Galen Rupp is America’s greatest distance runner. His sole focus on the marathon now would be—should be—widely celebrated. But even with his seemingly unlimited potential, old story lines continue to steal the spotlight.
All his life, Galen Rupp has been weathering various storms. After all, he’s a native Oregonian. Doesn’t matter that the air is damp and cold, as it often is, or rain is dumping from the sky, as it often does. Here, workouts don’t get called off, and soccer games and track meets don’t get postponed. Because Oregonians don’t get forced indoors like those in the Midwest or Northeast. They plug ahead in wretched conditions, letting nothing stop them—no matter how gray the outlook, no matter how miserable they feel inside.
This environment helped forge Rupp into who he is. And the 30-year-old is, by nearly any measure, America’s greatest distance runner right now. He’s been to three Olympics, taking home a silver medal in the 10,000 meters in 2012 and bronze in the marathon in 2016, each a monumental accomplishment for an American in events where east Africans tend to sweep the podium spots.
And if it were possible to add a footnote to a medal, that bronze would deserve it, for it was only Rupp’s second ever attempt at a marathon. (He won his very first attempt, the Olympic Trials marathon earlier in 2016). He is also the toast of the Nike Oregon Project, the most exclusive and resourced running team in the world—and, by extension, Nike itself, which takes great pride in its origins as a running company.
Now, Rupp is ready to start a new chapter, focusing his attention solely on the marathon. His ultimate goal, he says, is gold in the 2020 Olympic Marathon. Rupp trading track for asphalt should be a huge deal. He’s a once-in-a-generation athlete—one of the only Americans to beat many of Kenya’s and Ethiopia’s finest runners. Nobody knows his ceiling in the marathon—and that tantalizing notion is an exciting prospect in American distance running, which has been waiting for the next native-born world-beater for decades.
Or at least it should be. But something keeps getting in the way—something he can’t outrun, or, as yet, outlast. A leitmotif that returns in his new chapter: It’s a lingering suspicion in the running world and in the media that the Nike Oregon Project operates in a gray area of performance enhancement. In a nutshell, the program is accused not of using illegal substances, necessarily, but rather using legal substances in what may be illegal—or, some think, unethical—ways.
The Nike Oregon Project’s coaches and its athletes have not been charged with anything to date after four years of investigation by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency. But media reports keep returning—the latest in late February, concerning an unpublished USADA report that was found by Russian hackers and contained few new nuggets of allegations, followed by an unsourced article in the British newspaper The Telegraph stating that the FBI is getting involved. These reports and most media stories often use persuasive-sounding but noncommittal language like “almost certainly broke anti-doping rules.”
The grayness in this saga comes from the fact that anti-doping rules are surprisingly permissible; allowable testosterone ratios are far higher than those found in most human beings (to enable those with rare genetic variations to compete), and the rules permit the use of banned drugs that are commonly used for legitimate medical conditions—say, asthma or hypothyroidism—for athletes who have a doctor’s slip.
Rupp’s coach and the founder of the Nike Oregon Project, the legendary runner Alberto Salazar, has always been straightforward about his searching the ends of the earth and the depths of the rulebook for any legal edge. In statements, Salazar has written that he verifies the legality of his supplement protocols with USADA.
The slow drip and innuendo-heavy reporting not only make it difficult for fans to know what to think about Rupp or most any other runner, but impossible for the media to write about him without mentioning the allegations and investigation. Because they linger, never fully going away nor culminating in anything definitive. To ignore them is to seem in denial (maybe even irresponsible), while to dwell on them seems like a rush to judgment. And while there’s more heat on Rupp and the Nike Oregon Project than anyone else in running, this perspective is completely in line with the experience of following running in 2017. After all, it’s one of those rare sports where simply being very good at it will invite suspicion. To watch the sport nowadays means constantly guessing who’s clean, who’s not, and what they might be on. Fans used to debate and discuss an athlete’s workouts; now the hot gossip is about thyroid medication and testosterone cream.
This is where Rupp finds himself ahead of his debut at the world’s grandest marathon, and its oldest continually run footrace: Answering the same old questions rather than new ones about his mouth-watering prospects for the marathon. Still weathering a storm that doesn’t seem to ever fully subside. But what’s on everyone else’s minds in running isn’t on Rupp’s, he says, when I ask him whether it gets in the way of his training.
“It doesn’t really affect me a lot,” Rupp says. “I feel like we answered all of the questions that are out there. And when you’ve got the truth on your side, you know you’ve always followed the rules to a T, you really don’t have anything to worry about, and so that stuff is just outside noise that I block out.”
He’s got a lot to train for, because a Boston debut is a big deal. And for Rupp specifically, if it weren’t for that latest leaked USADA report, his Boston debut would be a huge deal.
Before Meb Keflezighi’s cathartic victory in 2014 (the year following the marathon bombings), it’d been 25 years since an American man or woman won the race. This year, Rupp should like his chances: Although he’ll face a strong field, the very cream of the crop from east Africa—like Eliud Kipchoge of Kenya, and Ethiopians Kenenisa Bekele and two-time Boston winner Lelisa Desisa of Ethiopia—are either off training for Breaking2, Nike’s exhibition attempt to break two hours in the marathon, or will be running the London Marathon on April 23, a week after Boston, instead. And if there was any doubt, Rupp isn’t going to Boston to simply get his feet wet or collect the appearance money anyway.
“I’m at a point now where when I enter a race like this, the goal is to try and win,” Rupp says. “It really comes down to how we prepare for it, how we attack it.”
You can bet he’ll be prepared. Salazar, who grew up in Massachusetts, won the Boston Marathon in 1982, which was such a hot race it’s known as “the Duel in the Sun,” and forced him to seek serious medical treatment at the finish line. Rupp says Salazar hasn’t shared a lot of course knowledge with him yet. But Salazar tends to leave nothing to chance, and has a knack for devising training runs that closely mimic course conditions; needless to say, Rupp sees a lot of hill training in his near future to be ready for Boston’s famously contoured course.
In the meantime, he’s in the middle of a heavy training block when we speak, working on his base fitness before the finesse comes in. Salazar’s coaching style is said to resemble throwing a carton of eggs against a wall and seeing which ones don’t crack; he and Rupp make an ideal pair, as Rupp has always been a beast in training. He’s a high-mileage guy who, as you can imagine, has taken naturally to marathon-specific training. Rupp says right now he’s averaging an astonishing 140 miles a week.
“This is the first time that I’ve really focused on training entirely on the marathon and doing what’s best for that,” Rupp says. “In the  Olympics I was [also] running the 10K and doing a lot of speedwork before that, and that probably wasn’t optimal training for a marathon!”
Another commonality between Salazar and Rupp is their complete dedication. No matter the training, Rupp is all in. Aside from his medals and the career he’s had to date, this is what truly makes Rupp stand out, according to Nike Oregon Project teammate and frequent training partner Jordan Hasay, who will make her marathon debut in Boston.
“I think what sets Galen apart is his commitment to the process,” she says. “He approaches everything that he does with commitment, and gives his absolute best every single day. I also think his attitude and life off the track help him to be such a great athlete. He cares the most about his faith and his family. This allows him to compete with a lot of purpose and strength.”
Putting in the work is one thing. But winning a marathon also requires the courage to mix it up with a lead pack of lithe and seemingly unbreakable east Africans. This is typically a big mental block for runners from the rest of the world. Rupp seems fearless about it, though—after all, he’s spent his track career among them.
“When I was really young it definitely seemed like more of an obstacle, because there weren’t a lot of Americans competing with those guys at all,” Rupp says. “The Africans definitely dominate. But my philosophy has always been to just keep chipping away. You can’t worry about these big jumps. It might seem crazy what some of those guys are doing as far as how fast they’re running. And over the years I kept getting closer and closer and closer, and then eventually in 2012 I beat all those guys [in the Olympic 10,000m final], except for one of them—Mo [Farah, a naturalized British runner of Somali descent], who’s my training partner!”
Rupp’s marathon debut win at the 2016 U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon. Photo: Ryan Bethke
There’s no question that how Rupp fares in Boston will affect public perception of him. His very first marathon, the Olympic Trials in Los Angeles in February 2016, provided a visible turning point in the race where the baton seemed to be passed—or rather, snatched—from Keflezighi to Rupp. It was mile 23 on a dangerously hot day, and the two were all alone in front, Olympic qualification safely assured for each. Keflezighi was even a bit annoyed that Rupp, who has been conditioned to running in a tight pack around a track, was hanging so closely on Keflezighi’s shoulder despite having the whole road to run on. But in an instant, Rupp accelerated away, as if he downshifted and floored it, knocking out a 4:47 mile and going on to win by 68 seconds.
It also felt like a turning point in the running community’s perception of him. The editors of LetsRun, the sport’s foremost website for running chatter, breathlessly wrote following the race that “America’s next great marathoner has arrived” and that Rupp “utterly destroyed” the field. On the site’s popular message boards, ordinarily full of ridicule, contempt and slanderous descriptions of Rupp that are unprintable here, commenters largely wished him well in the Olympic marathon and vowed to root for him. It was a complete reversal in tone. Will a strong result in Boston make people similarly forget the latest media coverage, for better or for worse? The coach-protégé storylines would almost write themselves.
However it plays out, Rupp has his eyes focused on 2020. He and his coaches are doing everything it takes for success in that specific race three years out, and working backward from there. To them, everything else is just distraction.
“Right now I kind of have the blinders on and am training a bunch,” Rupp says. He was talking about how his current high-mileage training block lacks race specificity, which will come soon. But the metaphor is apt. He’s focused only on training, racing and winning in Tokyo in 2020. Everything else is for the rest of us to discuss.