“I think he’s the best marathoner in America right now, though he has never even run one.” – Toni Reavis (“Rupp is In!“)
What was only a tantalizing possibility has become a reality: Galen Rupp, America’s best 10K runner and the third fastest American ever at the half-marathon, is planning to run his first marathon at the Olympic Trials Marathon in Los Angeles two weeks from Saturday.
There are so many fascinating angles to this that any one of them would make for a compelling story line, but taken together, they make this race about so much more than earning a(nother) spot on the Olympic team for Rio.
Let’s start with the obvious, oft-repeated observation that, because of his sterling track credentials (pun intended), Rupp is instantly the favorite in this race and a medal threat in the marathon at the Olympics. Is that a reasonable observation about someone who has never raced longer than half the marathon distance? Well, it’s true that Rupp is one of the world’s best 10K runners. He has that silver medal from London 2012, as well as the American Record of 26:44. In case you’re wondering, according to one standard method of calculating equivalent performances, that 26:44 converts to a 2:05:16 marathon, so you can understand why people are excited about Rupp’s potential. Furthermore, Rupp has the third-fastest half-marathon ever by an American to his credit, 1:00:30, run on a cold and windy day in New York. And finally, he qualified for the Marathon Trials by cruising a 61:20 half marathon a few weeks ago, and finished looking like he had been on a training run.
So we all know he’s fast and he’s fit. If he’s also healthy, is he really the favorite?
The marathon is a strange beast, and not all blue-chip 10K runners are an instant success with the marathon (see Farah, Mo). Even a great half marathon time doesn’t always translate to a terrific marathon performance. Consider American Mark Curp, who set a world record of 1:00:55 for the half marathon in 1985, a time that stood as the American record for 22 years. Back then, everyone assumed that would translate to great marathon tims, but the fastest he ever ran was 2:11:45. Or consider current HM world record holder Zersenay Tadesse. Like Rupp, he’s an Olympic silver medalist at 10K, but his 58:23 13.1-miler is over two minutes faster than Rupp’s best for that distance. His marathon PR? 2:10:41.
These comparisons aren’t decisive, of course, and in no way do I want to diminish Rupp’s stature as a great 10K runner. My point is that the marathon is hard, and 10K accomplishments don’t always translate to marathon. Sometimes they do. Meb Keflezghi was America’s best 10K runner before turning to the marathon, and was even better (competitively) at the longer distance. Eliud Kipchoge (yet another 10K silver medalist) turned to the marathon and is arguably the best in the world right now with a PR 2:04:00. So what will Rupp’s experience be? That’s the burning question to be answered soon.
But is he the favorite for the race? I’m not convinced.
This being Rupp’s first attempt at the distance, surely his strategy will be to run conservatively. He’ll tuck into whatever pack forms at the front and just bide his time until the very latest stages of the race, and then kick, just as he’s done in virtually every track race against domestic rivals over the last five years. Will this be dull? No! Because every other runner in that front pack will know that he’ll do this, and so as it gets later in the race, someone will press the pace. Then we will find out whether Rupp can “kick” from six miles out and after more than 90 minutes of sub-5:00 miles.
Those who think Rupp is a lock will ask, with some justification, who’s going to beat him? Will it be a forty-year-old Meb? Ritz? Estrada? Puskedra? Eggleston? And they’ll answer their own questions by saying Meb is old, Ritz will probably be there, but the others aren’t in Rupp’s league. I understand that perspective, but I also have enough respect for the marathon as a unique challenge to say that I don’t think this will be easy for Rupp. How many times over the years have I been fooled into thinking that the fastest runners will win, only to see the greyhounds fall apart and the dray-horses win the day? The point is, marathons are hard for everybody, and until you’ve done one, you don’t know how hard. A lot can go wrong out there, and being the fastest 10K guy in the field doesn’t insulate you from those issues. I hear people talk about Rupp “jogging” at 2:11 pace and then blowing everyone away with his finishing speed, and I think, yeah, it could happen, but the marathon has a way of surprising you.
I don’t care how fast he is, Rupp is going to be tested in LA. I hope he passes the test, I really do. I hope he shows that he has a talent for the marathon, and should be respected as a double threat at the Olympics. If he struggles, I won’t take any satisfaction in that.
By the way, does anyone remember Rupp’s coach, a guy named Salazar? This guy was once the fastest marathon runner in the world, a runner who would rather die than lose, and very nearly did die on a couple of occasions. Funny thing, he’s had more success coaching 5k and 10k guys — even 1500m runners — than marathon runners. Will Rupp be the runner who breaks through in the longer distance? Will Rupp rehabilitate Salazar’s reputation as a marathon coach?
Here’s my prediction: Rupp finishes no better than third, but he does make the team. Favorite or no, I think it will be a learning experience for him, and there will be more discussion about his potential in the longer race.
The marathon is said to commemorate the run of an Athenian messenger named Pheidippides. Never mind that the story of Pheidippides running from Marathon to Athens to announce the Athenian victory over the Spartans was likely a fanciful invention combining unrelated historical events, there’s still something classic about the idea of a run to the limits of one’s endurance. I think the US Trials just took on some of the drama of a classic work, but whether a comedy, tragedy, or history remains to be determined.
The Greeks gave us the word marathon, which has become a synonym for a test of stamina, and also the word hubris, which has come to mean extreme pride and self-confidence. At least one, and perhaps both, will be on my mind in two weeks