The starting area of a marathon is usually a mass of flop sweat and anxiety, a city block of people trying to stretch despite having the wiggle room of worms in a bait shop bucket.
But when the best distance runners in this country gather for the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials on Saturday in New York City, there will be plenty of room to turn cartwheels at the start line.
It'll be during the race, in Central Park, that traffic jams will occur.
"It's the sparsest start line we'll ever see, but the biggest pack we'll ever see," said Jason Lehmkuhle.
Lehmkuhle and Chris Lundstrom are the two Team USA Minnesota runners in the elite 133-man field, which required a qualifying time of 2 hours, 22 minutes in a marathon or a 10-kilometer time of 28:45, basically over the past two years.
That means virtually every runner is a threat to challenge for the three-man Olympic team.
"It's a much smaller field, because you're used to going to the line with thousands of people," said Lundstrom.
"But once the race gets going, you're dealing with a lot more people because we're all kind of in the same range."
The Trials are being run on a special course the day before the New York City Marathon, whose field has, oh, about 38,000 more folks lumbering through the five boroughs. The Trials race will start at Rockefeller Plaza at 7:35 a.m. -- shown live on "The Today Show" -- and finish, after five loops in the park, at Tavern on the Green.
And there's little question the field will be exceptional. Lehmkuhle was ninth at the 2004 Trials in a personal-record 2:16:27 and said "I could PR by five minutes this year and still finish ninth, that's how much better the field is."There's an upward trend in distance running in America," he said. "Guys used to stay away from the marathon in their prime running years, and they don't do that any more. And there's been a surge in training groups, like our Team Minnesota."
Lehmkuhle, 30, is a graphic designer who was married in August to teammate Kristen Nicolini, who won the Twin Cities Marathon women's 10-mile race last month (the women's marathon trials will be in Boston in April). A Drake graduate, Lehmkuhle had an impressive training run by finishing second in the TCM men's 10-mile race to Abdi Abdirahman, who is one of Saturday's favorites.
Lundstrom, 31, has a degree from Stanford and a master's in kinesiology from the University of Minnesota. He teaches part-time at the U, where his wife, Taj, is in residency in the department of pediatrics and medicine. Lundstrom is also track and cross-country coach at St. Paul Como Park.
"My kids say, 'Are you going to the Olympics?'" Lundstrom said with a laugh. "And I say, 'I'm very much a long shot.'"
Lundstrom, whose PR is 2:17:34, finished sixth at the Pan Am Games in Rio de Janiero in August.
"I was a little worried, because it was kind of close [to the Trials]," he said. "Most elite marathoners will run two a year, so the timing wasn't great ... but I've recovered well and am ready to go."
Lehmkuhle believes most runners appreciate the Trials' move to November.
"It's a great decision -- there's a natural buildup for runners for a fall marathon, and it also helps the guys who are running 10 kilometers at the track trials next year," he said.
Twenty-somethings Ryan Hall and Brian Sell are consensus favorites, along with naturalized citizens Abdirahman, Meb Keflezighi and Khalid Khannouchi, who has the top qualifying time (2:07:04). The weather is expected to be fairly ideal, with temperatures in the 40s, so the question is: Does a desperate rush for a top-three spot mean a 133-runner pack with a sprint to the finish?
"Different guys have different mindsets," said Lehmkuhle. "My experience in marathons shows me I need to run my own race. I'm going to be less interested in if there are a lot of big moves being made up front than I am in doing what's best for me."