Thursday February 11th, 2016

The U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials will be held on Saturday in Los Angeles. The first three men and women across the finish line will qualify to represent the United States at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.

With less than 48 hours remaining before the race, SI teamed up with a panel of experts from various running media outlets to answer some of the questions ahead of Saturday’s races.

SI: Galen Rupp enters the race as the most hyped runner despite this being his marathon debut. Can he win against those with experience?

Chris Chavez, Sports Illustrated: Rupp can definitely win, but anyone’s first marathon always has so many question marks to it. Given the warm conditions and the fact that anything slow plays into his hands, I think Rupp has a strong chance to make the team and just finishing in the top three is all that’s needed to do so.

Mario Fraioli, Competitor Magazine: Can he? Yes. Will he? Depends on the type of race. I think a slow, tactical affair favors him.

Weldon Johnson, The marathon distance is an equalizer in the sport and so is the debut factor. Throw in the Los Angeles heat and this could be very interesting. If Rupp takes to the marathon like Ryan Hall at the 2008 Olympic Trials, it will be total domination over the final miles. However, since it's Rupp's debut I don't think he'd run away that early.

Pat Price, Daily Relay: Absolutely. Rupp has proven that he is very good at letting others dictate the pace and then pouncing late in the race. I don't expect Rupp to make a move with more than two miles to go, but if he is there at Mile 25, he'll out-kick anyone in the field.

Kevin Sully, House of Run podcast: I certainly think he can, but there are a few factors working against him. The weather and the championship-style race make his first attempt very unpredictable. If this were a paced marathon in cool weather, it would eliminate some of the variables that cause the marathon to be so tricky. That said, the slower pace could give him confidence and, in essence, shorten the race.

Nick Zaccardi, NBC Sports’ OlympicTalk: Yes, but with the caveat that victory in this marathon could simply mean finishing in the top three for Rupp (or anyone else, really). If Rupp is in a breakaway in the latter stages of the race with one or two other runners, who’s to say he wouldn’t be cautious, ensure his place on the Olympic team and conserve his health for the rest of the indoor season? However, an outright win would boost Rupp’s profile for a World Marathon Major debut after the Olympics.

SI: Meb Keflezighi is 40 years old yet he’s probably the other favorite for the field. Will Father Time run down Keflezighi?

CC: Those Newton Hills in Boston took a toll on Father Time and he is still not catching up to Keflezighi.

MF: At some point he will, but I think Keflezighi will stay a few strides ahead of him on Saturday.

WJ: At some point, yes. I don’t think it will be this weekend. I think Keflezighi will make the team...or I should say I hope he makes the team because I secretly root for guys who are close to my age.

PP: Keflezighi has looked mortal from time to time but I don’t believe Father Time is going to keep him off of this team. He is the most experienced competitor in the field and will run smart. Expect to see Keflezighi in Rio.

KS: No, Keflezighi will actually catch Father Time around the 20-mile mark. Father Time will be so impressed that he buys a pair of Skechers after the race.

NZ: I don’t predict it happens Saturday, but it’s possible. Keflezighi has single-digit hours of elite marathoning left in him, and it’s hard to know when his time will come in such a grueling race that's so unpredictable given how rarely the competitors contest it.

Trial by Fire: U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials men's race preview

SI: Which marathon debutant do you think will produce the best performance in his first crack at the 26.2 mile distance?

CC: Rupp probably won’t have his best performance given that I think he has a high ceiling for a fast time in a race with pacers, but I can see someone like Sam Chelanga taking advantage of those hot training sessions in Arizona for a solid debut.

MF: On the men’s side, I like Rupp or Sam Chelanga. For the women, Allison Morgan.

WJ: Chelanga used to go toe-to-toe with Rupp in cross-country in college, so he is one to watch as well as Diego Estrada.

PP: No American has ever qualified for the team off of a half-marathon qualifier, but that will change Saturday. Unless there’s an allergen storm blowing only in his face, Rupp will make the team.

KS: Rupp.

NZ: The obvious answer is Rupp. And I am going with the obvious answer. The women’s side has more peak-level experienced talent at the top, whereas only two men have Olympic marathon experience, and both have age and/or injury question marks.

AP Photo/Mark Humphrey

SI: Who could be biggest surprise of the day for the men and women?

CC: Rupp could be a big surprise as well, if he tanks. He’s the most mysterious person in the field. On the women’s side, Northern Arizona Elite coach Ben Rosario is saying great things about Kellyn Taylor’s fitness and I can see a little bit of “Shalane” in her. Some warm weather training in San Diego over the last few weeks may be just the right tune-up.

MF: Depends how you define surprise. Brett Gotcher and Fernando Cabada are capable of making the team. If they did, I think some would label that a surprise. On the women’s side, not many people are giving Taylor a shot. Even though it’s only her second marathon, I think that’s a mistake.

WJ: Scott Bauhs is my dark horse. He’s never done anything in the marathon, but he made the world championship team in 2011 on the track and suddenly re-appeared this winter. I thought his super competitive days were over. The dream of the Olympics is a strong one.

PP: Tyler Pennel looked outstanding in his 2014 U.S. Marathon Championship. He’s run great at every distance down to the mile [3:58] since that debut. I expect him to contend and possibly make this team Saturday.

KS: For the women, it’s hard to find someone outside of the familiar names. I could see Serena Burla or Annie Bersagel jumping into the top three, but I don’t think they qualify as surprises given their personal bests. In the men’s race, I'm interested in Elkanah Kibet. He’s only run one marathon and it was a big success (2:11:31). Maybe that’s his best, but if he improves even just a little bit he will be with the leaders on Saturday.

NZ: Kibet, the third-fastest U.S. marathoner last year at a ripe age [32]. To run 2:11 in a marathon debut, after serving in Kuwait and Iraq the previous year, is pretty incredible. For the women’s race, Renee Metivier Baillie, solely on the basis that she ran 2:27:17 at Chicago 2012, though her qualifier from December 2014 was seven minutes slower.

AP Photo/Pat Sullivan

SI: Do you expect a battle up in front of the women’s race between Shalane Flangan and Desi Linden similar to that of 2012?

CC: Given that Flanagan is entering a little banged up, I think there may be a pack of four women together in the final miles.

MF: Yes, and I also expect Amy Cragg to stick her nose in there similar to 2012.

PP: Yes. It sounds like Flanagan has missed some training, but you can never count her out. Everything coming out of Linden’s camp points to her being super fit and ready to roll. I don’t expect Linden to go all “Shalane” and hammer from the gun, but I do expect her to throw in some late race surges to push for the win and try to drop Flanagan like others have done in the majors.

WJ: On paper Flanagan and Linden are much better than everyone else. The warm weather could keep a bunch of women in it past halfway. Flanagan has said her buildup had not gone perfectly.

KS: Given Flanagan’s injury, I don’t think anyone knows what to expect in the women’s race. Not only was she the favorite [before the injury], her aggressive running style changes the character of the race. If she runs conservatively—something I’m not sure she’s ever done or is capable of—there will be some slow miles early on. Linden will keep it honest, but in the hot weather I don’t think anyone is going to be very bold in the first half of the race.

NZ: No. I think Amy Cragg will be a factor late into the race.

•​ U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials women's race preview

SI: How do you see the men’s race panning out?

CC: There are a few guys who don’t want it to become a sit-and-kick affair, especially given how hot it will be. If Kibet repeats the tactics from Chicago, where he took it out hard, I think that will take care of that.

MF: The weather forecast says it will be tactical but I think a lot of guys, including Keflezighi, fear it turning into a 23-mile tempo run and a 5K race at the end. Given that, I think someone will press early and keep things honest. I see it being a race of attrition over the final 10K.

WJ: Usually nothing happens in the first half of the marathon, especially when it is warm– although Sammy Wanjiru started to change that with his run at the 2008 Olympics. I struggle to grasp how un-rabbited races with only Americans play out since they just occur every four years. However it plays out, it should be exciting.

PP: After a solid race in Chicago, I expect Kibet to take it out fast. I expect Dathan Ritzenhein, Rupp, Keflezighi, Pennel, Ward, Puskedra, Llano, and a few others to go with him. Then it will be a race of attrition. I don’t expect Ritzenhein to give us as much room as he did in 2012, but he won’t have to contend with Ryan Hall and Abdi Abdirahman either. Aside from Keflezighi, no one is a “lock.”

KS: Slow early on unless someone is really trying for a DNF. I think Rupp shadows Keflezighi and Ritzenhein and the others in the lead pack for as long as possible.

NZ: At least one of the marathon debutants is in the lead pack in the second half of the race, perhaps not only Rupp. I am more concerned about Keflezighi and Ritzenhein than I am about Flanagan and Linden, so I wouldn’t be shocked if one of them is out of the mix.

•​ ​Desi Linden Q&A ahead of the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials

SI: Given that some athletes are coming into Los Angeles a little banged up and could use a few months for the ideal marathon, the top three on Saturday may not be the three the U.S. would most like to send to the Games. So, two questions: One, In a race in which everyone is healthy and ready, what’s the best possible team that the U.S. could send to Rio? And, two, who makes the team in L.A.?

CC: Ideal: Experience pays off so you’d have to include Meb Keflezighi and Dathan Ritzenhein, but there’s also talent, meaning you’d have to include someone like Rupp. On the women’s side, a repeat of the 2012 team would still hold up in international competition. Chris’s picks for Saturday: Keflezighi, Rupp and Kibet; Linden, Flanagan and Taylor.

MF: Ideal: Keflezighi, Ritzenhein and Jared Ward for the men. For the women: Flanagan, Linden and Annie Bersagel. Mario’s picks: Keflezighi, Ritzenhein and Jared Ward; Flanagan, Linden and Taylor.

WJ: Ideal: On paper it’s no question—Rupp, Keflezighi and Ritzenhein for the men and Flanagan, Linden and Cragg on the women’s side. That is all unless someone breaks through on each side. It would be nice to have six to 10 men capable of running under 2:10 and women under 2:25 but we’re not there yet. Weldon’s picks: Haven’t made up my mind.

PP: Ideal: On the men’s side, Keflezighi, Ritzenhein, Rupp. For the women, Flanagan, Linden and Kara Goucher. All of these runners have done well in international competition. Pat’s picks: Keflezighi, Rupp, Pennel; Flanagan, Linden, Goucher.

KS: Ideal: The best team would include Rupp because even if he doesn’t put up a 2:07 on Saturday, you have to think he will be better in his second try. In a championship race, the U.S. wants Keflezighi because of his experience and his general indestructibility. A women’s team of Flanagan, Cragg and Linden is potent if all are healthy in August. Kevin’s picks: Keflezighi, Puskedra, Rupp; Flanagan, Cragg, Linden.

NZ: Ideal: Based on PRs, ages, potential, experience and health: Rupp, Keflezighi, Ritzenhein and Flanagan, Linden, Cragg. Nick's picks: Rupp, Keflezighi, Ritzenhein; Linden, Flanagan, Cragg.

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