LOS ANGELES -- The history between the four women was as thick and palpable as the muggy air that encased the U.S. Olympic marathon trials course Saturday, turning it into a crucible that could forge dreams or overcook them. They had to manage the heat and each other. They had to draw on friendship. They had to forget friendship. They had to survive.
Amy Cragg, Desiree Linden, Shalane Flanagan, Kara Goucher: They know each other so well. Between them, there are thousands of miles, years of shared experiences and the taut, unspoken understanding that marathons often end with a merciless kick. Cragg and Linden were college teammates and roommates at Arizona State University. Flanagan and Goucher trained together to make the 2012 Olympic team. Cragg and Flanagan decided to do the same several months ago.
There were four of them, and three slots for Rio. For most of the race, Cragg and Flanagan ran side by side in their matching gear as if they were on a companionable weekend outing. They broke away from the other top women at the 12-mile mark and left Linden and Goucher to decide whether or not to cover the move. Both women, savvy and self-contained, stuck with their pace and stayed in the game.
Flanagan returned from a foot injury combined with Achilles tendon and back issues just 10 weeks ago. With six miles to go, her form began to tighten while Cragg's remained fluid. Cragg slowed to stay alongside Flanagan and kept exhorting her.
"One mile at a time, just get to the next water station," she told her training partner as Flanagan labored, her face flushed with exertion and dehydration in mid-70 degree temperatures. "There were a couple times where she said, 'I'm not sure I can do this.'"
But with a mile to go, a resolute Linden closing and Goucher clinging tenaciously to the rope end of the race, Cragg realized she had to cut and run. It was a moment with an echo. In 2012, she was the one dangling in the stretch with an Olympic berth at stake. Linden dropped her old pal with three miles to go, and Cragg finished fourth.
Cragg crossed the finish line in 2 hours, 28 minutes, 20 seconds, exulted for a few instants, slung a flag over her shoulders and hugged Linden after her own passage 33 seconds later. Then Cragg wheeled around, walked back toward the course and waited for Flanagan (2:29:19), who took the last few steps by rote and slumped in Cragg's arms. Flanagan's husband, Steve Edwards, quickly scooped her up and carried her to a waiting wheelchair.
History of a different kind defined the men's race -- a long skein of it for 40-year-old Meb Keflezighi, who had finished 22 previous marathons, and a blank slate for 29-year-old track star Galen Rupp, who was running his first.
The contrast between them stood out starkly when they gapped the field, their ball caps bobbing at different heights. At one point, Rupp hugged Keflezighi's heels tightly enough that Keflezighi gestured and demanded more space. Rupp eventually made that moot, accelerating with three miles to go, breezing the rest of the way bareheaded and unchallenged to complete his scintillating debut in 2:11:12.
"It's not a track. The road is open," Keflezighi said, smiling, in response to a news conference query about the exchange, alluding to etiquette and his anxiety at the prospect of being clipped from behind. "It wasn't a very friendly conversation." A few minutes later, as if on cue, Rupp walked into the room and was escorted to a stool on the dais, inches from Keflezighi. Laughter erupted as Rupp stayed deadpan.
"I'm just thrilled with the way the race went," Rupp said. He then outlined an ambitious schedule for the next few months. Rupp intends to compete in the world indoor championships in his hometown of Portland, Oregon, in March and confirmed he thinks racing the 10,000 meters in Rio is "a real possibility," assuming he qualifies in the event where he was a silver medalist in 2012.
"I think the 10,000 might still be my better event," Rupp said. But, he added, "I'm going to take some time and enjoy this one." He appeared unperturbed by a question about the ongoing investigation into last year's doping allegations against him, his coach and his Oregon Project training group, which surfaced again in pointed comments by Goucher, a former member.
Keflezighi (2:12:20) came around the last turn on the course waving and pointing to fans and putting a hand to one ear to provoke more noise from the crowd, then flexed his biceps like Popeye. The Athens 2004 silver medalist and 2014 Boston Marathon champion is the first U.S. runner to make three Olympic marathon teams, and the oldest.
He later choked up while describing all the people in his thoughts on the course, including his friend Ryan Shay, who died during the trials race in 2007. "We've got to celebrate life, we've got these able bodies," Keflezighi said.
Flanagan told NBC that Cragg is "the epitome of a best friend ... There was a point in the race where I thought I would drop out. Sweet baby Jesus, I'm so thankful for her." She was then wheeled into the medical tent, helped to her feet by her husband and another man, tucked in prone under a foil blanket and given IV fluids -- a first in her career, she later said. She vowed to work on hydration and heat conditioning before Rio.
Linden was elated to make her second Olympic team after a lengthy comeback that began when injury forced her to drop out of the London 2012 marathon after two miles..
"It was a mental battle when those guys went away, you're wondering if your tactics are right, if they're sound," Linden said of Cragg and Flanagan. "I had to just let them go.
"I was very dialed into what I thought I was capable of on the day, and kind of circled 5:40 [splits] as the magic number. They started clicking off 5:35s and a little bit quicker, even. I felt that was going to be unsustainable over the second half. The heat was gonna be way worse over the last hour of the race and I wanted to be able to finish strong and close well."
Goucher was alternately composed and emotional after her fourth-place finish, saying she thought she had a real chance to finish in the top three until she hit a wall at Mile 22. She made harsh reference to Salazar, but also made a point of saying how much she admires the three women who qualified for Rio.
"I'm a dreamer," Goucher said. "That's the way I'm wired. I love racing, I love training; I feel alive when I'm preparing for something, it makes me happy. Sometimes it doesn't go the way you hope, but I have such a good life."
As if to punctuate that, her 5-year-old son, Colt, wandered up, clutching plastic containers meant to hold ants -- "He's into bugs," Goucher explained -- and unconcerned with his mother's placement. She hoisted him into her arms, then went on to another interview. She will try to recover from this kick and now attempt to qualify for the Olympic team on the track.
Sally Bergesen, CEO of Goucher's primary sponsor Oiselle, watched Goucher walk away and observed, "She makes herself vulnerable and accessible."
In a nutshell, that is what the marathon tends to do, stripping everyone down on a hot, hot day.