By David Rogers. February 29, 2020. ATLANTA, GA — Call it deja vu all over again — but the “all over again” was hardly a cakewalk.
COVER IMAGE: With the finish line behind them, U.S. men’s team quaifiers and American flag-draped trio (left to right) of Jacob Riley, Galen Rupp, and Abdi Abdirahman celebrate their future trip to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Photographic image by David Rogers for Blowing Rock News.
As “newbies” go, the USA’s long-distance running star is a double winner. On Saturday, in a time of 2:09.20, Galen Rupp won the U.S. Olympic Trials’ men’s marathon race to earn a spot on the 2020 U.S. Olympic Team bound for Tokyo, where the Games of the XXXII Olympiad are scheduled to begin on July 24th.
Race conditions included “clear and sunny” but were not what you would call ideal. Brisk temperatures in the low 40s felt even colder by gusting winds of almost 20 miles per hour, including a stiff headwind in the closing stretches of the course.
Nonetheless, there was a huge throng of spectators lining both sides of the street at the start, finish, and along the route comprised of three loops around downtown Atlanta. The course finished in the middle of Centennial Park, where the runners crossed the finish line facing a phalanx of photographers, television cameras, and race personnel.
Atlanta 2020 follows Rupp’s first marathon win at the 2016 Olympic Trials, in Los Angeles, which was also the first time he had run a marathon. Rupp made history with Saturday’s triumph in Atlanta, too. He became the first athlete to win the U.S. Olympic Trials marathon in consecutive events (four years apart) — in spite of myriad detours in his training between then and now (see below).
Also representing the U.S. in Tokyo will be second-place finisher Jacob Riley of Boulder Track Club and Rupp’s Nike teammate, Abdi Abdirahman.
Abdirahman was born in Somalia, but graduated from high school in Tucson, Arizona and was a star distance-running performer at the University of Arizona. He became a U.S. citizen in 2000. At age 43, his 3rd place finish in Atlanta qualified him for not only his fifth U.S. Olympic team but also made him the oldest runner to ever represent the U.S. at a Summer Olympics. Before taking up the marathon, he was a top performer in cross country racing, as well as at the 10,000 meters distance.
Same Distance, but Apples and Oranges
Early in the post-race press conference, Blowing Rock News asked Rupp to compare and contrast the two races, Los Angeles in 2016 and Atlanta in 2020. In answer, Rupp said that while the Los Angeles race was run over a virtually flat course and Atlanta was arduously “hilly,” for both races he felt like a “newbie.” He recalled for reporters that the 2016 Trials was his first-ever marathon, having never run any distance over 10,000 meters. Atlanta, he said in recounting his injuries and surgeries (since placing third at the Rio Olympics in 2016), was like running his first marathon all over again.
While he had started some races, he had not finished a marathon in the last two-plus years because of the injuries and surgeries. He was diagnosed with having a congenital condition called Haglund’s deformity, an enlarged heel bone. It turns out that the second-place finisher, Riley, had the same surgery, which involves detaching the Achilles’ tendon, smoothing the heel bone, then re-attaching the tendon. Having had the same surgery, Riley did not compete at all in 2017 or 2018 and emerged as somewhat of a surprise qualifier in Atlanta with his second-place finish.
Rupp prevailed over what many in the sport, including Rupp in his answer to Blowing Rock News, described as among the most competitive marathon fields in U.S. history. The 2020 Trials featured 175 of the more than 190 elite male athletes that had qualified to run in the Trials.
Bunched Up Beginning, Then Drama
Independent runner Luke Puskedra led the first mile of the men’s race, running the opening distance in 5:04, and led the field with Brooks-affiliated Clayton Anderson through the first three miles. The pair crossed the three-mile mark in 14 minutes, 36 seconds, a blistering mile pace of approximately 4:51 minutes per mile.
By Mile 4, however, Puskedra and Anderson were but part of a 13-runner group all credited with traveling the first four miles in 19:44.
It wasn’t until Mile 5 that the first real drama of the race unfolded. That was when Brian Shrader (Saucony/Freedom Track Club) jumped out to a 6-second lead over the field that would only grow as the race progressed. At Mile 6 Shrader was joined by Dan Nestor at the front, completing the first half-dozen miles in 29:31.
Shrader and Nestor alternated in the 1-2 positions through Mile 8, but by Mile 9 Shrader had opened an 8-second lead over Nestor, who was 39 seconds ahead of Abdi Abdirahman (Skechers Performance). Rupp and Abdirahman, at this point, were also among the small pack of runners grouped 39 seconds behind Nestor and nearly a full minute behind the leader. Riley was back in the pack, running 23rd.
As Shrader, 28, began to separate himself from the field, the talking heads in the Trials’ Media Center back in Centennial Park began to wonder if he could keep up the torrid 4:51 mile pace and surprise everyone by running away with the Trials victory. He had, after all, satisfied the qualifying standard and gained the right to compete in Atlanta by running under 2:15 at the Bank of America Chicago Marathon in October 2019 and was the 2014 U.S. champion at 12k. He also had a best marathon time of 2:13.27, so many wondered if he knew what he was doing in separating himself from the field by Mile 9.
Adding to the curiosity, Shrader, 28, currently lives in Boston but claims Flagstaff, Arizona as his hometown. He is a graduate of that city’s Northern Arizona University, so used to running at altitude (Flagstaff’s altitude is 6,909 feet). By the halfway mark he was nearly a full minute ahead of the field, although his pace over the 13+ miles had slowed to 5:15.
Rupp made his move with some 10 miles to go. He overtook Shrader by Mile 16. By Mile 20, Rupp had begun to separate himself from the other leaders by a few seconds. By Mile 23, it was clear that Rupp was cruising to the victory podium, running comfortably and almost a minute ahead of his nearest rival.
The only remaining question became who would join him on the U.S. team. Abdirahman was running second, but a duet of U.S. Army runners were right with him in Augustus Maiyo and Leonard Korir, and Riley had moved up from 10th at Mile 18, to 6th at Mile 20 and to 5th at Mile 23. After “kicking” it in the last two or three miles to finish second, he smiled to reporters and said that he had lost in the closing stretches of races before and was not going to let that happen in this race.
By Mile 26 and some 200 meters to go, the finishing order was set but Riley and Abdirahman still had some concerns about a potentially strong finish by Korir. Maiyo was fading, some 30 seconds behind, but Korir was just one second behind Riley and Abdirahman.
Blowing Rock runners Pennel and Izewski among leaders
Of High Country interest, Blowing Rock-based ZAP Endurance had all nine of their elite running runners qualify to race in Saturday’s event centered around Atlanta’s Centennial Park, eight of whom competed. The ZAP team is comprised of six men and three women.
Among the men, ZAP’s Tyler Pennel finished 11th in 2:12.34 after spending much of the race as far back as 60th, well off the pace. But by Mile 19 Pennel had moved to 9th place, just 37 seconds behind Rupp. The ZAP veteran ran the 20th mile in 4:57, pulling up into the 8th position, but with a little more than two miles to go he started to fade as a serious contender for the podium. “I ran out of gas,” he told Blowing Rock News later, at a ZAP after-party.
As Pennel was moving up through the field, though, in the last half of the race, he caused a modicum of excitement in the Media Center for the running world scribes who knew that he had sub-4-minute mile speed and would be a threat if he had saved enough for a finishing kick.
Teammate Josh Izewski completed the 26.2 mile course in 2:14.15 (17th place), while Joe Stilin rounded out the top three ZAP finishers in 107th (2:25.24). ZAP members Matt McClintock did not finish after 20 miles; Andrew Colley could not finish because of a foot injury after 22 miles; and Johnny Crain stopped near the 11-mile mark. ZAP Endurance head coach explained to Blowing Rock News before the race that Crain is rehabbing from surgery and had instructions to drop out between the 8- and 13-mile markers.
In the women’s race, Aliphine Tuliamuk separated herself from a pack of some two dozen athlete running together for a good portion of the race to cross the finish line first in a time of 2:27.23, just eight seconds ahead of second-place finisher Molly Seidel (Saucony/Freedom Track Club), who was running in her first marathon. Also qualifying for the U.S. team (the top three men and the top three women qualify) was Sally Kipyego (Nike/Nike OTCE).
One of the favorites in the women’s race, Des Linden of the Brooks racing team, was closing in the final mile but could not make up enough lost ground from earlier in the race to finish 4th.
Laura Thweatt, running for Saucony, led a breakaway in the 8th mile but was reeled in by Mile 14 to run with a group that included Emily Sisson (New Balance), Sara Hall (ASICS), Kellen Taylor (HOKA ONE ONE NAZ Elite), Tuliamuk, Kipyego, and Seidel.
At Mile 17, a pack of 10 runners separated themselves from the rest of the field, including most of the aforementioned, but by Mile 20 Kipyego was leading a smaller group of seven. With a little more than five miles to go, Tuliamuk, Seidel, and Kipyego surged ahead, with Thweatt and Linden in a smaller group some six seconds behind.
At Mile 23, Tuliamuk and Seidel were running side-by-side, breaking away from the pack by more than 20 seconds. Asked afterward if they exchanged any words, Tuliamuk smiled and told reporters, “I just turned to Molly and said, ‘We can do this.'”
And they did. While just eight seconds separated the top two women’s finishers, Kipyego the mother of a 3-year-old daughter, required another minute and 19 seconds to come across the line for the third Olympic team spot. Linden closed to finish just 11 seconds later, with Thweatt finishing fifth, just five more seconds behind Linden.
Running for ZAP, former Appalachian State track and cross-country star and the newest member of the Blowing Rock-based team, Tristin Van Ord, finished 52nd out of the 390 female runners who competed on Saturday. Almost 500 had qualified. The other ZAP woman, Joanna Thompson, was forced to retire in the 21st mile with tightening hamstrings.
Controversy and Uncertainty, Still
Drama surrounded this 2020 Olympics Trials event to determine the U.S. team composition for the Tokyo Olympics like no other Trials in history other than, perhaps, when then President Jimmy Carter informed more than 160 U.S. athletes and coaches that America would boycott the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow. The boycott was in response to the December 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
This time, the coronavirus threatens the world community to cancel the Games entirely, especially since the still growing pandemic originated in neighboring China and Japan has been one of the hardest hit countries in the spread of the disease.
Adding to the drama surrounding the 2020 U.S. marathon Trials is a shoe controversy. Many have questioned the January 31st decision by World Athletics, track and field’s governing body, to permit distance runners to wear Nike’s revolutionary Vaporfly shoe which has a propelling effect from the proprietary combination of a carbon plate and specialized foam. Running professionals around the world describe the shoe technology impact as “seismic” and “a game changer.” Because of the propelling, spring-like effect the shoe has in returning almost 70% of the energy the athlete puts into the shoe as he runs back to the runner, skeptics call it “mechanical doping.”
As part of the approval agreement, Nike distributed nearly 700 pairs of Vaporfly shoes, free of charge, to each of the Trials qualifiers before Saturday’s race. On the winners’ stage afterwards, four of the six U.S. team qualifiers were wearing the Nike product.
Skeptics nonetheless abound. In the Media Center before the marathon races began, a longtime distance running journalist sarcastically suggested to Blowing Rock News, “You can bet that whatever Galen Rupp and the other Nike team members are wearing are not the same as what they have given the other runners.”
Some of the industry professionals interviewed by Blowing Rock News voiced surprise that World Athletics did not ban Nike’s Vaporfly product, saying that it tarnishes the integrity of the competition. Others cited the decades long relationship of World Athletics president Sebastian Coe to Nike as a factor in the governing body’s decision. “Coe played an ambassadorial role for Nike through some four decades,” one observer noted. “He has undoutedly been paid hundreds of thousands of dollars by Nike over that timespan, even if he did give up his advisory role amid the controversy and claims of conflict of interest.”
Asked about the shoes during the post-race press conference, Rupp was diplomatic in pointing out that while the shoes are a great addition to his running toolset, they do not define the marathon runner. “They return 67% of the energy put in, not more than runner puts into the shoe. If it returned more, then…”
With the World Athletics ruling on January 31st, the competing shoe companies turned their outrage over the ruling into “scramble” mode in an effort to develop their own version.