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U.S. Marathon Trials: Next Stop, London05:41
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Ryan Hall, Meb Keflezighi, and Abdi Abdirahman celebrate after qualifying for the U.S. Olympic marathon team in Houston. (AP)
Ryan Hall, Meb Keflezighi, and Abdi Abdirahman celebrate after qualifying for the U.S. Olympic marathon team in Houston. (AP)

By Alex Ashlock

Last Saturday, more than 300 runners hit the streets of Houston, Texas for the US Olympic Trials marathon. The top three finishers in the men's and women's races earned Olympic berths. This was the first time the men's and women's marathon trials have been held in the same place on the same day.

In fact, they were the first athletes selected for the team that will represent the United States at the games in London this summer. As a result, the competition attracted thousands of fans, who lined the looping course, which started and finished on the Avenue of Americas in downtown Houston.

36-year-old Meb Keflezighi became the oldest man to win the US Trials. He completed the mostly flat 26.2-mile course in 2 hours, 9 minutes, 30 seconds.

Keflezighi is the son of Eritrean refugees who fled famine and civil war on the Horn of Africa to come to the United States 25 years ago.

Running down the home stretch, he waved a small American flag he had snatched from a fan, a move he said was inspired by Joan Benoit Samuelson when she won the first women's Olympic marathon in Los Angeles in 1984.

Meb Keflezighi’s father, Russom Keflezighi. (Alex Ashlock/WBUR)
Meb Keflezighi’s father, Russom Keflezighi. (Alex Ashlock/WBUR)

At the finish line, his 74-year-old father Russom hoisted Meb on his shoulders.

"I feel great," Russom said. "I'm very glad. I'm proud of my son."

This will be Keflezighi's third Olympics. Eight years ago in Athens he won marathon silver. He made the team this time after recovering from an infected foot, suffered in the New York Marathon back in November. In that race, Keflezighi left a breathing strip meant for his nose inside his shoe, causing the injury and limiting his training for the trials, but it didn't seem to matter.

"It's not about first, second, or third," Keflezighi said. "It's all about being on the team, so it's just an honor to be on the podium to go to London."

The other members of the US marathon team are Ryan Hall and Abdi Abdirahman. Hall won the trials marathon 4 years ago and finished tenth in the marathon in Beijing.

Abdiraham is on his 4th Olympic team, having qualified three times at 10000 meters.

Ryan Hall has been America's best hope in the marathon in recent years. In Boston last April, he ran the fastest ever marathon for an American, 2 hours, 4 minutes and 58 seconds. But that was good for only fourth place, and he has never won a major marathon.

He led this race from the gun, running the first mile in 4 minutes and 52 seconds, calling it practice for medaling in London this summer.

"What it's gonna take is running race like we did today," Hall said. "You're going to have to go early commit to the pace and it will be a war of attrition out there. The marathon has changed. Sammy changed it; guys aren't afraid to go out hard."

"Sammy" was Sammy Wanjiru, the Kenyan runner who won the marathon in Beijing in 2008. It was a performance hailed as one of the top marathons of all time, because of the extreme heat and humidity, and Wanjiru's Olympic record time of 2 hours 6 minutes and 32 seconds.

Wanjiru died in a fall from a balcony after a domestic dispute with his wife last May.

Kara Goucher, holding son Colt, and the women’s winner, Shalane Flanagan. (Alex Ashlock/WBUR)
Kara Goucher, holding son Colt, and the women’s winner, Shalane Flanagan. (Alex Ashlock/WBUR)

Competing in just her second marathon, Shalane Flanagan won the women's race at the Olympic trials in Houston. Her time - 2 hours, 25 minutes, 38-seconds - was more than 3 minutes faster than her first marathon. However, Flanagan believes she's capable of running even faster.

"It just shows that there is more work to be done to put myself in contention in London," Flanagan said. "It's encouraging to know that I am making progress with each marathon."

Flanagan will be competing in her third straight Olympics. She finished third and won a bronze medal in the 10,000 meter race in Bejing. She leads an American team that will also include Kara Goucher, who ran the 5 and 10k races in in Beijing, and Desiree Davila, who will be making her Olympic debut. Davila was second in Houston, Goucher third.

When those women crossed the finish line, they were greeted by Olympic champion Joan Benoit Samuelson, who served as official starter for the women's race.

"I'm thrilled," Samuelson said. "Thrilled that they're representing the United States and thrilled to still be involved in the sport. It's going to be a great team in London.

To put things in perspective, American women have won only two medals in the Olympic marathon, Samuelson's gold in 1984 and the bronze Deena Kastor brought home from Athens in 2004.

American men have only three Olympic marathon medals, Frank Shorter's gold in Munich in 1972, his silver in Montreal in 1976 and Keflezighi's second place silver medal finish in 2004.

Kenyan runners swept all 6 major marathons in 2011. So for the American marathon runners, the road to London may have started in Houston.  Whether it also ended there remains to be seen.

This segment aired on January 21, 2012.

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