Boston to Beijing: The 2008 Women's Olympic Marathon Trials

Sports fans, especially those in the Northeast, have fully embraced the rivalry between the cities of New York and Boston in recent years. The Yankees and the Red Sox have waged baseball Armageddon for the past decade. In football, the mighty Patriots were handed their one and only defeat of the most recent season in a most painful fashion by the New York Giants.

Even long distance running has its own rivalry, albeit on a much more understated scale than in baseball and football. While the Boston Marathon has been the landmark event in the sport for more than a century, the New York Marathon, a relative upstart at 37 years, boasts a bigger and more international field. Each race can claim to be "the" marathon to run in the U.S.

Now each can boast that it will have staged a 2008 Olympic Trials marathon race. The men's trials were held last November in New York, and this April the women will take the stage in Boston. The men's trials featured riveting drama, as young Ryan Hall turned in a stunning 2:09:02 to win going away, and a gusty come from behind effort by Brian Sell netted him the third and final spot on the team. Young Dathan Ritzenehein finished second to make the Olympic team as well. Sadly, the tragic death of Ryan Shay during the race overshadowed these outstanding performances.

On April 20, Boston will hope to match the drama, with everyone finishing safe and sound. So how will the race unfold? Let's take a look at some key questions headed into the women's trials.

1) How tough is the course?

When you think of Boston and marathon running, you think of hills, especially punishing downhills followed by deceptively tough climbs. Alas, the Olympic Trials marathon will not be run on the Hopkinton to Boston route, which features those fabled undulations. The trials race route, a five-loop configuration throughout Boston and nearby Cambridge, will be mostly flat, following many of the same roads used for the Tufts 10 Km, held each October on Columbus Day.

In fact, many of the women in the race will find the roads familiar, having run in the Tufts race, the women's 10-km championship for the past several years. An initial 2.2-mile circuit beginning at the finish line of the Boston Marathon will visit the historic Back Bay neighborhood; then the runners will head out for four six-mile loops in Cambridge and Boston.

2) What about the weather?

As anyone who has run in the Boston Marathon knows, mid-April can mean anything in terms of climate conditions, from searing heat to a cold and raw Nor'easter, which the Boston Marathon narrowly escaped last year. The wild card could be the wind. As much of the route will parallel the Charles River, a stiff breeze is very much a possibility. That could turn the race into a tactical affair, although it should be remembered that the men's trials in New York were also held in windy conditions, and Ryan Hall dropped the lead pack and ran alone in the wind for the final several miles at an astonishing pace, better than 4:50 per mile.

In a recent interview, race director Dave McGillivray commented, "At least with this configuration, wherever the wind's coming from, you're not going to have it in your face the whole time. At least it's distributed?If you're running on a bridge, there's nothing blocking it?I've run over that bridge and on Memorial Drive over 1,000 times. 80 percent of the time, it's the most enjoyable run I have all year. And then 10 percent of the time, it can be windy. We'll just have to have our fingers crossed on that one."

3) Is Deena Kastor a lock to make the team?

There is no sure thing at the Olympic Trials. Just ask Meb Keflezighi, a favorite who failed to make the men's team last fall, and who like Kastor, won a medal at the 2004 Olympic Games. That being said, none of the men had a 12-minute margin on his nearest competitor, something Kastor is able to claim. While she has run 2:19:36, the next fastest woman in the race, Elva Dryer, clocks in at 2:31:48.

One would think then, that Kastor could employ a conservative strategy and still comfortably make the team. The goal after all, is just to make the top three, not necessarily to win. But running a different pace than you are used to can be a flawed strategy. Kastor will have to decide whether to run alone at a tempo only she is accustomed to sustaining, or with a group, believing she can call upon her superior speed when she needs to. It is difficult to envision a scenario in which a healthy and rested Kastor is beaten by three other women, although stranger things have happened.?

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