared. “To prepare for the heat of L.A., they have worn heavier clothing and even worn layers when not training, to get their bodies acclimated to heat. Florida’s humidity should also be much greater than what our runners will face in Los Angeles. Humidity has an exponentially greater impact in slowing down a runner than heat, so if our athletes are doing well in Tallahassee, they should thrive in Southern California’s drier conditions.”
The Los Angeles course features almost 60 turns, including at least a half-dozen 180-degree turns and numerous 90 degree turns, both left and right. That element did not go unnoticed when the ZAP/Reebok mentors designed training plans for their runners.
“In between some of our distance intervals,” Rea told Blowing Rock News, “we’ve been practicing turns. If not executed properly, at pace, a runner loses a third to a half-second on a turn, as well as momentum. It may seem inconsequential, but those half-seconds add up. At this elite level, that cumulative loss of time can be huge and make the difference between winning and losing.”
Blowing Rock’s Best Hopes
In assessing the chances for one of the Blowing Rock-based runners to qualify for the U.S. Olympic Team in the marathon, Rea cautioned against reading too much into the ranking by qualifying times.
“Obviously, the ‘A’ standard qualifiers will be among the favorites,” he said, “but just because Tyler (Pennel) has the 18th or 19th fastest marathon time doesn’t mean he is a darkhorse prospect for the top three. Those qualifying times are earned in several different races, on different courses, in different cities, in different times of the year, and under very different race conditions, including wind, heat, humidity, the number of turns, and elevation changes, both up and down.
His actual time is inconsequential to Tyler. He is racing the field.
“When you add in a circumstance like Tyler’s qualifying time — and win — was his very first marathon,” Rea added, “you also have to think about the individual athlete’s learning from the experience and his on-going training and preparation for THIS race.
“His actual race time in L.A. is relatively inconsequential to Tyler,” Rea revealed. “He is racing the field. At 5-6 miles you should expect him to be in the top 15 or so, running comfortably. At 18 or so miles, in the top 10. And in that final stretch coming to the finish line, he wants to be in the top three.
“Three of the top running journalists in the USA have picked Tyler to be among the top three at the finish,” Rea said, “so he is hardly a darkhorse contender.”
Pennel is arguably Blowing Rock’s best hope for a spot on the podium. The Golden, Colorado native and Western State College of Colorado alum had three “top 10” performances at U.S. Championship events in his “rookie” year with the ZAP Fitness/Reebok team, including a 3rd place finish at the inaugural U.S. National Road Racing Championships in 2013. He followed that up by qualifying for the U.S. National Team, running the 16th fastest ever U.S. time for the half marathon at the 2014 U.S. National Half Marathon Championships. He stepped down in distance during 2014, focusing on the 5,000 meters and 10,000 meters. He placed 9th in the 5,000 meters of the U.S. Track & Field Championships and was runner-up in the U.S. 10,000 meter Championship events, but also inserted a 4th place finish in the U.S. Half Marathon Championships on his resume. He capped off his 2014 performance by running away from the field in Minneapolis for the U.S. National Marathon Championships.
Minneapolis was Pennel’s marathon debut so his win there was somewhat remarkable, but he continues to make strides toward the pinnacle of U.S. long distance running. An impressive 2015 season included getting second at the U.S. National 12k Road Racing Championships in Alexandria, VA last November. He missed winning that race by a mere bellybutton. Just last week Pennel was named “(Open) Male Athlete of the Year” by the Road Runners Club of America.
More Than Competition
Some runners have told Blowing Rock News that they favor running a marathon with temperatures closer to 40 degrees Fahrenheit, but the temperatures in Los Angeles will be about double that, forecast for the high 70s or low 80s. Although it will be relatively dry heat as opposed to oppressive humid conditions, a rising mercury during the race may prove a factor.
The temperatures in L.A. will be about double what many feel is ideal for marathon running.
And then, of course, there are the turns. The men’s race is scheduled for 10:06 am, starting near the Staples Center and making a series of early left and right hand turns in an initial 2.2 mile loop along Figueroa and Flower streets toward downtown Los Angeles and back, then traversing four, 6-mile loops along Figueroa to Exposition Park and the Memorial Coliseum and back. As soon as the men finish their initial loop (2.2 miles), the women will line up for their start, estimated to be about 10:22.
While 211 male athletes qualified to run in the Los Angeles-hosted Olympic Trials for the marathon (86 by running a full marathon under the qualifying standard and 125 by running a fast half marathon), it’s expected that only 168 will make up the field on Saturday. In the women’s race, 246 qualified, including 42 meeting the “A” standard. 198 of the qualifiers ran full marathons in making the field.
Road racing legend Meb Keflezighi, 40, is the only qualifying contender from the 2012 U.S. Olympic team after the retirement of top runner Ryan Hall and the withdrawal of Abdi Abdirahman, but the men’s field is deep in talent. Galen Rupp, an Olympic silver medalist at 10,000 meters was late to declare that he would be running in the marathon trials, but could be an interesting wild card performer. Rupp recorded the second-best half marathon qualifying standard in mid-December, in Portland. In January 2015, in Houston, Diego Estrada missed by less than a minute in posting a half marathon qualifying time under one hour (1:00:51).
ZAP/Reebok’s Rea is optimistic about the prospects of not only veterans Pennel and Graves, but also those of marathon newcomers Crain and Thompson.
“This will be the longest either of them have ever run, even in practice with us,” Rea shared, “but they have really taken to marathon running. I have to give a lot of credit to Johnny’s earlier training at North Central College. A couple of weeks ago, Joanna went out on a 22-mile run. The next day, she ran a couple of longer recovery runs and she said she felt great, and really light on her feet. That’s unusual, and means that she could have a really impressive marathon debut.”