Olympic women’s marathon goes to Tiki Gelani after Americans Kara Goucher, Shalane Flanagan fade

August 5, 2012

Kara Goucher compared running the last eight miles of the Olympic women’s marathon to giving birth. It wasn’t the driving rain — she trained in plenty of deluges back home in Portland, Ore. — it was the painful cramping in her right calf. It was the inability to keep pace on a winding course as Ethiopia’s Tiki Gelana won the gold in an Olympic record of 2 hours 23 minutes 7 seconds.

And it was spotting training partner and friend Shalane Flanagan near the finish, fading.

“I felt so sad when I saw her struggling,” Goucher said. “I wanted half a medal. I thought she could win.”

Like Goucher, Flanagan had been felled by hard turns and a host of more experienced marathoners. The two U.S. track stars, running near the front at the halfway point, got left behind, their hopes of bringing home a pair of medals washed away on a scenic but brutal 26.2-mile course.

Flanagan, who won the Olympic bronze in the 10,000 at the 2008 Games in Beijing, finished 10th in 2:25:51 and Goucher, the 2007 world bronze medalist in the 5,000, got 11th in 2:26.07.

“Everyone envisions themselves standing on the podium,” Flanagan said. “I was going for something big like that again . . . Kara and I have never worked so hard for something.”

As Gelana outsprinted Kenyan Priscah Jeptoo over the last mile to win by five seconds, and Russian Tatyana Petrova Arkhipova got the bronze in 2:23:29, the Americans mostly suffered. Even Britain’s Claire Hallissey, who lives in Arlington, struggled, finishing 57th in 2:35.39.

“The conditions were tough,” Hallissey said. “It was a twisty course, and the cobbles didn’t make for very fast running.”

Gelana, who became the second Ethio­pian woman to win Olympic gold after Fatuma Roba in Atlanta in 1996, said she slipped and fell on her elbow, but was uninjured and not bothered. She got up and finished strong. Her uncle, Gezahegne Abera won the men’s marathon at the Sydney Olympics 12 years ago.

“I really loved it,” she said. “The rain makes it very interesting. . . . I love running in the rain; I have been doing that since I was a small child. . . . I was confident before the race I could win it.”

Britain’s Paula Radcliffe, the reigning world record holder, and American Desiree Davila, who has battled hip problems, did not start because of injury.

Flanagan and Goucher, who train together under Jerry Schumacher, ran in the front of a massive lead pack in the early miles of the race, which started and finished in driving rain, under gray skies and on slick streets.

Though officially sixth at the halfway point, Flanagan was on pace with the leaders at 1:13:13, and Goucher was just a second behind, officially 16th.

But that’s about when the marathon became a battle. Reigning world champion Edna Kiplaget of Kenya started pushing the pace in the second half, and the American pair immediately fell off. Kiplaget eventually faded herself, finishing 20th in 2:27:52, but the damage was done.

At just more than 15 miles into the race, Flanagan had fallen five seconds off the leaders and Goucher was six back. At the 21-mile mark, Flanagan ran by herself, seven seconds back of a lead pack that included three Kenyans and two Ethiopians, while Goucher had fallen 24 seconds behind.

“I went for it,” Flanagan said. But “when they made a big move at 25k, I feel like I suffered a little bit.”

Goucher said her right calf started cramping, then the pain began to creep into her back. The Americans, who have experimented with road racing in recent years, said they were bothered by the sharp twists and turns of the winding three-loop course, which started near St. James’s Park and extended nearly to the Tower of London.

“It was sort of like a losing battle,” Goucher said. “The body just wasn’t happening.”

Said Flanagan: “The turns and the ups and downs were really, really hard.”

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