Feb 29, 2020

Rupp, Tuliamuk lead the way as Atlanta’s Olympic legacy lives on

By Amby Burfoot

It was a day that went exactly as expected, except when it didn’t. When an old man proved that age is a state of mind, and a young woman showed that even a rookie could make the Olympic team. It was a day of comebacks from career-threatening surgeries, and of poignant stories about childhood poverty in Africa that turned into the American dream.

It was a day when running 26.2 miles took a little over two hours, and a lifetime. And it was a day that Running City USA will not soon forget, as the U.S. Olympic Team Trials – Marathon carried on Atlanta’s Olympic legacy in choosing the six marathoners who will represent the U.S. in the 2020 Games.

As cheering throngs lined a brilliantly sunny finish line in Centennial Olympic Park, Galen Rupp was the first to break the tape in 2:09:20, the third-fastest winning time in Trials history, to make his fourth Olympic team. He was followed by Jacob Riley (2:10:02), making his first, and Abdi Abdirahman, at the age of 43, making his fifth in 2:10:03 to break his own American masters record.

With his victory, Rupp became only the second man to defend his Olympic Trials title, after Frank Shorter.

Then came the women, with Aliphine Tuliamuk outlasting a surprising – and surprised – Molly Seidel, 2:27:23 to 2:27:31, her eight-second margin of victory the closest ever. Winning the battle for third was Sally Kipyego (2:28:52), the 2012 Olympic silver medalist at 10,000 meters, running only her second marathon since the birth of her daughter, Emma, in July 2017.

The winners each took home a first-place prize of $80,000, leading a field of 565 finishers in the largest Olympic Marathon Trials ever.

The two competitions couldn’t have been more different: The men ran fast from the start, with several athletes surging to a big early lead; the women began cautiously and ran in a large pack for much of the way.

Running alone for most of the first half, Brian Shrader reached the midway point in 1:04:53, ahead of 226 other starters. Rupp, running with his usual aplomb, pulled up to Shrader at the 16-mile mark, drawing Abdirahman, Augustus Maiyo and Leonard Korir with him.

From there, Rupp put in several modest surges. “I was just testing them” he admitted later. “I was supposed to wait until maybe 19 or 20 miles before running hard, but my coach, Mike Smith, told me to trust my instincts, and that’s what I did.”

Running at what seemed an almost effortless tempo, Rupp drew away to a commanding lead by 20 miles. Behind him, a titanic battle was taking place for second and third. At 24 miles, Jacob Riley joined the fray after following the instructions of his coach and holding back earlier. Now he moved up on Abdirahman, Maiyo and Korir.

Riley, 31, from Boulder, had suffered from the same Haglund’s deformity and surgery that laid up Rupp for well over a year. In Riley’s case, it took nearly three years to set things straight. He ran a strong 2:10:36 at Chicago last fall, but still stood as a 5th-to-10th place pick in most pre-marathon polls.

“I was watching Jared Ward and Scott Fauble in the early going,” he said. “But at 18 miles, I started to move up, and I could see I was catching the group ahead of me.” That left four of them fighting for the final two spots behind Rupp.

Abdirahman, 43, trained in Ethiopia for 12 weeks, returning home to Tucson just two weeks before the Trials. He knew the hills would work in his favor, and he inched ahead of Riley every time they hit a slight incline in the last several miles. “Thank God for those hills at the end,” he said.

Korir, known for his fast finish, was still in striking distance. With a mile to go, he was on Abdirahman’s heels, but he couldn’t match the ageless runner who had already made four U.S. Olympic teams (three at 10,000 meters). Abdirahman and Riley pulled away on the last incline, and nursed their lead to the finish, with Riley pushing slightly ahead as they neared the finish.

“I felt really good today,” said Rupp. “I’m stronger now than I was for my first marathon at the 2016 Trials. The marathon always starts hurting at some point, but I told myself ‘Calm mind, strong body, full heart.’”

“I had visualized a race like this,” Riley admitted, “but you know how many visualizations don’t work out the way you want, maybe 9 out of 10. For me this was the race of a lifetime, the one I have always dreamed about.” His time was also a personal best.

“This might be my last Olympics,” said Abdirahman, “but it won’t be my last Olympic Trials.”

In the women’s race,14 runners reached the half in 1:14:38. Behind them was most of the largest women’s Trials field ever, with 444 starters.

Slowly but surely the race turned into a classic battle of attrition. From 14, there were 10, then seven, then five. Pre-race favorites Emily Sisson, Molly Huddle and Sara Hall failed to finish, while the fastest woman in the field, Jordan Hasay, faded to 26th in 2:37:57. But that still left a tight, talented pack of women running almost in lockstep at 20 miles, including two-time Olympian Des Linden and 2016 sixth-place finisher Kellyn Taylor.

Tuliamuk was the first to make a strong move, taking Seidel with her. “C’mon Molly, we can do this,” said Tuliamuk, 30, from Flagstaff. She was wearing a red, white and blue beanie specially crocheted for the day after learning the craft after a stress fracture put her on the sidelines last summer.

Seidel was running her first marathon, having qualified for the Trials with a half-marathon performance, and she had her doubts, not knowing what lay ahead in the 26-mile distance. But she chose to go with her more experienced competitor. “Aliphine’s a friend; she made me feel comfortable,” she explained.

Behind them Kipyego, Laura Thweatt, and Linden gave chase.

After Tuliamuk and Seidel pulled away from the pack, their lead only grew and they appeared to be safely on the team. The only big question was, could Linden, seeking to become the first woman to make three U.S. Olympic marathon teams, catch Kipyego for third? Linden whittled the difference to 11 seconds at the finish, but that was as close as she would get.

“I never ever expected this,” said Seidel. “My coach and I have an expression, ‘No brain, no pain,’ and that got me through the first half of the race. The second half I was remembering that he told me I was tough enough to do something I’ve never done.”

Kipyego, 33, and Tuliamuk, 30, were both born in Kenya. They gained their American citizenship after years of studying and living in the U.S. and could not have been prouder on this day.

“It was never primarily about running,” Kipyego said. “My scholarship allowed me opportunities I never imagined. It will be a great privilege and honor to represent the U.S. in the Olympics.”

“I considered myself an underdog in this amazing field,” said Tuliamuk, whose 10 USATF Championships include a 10K title won at the 2017 AJC Peachtree Road Race. “I never thought I would make the team. Now I hope to be an inspiration to young runners in both Kenya and the U.S.”