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Galen Rupp wins Olympic Marathon Trials, joined by oldest U.S. Olympic runner ever

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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.

MORE: Olympic Marathon Trials Results

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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MORE: U.S. athletes qualified for Tokyo Olympics

Galen Rupp, after tumult, finds familiarity before Olympic marathon trials

Galen Rupp
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As Galen Rupp bids for a fourth Olympics, and perhaps become the first man or woman to win the Olympic marathon trials twice outright, he found some rare familiarity these days on the roads Feb. 8.

“Feeling like my old self again,” Rupp said Wednesday of winning a low-key half marathon in Mesa, Ariz., his first completed race in 16 months and since parting from now-banned, career-long coach Alberto Salazar. “It’s obviously been a long year and a half.”

Rupp clocked 61 minutes, 19 seconds on a downhill course. It’s faster than any half marathon by an American recorded by World Athletics since the start of 2019. Granted the downhill, but Rupp also said he was instructed by new coach Mike Smith to make it a controlled effort.

“He didn’t want me to run all-out, didn’t want me to really push and put myself in a big hole,” Rupp said, noting he was still in heavy training. “You don’t want to break that [training] up and put yourself in a deficit by having a massive effort.”

Mesa answered questions about Rupp’s readiness for the Olympic trials in Atlanta on Feb. 29 (NBC, 12-3 p.m. ET). Even to the two-time Olympic medalist himself. Rupp said he started the half marathon with a little bit of doubt — given recent left ankle and calf injuries — but felt early on that everything would be fine.

“It really put my mind at ease,” he said. “I’m going to be good for the marathon.”

His last two marathons did not go well.

At the 2018 Chicago Marathon, Rupp dropped from the leaders around mile 19 and finished fifth in a title defense. An Achilles injury flared up near the end. He underwent surgery later that month for two tears. Doctors said the ankle had been “a ticking time bomb.”

“They said I was really lucky to have as good of health as I had and manage it as I did,” Rupp said.

He went a full year before racing again, at the Chicago Marathon on Oct. 13, 12 days after Salazar’s ban was announced. Even that was a rushed comeback, Rupp said after dropping out around mile 23 with a calf injury.

“I’m not going to say it was a wake-up call,” Rupp said, “but I think I was a little bit stubborn before Chicago.”

Rupp said he ran through pain in training to get to the start line four months ago. He had trouble walking for several days after the abbreviated race and focused on physical therapy for about two months. He resumed normal, pain-free training in December.

By early January, Runner’s World reported that Oregon-based Rupp found a new Flagstaff-based coach in Smith, who leads a Northern Arizona University program that won the last three NCAA men’s cross-country titles.

“The biggest thing to me was Mike’s philosophy in coaching was very similar to the program that I was under for so many years,” said Rupp, who was for more than a decade part of the Nike Oregon Project, which was shut down last fall after Salazar’s ban for doping violations (which he appealed). Rupp wasn’t implicated by USADA and has a clean drug-testing record. “What I love most about it was Mike’s honesty and how forthright he was about everything. You could tell he wasn’t just saying what I wanted to hear or say, ‘We’re just going to do whatever you’ve been doing and try and replicate that.’ You’ve got to keep evolving and trying new things.”

Smith declined an interview request through NAU until after trials. He agreed to coach Rupp after about a month of communication and hard questions, according to Runner’s World.

“Because of its timing and the headlines I was reading like everyone else at the time, this was not a road I wanted to go down,” Smith said, according to the report. “To be honest, it was just easiest to turn it down. I’m actually — as crazy as this sounds — really proud I did not.

“What I found out by getting to know Galen was that there was much more going on than the picture portrayed of him, and I wish the world knew that. I have never seen someone more all-in in my life.”

Rupp, asked his toughest moment of the last two years, said he moves forward.

“Throughout any hardships and setbacks, I felt a lot of gratitude that I had as good of a run as I did with my health and everything going well for as long as I did,” he said. “It can be easy to get angry and get down, like why me, but I do believe that things always work out. There’s a reason behind all this stuff.”

Which brings Rupp to Atlanta next week for the first time in his life, aside from airport layovers. The race is unlike any other he has contested. The course is unusually hilly. The format — Americans only, top three make the Olympic team — makes for different tactics than the World Marathon Majors that Rupp is used to.

In 2016, Rupp entered as a favorite but without any marathon experience. He won convincingly, pulling away from now-retired Meb Keflezighi by 68 seconds.

The field is deeper this year. Seven Americans broke 2:11 in 2019. Only one did in 2015. But Rupp, at his best, is in his own class.

His personal best 2:06:07, from his last healthy marathon in 2018, is 1:49 faster than the second-fastest in the trials field in this Olympic cycle (Leonard Korir). The next-fastest, Scott Fauble, is more than three minutes behind by personal bests.

“I can confidently go in and say that I’ve put in the work for this, just like I know that I put in the work in 2016,” Rupp said. “Of course, you want to go in and have good races, feeling confident and being on a roll like I was several years ago. But I think that’s why that race in Mesa was so important to show, more to myself, that hey, you’re ready to go. You can still run well. You haven’t lost everything. Surgery didn’t wipe you out.”

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2019 U.S. and world marathon rankings

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The last full year of marathons before the 2020 Olympics saw not only Kenyan Eliud Kipchoge‘s successful bid to break the two-hour mark under controlled conditions but also a women’s world record and four of the fastest men’s times ever.

Brigid Kosgei of Kenya took more than a minute off Paula Radcliffe‘s 16-year-old record, winning the Chicago Marathon in 2:14:01.

FAST TIMES: Kosgei, Kipchoge herald new era

Kipchoge still holds the world record of 2:01:39, set in the 2018 Berlin Marathon 14 months ago. But Kenenisa Bekele of Ethiopia came within two seconds of that mark in this year’s Berlin race, and Kipchoge himself won the London Marathon with the third-fastest time in history (2:02:37).

Add the runners-up from those races — Ethiopians Birhanu Legese (Berlin, 2:02:48) and Mosinet Geremew (London, 2:02:55) — and the four fastest times behind Kipchoge’s world record were posted in the past seven months. 

The top U.S. runner on the IAAF’s compilation of the year’s best times is Sara Hall, whose time of 2:22:16 in Berlin tied for 33rd on the list. (The IAAF site currently has a glitch listing a U.S. runner higher on the list; the time is incorrect.) Emily Sisson was 49th with her 2:23:08 in London. Sally Kipyego‘s 2:25:10 in Berlin ranks 93rd. (Add times from courses the IAAF considers “irregular” for various reasons, and Kipyego ranks 96th.)

With Galen Rupp out of action while recovering from Achilles surgery, the only U.S. runner among the top 100 was Leonard Korir (tied for 87th, 2:07:56, Amsterdam), but nine of the top 10 U.S. times in the Olympic cycle were posted this year. Only Rupp’s 2:06:07 from Prague in May 2018 ranks higher.

The two next-fastest U.S. men’s times from 2019 were at the Boston Marathon, which the IAAF considers “irregular” because the finish line isn’t near the start line and the overall elevation at the finish line is lower than the start.

The top U.S. women’s times from the Olympic cycle still belong to Jordan Hasay (2:20:57, Chicago 2017) and Amy Cragg (2:21:42, Tokyo 2018), followed by Hall and Sisson.

USA Track and Field will hold its Olympic marathon trials Feb. 29 in Atlanta.

The fastest times of the year (* – on “irregular” course) …

U.S. men

Name Time Race Result
Leonard Korir 2:07:56 Amsterdam 11th
Scott Fauble 2:09:09 Boston* 7th
Jared Ward 2:09:25 Boston* 8th
Jacob Riley 2:10:36 Chicago 9th
Jerrell Mock 2:10:37 Chicago 10th
Jared Ward 2:10:45 New York City 6th
Parker Stinson 2:10:53 Chicago 11th
Andrew Bumbalough 2:10:56 Chicago 12th
Matt McDonald 2:11:10 Chicago 14th
Matt Llano 2:11:14 Berlin 14th
Scott Smith 2:11:34 Chicago 15th

U.S. women

Name Time Race Result
Sara Hall 2:22:16 Berlin 5th
Emily Sisson 2:23:08 London 6th
Sally Kipyego 2:25:10 Berlin 7th
Jordan Hasay 2:25:20 Boston* 3rd
Emma Bates 2:25:27 Chicago 4th
Kellyn Johnson 2:26:27 Prague 4th
Molly Huddle 2:26:33 London 12th
Desiree Linden 2:26:46 New York City 6th
Aliphine Chepkerker Tuliamuk 2:26:50 Rotterdam 3rd
Kellyn Johnson 2:27:00 New York City 7th

World men

Name Time Race Result
Kenenisa Bekele (ETH) 2:01:41 Berlin 1st
Eliud Kipchoge (KEN) 2:02:37 London 1st
Birhanu Legese (ETH) 2:02:48 Berlin 2nd
Mosinet Geremew (ETH) 2:02:55 London 2nd
Mule Washihun (ETH) 2:03:16 London 3rd
Getaneh Molla (ETH) 2:03:34 Dubai 1st
Sisay Lemma (ETH) 2:03:36 Berlin 3rd
Herpasa Negasa (ETH) 2:03:40 Dubai 2nd
Marius Kipserem (KEN) 2:04:11 Rotterdam 1st
Asefa Mengstu (ETH) 2:04:24 Dubai 3rd

World women

Name Time Race Result
Brigid Kosgei 2:14:04 Chicago 1st
Ruth Chepngetich 2:17:08 Dubai 1st
Worknesh Degefa 2:17:41 Dubai 2nd
Brigid Kosgei 2:18:20 London 1st
Valary Jemeli 2:19:10 Frankfurt 1st
Degitu Azimeraw 2:19:26 Amsterdam 1st
Lonah Chemtai Salpeter 2:19:46 Prague 1st
Tigist Girma 2:19:52 Amsterdam 2nd
Vivian J. Cheruiyot 2:20:14 London 2nd
Ashtete Bekere 2:20:14 Berlin 1st

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