Galen Rupp competes at the U.S. Olympic Team Trials on Feb. 29, 2020 in Atlanta.
ATLANTA – Galen Rupp looked like his old self as he won the 2020 U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Marathon, repeating as champion in the event Saturday and making his fourth Olympic team.
But Rupp didn’t feel that way. “It was almost like I was a newbie again to this event,” he said.
Rupp, who won the 2016 trials in his first attempt at the 26.2-mile distance, underwent surgery in late 2018 to correct Haglund’s Deformity (a condition where a bony enlargement on the back of the heel forms).
“I felt like a totally new athlete coming back from surgery a year and a half ago,” he said. “I almost had to learn how to run again. I picked up a lot of bad habits. Mechanically, I wasn’t sound when I ran in Chicago last year (dropping out before 23 miles). It’s been really tough.”
But Rupp, 33, conquered the hills and withstood the wind to become the first back-to-back marathon trials winner since two-time Olympic medalist Frank Shorter in 1972-76. Shorter and Kenny Moore deliberately tied in 1972.
In the final miles, Rupp ditched his baseball cap and gloves and grabbed a small American flag. He burst into a smile as he finished with a time of 2 hours, 9 minutes, 20 seconds, the third-fastest winning trials time in history behind Ryan Hall (2:09:02 in 2008) and Meb Keflezighi (2:09:08 in 2012).
Jacob Riley pulled ahead of Abdi Abdirahman on the final stretch to finish in 2:10:02, with Abdirahman a second behind as fans lined the streets of the 1996 Olympic host city.
Riley, 32, made his first Olympic team while this is Abdirahman’s record fifth Olympic team as a Team USA runner. At age 43, he will be the oldest U.S. Olympic runner. Bernard Lagat, who finished 18th in the marathon trials, was 41 when he competed in 2016.
They are the first members of the track and field team to qualify for the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020, although they will actually compete in Sapporo. The marathons and racewalks were moved north because the weather should be cooler.
“I think it’s a Japanese beer; that’s the only thing I heard about it before,” Rupp said. “That’s a decision that was out of all our control. I have no doubt they’re going to put on an unbelievable event. It will be a little different beign away from Tokyo where the rest of the Games are, but at the same time it’s going to be cool.”
This was Rupp's fourth marathon victory and netted him the $80,000 first prize. Besides the 2016 trials, he won at Chicago in 2017 and Prague in 2018. He was also the Olympic bronze medalist at the Olympic Games Rio 2016 and took the silver in the 10,000-meter in London in 2012.
Rupp welcomed his new teammates at the finish with open arms.
He had bided his time in the pack as several runners opened gaps with breakaways, then worked his way to the front.
“Obviously, it’s a little unnerving sometimes when you see people take off or get a big gap,” Rupp said. But he said, “I pride myself on my ability to close.”
Rupp shared the lead in the 14th mile and eventually built a commanding cushion.
“I was probably a little bit antsy,” Rupp said. “Mike (Smith, his new coach after former coach Alberto Salazar was suspended) wanted me to wait, sit back until 19 or 20 miles. He told me to trust myself. I wanted to throw something in, see how they responded to a little bit of acceleration.”
Abdirahman briefly caught up to him. “Abdi kept telling me, ‘Keep pushing, we got it! Keep pushing!’” Rupp said.
By the end, Rupp was all by himself. “Once I got a little bit of a gap, it was about keeping the pedal down, but always making sure you had a little bit of a reserve at the end,” he said.
And then he was approaching Centennial Olympic Park and completing his first marathon since Chicago in 2018.
“I feel relief almost more than anything,” Rupp said immediately after the race.
Since the surgery, Rupp said he has tried to be thankful for what he has and not take anything for granted.
“Being able to get out of bed, walk without pain, play with my kids – chase them – I couldn’t do that for a long time,” said the father of three. “I was in a lot of pain… I’m thankful I’m able to do what I love to do without pain, just enjoy it and run free again.”
There were a record number of 227 men at the start (among 261 qualifiers) and 175 finishers. The temperature was 46 degrees at the start and 53 at the finish with wind gusts of up to 20 miles per hour.
They navigated a hilly 26.2-mile course, climbing a total of 1,389 feet and running 1,382 feet downhill.
“It was like a roller coaster the first couple of miles,” Abdirahman said.
Riley, who was 15th in the 2016 trials, missed the 2017 and 2018 seasons with Achilles issues.
“I’m very gratified to see it work out like this,” he said. “This is almost exactly how I visualized it.”
Riley, who earned $65,000 for second place, said his early strategy was “don’t trip, get your bottles, stay conservative and stay tucked in because of the wind.”
When Rupp made his surge, Riley decided not to go with him and found himself “regretting that decision a little bit.”
When he made his own move, he wasn’t feeling that good. “But looking forward, I could see a lot of people were feeling a lot worse,” Riley said.
He made up ground on the downhills to pass Leonard Korir. “It was nerve-wracking the last two miles,” Riley said. “There were three of us for two spots. Abdi was trying to chat with me, trying to dig the knife in. He was feeling good.”
With the wind in his face, Riley said he felt like he was standing still. “One last sprint to the end, I was able to make the team.”
Abdirahman missed the 2016 trials with a calf injury. From 2000 to 2008 he competed in the 10,000-meter, and in 2012 he was third in the marathon trials.
He took the lead at the start before fading back into the pack and then surging again to the front. “The last 600 meters, I didn’t think I had it,” he said.
But Abdirahman found that he did have some spring left in his legs.
“I sprinted to the finish line and I’m here again 20 years later,” he said. “I think it will be my last Olympics, but it won’t be my last trials, though.”