- The Washington Times - Friday, February 6, 2004

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — By 9 a.m. today, Keith Dowling will complete his final warmup for the U.S. Men’s Olympic Marathon Trials. How the 34-year-old Reston resident finishes more than two hours later will set the course for the final stages of his long and successful running career.

“I still think I can PR [set a personal record],” said Dowling, one of 86 runners who have qualified for a shot at one of three spots on the U.S. Olympic team for Athens this summer. “It could take a PR just to make the team. It would make it easier to leave the sport if I were an Olympian this year or I PR this year.”

Though Dowling has been one of America’s top marathoners for a decade, the veteran was focusing on staying calm on the eve of the race.

“It’s the magnitude of the race,” said Dowling, who was sixth at the 1996 Olympic trials in Charlotte, N.C., doing 2:14:30 in his second marathon. He missed the trials in 2000 because of a broken foot.

Today Dowling will step to the line with the sixth-best qualifying time (2:13:28). Although not favored to end up in the top three, he has an outside chance because of the consistency he has demonstrated throughout his 12-year professional running career.

He will need a great effort to beat the likes of 31-year-old Alan Culpepper of Louisville, Colo., who ran a debut 2:09:41 at Chicago in October 2002 and comes in as the top seed for the $60,000 first-place prize of a total purse of $193,500. Another $20,000 to $25,000 is awarded for Olympic participation, as well as another $500 to $4,000 for placing in the national championship race, which this event also serves.

Meb Keflezighi (2:10:03) of Mammoth Lakes, Calif., Dan Browne (2:11:35) of Portland, Ore., Eddy Hellebuyck (2:12:46) of Albuquerque, N.M., and Jimmy Hearld (2:12:51) of Louisville, Ky., all have run faster qualifiers than Dowling.

Culpepper appears healthy, but Keflezighi recently got over a two-week bout of the flu. Hellebuyck, a 43-year-old former Belgian Olympian who was ranked second to Keflezighi at the marathon distance last year, was fifth in the 2000 trials in Pittsburgh and is a constant threat even as he ages.

Nonetheless, a Dowling personal best, currently the 2:13:28 he ran as first American at Boston in 2002, is possible.

The marathon course was selected because it is slightly downhill with three loops downtown and designed for fast times. The runners need not worry about warm temperatures and a tough, hilly course, which wreaked havoc with the 2000 trials in Pittsburgh as only Rod DeHaven qualified for the Olympics. An injured DeHaven will not be running today.

The forecast is for temperatures in the high 30s by race time, but heavy winds might be an issue.

The Washington area, which usually has qualified three or four runners for the trials, again is well represented. Eight runners surpassed the 2:22 time standard, and Peter Sherry of Great Falls opted not to run tomorrow. Instead, he will compete in the USA Cross Country Championships in Indianapolis because, “I didn’t get the distance work in for the marathon.”

After Dowling, who has a legitimate shot at the Olympic team, the rest of the area runners realize they are not running for place but running for a personal best and the experience of being treated like an elite athlete for a weekend.

“I don’t have a chance to place in the top three, but I’d like to run a PR,” said Alexandria’s Chris Banks, who ran a personal best 2:18:52 here a year ago, placing eighth at the USA Marathon Championships.

Michael Wardian of Arlington knows he is not a contender either, but he said he is here to run well and have fun with friends and family. Wardian, 29, just barely qualified by 12 seconds. Aaron Church of South Riding, Va., sneaked in under the 2:22 standard by 13 seconds, and Edmund Burke of Burtonsville made it by seven seconds.

Five-time qualifier Darrell General (2:19:34) of Hyattsville and Nick Gramsky (2:20:46) of McLean are the other area entrants. Two runners with local connections — Weldon Johnson of Flagstaff, Ariz., and Erik Kean of Cheyenne, Wyo. — also are in the field.

General will be accompanied to the trials by his children — 14-year-old Deanna, 10-year-old Darrell and 9-year-old D’Andre — as well as his aunt, Dorothy. The children have been to nearly all of his trials.

“They want to see me get the record,” said General, referring to the fact that he can break the mark for competiting in the most Olympic trials if he qualifies for 2008. “My kids are old enough now to understand what I’m doing — that’s why I want to stay healthy.”

They should be able to see General along the course at least 10 times as the runners maneuver the 5.43-mile criterion-style route.

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