By Chris Lotsbom, @ChrisLotsbom
LOS ANGELES (12-Feb) -- There was a time when Meb Keflezighi had hair atop his shiny head, a time when he was able to crank out 1:53 800-meter repetitions in training. There were days when Shalane Flanagan got extremely anxious before toeing the line, feeling the butterflies and nerves that all runners fear most. And there was a day when Dathan Ritzenhein ran out of fear he'd never sport the Team USA singlet again.
With fewer than 24 hours until the start of the 2016 U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon, Keflezighi, Flanagan, and Ritzenhein are aiming for podium finishes here tomorrow, each attempting to make their fourth Olympic teams. When asked about their first attempts at scoring a birth on the Olympic starting line, the trio laughed and dug deep in the memory bank. As experienced and savvy veterans now, they do not want to miss the chance to represent their nation one more time. They've traveled a far distance from the times mentioned above.
"The start line and the finish line are never a guarantee," said Flanagan, 34, recognizing the moment's importance.
As three figureheads of American distance running, Keflezighi, Flanagan and Ritzenhein understand this is likely their last Olympiad. Individually, they all have traveled different routes to Saturday's Trials starting line, bearing unique stories of triumph and determination. But together as a unit, they have inspired a generation and sparked a resurgence in American running.
For more than a year, Keflezighi has emphasized that this Olympic attempt is for his daughters, Sara (9), Fiyori (7) and Yohana (6). He wants to give them a chance to remember their father on the sport's biggest stage one more time, witnessing him sport the USA vest in Rio de Janeiro. The three playful children were not alive when Keflezighi made his first Olympic team in 2000 (finishing 12th in the 10,000m), or when he earned the silver medal at the 2004 Olympic Marathon. The oldest Sara was too young to remember his 2008 Olympic Trials disaster (which left him crawling on the bathroom floor in pain the night after the race), but does recall his 2012 Olympic Marathon fourth place finish.
Raised in California and a UCLA graduate, racing through Los Angeles makes tomorrow's race even more meaningful -- it allows Keflezighi's extended family to join in the celebration. In 1994, Keflezighi watched the L.A. Marathon and vowed to one day race it. Tomorrow, his teachers, professors, UCLA friends and mentors will all be on the course cheering for him. They remember when Keflezighi was a standout collegian, before he signed endorsement deals or was champion of the Boston and TCS New York City Marathons.
"The biggest change [since the first Olympic experience] is that I have no hair anymore!" he said with a hearty chuckle. "I'm just delighted to be running in front of [family and friends]. To come back now as a 40-year-old, it is exciting because many people from the UCLA athletic department will be here to see me, my P.E. teacher from seventh grade, and those from my high school. It's a reunion almost, in a positive way. I'm very excited."
Keflezighi touched upon his career arc, noting the lows of debilitating injuries and highs of signature wins. He thanked those who've made him the man he is now, primarily his wife Yordanos, coach Bob Larsen, and many more. Keflezighi noted that training has been solid, including a long stint at altitude in Mammoth Lakes, Calif., where he formerly lived before moving to San Diego.
Knowing that a podium finish is anything but given, Keflezighi has prepared the most important organ for one more chance at Olympic glory: his mind.
"You live for those moments, you visualize those moments," he said. "The Olympic Trials come once every four years."
Flanagan agrees with Keflezighi. For the first time, Flanagan has taken an aggressive and potentially disastrous approach to a marathon build-up. Flanagan and coach Jerry Schumacher have attacked marathon training after the 2008 Olympic bronze medalist dealt with a stress reaction in her foot this fall. Flanagan ran for only two weeks before entering the Rock 'n' Roll San Antonio Half Marathon in December, finishing in 1:12:42. She'd then go on to run further than a marathon in training, testing her body's limits.
Tomorrow, Flanagan hopes the hard work pays off with a career-defining performance.
"It just would show the consistency and level at which I've been competing at," she said, answering what it'd mean to be a four-time Olympian. "Every time I've tried out for a U.S. team I've made it, whether it's cross country, track, or the marathon, every world championship team basically since 2004. I don't plan on missing my first tomorrow. I would hate for that to be the case. I just hope it shows the consistency and level which I've prepared every single time."
One of the most consistent and decorated American distance runners in history, Flanagan gets the same thrill racing now as she did in high school and college.
"I feel like I'm pretty much the same person, but I have a lot more experiences under my belt. I probably don't get quite as nervous as I used to. There's definitely a more sense of calmness to my approach," she said. "But it's still just as fun. I guess that's the most important part, that I am still just as motivated and I enjoy it just as much."
Motivation has been on Ritzenhein's mind since a devastating fourth-place finish at the 2012 Trials. Having suffered his fair share of stress fractures, Ritzenhein is now healthy and confident entering tomorrow's race.
"All my emotional energy, everything has been into making this fourth team. For me, this means everything right now. I feel really good, comfortable with what I've done, and I'm just focused on it," he said. "I haven't even thought past tomorrow, really."
A dozen years ago, Ritzenhein made his first Olympic team in the 10,000m because he was one of the few Americans to have achieved the Olympic standard. Despite dealing with multiple injuries --including a broken foot-- he wanted to race in Athens because he never knew if the opportunity would present itself again. He started, but didn't finish, visibly limping.
"[This time] I got all ten toes working. That time I had broken a metatarsal in my foot. I never would have thought 12 years ago," he began, pausing to reflect on the moment. "There's a lot of great runners that never make an Olympic team. I guess 12 years later thinking that I can hopefully make a fourth team, that's a really big blessing."
Ritzenhein received an inspirational message this afternoon from close friend Abdi Abdirahman, himself a four-time Olympian, the man who finished 8 seconds in front of him in Houston in 2012.
"I got a message just before I came here, a voicemail from Abdi," Ritzenhein began, quickly switching to his high pitch, spot-on Abdirahman voice. "Dathan I'm cheering for you man, I love you, you're going to make that fourth team!"
"I'm just blessed and happy to still be going strong, and feel I have as good a shot as anybody to make that team," he said.
Fans of distance running may witness history tomorrow, with three athletes getting a chance to become four-time Olympians in the same race. It is a rare feat, and may never happen again.
PHOTO: Shalane Flanagan and Meb Keflezighi in advance of the 2016 USA Olympic Trials Marathon in Los Angeles (photo by Chris Lotsbom for Race Results Weekly)
PHOTO: Dathan Ritzenhein in advance of the 2016 USA Olympic Trials Marathon in Los Angeles (photo by Chris Lotsbom for Race Results Weekly)