- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 8, 2004

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Rarely have the favorites in the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials completed the 26.2-mile race in the same order as they were ranked coming in.

It wasn’t until after 21 miles that America’s three top-ranked marathoners — Alan Culpepper, Meb Keflezighi and Daniel Browne — moved to the front yesterday and earned a trip to the Athens Olympics later this summer.

Culpepper secured his five-second victory in the last mile, pulling slowly away from Keflezighi and breaking the finish banner in 2:11:42 amid light snow flurries. His time was the fourth-fastest in an Olympic trials race since the qualifying format was adopted in 1968.

In winning, the Lafayette, Colo., resident earned $64,000 in prize money. He will earn another $25,000 if he chooses to run the marathon in Athens instead of competing in the 5,000 or 10,000 meters.

“My intentions are to run the Olympic marathon,” said Culpepper, who made the U.S. Olympic squad in the 10,000 in 2000.

Keflezighi, who recorded the seventh fastest trials time in history, and Browne did not go home empty-handed. Keflezighi, also a 2000 Olympian in the 10,000, earned $38,000 for his 2:11:47 and Browne $27,000 for his 2:12:02.

The three came into the race having competed in a combined four marathons. Culpepper led the class with a 2:09:41, Keflezighi with a 2:10:03 and Browne with a 2:11:35.

As with the previous trials, the race was extremely tactical. The favorites were content to let Teddy Mitchell, then Brian Sell, out far in front of the lead pack on a cold and windy morning.

However, Sell put a scare into the race as when he distanced himself from the rest of the 86 starters. He passed the midpoint at 13.1 miles in 1:06:19 and was 46 seconds ahead of a pack of 15 contenders, including Culpepper, Keflezighi and Browne.

“He ran a gutsy race, and I respect that,” Browne said. “The marathon is a long race, and we are all fairly new to the event and we wanted to be fairly prudent. With 10 miles to go and I heard Sell was one minute ahead, I knew we had our work cut out for us. But I was confident if we worked together we could get him.”

That was the 16-mile mark, as the runners started the second of three loops, Sell had a 69-second lead. He looked strong, considering he was on 2:12 pace and had come into the race with a 2:19:59 qualifying time.

“I was worried basically the whole time,” said Sell, a 25-year-old from Rochester Hills, Mich. “Our goal was to run 2:12 pace. It was the only way we’d have a chance against Meb and Alan and Dan. I stuck to the plan, but the wind took its toll on me.”

And behind him, the pack was working together to deny him a trip to Athens.

“There was a moment where I was concerned,” Culpepper said. “We were all like ‘I don’t know if he was coming back.’ Then two, three miles later we were looking at each other saying we could get him. But everybody on the course was telling us exactly how far ahead he was.”

Slowly, Sell’s lead diminished. By 18 miles, the lead was 44 seconds. By 20 miles and the start of the third and final lap, it was cut to 23, as Culpepper and Keflezighi pushed the pack. After 21 miles, Culpepper, Keflezighi, Browne and Trent Briney overtook the fading Sell, who struggled home in 14th place in 2:17:21.

That left four men vying for three slots on the Olympic team. With three miles remaining, Culpepper and Keflezighi left Browne and Briney. As Culpepper pulled away for the victory, Browne was able to hold off Briney, who finished fourth in 2:12:35, 25 seconds off his personal best.

Briney is the alternate for the Olympic team and has a good shot at going to Athens because the top three finishers are all 10,000-meter runners who may opt for the track at the Olympics.

Keith Dowling of Reston placed 11th in 2:16:50 in what possibly was the end of a long and successful running career.

“I thought I was in good position to make the team,” said Dowling, 34. “I think the cold got me. When they made the surge at 15, I couldn’t go. I actually had to stop two or three times to stretch out my right hamstring. I contemplated dropping out about 20 times. This is probably my last trials race and could be my last marathon.”

Chris Banks of Alexandria placed 20th in 2:18:56, just four seconds slower than he ran here at the USA Championships last year.

“Time-wise, it was probably equal to last year,” the 25-year-old Banks said. “It’s pretty windy but I felt strong. I would have liked to have run a little quicker, like 2:18.”

The other Washington-area finishers included Erik Kean of Fairfax (30th in 2:22:09), Michael Wardian of Arlington (33rd in 2:22:40), Nick Gramsky of McLean (45th in 2:25:10), Edmund Burke of Burtonsville (50th in 2:26:14), and Darrell General of Hyattsville (67th in 2:33:20). Aaron Church of South Riding, Va., and former Washingtonian Weldon Johnson both dropped out.

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