In all likelihood, four years from now at the 2020 U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials, someone not named Amy Cragg, Desi Linden, Shalane Flanagan, Kara Goucher, or Janet Bawcom will finish in the top five. But here in 2016, that change of the guard seems a long way off, as the five above-mentioned women took the top five spots on Saturday, just as they did four years ago.
To be sure, the order of finish was slightly different this year. In 2012 it was Shalane Flanagan winning the race, with Desi Linden 2nd and Kara Goucher 3rd. Amy Hastings, as she was then known, was fourth, a minute back of Goucher. And fourth as we all know, is not where you want to end up in a race where the top three get to pose with American flags and start making plans for the Olympics. Four years later, it was Cragg for the win, Linden second again, while Flanagan struggled but held on to third, about a minute ahead of Goucher. Incedibly, Bawcom was fifth again.
All five women ran races to be proud of in difficult conditions. For Goucher, the oldest of the five, the race marked a remarkable resurgence, and her fourth place is nothing to be ashamed of for someone who was very nearly out of the sport a year ago. And surely, the three women who beat her are as strong a trio as one would wish for the U.S. Olympic team.
In addition to being impressive on all fronts, the race will be remembered, at least in part, for the drama that played out late in the race as Flanagan faltered and Cragg, her training partner, slowed to stay with her and offer encouragement and support. Meanwhile, Linden was closing the gap fast. For a few moments, viewers had to wonder whether Cragg was prepared to throw away the lead she and Flanagan had built, jeopardizing her own chances of winning by not forging ahead. Thankfully, that was not the case. Once Cragg took off at around Mile 25, it was clear she had another gear entirely. Although Linden did catch and pass the suffering Flanagan, there was no way she’d get any closer to Cragg, and happily settled for second, as she had in 2012.
Meanwhile, Cragg waited at the line, obviously worried about her training partner. When she saw Flanagan round the final turn, and approach the line, Cragg celebrated more than she had moments earlier when breaking the tape herself. As soon as Flanagan crossed the line, Cragg was there to keep Flanagan from collapsing to the ground. It was hard not to be moved by the altruism. The two had trained together, prepared together, talked endlessly about making the team together, and now they had done it, thanks in large part to Cragg’s devotion in the latter stages of the race. And it was doubly special to see Cragg, the protege, support Flanagan, the older and far more accomplished runner. It seemed like a nice story all-around…
For those few minutes when it became obvious that Cragg was holding back, a part of me didn’t feel at all comfortable with what was happening. As the cameras showed the gap back to Linden becoming smaller with every step, I wanted to shout at Cragg to get going, to save herself, to abandon her friend and training partner to her fate. And I couldn’t help but wonder whether two men in the same situation would have behaved in the same way.
While I watched the drama unfold, I remembered something from the year my daughter had joined the high school cross country team. It must have been one of the first few meets of the season, and Joni was one of the slower runners on a large team of 30-35 girls. She was running along with a friend near the back of the pack, and her friend got a side stitch. To Joni, it was the most natural thing in the world to walk with her friend, rather than continue running, so that is what she did.
I don’t mean to suggest that only women demonstrate altruism and self-sacrifice in athletics. There are numerous stories told of great acts of “sportsmanship” by male runners — John Landy stopping to check on a fallen Ron Clarke in a mile race, Brasher and Chataway sacrificing themselves to pace Bannister’s sub-four-minute mile, decathlete Curtis Beach letting up in the final straight to allow Ashton Eaton to cross the line first in the 2012 Olympic Trials where Eaton first broke the world record. And I also don’t mean to suggest that only men can be ruthlessly competitive. Extremes of friendship and rivalry are not limited to one gender or the other.
But I think in spite of that, there is something different about the friendship between women that was on display during the Olympic Trials. I think that male friendships are more likely to incorporate and be comfortable with rivalry and competition from the get-go. I think our culture greatly encourages male competition among peers, and competition and close friendship go hand-in-hand. For boys in our culture, trying really hard to beat your buddies isn’t inconsistent with having them as best friends.
But I think it’s more complicated for girls and women. I don’t see the same level of encouragement for competition, nor the same level of comfort that allows competitors to be best friends once they have stopped competing. Maybe what I’m trying to say is that girls and women might have a lot more to lose, as far as relationships and social acceptance, by competing hard with their peers than do boys. A boy who is single-minded in trying to win a race, perhaps at the expense of teammates, is more likely to be accepted — even admired — after the fact than a girl who does the same thing.
I remember another incident that occurred with a team that I coached. It was at a league championship cross country race, and our top girl had really extended herself to stay with the leaders. Unfortunately, in the final 600 meters, she had basically had it, and was slowing with every step. Our second girl, who had been 20 seconds back, kicked furiously, and — in a scene of almost slow-motion horror — caught our top girl a few feet before the line and passed her as they entered the chute. The reverse of their positions, our second girl ahead of our first girl, made no different to the final standings, but that act of competition cast an icy chill over our team for the next two weeks, and the two runners never really mended their friendship after that.
The relationships among the top women at the Trials was already pretty tangled.
Flanagan and Goucher has been training partners at one time, but it seemed they were no longer on the best of terms. Cragg and Linden had been college teammates and roommates when they competed for Arizona State. Everyone knew everyone, and they were all competing for the chance to be teammates again on the U.S. team for Rio.
So when I saw Cragg obviously holding back to stay with Flanagan, and when my first instinct was to tell her to run only for herself and her personal glory, I had to think twice, and realize that it might be a lot more complicated than just getting to the line first.