Underdogs Rejoice: Why The ‘Big Three’ of Meb, Ritz and Rupp Might Not Make The Team

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by Robert Johnson
February 11, 2016

On these very pages screens, just a week ago, I anointed the marathon rookie Galen Rupp as the favorite for the 2016 U.S. Olympic Men’s Marathon Trials – LetsRun.com Debates: Is Galen Rupp The Favorite For The 2016 U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials? Who’s Most Likely To Make The Team?. The LetsRun.com staff devoted 2,400+ words to debating whether Rupp, Dathan Ritzenhein or Meb Keflezighi is the favorite. Let there be no doubt, those three men are the ‘Big 3’ of these Trials.

Yesterday, we took a look at 20 men who have a shot at making the Olympic team (if you are looking for a 21st name, we’d say don’t ignore Scott Smith of the HOKA ONE ONE Northern Arizona Elite as a birdie tells us he’s been right with Matt Llano in training). Today is the day we said we’d rave about the chances of the Big 3.

The more I thought about it, the more I thought, “Why do I need to spend time talking about how great the Big 3 are?” Everyone knows they are extremely talented and accomplished. The fact that I only have to say one syllable – Meb, Ritz and Rupp – and you know who they are tells you a lot.

Meb Keflezighi is an Olympic silver medallist and past champion of the New York and Boston Marathons. Dathan Ritzenhein is a two-time Foot Locker XC champ, an NCAA XC champ, a 12:56 man, a 2:07 marathoner and already a three-time U.S. Olympian. At age 33, one can certainly make the case he has a shot to become the first US man to make five Olympic track and field teams in 2020 (assuming he makes it on Saturday; Ritz fans, I apologize if that was just a major jinx to talk about 2020 before he even makes the 2016 team). Galen Rupp has run 26:44 for 10,000, he’s won an Olympic silver medal at 10,000, and in this Trials buildup ran a 61:20 half-marathon while looking like he was going for a Sunday long run.

You don’t need me to regurgitate their career accomplishments. That would be a waste of both your and my time. If you need more info on these guys, go to their Wikipedia pages, which are quite lengthy.

Instead, I thought it would be better intellectually to try to come up with reasons why these guys might not make the Olympic team. What are their Achilles heels? Without further ado.

Galen Rupp – Not All Great 10,000-Meter Men Are Great Marathoners

Yes, he’s run 26:44. But last time I checked a marathon is more than four times as far a 10,000. Rupp is the 15th fastest 10,000 man in history. Of the 14 men faster than him at 10,000, guess how many of them have failed to break 2:08 in the marathon?

Go ahead and guess.

Seven – exactly half of them of them have never broken 2:08 for the marathon.

The Marathon Credentials Of The World’s Fastest 10,000 Men
10kNameCountryDOBDate of 10kMarathon Credentials
1    26:17.53 Kenenisa Bekele ETH13 Jun 82Aug 20052:05:04
2    26:22.75 Haile Gebrselassie ETH18 Apr 73Jun 1998Former WR holder
3    26:27.85 Paul Tergat KEN17 Jun 69Aug 1997Former WR holder
4    26:30.03 Nicholas Kemboi KEN25 Nov 83Sep 20032:08:01
5    26:30.74 Abebe Dinkesa ETH6 Mar 84May 20052:14:33
6    26:35.63 Micah Kogo KEN3 Jun 86Aug 20062:06:56
7    26:36.26 Paul Koech KEN25 Jun 69Aug 19972:07:07
8    26:37.25 Zersenay Tadese ERI8 Feb 82Aug 20062:10:41
9    26:38.08 Salah Hissou MAR16 Jan 72Aug 19962:12:45
10   26:38.76 Abdullah Ahmad Hassan QAT29 Jul 81Sep 20032:08:36
11   26:39.69 Sileshi Sihine ETH29 Jan 83May 2004no marathon results
12   26:39.77 Boniface Kiprop UGA12 Oct 85Aug 2005no marathon results
13   26:41.75 Samuel Wanjiru KEN10 Nov 86Aug 2005Olympic champ
14   26:43.98 Lucas Rotich KEN16 Apr 90Sep 20112:07:17
15   26:44.36 Galen Rupp USA8 May 86May 2014??
Rupp's half marathon debut in 2011 may most be remembered for his mask but it went very well

Rupp’s half marathon debut in 2011 may most be remembered for his mask but it went very well

The man just ahead of Rupp on the 10,000 list is Kenya’s Lucas Rotich. He’s twice run 2:07 for the marathon but what did he do in his last marathon? Lost to Luke Pusekdra in Chicago. I hope these stats convince you there no guarantees in the marathon.

Additionally, Rupp is a great rhythm runner. When has he shined the most? In time trials in perfectly controlled situations. Other than his 26:44, his most impressive times may be the 3:50 mile he ran indoors in 2013 and the 13:01 5000 he did a year later indoors. Indoor time trials are the ultimate “Rupp-certified” conditions. Rupp and coach Alberto Salazar like to leave nothing to chance, but they won’t control the conditions on Saturday.

The LA course is unique in the sense that it has a lot of 180- and 90-degree turns. Rupp will be starting and stopping repeatedly.

It also will be warmer than normal on Saturday in LA. In the past, Rupp has done just fine in the heat – his 27:08 in Beijing this summer might is certainly one of Rupp’s best runs – but I’m sure Salazar and Rupp would prefer he make his marathon debut in cooler conditions. At 5’11”, Rupp is a little taller than ideal for the marathon (MB: Fastest Marathoners over six feet tall (1.83m or taller)) so might he struggle to dissipate that heat in a race that lasts longer than two hours?

Back when Rupp was just getting started as a pro, I remember being shocked when I heard in 2011 that Rupp didn’t run all that much – about 80 mpw (article here, messageboard thread here) and that he didn’t like doing continuous stuff (like tempos) in workouts, he preferred intervals. That’s probably changed since then but marathoning is certainly very much about a) mileage and b) continuous workouts.

That being said, the one thing that most Rupp doubters cite – his lack of marathon experience – doesn’t faze me. Why?

I’m not sure where the idea that “it takes time to learn the marathon” came from. Rupp’s coach, Alberto Salazar, did quite well in his first marathon way back in 1981: 2:09:41 win in New York. Alan Culpepper also ran that time, the American debut record until Ryan Hall came along, in 2002. The fact that the U.S. debut record was for a long time “only” 2:09:41 doesn’t’ faze me. Why should that scare me? Rupp is way better than Culpepper. Culpepper was a 27:33 10,000 runner. Rupp is 49 seconds faster – multiply 49 seconds by 4.2195 (as the marathon is 4.2195 times farther than a 10,000) and you get 3:27. Subtract 3:27 from 2:09:41 and you get 2:06:14.

Am I saying that Rupp is going to run 2:06:14? No. But in a rabbitted race it might be possible. Plenty of guys besides Salazar ran plenty fast in their first marathons. Here are some good examples.

Kenenisa Bekele  – 2:05:04
Eliud Kipchaoge – 2:05:30
Ryan Hall – 2:08:24

I decided to go back and look at the debuts of all of the U.S. Olympic marathoners since 2004. Three of the seven had great debuts and only one had a bad one.

Ryan Hall – Great debut. See above.
Dan Browne – Great. 2:11:35 win at Twin Cities.
Alan Culppeper – Great. 2:09:41 American debut record.
Meb Keflezighi – Not great, not horrible. 2:12:35 in NY.
Brian Sell –  Solid. Time wasn’t great but he did lead the Olympic Trials for a while. Ended up 2:17:24 for 14th at 2004 Trials.
Abdi Abdirahman – Not good. 2:17:09 in NY.
Dathan Ritzenhein – Okay. 2:14:01 for 11th in NY.

So it’s not a guarantee that he excels by any stretch. Yes, some 10,000 guys struggle at the marathon but the main argument as to why I think that Rupp will do well is there is no need for Rupp to do this race. He’s still a 10,000-meter STUD. If he and coach Salazar didn’t think he’d rock this race, they would have pulled out.

Dathan Ritzenhein – He’s Didn’t Make it Four Years Ago; Can He Get Back to His Pre-Injury Form?

When talking about Ritz, everyone talks about his tremendous PRs. When he ran 2:07:47 in Chicago in 2012, his second straight sub-2:10 clocking after failing to break 2:10 in his first five marathons, many seemed to believe he’d finally figured out the marathon. But 2012 Chicago was 3.5 years ago.

2012  2:07:47 9Chicago IL7 Oct
2013  2:09:45 5Chicago IL13 Oct
2015  2:11:20 7Boston MA20 Apr
Sara Bei and Dathan Ritzenhein 2000 FootLocker HS Cross Country Championships

Sara Hall and Dathan Ritzenhein at the
2000 Foot Locker HS Cross Country Championships

What has Ritz done in recent years to make us think he’s still leaps and bounds above the other guys not in the ‘Big 3’?

He basically missed all of 2014 due to injury. He got back on the wagon in 2015 and was healthy – which is huge for Ritz – but it’s not like he tore up the U.S. circuit. He was 3rd at US cross, 3rd at the US road 5k and 3rd at the US 20k, where he lost to both Jared Ward and Sam Chelanga. There seems to be this belief because Ritz has been upbeat in recent interviews that Ritz is back.

He told the Denver Post this week, “From an age standpoint I can train as hard as ever, I just have to recover a little bit better. I feel like I’m at a great spot at 33. I think I can still run as good or better than I ever have at the marathon distance.”

Ritz told us yesterday (see 12 Minutes with Dathan Ritzenhein) that his preparations for the Marathon Trials have gone well, saying, “The training I had for [the] seven- or eight-week period was as good as any marathon training I’ve done before”

While Ritz says he thinks he can run better than ever at the marathon, he also acknowledges he’s in a “great spot at 33.” Age is creeping up on him. Not everyone is an ageless wonder like Meb or Bernard Lagat. Ritz’s high school rivals Alan Webb and Ryan Hall have both retired since the last Olympics. Moreover, Ritz is no longer is part of Salazar’s Nike Oregon Project and thus no longer benefits from high altitude training as he’s moved home to Michigan.

Ritz told us today moving home reignited his fire saying, “It really lit a fire back under me, [having] a new challenge, coaching myself…I’m glad I did it. I feel the fire is there as strong as ever which is important. You can’t really fake it. It’s a lifestyle as much as anything. You’ve got to want it and you’ve got to enjoy what you are doing.”

Three years ago, when he was still running 13:09/27:37, Ritz only ran 2:09:45 in Chicago. That’s not much faster than what Luke Puskedra ran in Chicago this year. Now maybe Ritz’s full focus on the marathon gets him back to that level or a little bit better but the more I think about Ritz, the more I think we’re unlikely to ever see a sub-2:09 from him again. Last month, in an interview with Carrie Tollefson, Ritz said he thinks he’s in better shape than when he ran 2:11:20 in Boston in April. That’s good because he needs to be if he’s going to make the team. The more I analyze Ritz, the more I think his odds are MUCH less than Rupp’s.

More Ritz: 12 Minutes With Dathan Ritzenhein (He talks about moving home, his desire to win the Trials, his training, and how the fire is still there).

Meb (l) and Merhawi Keflezighi (r), with the Robert Johnson's Mom at the 2015 NCAA football title game between Ohio State and Oregon. Discuss this picture in our forum: http://www.letsrun.com/forum/flat_read.php?thread=6264777

Meb (l) and Merhawi Keflezighi (r), with the Johnsons’ mom at the 2015 NCAA football title game between Ohio State and Oregon. Discuss this picture in our forum: http://www.letsrun.com/forum/flat_read.php?thread=6264777

Meb Keflezighi – How Long Can the 40-Year-Old Keep Doing This?

Meb is an all-time great. He’s incredibly consistent but let there be no doubt. The end is near. He turns 41 in May.

Here are four words that should make Meb fans very nervous – Bernard Lagat and Haile Gebrselassie. Both men managed to amaze everyone by seemingly defying Father Time, but that seemed to stop once the clock hit 40.5.

Last year, at age 40, Lagat (who was born in December of 1974 and is seven months older than Meb) was very impressive indoors as he ran 3:54 for the mile and 7:37 for 3000. Outdoors, he only managed 3:57 and 7:42. Haile Gebrselassie is another guy who also struggled after age 40.5. In late 2013, Gebrselassie, who was born in May of 1973 (at least officially; some think he’s older), ran his last truly elite performances as he ran 60:41 for 13.1 in September and then 61:09 for 13.1 in October. In 2014, he did nothing (30:00 for 10k) and retired from the sport the next year.

While Meb’s two marathon times in 2015 weren’t great (2:12:42 in Boston and 2:13:32 in New York), his performances were pretty good as he was with the leaders in Boston at 35k and with the leaders in New York at mile 20.

While Meb’s brother and agent, Merhawi, told Sports Illustrated there were there have been no major hiccups in his training leading up to the Olympic Trials, we don’t really know if Meb’s in great shape. For 15 years, health is all Meb has needed to be a top three guy in the US. But at 40 years and 9 months, is that still enough?

Those that doubt Meb are also saying that New York was just 15 weeks ago. In my mind, that’s not necessarily a bad thing for Meb. He was fit less than four months ago. That’s a great thing for a 40-year-old.

Update: We spoke to Meb yesterday: S15 Minutes With Meb Before the Olympic Marathon Trials: “I’m just fortunate to be in the position that I’m in. Everyone else is trying to do what I have done” and Meb was as focused as ever and indicated his preparations had gone well. He said, “I know I say it is a full-time job. It is literally, figuratively a full-time job. Until I put my head on the pillow, there is always something I could do. Whether it is stretching, whether it is core, drills, whether is eating right with Generation UCAN immediately after my workouts, every second is almost accounted for. I try to relax… I’ve been very fortunate to have the longevity of my career…For the most part I’ve been healthy with consistent training”

Final Take: Purposely trying to point out the flaws of the ‘Big 3’ has honestly been a little bit eye-opening. A week ago, instinctively, I thought, “No one beats those guys without a lot of help.” Now I’m not so confident. As explained in yesterday’s preview, mathematically it seems likely that the odds of all three making the team are less than 50%. I’m still VERY bullish on Rupp. And so was Meb. Meb said today of Galen running, “It’s one less spot to complete for [for the Olympic team] probably, but everyone has to run 26.2 miles and we’ll see what the results are.” But if Meb and/or Ritz don’t make it, it wouldn’t blow me away. Alan Webb and Ryan Hall are totally done, so would it shock me that Ritz’s best day is no longer better than say a Luke Puskedra? Not totally. Would it shock me that a nearly 41-year-old failed to make the Olympic team? No it would not. As a 42-year-old, it shocks me that we are even contemplating it – that’s how great Meb Keflezighi is.

Meb was right on the mark when he said, “I’m just fortunate to be in the position that I’m in. Everyone else is trying to do what I have done (win an Olympic medal, Boston and New York)…I have nothing to lose.”