Desiree Davila’s résumé and professional reputation are dominated by one phenomenal race. She understands that. Her stunning, out-of-nowhere performance in last spring’s Boston Marathon, where she set the American record in the event and lost the title in a gripping sprint to the finish, offered a huge boost in name recognition and stature.
It also landed her the No. 1 seed in the women’s Olympic trials marathon Saturday in Houston, where she will face a field filled with household names and more accomplished colleagues. Davila, though, doesn’t view her performance at Boston as a blip; rather, she sees it as hard evidence that the slow, steady climb she had been making since 2008 finally reached the realm of international legitimacy.
She has been working toward 2012, and now it’s here. The top three men and top three women finishers in Saturday’s marathon will win tickets to the London Games in August. Davila, who has never made an Olympic team and finished 13th at the 2008 Olympic trials, believes she can be one of them.
“It’s definitely a lot different than in 2008,” Davila, 28, said. “Then I was an unknown, hoping to have a really big race that put me on the map. I wanted to sneak on the team. This time, obviously, I’m a lot more fit, more experienced. . . . I understand the event a lot more and feel more prepared.”
Saturday’s challenge will be enormous. Davila, whose Boston time of 2 hours 22 minutes 38 seconds, represents the fastest marathon qualifying time by more than two minutes, will be competing in arguably the strongest U.S. women’s Olympic trials field ever assembled.
Shalane Flanagan, the 2008 Olympic bronze medalist in the 10,000 meters and the 2010 runner-up at the New York City Marathon, will be there. Kara Goucher, the 2007 world bronze medal winner in the 10,000, is competing. Deena Kastor, who won the Olympic marathon bronze in 2004, will make a run at what would be her fourth Olympic Games; Magda Lewy-Boulet, a two-time world cross country bronze medalist, is also in the field.
There’s also Davila’s former collegiate teammate Amy Hastings, who outshined Davila at Arizona State University and ran a 2:27.03 marathon in her debut at the distance last year.
Those women “set the bar really high when I [was] taking little steps to get to where I want to be,” Davila said. “People were running incredible times in 10Ks, winning medals. Those are the things you want to shoot for.”
In the men’s race, which begins 15 minutes before the women’s at 9 a.m. EST, top seed Ryan Hall (2:04:58) will face challenges from Meb Keflezighi (2:09:13); Dathan Ritzenhein (2:10:00) and Galen Rupp (1:00:30 half-marathon qualifying time).
As Kastor, Flanagan and Goucher emerged as stars in recent years with breakout performances in major meets, Davila toiled quietly and improved gradually. A native of Chula Vista, Calif., she earned all-America recognition with the Sun Devils but never was considered the top runner on her team. During her senior season in 2004, she placed 23rd in the 5,000 at the NCAA championships.
Still, she loved the sport and believed she could get better after college. In 2005, she joined the Hansons-Brooks Distance Project, a group of post-graduate athletes that trains under brothers Kevin and Keith Hanson in Detroit.
In 2006, she finished 43rd in the IAAF World Road Running Championships 20-kilometer race in Debrecen, Hungary. A year later, she ran her first marathon in Boston, finishing 19th in 2:44:56 on a rainy, blustery day. The time was good enough to qualify Davila for the 2008 Olympic trials, which turned out to be a pivotal — albeit disappointing — event.
A virtual unknown entering that race, Davila found herself about eight seconds out of third place at Mile 18. She admitted that she panicked, surprised that she was in the hunt. She did not drink enough water. At Mile 20, she said, “I completely hit the wall. It was like a death march” to the finish.
Davila stumbled home in 2:37:50. She would never again make the same mistake.
“That was probably the race that got me where I am now,” she said. “It was a learning experience.”
Despite that setback, Davila believed she had found her calling and that success would eventually come. She liked the length, the road, even the long, painful training mileage marathons required. She entered the 2008 Chicago Marathon that fall, finishing fifth in 2:31:33. At the same race two years later, she finished as the top American and fourth overall in 2:26:20.
In Boston last spring, she did not emerge among the leaders until nearly two hours into the race. Then, she began passing the top women. With six miles remaining, the race had become a duel between her and Kenyan Caroline Kilel, who eventually prevailed in 2:26:36
Davila said she hopes the pace Saturday isn’t too slow. She said she wouldn’t be afraid to take the lead to keep the field honest. She would rather work hard for 26.2 miles than allow the race to become a sprint over the last third.
“The closer it is to a full marathon, the better,” Davila said. “If it goes out really slow, you’re letting more people stay in there and shortening the race. . . . I can do better at the marathon than any other distance.”
And unlike in 2008, she’s ready to prove that to the running world.
“I’m excited,” she said. “This opportunity you don’t get often . . . to hopefully accomplish a goal you’ve had for a really long time. That gets me pretty fired up.”