The Streets of Houston that Led to London

Photo Credit: Victah Sailor

As London prepares to welcome the world on Friday, July 27th, at the Opening Ceremony of the 2012 Olympic Games, the Houston Marathon Committee looks back six months ago when the Bayou City hosted the country’s finest long-distance runners at the 2012 U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon.

The first U.S. Olympic Trials of the year, the men’s and women’s marathons featured 300 elite athletes competing for six spots on Team USA.  The USOC branded all Olympic Trials events as “The Road to London,” but it was on the streets of Houston where the historical men’s and women’s marathon competitions were contested and an estimated 40,000 spectators witnessed the skill, mental fortitude, and toughness of these amazing athletes.

Photo Credit: Victah Sailor

On Saturday, January 14th, the men and women raced on the same course simultaneously for the first time in the history of the Olympic Trials Marathon, and the result was two of the fastest races ever as the six men and women who will represent Team USA in London earned their way on to the squad.

Shalane Flanagan set an Olympic Trials record of 2:25:38 in only her second marathon, while Meb Keflezighi earned his third Olympic berth by winning the Trials in a personal best time of 2:09:08. Flanagan led a Trials record five women under 2:30 while Meb led four men under 2:10 for the first time in Trials history.

At the London Olympic Games, the Women’s Marathon will be conducted on August 5th and the Men’s Marathon will be run on August 12th with both races beginning at 11:00 a.m., London time.  The course in London will feature an 8-mile loop with numerous turns, which will be familiar for Team USA because the Trials course in Houston was designed to replicate the Olympic course.  Houston’s course featured a 2.2 mile loop in downtown Houston that the runners ran once before they ran an 8-mile loop three times that led them from the GRB Convention Center, up Memorial Drive to Shepherd Drive and returning on Allen Parkway.  On a sunny, crisp morning, six runners scorched the Houston-course and punched their tickets to London.

Team USA – Men

Keflezighi’s performance (Mammoth Lakes, Calif) came only 69 days after his last marathon, where he also ran athen personal best time of 2:09:13 to place sixth at the 2011 ING New York City Marathon. The 2009 ING New York City Marathon winner and 2004 Olympic silver medalist became the first man to win both the U.S. Olympic Trials and the New York City Marathon in his career. At nearly 37 years old, he is the oldest man to win the Olympic Marathon Trials.

Defending Olympic Trials champion Ryan Hall (Flagstaff, Ariz), who set the American Half Marathon Record in Houston in 2007, led much of the race en route to securing his second Olympic berth. Hall set a torrid pace early, with a projected finish of 2:06 that held up through the half-marathon mark. Wind and leg fatigue slowed Hall’s pace, as he shook his arms out regularly, but it wasn’t enough to keep him from again making the Olympic marathon team as he finished second in 2:09:30.

Abdi Abdirahman (Tucson, Ariz.) turned heads in the lead pack. Entering the Trials with the 14th-fastest qualifying time, Abdi hadn’t run under 2:14 since setting his personal best of 2:08:56 in 2006. Soldiering through a year and a half of injury, Abdirahman finished third in 2:09:47 to clock his fastest marathon since 2006 and make his fourth Olympic Team at age 34.

Photo Credit: Smiley Pool

Team USA – Women

Flanagan (Portland, Ore.) bettered the women’s Olympic Trials Marathon record by two minutes and forty-seven seconds in her Olympic Trials marathon debut – just the second marathon of her career. Flanagan was in the lead pack throughout the race, but did not step forward as the clear leader until the 21st mile once the lead group of three was clearly set.

Flanagan exchanged the lead with Desiree Davila (Rochester Hills, Mich.) several times before surging ahead at mile 24 to run away with the lead. Her winning time was a personal best by nearly 3 minutes.

Davila on Saturday added the word Olympian to her growing resume. Davila led portions of the race from five miles on before dueling with Flanagan in miles 22 through 24. Once Flanagan took the lead for good, Davila held on to finish in 2:25:55, only 18 seconds back.

The 2007 World Championships bronze medalist at 10,000 meters, Kara Goucher (Portland, Ore.) claimed her first spot on the Olympic Marathon squad by finishing third in 2:26:06. After not competing in 2010 due to maternity, this was Goucher’s second marathon in nine months after her 2:24:26 showing at the 2011 Boston Marathon.

Hard Work Pays Off

Dathan Ritzenhein (Portland, Ore.), the top American marathoner at the 2008 Olympics, knelt at the finish with his head in his hands as he was 4th in 2:09:55, while Amy Hastings (Mammoth Lakes, Calif.) could no longer hold the lead at mile 20 and fell back for good to finish in fourth in 2:27:17 in the women’s race, respectively. Only the top three men and women make the Olympic Team.

A mere four months after their heart-breaking finishes in Houston, Ritzenhein and Hastings both earned spots on Team USA with top-three finishes respectively in the 10,000 meters at the 2012 U.S. Olympic Track & Field Trials in Eugene, Oregon.  After their amazing efforts fell just short in Houston, their triumphs at TrackTown USA on the campus of the University of Oregon were the feel-good stories of the Track & Field Trials last month.

Photo Credit: Victah Sailor

Houston Raises the Bar

On March 10th, 2010, media and fans gathered at City Hall for the formal announcement that the Houston Marathon Committee had won the bid to host the 2012 U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon.  Houston, New York and Boston were invited by USA Track & Field to bid on the events.  Prior to the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, the women’s Trials were conducted in Boston and the men’s race was hosted by New York.  Never before in the history of the Olympic Trials Marathon had the men and women raced on the same course at the same time.  But on this day, executives from USATF joined Houston Mayor Annise Parker, and Race Director Brant Kotch to formally announce the historic decision that Houston would host both races in 2012.

From that point forward, the Houston Marathon Committee, led by over 100 dedicated volunteers and a 10-person staff, collaborated with Civic leaders, local public safety experts, and representatives from the USOC and USATF to plan the monumental event.  In addition to creating a course to replicate London’s track in an effort to best prepare the athletes, Houston conducted a test event in January of 2011 to best prepare the Local Organizing Committee.  The 2011 U.S. Half Marathon Championships were conducted a year prior to the Trials to evaluate operations, infrastructure and logistics.

That preparation allowed local organizers to spend the next year planning numerous aspects of the event including an interactive fan zone and an unprecedented opening ceremony, both conducted at Discover Green adjacent to the Finish Line where Team USA was crowned.  The interactive event called “Trials Town,” featured the USOC’s “Road to London” tour featuring a dozen interactive stations for the general public to learn more about a variety of Olympic Sports.  Houston was the first on a four-city tour that concluded at Rockefeller Square in New York City 100 days prior to the Olympic Games.  The Opening Ceremony featured a proclamation from Mayor Annise Parker, a tribute to honorary captains and marathon gold medalists Frank Shorter and Joan Benoit-Samuelson, a parade of athletes, and many other special presentations.

Photo Credit: Jennifer Franco

The decision to host both the men and the women simultaneously garnered the attention of the national running community, as Running USA hosted its national convention in conjunction with the event attracting over 500 running executives to Houston.  Numerous running-industry corporations hosted top-level executives for the Trials, and all participated or attended the Chevron Houston Marathon and Aramco Houston Half Marathon on Sunday.

Over 700 media credentials were issued to representatives from 120 media outlets nation-wide.  The Trials, which were broadcast nationally in a two-hour time-slot on NBC a mere three hours after the event concluded, were featured in numerous publications including Sports Illustrated, USA Today, and the New York Times.

Most recently, the Houston Marathon Committee received national recognition for earning Basic Certification from the Council of Responsible Sport for sustainability achievements and green initiatives.  Coupled with a Silver Certification for Sunday’s events, the HMC became the first organization ever to be awarded dual certification for two separate events conducted on consecutive days.

This honor, in addition to all of the aforementioned achievements, resulted in an Olympic Trials that “raised the bar” for future organizing committees in all sports according to USOC officials.  None of which would have been possible without the partnership of leaders at the Mayor’s Office of Special Events, the Downtown Business District, the Harris County Houston Sports Authority, the Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau, and Houston First, to name a few.

Most of all it was the support of the tireless volunteers and the running community of Houston that made this event an overwhelming success.

As we watch Team USA compete against an extremely talented field in both marathon events in London, the city of Houston and the local running community can take pride in the fact that we prepared and honored these athletes, and hosted a historical and unprecedented Olympic Trials Marathon in 2012.

Check out more photos from the 2012 Olympic Trials Marathon on Flickr!

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