ATLANTA — As Galen Rupp covered the final miles of the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials with an insurmountable lead, he stayed in routine. He prayed.
“Especially when things start to hurt at the end,” the Catholic runner said. “I certainly was saying a lot of Hail Marys those last couple of miles.”
Rupp extended his exemplary record in Olympic Trials, winning by 42 seconds in 2:09:20 on a hilly course and a windy day. The two-time Olympic medalist repeated as marathon trials champion to make a fourth Olympic team after a challenging year and a half.
Rupp prevailed on a day where all of the other male and female favorites failed to qualify for the Tokyo Games.
He’s joined on the Olympic team by Jacob Riley, who doesn’t have a shoe sponsor, and Abdi Abdirahman, in line to become the oldest U.S. Olympic runner in history at 43 and the second to compete in five Olympics.
“He’s a different level runner than us,” Abdirahman said of Rupp, who finished second in his first Olympic Trials final as a University of Oregon senior in 2008. Since then, Rupp won five of his six Olympic Trials finals starts between the track and the marathon.
None of the five women’s pre-race favorites made the Olympic team. Instead, a former Uber driver, a former college star who overcame an eating disorder and a mom made up the podium. More on the women’s stories here.
Rupp, who broke free in the 21st mile, completed a marathon for the first time since October 2018. Since, he underwent Achilles surgery, dropped out of his only 2019 marathon with a calf injury and saw his career-long coach, Alberto Salazar, banned four years in a doping case on Oct. 1.
Salazar is appealing, but for now he can no longer coach Rupp, his student since converting the Oregon native from soccer as a high school freshman. Rupp, who has a clean drug-testing record, was not implicated by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency.
“The sign of a great teacher is how he passes all his information onto his pupil,” Rupp said when asked about Salazar after crossing the Centennial Olympic Park finish line, before pivoting to credit new coach Mike Smith. “Mike’s done a tremendous job. I’m not trying to take anything away because he’s been a godsend.”
Smith, who coaches at Northern Arizona, helped deliver Portland-based Rupp on less than three months of training. Before December, Rupp had a string of pain for more than a year, since before the Achilles surgery.
“Coming off of that surgery, I had to almost relearn how to run again,” he said. “I took for granted waking up, being able to get out of bed, walk without pain, being able to play with my kids. … I couldn’t do that for a long time.”
Rupp rushed his return to start last October’s Chicago Marathon. He dropped out around mile 23 with a calf injury that forced him to focus on physical therapy the next two months. His wife, Keara, sensed it before the start of the race.
“You looked terrible,” she told him after Chicago. “You were limping. I could tell from the first mile you were in a lot of pain.”
After teaming with Smith and rebuilding his mechanics, Rupp came to Atlanta feeling similar to four years ago. He raced the Rio Olympic Marathon Trials with zero marathon experience.
“It was almost like I was a newbie again to this event,” he said. “Sometimes change can be a really good thing.”
Riley spoke post-race with the thrill of a first-time Olympic qualifier.
“You’re seeing somebody live their happiest moment of their entire life, so it’s pretty special right now,” said Riley, who didn’t race in 2017 or 2018 while dealing with the same Achilles issue as Rupp. He came back for October’s Chicago Marathon, where he was the top American finisher.
Sans shoe sponsor, Riley decided to don the scrutinized Nike Alphaflys, unusually tall shoes with extra foam and a carbon fiber plate said to boost a runner’s efficiency by several percentage points. Other companies since produced their own shoes with similar technology, but they’ve been playing catch-up.
Rupp and Riley both wore Alphaflys on Saturday. Abdirahman, sponsored by Nike like Rupp, said he chose an earlier version, a Vaporfly.
“I would prefer not to think that my presence on the team is due to having a better shoe,” said Riley, noting that the top two women’s finishers were not in Nikes. “I would think it’s my training.”
Abdirahman, born in Somalia and nicknamed the “Black Cactus,” ranked 11th among Americans by best marathon times in 2019. Now he’s set to break Bernard Lagat‘s record as the oldest U.S. Olympic runner and become the first U.S. male runner to compete in five Olympics.
“It wasn’t a fluke,” said Abdirahman, who made four straight Olympic teams before missing the Rio marathon trials with a calf injury. “I wanted to do something that had never been done before. People counted me out.”
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