Inside The Salazar-Rupp Mystique

Rupp and Salazar have been working together for nearly 12 years. Photo: Scott Draper/Competitor

When competing against podium-dominating Africans, Rupp looks completely at home. On Sept. 16, 2011, at the Diamond League meet in Brussels, Belgium—where Rupp broke the 10,000m American record—Rupp’s long, smooth stride, swift backswing, graceful push-off, stable core, forward-facing pelvis and upright carriage mimicked the fluid movements of opponents Kenenisa Bekele of Ethiopia and Lucas Kimeli Rotich of Kenya. In fact, as the finishing kicks were unleashed and Rupp trailed in third, Rupp’s rapidly pumping arms remained properly aligned in front of his chest, whereas Rotich circled his left arm around and across his chest, an inefficient motion that exposed his fatigue.

A scientist in his own right, tweaking and refining are mainstays of Salazar’s job; he’s studied proper running form at exhaustive levels. He’s worked with Rupp since his early teens to perfect his form; diagnosing the root cause of a slight hunch in Rupp’s shoulders and correcting it is their latest adjustment. He’s had Rupp’s oxygen consumption measured and his running efficiency tested; the results show that Rupp’s highly efficient—close to where Salazar was during his prime.

Since 2001, Salazar has ensured that his small crop of Oregon Project runners have access to every technological, physiological and psychological advantage available. From altitude simulation tents and rooms to both anti-gravity and underwater treadmills to the Cryo Sauna, a cylindrical chamber that turns liquid nitrogen to gas to cool an athlete’s body at bone-chilling temperatures for rejuvenating purposes, Nike, who reported revenues of $19 billion in 2010, pays for and houses them on their 193-acre Beaverton, Ore., campus.

“There’s a great misconception that we’re not doing real running or we’re trying to use gimmicks. My standpoint is, I don’t care what people think,” Salazar says, waving his lanky arm dismissively. “We’re on the cutting edge and using stuff that friends of mine who are coaches and trainers for major professional teams in other sports are using. If my peers in running don’t want to do it, that’s fine with me. It’s just another advantage for our guys.”

Being ridiculed, criticized and questioned by some in the running industry and media doesn’t bother the 53-year-old Salazar, who’s survived far worse—he conquered severe depression when his competitive career ended at age 27 with Prozac and Catholicism, and was revived from a temporarily fatal heart attack in June 2007. Rupp, who suffers from pollen allergies as well as exercise-induced asthma, has also been mocked on running forums and blogs for the black allergy mask he sometimes dons; he’s also been labeled overly privileged. The keep-to-himself Rupp responds in a manner that’s similarly nonchalant but less rebellious than his mentor. He says little and instead shifts the conversation to his own motivations.

“The mantra is control the controllables,” explains Nike’s sports psychologist, Darren Treasure, who was hand-plucked by Salazar in 2007 to improve Rupp’s mental focus during races. “It’s about Galen making 100 percent sure that his emotional, physical and psychological energy is directed into things he knows he can do something about, and to not allow anything else to negatively affect him. That doesn’t mean he’s not aware of what’s going on around him, but he doesn’t let it compromise what he’s going to do.”

Treasure works tirelessly with Rupp to focus on the big picture—this outlook minimizes pressure on any one race. He sees Rupp once a week in private and the two also have a weekly sit-down with Salazar. When Rupp speaks of his mentor, it’s with deep respect and without complaints about Salazar changing race plans or workouts at the last minute. “He’s the most thorough coach I think there is. There’s no stone that goes unturned,” Rupp says. “He really learned a lot from some of the mistakes he made as an athlete and he knows what it takes as a coach.”

It’s this fondness that’s made it difficult for Rupp to express an opinion that differs from one held by his mentor. When faced with an opposing view, Salazar can launch a rapid-fire attack of rhetorical questions that exhausts the listener’s resolve. But, with Treasure’s help, Rupp’s learning the intricate art of becoming politic. “At the highest level of sport, if you don’t have people who are willing or have the strength of character to disagree with a dominant personality like Alberto, then eventually, you’re no longer at the elite level,” says Treasure.

Developing open communication between the three remains an ongoing process—Treasure revealed the trio has the occasional screaming matches followed by, “tears, but that’s usually Alberto crying in the end,” he jokes. Disagreements are often absolved quickly because of the shared goal for Rupp to realize his potential.

“I can be domineering,” Salazar admits. “My wife will tell me, ‘you just don’t listen.’ But it’s not because I wasn’t trying to listen, but because I was so focused on my ideas and plans that I didn’t realize there was a disconnect there.”

The fireworks originate from a tender place. Salazar’s chosen an elusive life quest—to achieve greatness in running—and he pursues that goal with monk-like discipline, not for self-gratification, but because it’s become a part of him. He takes months-long trips with his athletes so they can train supervised at altitude; he attends every race and important workout, and on the rare occasion he can’t be there, he sends his assistant coach, Steve Magness, to observe and evaluate. Charismatic, friendly and forthcoming when relaxed, if Salazar appears brusque, it’s probably because he needs to attend to an athlete.

“It’s all for the athletes,” Salazar says. “They’ve entrusted it all to me and I want them to be happy.”

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