- - Thursday, January 12, 2012

HOUSTON — The road to the 2012 London Olympics starts here in the Space City with the U.S. Olympic marathon trials.

But there is little space on this team.

By late Saturday morning, three men and three women will have earned a spot to represent the United States in London in August. That is merely six athletes out of more than 300 who have qualified to even line up for the 26.2-mile course around downtown Houston.

In addition to producing the first members of the U.S. Olympic track and field team, Houston will become the first city to combine the men and the women on the same day at the same venue.

For decades, the men’s and women’s races were staged separately alongside large, prestigious marathons such as Boston, New York and Los Angeles. Houston even hosted the women’s trials in 1992.

But in a divisive move by former USA Track & Field executive director Doug Logan, USATF awarded Houston’s combined men/women bid over separate bids from New York City (men’s trials) and Boston (women’s trials), both of which hosted the 2008 trials for the men and women, respectively.

The men’s and women’s races will start and finish in front of the George R. Brown Convention Center, with the men beginning at 8 a.m. and the women 15 minutes later.

In total, 158 men and 223 women achieved qualifying times over the past three years. For the men, that meant running a marathon in 2:19 or faster, a half-marathon in less than 1:05 or a 10,000-meter race in less than 28:30. For the women, the standards were 2:46, 1:15 and 33:00, respectively.

The course, which was created to emulate the course in London, begins with a 2.2-mile loop through the heart of downtown, after which the athletes will run three 8-mile loops on a flat course that race organizers expect to result in fast times.

Five of the six reigning U.S. Olympians will be returning: Ryan Hall, Dathan Ritzenhein, Deena Kastor (2004 Olympic bronze medalist), Magdalena Lewy Boulet, and Blake Russell. They will be joined by 2004 marathon team members Meb Keflezighi (2004 Olympic silver medalist), Colleen De Reuck, and Jen Rhines.

Typically in championship events such as the trials, the races are more strategic than fast. But Hall proved that false in the 2008 trials, dropping the pace and his competition midrace and powering on to an Olympic trials record of 2:09:02.

His 2:04:58 last year at Boston certainly puts him at the top for a ticket to London. Should he win, he would join Frank Shorter (1972, ‘76) as the only two repeat trials winners. But he will have to outrun former training partner Keflezighi, who ran well at New York City two months ago.

This is the deepest U.S. women’s marathon field at the trials with the most qualifiers ever: sub-2:25 (two), sub-2:30 (seven), sub-2:35 (18) and sub-2:40 (50). Like Hall, Desiree Davila is a favorite to make the team based on her stellar 2:22:38 at Boston. 2010 New York City runner-up Shalane Flanagan is always tough as will be rising star Stephanie Rothstein. Expect Kara Goucher to be in the mix.

At 50, 1996 Olympic marathoner Linda Somers Smith qualified for her seventh trials.

Locally, Christopher Raabe (2:15:13, D.C.) and Michael Wardian (2:17:49, Arlington) lead the men, and Serena Burla (2:35:08, Falls Church) and Amanda Rice (2:38:57, Bethesda) lead the women.

Also at stake is a prize purse totaling $250,000 in each race, plus bonuses, with $50,000 to the men’s and women’s champion.

NBC will broadcast two hours of same-day delayed coverage beginning at 3 p.m. ET.

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