Jake Riley Dreaming Big: “There’s a Big Part of Me That Wants to Try and Go For a Medal”

By LetsRun.com (Sponsored by On)
July 27, 2021

Jake Riley, Olympian.

Those are words not many people would have predicted, but Riley will officially become an Olympian when he toes the line for the Olympic marathon on the final day of the Games on Sunday, August 8 (August 7 in the US) in Sapporo, Japan.

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Jake Riley, Olympic medallist?

Jake Riley, Galen Rupp and Abdi Abdirahman (l-r)

Now that Riley has made the team, he is dreaming even bigger.

“There’s a big part of me that wants to try and go for a medal…If I can be aggressive, especially over the last half of the race. I’m going to go for it. And that could blow up in my face as the marathon sometimes does, but going there and getting 20th has no interest for me…I would rather go for it and blow up, then run some sort of like smart race and finish 15th,” Riley said on a special edition of the LetsRun.com Track Talk podcast kicking off Tokyo Week coverage on LetsRun.com.

(Listen to the podcast here on your favorite podcast app or in the player below)

Riley knows the Olympic medal is a long shot, but he defied the odds to make the Olympic team in the first place.

From Injured ‘B Lister’ to Olympic Team

Riley was really good in high school (state champion in the 3rd biggest division in Washington), and college (NCAA 3rd placer at 10,000m, but only the 3rd best guy on his team at Stanford) but he was not a superstar. He called himself a “B lister.”

Riley at the Peachtree Road Race in 2014

He had some success initially as a pro (27:59 10,000m for the Hanson Brooks team), but then a debilitating Achilles injury sidelined his career after the 2016 Olympic Track Trials. He moved back home and vowed he wouldn’t compete again until he was healthy. Sponsorless, he went through some personal turmoil, getting divorced. Eventually, he decided to move to Boulder, Colorado, one of the running meccas of the United States, to go to grad school in engineering. In Boulder, he started working with his current coach, three-time Australian Olympic marathoner Lee Troop.

A change of scenery did not bring instant success, as his Achilles flared up again. Finally in 2018, he was forced to have surgery on his Achilles. Riley wondered if his days as a competitive runner were over. “Around 2018, I was 50% of the way to being ‘I will never be racing again at a competitive level.'”

The Achilles surgery and subsequent rehab let Riley do something he hadn’t done in years: run pain-free. Making the Olympic team was just a pipe dream as it had been nearly three years since he last raced and the 2020 US Olympic Marathon Trials were less than a year away.

Riley returned to racing at a local road race in May 2019, the Kohl 5k. He got the win, but his time was 15:25 and the next finisher was nearly three minutes slower. Not your typical path to the Olympics.

He stepped up in class and ran Boulder’s most iconic race, the Bolder Boulder 10K. He finished in 25th place, nearly three minutes behind the winner.

In his final tune-up for the 2019 Chicago Marathon, he ran the US 20k Championships in New Haven on Labor Day. He placed 15th in 1:01:59. For those of you scoring at home, that’s 2:10:46 marathon pace if he maintained the exact same pace for more than double the distance.

From Wanting to Run 2:17 in Chicago to Running 2:10

As Riley approached Chicago, he thought he could run 2:17-2:19 and was content to just get an Olympic Trials qualifier (sub-2:19). Coach Lee Troop had other goals in mind.

“Talking with Lee in the weeks leading up to the race, he’s like, ‘yeah, I think you’re ready to run like 2:12 to 2:13.’ And my eyes got big, like, ‘What are you talking about? That’s faster than my PR (2:13:16),'” said Riley.

Then before the race Riley and Troop found out there was a pacer going 2:11 pace for the first group of Americans. Troop told Riley to throw caution to the wind. “Screw it. Go with the pack, just be in the pack of Americans and go on as long as you can,” were the instructions he gave Riley.

Riley not only did that, he did it even better, dropping all the Americans and going sub-2:11, running 2:10:36. “I just kept feeling good. I just kept feeling good, kept feeling good. And then over the last two miles, not only was I feeling good, I was able to put in moves and actually race and be competitive.”

Riley, who at the start of the year hadn’t race in over two years, and then wasn’t a contender in a race all year, was now a bonafide contender for the 2020 US Olympic team. “I was flabbergasted (with the result),” said Riley.

Riley Cements His Legacy with 2nd Place at Trials and Then the World Shuts Down

With four more months of training under his belt, Riley raised his game another level at the Olympic Trials, running 2:10:02 to nab second place and make the Olympic team, on the super difficult course in Atlanta. (For more on Riley’s race and him winning a three-way battle for the final two Olympic spots click here). His comeback was more than complete. The athlete who wasn’t sure he would ever compete again two years previously was now soon going to be a US Olympian — or so he thought.

Then the world changed. The Trials race was on February 29, 2020. COVID was still a hypothetical concern for most Americans. Within two weeks, the entire US sporting world was on hold, and then soon after that the global sporting world.

Like many others, Riley’s life went into limbo. Racing was initially out of the question, but getting a shoe sponsor was not. Riley had run at the Trials unsponsored, but he signed a four-year deal with On in July of last year. Then gradually virtual races (Riley raced 2016 Olympic marathoner Jared Ward in a virtual race) and then real races returned to the equation.

As the calendar turned to 2021, Riley was able really for the first time to turn his attention to getting ready for the Olympic Games.

“I think I’m as fit as I’ve ever been”

Riley after signing with On

Riley said his preparation has gone well, but not perfect. Just last week, a LetsRun.com thread on Riley titled “Jake Riley Has Me Worried” went “Super Hot” on the homepage. Sweat Elite has been chronicling some of Riley’s workouts for Tokyo on YouTube and the thread was in response to Riley showing his frustration with one workout after he ran 30 seconds slower than his best on a 3.3-mile tempo segment of an absolute “ball buster” workout.

Riley discussed the workout and fitness on the Track Talk podcast, saying he had a hamstring issue in the fall that made his Olympic buildup slightly shorter than he might have wanted, but that things have gone very well.

“I think I’m as fit as I’ve ever been, but it’s the Olympics. I want to be fitter. I want to be absolutely crushing it and smashing things all over the place. It’s tough during a marathon because you spend so long, so tired, you don’t really get a good idea of just how fit you are until the race day,” he said.

Riley Will be Racing in On’s Super Shoe, the Echo Boom

One thing that will be different for Riley from the Trials is the shoe he is racing in. One of the advantages of being unsponsored at the Trials was he could wear whatever shoe he wanted and he went with the Nike Alphaflys available to every Trials qualifier. In an era when many brands did not have a super shoe, that was appealing to Riley as it put him on a level playing with the other athletes.

Echo Boom

On did not have a super shoe in 2020 and said its athletes could run in whatever shoe they felt most comfortable with. Since signing with On, Riley has been testing the On super shoe prototypes, and On released its super shoe the Echo Boom at the Olympic Track Trials. Riley will wear it at the Olympics and said he will be on a level playing field with everyone else. “It’s on par, on a level playing field with pretty much any other shoe out there. You want to have a bump of around 4% when you aggregate all the data and that’s about what they’re seeing from the shoe. I think we’re starting to reach a place in shoes again, where you can pick the shoe that you think feels best for your foot and be confident that it’s gonna perform,” he said.

“Why fart around, playing it safe? Like, let’s go out and say that we did everything we could.”

As for the Olympics and that dream goal of a medal, Riley said he is basing some of his goals off of what fellow American Jared Ward did at the last Olympics (6th place). Ward’s place and performance surprised a lot of people, but Riley can related to Ward. They are the same age and have been racing each other since the Foot Locker National Cross Country Championships in high school. Riley says he “would like to get in that 5, 6, 7 range,” but has firsthand knowledge from his run at Chicago in 2019 that sometimes he can even surprise himself.

Riley understands his marathon best is 2:10 and Eliud Kipchoge‘s best is 2:01. Riley’s 2:10, however, was on a very difficult course in Atlanta, so he thinks that equates to 2:08 on a flat course. Having said that, Riley understands getting on the medal stand is likely dependent on not only running is best, but a few others underperforming. He’s fine with that.

The one thing Riley doesn’t want to do is play it safe.

“No more next time” was his motto for the Olympic Marathon Trials.  He’s taking that mindset into the Olympics.

“There’s a good chance this is my one and only shot at the Olympics. So why, why fart around, playing it safe? Like, let’s go out and say that we did everything we could.”

More Riley: *Track Talk Podcast with Jake Riley
Thread: Jake Riley Has Me Worried
* Unsponsored Jake Riley Makes All the Right Moves to Earn Olympic Berth in Atlanta*Unsponsored No More: After Earning Olympic Spot, Marathoner Jake Riley Signs with On

Want another Olympic themed podcast? Olympic legend Gail Devers talks about her great career, and even her love of distance running

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