By Jonathan Gault
February 29, 2020
ATLANTA — Ten months ago Galen Rupp was in pain, unable to even chase his children around the house. Jake Riley was unsponsored and hadn’t raced for almost three years. Abdi Abdirahman was 42 years old. They would have been an unlikely trio to select to represent the United States in the 2020 Olympic marathon.
But the USATF selection policy for the 2020 Olympic Games does not care about any of that. It does not take into account bumpy buildups, coaching changes, age, or injury. It says, simply, that if you finish in the top three at the US Olympic Marathon Trials, then you are on the team.
Rupp may be healthy now, but Riley is still unsponsored and Abdirahman is 43. But on a windy day and hilly Atlanta course that broke favorites on both the men’s and women’s side, they withstood it all to earn Olympic berths in one of the most thrilling races in Trials history.
After a few tentative surges, Rupp broke away for good during mile 21 to join Frank Shorter as the only man to win two Olympic Trials, winning by 42 seconds in 2:09:20, the third-fastest time in Trials history.
The true drama — and the reason this race will be remembered — came in the battle for second and third. Over the final 10 kilometers of the race, five different men would hold those positions. And with 400 meters to go, the final two Olympic spots remained in doubt, Riley and Abdirahman holding on to them, barely, as Leonard Korir chased furiously just one second behind them.
But Korir’s kick, which he has relied upon to win many a road race, was not there when he needed it the most; he could never quite close the gap to Riley and Abdirahman, who crossed second and third in 2:10:02 and 2:10:03, respectively, with Korir a devastating fourth in 2:10:06. It was the smallest gap between third- and fourth-place finishers since the 1972 Trials. But 2020 was infinitely more dramatic; in 1972, Jeff Galloway, already on the Olympic team in the 10,000 meters, allowed friend Jack Bacheler to beat him as both men were credited with the same time. There were no such niceties today.
Farther back, Olympic dreams lay shattered on the roads of Atlanta. Scott Fauble, pegged as a serious contender after a breakthrough 2:09:09 in Boston last year, was not a factor once Rupp made his move, finishing 12th in 2:12:39. Nor was Jared Ward, 6th at the 2016 Olympics, who finished 27th in 2:15:55, over six minutes behind Rupp. Instead, the Olympic berths went to two men who have hoarded them over the past two decades: Rupp, who will be competing in his fourth Games in Sapporo; and Abdirahman, who made his fifth and, at 43, will become the oldest American runner to compete in an Olympic Games and the first American male track athlete to compete at five summer Olympics. Riley, 32, will be the sole Olympic rookie this summer.
Race video below (skip to the 5:30 mark for the climactic battle for second and third):
Though the temperature (48 degrees, sunny) was perfect for running fast, the wind (17 mph out of the northwest) was not. That did not deter Luke Puskedra, the 4th-placer at the 2016 Trials who retired and then un-retired in 2019, as he had a three-second lead by one mile (5:04). And though Puskedra would, with CJ Albertson, put 11 seconds on the main pack at two miles, his time up front was short-lived; the pack caught Puskedra by four miles, and he would later drop out.
Brian Shrader, the 28-year-old Northern Arizona grad, made a more serious breakaway bid during mile 5, and would hit halfway in 64:54, not far off his 64:03 half marathon PR. At that point, Shrader had 32 seconds on second (Dan Nestor) and an additional 16 on a humongous, 43-person chase pack.
In all, 45 men all hit halfway in 65:43 or faster (2:11:26 pace) — a remarkable pace considering the wind and Atlanta’s hills. Many of those men would pay for their aggressiveness; a full third of them did not make it to the finish line, Shrader and Nestor among them.
It was then that Rupp began to assert himself, pushing the pace and stringing out the chase pack. By the time he caught Shrader at 16 miles, only four men remained with Rupp: Korir, his US Army teammate Augustus Maiyo, Abdirahman, and Princeton grad Matt McDonald of the hometown Atlanta Track Club. Rupp would surge repeatedly over the next few miles, the gap shrinkin and expanding like an accordion, until he was gone for good just after 20 miles.
At that point, Maiyo and McDonald were running together in second and third, with Abdirahman four seconds back of them and Korir an additional seven seconds back. Riley, 39 seconds behind third, was not in the picture. But Abdirahman was surging and McDonald was fading, and by 21 miles it was Maiyo and Abdirahman in the Olympic spots with Korir 12 seconds back.
Korir would eventually draw level at 23 miles, and behind him, Riley was making an even bigger charge, running 4:52 and 5:04 for the uphill 22nd and 23rd miles and catching them just after 24 miles to form a four-man pack. Maiyo quickly dropped, and with a mile to go, Abdi and Riley opened a gap on Korir.
But they couldn’t slam the door closed. And as Korir, who has kicked his way to narrow wins on the roads before (most notably at the 2017 Houston Half Marathon), began to close the gap over the final half mile, he was in position to crush someone’s Olympic dreams — even Riley, who had grabbed a miniature American flag from a volunteer roughly 600m from the finish to celebrate his impending top-three finish.
Both Riley and Abdirahman, however, had saved something for the very end and Korir, try as he might, could never quite close the gap. With Rupp, a dominant winner, urging all three men home, it was Riley and Abdirahman who joined him on the team.
Analysis below results. Post-race videos here in video player at bottom.
Top and notable results h/t Nick Zaccardi. Full results here
1. Galen Rupp — 2:09:20
2. Jacob Riley — 2:10:02
3. Abdi Abdirahman — 2:10:03
4. Leonard Korir — 2:10:06
5. Augustus Maiyo — 2:10:47
6. Martin Hehir — 2:11:29
7. Clayton Albertson — 2:11:49
8. Jonas Hampton — 2:12:10
9. Colin Bennie — 2:12:14
10. Matt McDonald — 2:12:19
12. Scott Fauble — 2:12:39
18. Bernard Lagat — 2:14:23
22. Jim Walmsley — 2:15:05
27. Jared Ward — 2:15:55
Quick Take: This was an AMAZING marathon
Because only the top three make it, the Olympic Marathon Trials is a naturally dramatic race. But rarely is there so much tumult over the final 10k. The drama as Riley, Abdirahman, and Korir battled it out for the final two spots was incredible and can only be achieved when there are real, life-altering stakes. There are many issues with the sport of marathoning, but the Olympic Marathon Trials are near perfect.
Quick Take: The top men rose to the occasion today
Last year, LetsRun pushed hard for the Olympic Trials to be granted Gold Label status by World Athletics; it was possible that, on a tough course in Atlanta, someone could finish third, run slower than the Olympic standard of 2:11:30, and get left off the team.
That didn’t happen, however, as a ton of men ran well on a course that likely ran two to three minutes slower than what you’d expect on a flat course in still weather. Five men broke 2:11 today and two more broke 2:12. Leonard Korir ran 2:10:06 and didn’t make the team. Rupp summed it up best:
“This is a hell of a day. A lot of people have been talking about American marathoning. For these guys to run that fast on this course with this weather off of a relatively conservative first half [was impressive].”
Quick Take: Galen Rupp delivers once again
Today was not a good day to be a favorite in Atlanta — unless your name was Galen Rupp. Of the six men and six women who received the most votes in LetsRun.com’s prediction contest, Rupp was the only one who made the team today. And he did so in utterly dominant fashion, never panicking and toying with the field at times. There was some slight concern that, after going 14 months between marathon finishes, Rupp could be vulnerable in Atlanta. Instead, he showed everyone that what was true before Rupp’s injury remains true today: he is on a different level from every other American marathoner.
Quick Take: Galen Rupp struggled to stay patient during his recovery from Achilles surgery, but everything is trending in the right direction now
The past year has been trying for Rupp. Achilles surgery, which he underwent in October 2018, can take a long time to recover from, and Rupp struggled to deal with that reality over the next year. Rupp tried to ignore the pain and the impact the injury was having on his mechanics and rushed back to run Chicago in October 2019. The race was a disaster with Rupp dropping out with three miles to go, and afterwards, he realized things had to change.
“It was a good wakeup call for me in a lot of ways that you can’t just keep trying to push and limp through,” Rupp said. “…After Chicago, so much of it was about all right, you have to take a step back now and focus on your health. The situation I was in where you try to push through things, you’re limping, you’re in pain, you try to tough it out and tell yourself, I can get through it, I can keep pushing. But until you’re actually 100% healthy, you can’t train at that high level. It’s impossible. You keep going up, you get sore, and you’ve gotta take time easy, take time off. And I didn’t want to get stuck in that cycle.”
Now, Rupp says, he’s back to close to full health — “90-95%” — and is excited for the gains he expects to make between now and Sapporo.
“I’ve got seven more months to keep getting stronger,” Rupp said.
Quick Take: Jake Riley had never worn the Alphaflys until yesterday
It’s pretty insane that in the year 2020, an unsponsored athlete can make an Olympic marathon team. But that’s what Riley did today. After his 2:10 in Chicago, Riley did receive some interest from shoe companies. But he also really liked how the Nike’s Vaporfly Next% shoes felt in that race — he famously said they felt like “running on trampolines.” He decided that, unless a company made a big offer, he wanted to retain the flexibility to race in the Next% at the Trials
“We’re not going to give away the farm just to have a name on my jersey,” Riley said. “…There were only a couple people that were mildly interested, and no one really wanted to make a significant commitment.”
Instead, Riley chose to bet on himself, knowing if he ran well at the Trials, he’d earn an even bigger deal. And it paid off.
Riley didn’t end up racing in the Next% though. He took advantage of Nike’s offer of a free pair of Alphaflys to all Trials qualifiers, and after trying out the shoes on Friday, decided he liked them better than the Next%.
Quick Take: Abdi Abdirahman is FORTY-THREE
When Meb Keflezighi made the team as a 40-year-old in 2016, it was rightly celebrated as a monumental accomplishment. Well Abdi Abdirahman is three years older now than Meb was back then. Abdi ran very well in his most recent marathon — a 2:11:34 US masters record in New York — but for him to actually make the Olympic team, at age 43, is nothing short of remarkable. The dude was racing Adam Goucher in Running with the Buffaloes, for crying out loud. That’s how old he is.
Abdi is the oldest American male to make the Olympics in any running event, and he’s not done yet.
“I think it will be my last Olympics,” Abdi said. “But it won’t be my last Trials.”
Quick Take: Athletes wearing Vaporflys/Alphaflys swept the top five places
If you look only at the men’s results, you might conclude the Alphafly (worn by Rupp and Riley) and the Vapofly Next% (worn by Abdi) had a huge impact. In fact, the top five men all wore Nike shoes, and several of those results (Riley and Abdi making the team, Augustus Maiyo taking 5th) were surprises.
And yet only one of the top eight women (3rd placer Sally Kipyego) wore Nike shoes today. That suggests that today’s surprising results were more a product of the wind, weather, and vagaries of the marathon, rather than the athletes’ footwear.
Riley acknowledged that the Alphaflys/Vaporflys helped him and others “probably [feel] a little bit fresher to move over the second half,” but there is room for nuance in this discussion.
“Pretty much everybody that was going to be in contention had some sort of shoe with a plate and a lot of foam to it,” Riley said. “I don’t really have access to the numbers that have been put out in terms of percentage increase, the Alphafly is maybe increasing that a little bit, but I imagine with all of these new prototypes, they’re closing the gap. I would prefer not to think that my presence on this team is due to having a better shoe. I would like to think it’s my training.”
Quick Take: Galen Rupp had to block out the haters today
The Trials is one of the most positive environments in the sport of running. And though there was a ton of noise on the course today, surprisingly not all of it was encouragement. Galen Rupp was booed at times, and LetsRun’s Wejo heard a spectator yell out “doper!” as Rupp was introduced. Then there were these guys:
Love to see the fans out in full force pic.twitter.com/AEByHbWLHO
— Rory Linkletter (@ThePapaLinks) February 29, 2020
Rupp has never failed a drug test or been convicted of an anti-doping offense, but some still have questions about him due to his close relationship and long association with Alberto Salazar, who was banned from the sport for multiple anti-doping violations last year. Rupp clearly remains a divisive figure in the running community.
Quick Take: Scott Fauble struggles for answers
Fauble ran 2:12:39, which is not a bad time considering the challenging course and the wind. And yet that was only good enough for 12th place today. Fauble said he made some mental mistakes early and wasted energy on the first loop when picking up his bottles, but overall wasn’t totally sure what to make of today’s race.
“I think I got beat by people who were more prepared, or better than me, or something,” Fauble said. “I’m not sure.”
Quick Take: Jim Walmsley pleased with 22nd place
Walmsley, the ultramarathon star, was one of the most talked-about athletes entering the Trials. Today, in his official marathon debut, he was with the main pack at halfway (65:41) and wound up 22nd place in 2:15:05. Overall, he was pleased with his effort. Walmsley said he wanted to run in the front pack; he did that, and let the chips fall where they may.
“I think top 10 would have been a really great day,” Walmsley said. “I thought I competed my best today, so there’s no regrets with it. So I guess yeah, I’m happy…
“Going out in 1:05, I put my foot forward in there and the men’s field’s really deep right now, and it was a hell of a race by tons of guys today.”
Jared Ward, who finished 27th, said he felt great coming in:
HOKA NAZ Elite coach Ben Rosario says he can’t make sense of men’s race
More post-race videos here or in playlist player below.