LOS ANGELES—Beginner’s luck, rookie success, or whatever you want to call it, the first time was the charm for Galen Rupp on Saturday at the U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon in toasty downtown Los Angeles.
Competing in hot, dry conditions, the 29-year-old made his 26.2-mile debut a memorable one, running away from defending Trials champion Meb Keflezighi over the final 4 miles to win in 2 hours, 11 minutes and 12 seconds. Keflezighi held on for second in 2:12:20 while Jared Ward, who won last year’s U.S. marathon title, was third in 2:13:00 to round out the U.S. team that will compete in the Rio de Janeiro Olympics in August.
“I’m very excited with the way it went,” Rupp said after the race. “It’s always a tremendous honor to represent the United States. It’s the greatest honor on Earth. I’m so happy to be able to make my debut here and to be able to win was unbelievable. I’m so honored to be going to the Olympics.”
Rupp, who bided his time early and stayed tucked in amongst the lead pack, came through halfway with the leaders in 1:06:31. He stayed alongside Keflezighi when 2014 U.S. marathon champion Tyler Pennel opened up a slight gap after the 16-mile mark. By Mile 17, Keflezighi, Rupp and Pennel were running together again, but a 4:46 19th mile and 4:54 20th mile proved too much for Pennel.
“Tyler made that race,” Keflezighi said in the post-race press conference. “It was a good change of pace.”
Ward, who caught Pennel at Mile 21, concurred, saying that Pennel’s move caused him a slight bit of panic.
“When Tyler made that move, and Meb and Rupp went with him, I thought that’s a hard move,” Ward said. “If they can make it, I’m not going to catch them. So I went as fast as I could and I ran 4:50 that mile, and I’m sure that was my fastest mile. It was just hang on and I saw Tyler coming back and when I caught him, that was an adrenaline rush.”
At the front, Rupp and Keflezighi ran together in tight quarters, and at several points over the next couple miles, Keflezighi was seen signaling to Rupp to give him some space.
“It’s not a track, the road is open,” Keflezighi said after the race, admitting it wasn’t a friendly conversation out on the roads.
Keflezighi was visibly pressing at mile 20, the strain on his face apparent in his effort to shake the lanky, long-striding Rupp. Just past the 22-mile mark, the marathon debutant decided it was time to put his foot on the gas, pulling away from his 40-year-old opponent with a hard 4:47 split to Keflezighi’s 5:05.
“At the beginning I was just trying to conserve as much energy as possible,” Rupp explained after the race. “After halfway, I thought I needed to cover every move. I didn’t know how my legs were going to feel those last few miles.”
Covering his last 3 miles in 4:52, 4:47 and 5:01, Rupp ran the second half of the race in 1:04:41, a near two-minute negative split on a day that was 66 degrees at the start of the race and 78 by the time all was said and done.
“Running with him, hopefully we gave the crowd some excitement,” the ever-gracious Keflezighi said after the race. “He gave a great effort and was great at the end. I’d like to congratulate him. I’m his teammate going to Rio.”
Ward, who wrote his masters thesis on optimal pacing strategies for the marathon, ran just 4 seconds off his personal best of 2:12:56, which he set at last year’s L.A. Marathon in similarly warm conditions.
“Eight hundred meters to go was the hardest thing of my life,” said Ward, who ran first and second half splits of 1:06:31 and 1:06:29 on Saturday. “With 600 meters to go, I started singing that song and changing the words. I said, ‘do it for your momma, do it for your wife, do it for your kids and do it for your life.’ It was just enough and that was the end of it.”
In winning the race, Rupp earned an $80,000 paycheck and secured his third U.S. Olympic team berth, having also made the team in the 10,000-meter run for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing and the 5,000 and 10,000 for the 2012 Olympics in London.
The silver medalist in the 10,000 in London, Rupp said he still considers that race his best event. He said he wants to compete in the World Indoor Track & Field Championships next month in his hometown of Portland, Ore., and has talked about attempting a 10,000/marathon double in this summer’s Olympics.
“I didn’t want to get ahead of myself, and everything leading up to this was all about the marathon,” he said. “I think that the double, with the way the schedule is, is a real possibility.
“This is kind of an interesting build-up because I definitely want to come back and try to run World Indoors in my hometown of Portland, Oregon. We had to do the marathon stuff. I had to do enough speed work to enable me to be able to come back after this and to continue to sprint I didn’t want to start from scratch with that. I think that the double in Rio is certainly possible. There’s a lot of time between the 10K and the marathon. The 10K is the shorter event. If the marathon were first, it would pretty much be impossible to double like that.”