As soon as he arrived in town last week Galen Rupp knew that he’d picked the proper spot for his urban debut in the marathon. “Because it’s Boston,” he concluded. “This is such a special place. I’ve heard so many good things about this marathon. Walking around the city you can feel the buzz. It’s palpable. As an American I wanted to make my big-city debut in the US. That was really important to me and there was no better place to do it than here.”
So, 35 years after his coach, Alberto Salazar, won here in the fabled “Duel in the Sun” with Dick Beardsley, the 30-year-old Rupp will take the line in Hopkinton on Monday morning for the 121st edition of the grandsire of road races, bidding to become the first US-born men’s victor in 34 years.
Meb Keflezighi, an Eritrean emigre who grew up in California, was the first American victor since 1983 when he broke the tape here three years ago. Should Rupp prevail he’d be the first Stateside native to manage it since Greg Meyer.
“Any time an American wins here it’s really special, whether it’s Meb or Alberto,” says Rupp, who was born in Portland, Ore., and still lives and trains there. “That’s what drew me here. If I’m able to win on Monday that would be tremendous. That’s been my goal ever since I signed up for this.”
Boston will be only the third marathon for a man in transition from a stellar career on the track, where he won the Olympic silver medal in the 10,000 meters in London and holds the American record (26:44.36) at that distance as well as the domestic indoor marks in the 3,000, 5,000, and 2-mile.
Last summer after comfortably winning the US Olympic trials in his 26-mile debut Rupp went on to claim the bronze in Rio de Janeiro, the first podium finish by a Yank since Keflezighi’s silver in Athens in 2004.
That was a global breakthrough in the evolution of a road racer who began as an Oregon wunderkind in cross-country and the mile. Rupp was the most promising prospect of The Oregon Project, the Nike-funded program designed to resurrect American distance running. Instead of trying to make slowish marathoners faster the idea was to take fast 10,000-meter runners and turn them into medal-worthy 26-milers.
That’s what coach Bill Squires preached to Salazar, Bill Rodgers, and the rest of the Greater Boston Track Club aces in the late ’70s. “If you can run the 10,000 on a track, then you can tackle the big boys’ game,” Squires believed.
That was Salazar’s pitch to Rupp after he’d made the London podium. “Until a year or two before Rio there was the realization that sometime soon after he’d move to the marathon,” Salazar says. “Up through that it was keep concentrating on the track until you feel like you’re as good as you’re getting there. And now to get to the very top and to continue there, you need to go up in distance.”
Rupp, who felt that there was still more that he could achieve on the track, was hesitant. “I was definitely envisioning staying on the track through Rio and then transitioning,” he says. “When Alberto first brought it up I thought, well, maybe this is just another crazy idea and it’ll pass. But he kept planting that seed and putting it in my head. Just have an open mind and think about it. We’ll see how the training goes.’’
Rupp, whose London performance produced the first US medal in the 10,000 since Billy Mills’s 1964 gold, thought he had a good shot for gold in the 10,000 in Rio after missing by less than a half-second in 2012. “The 10K has always had a special place in my heart,” he says. “I came so close in London. I was right there. I felt I still had some unfinished business there and I wanted to do both.”
The all-in training commitment required to be an elite marathoner was daunting. “There have been times when I talked to Alberto and I was like, is this going to work? I feel so different,” says Rupp, who still was bidding to set the US indoor mile record at BU in 2013. “I like doing the speed. I miss doing it. He said: ‘You’ve got to trust me.’ The marathon is a pure endurance race. You need to be able to run hard for 26 miles and not die at the end and be able to thrive in those last 6 miles.”
Keflezighi, also a gifted track man, had the same dilemma in 2004. “The toughest decision in Athens was to go 10K or the marathon,” says Keflezighi, who was the American record-holder in the 10,000 and had finished 12th in the 2000 Games. “The marathon is a prestige event but I was still a 10K runner. I still believed I could have medaled there.”
Rupp was determined to go for the double. He ran the marathon trials in San Diego as if it were a track race, sitting on Keflezighi’s shoulder in the heat and going on to win by more than a minute.
His victory made him confident that he could handle the distance for high stakes. And after Rupp had a deflating fifth-place outing in the 10,000 in Rio the marathon became his only shot.
“I’m not going to lie, I was devastated after the 10K,” says Rupp. “I was really upset for three or four days. Then the people I have around me said, at some point you’ve got to move on. It’s done, it’s in the past. You can’t change anything about that and you still have a great opportunity in the marathon. You still have a chance to write the last chapter of this Olympic story.”
Rupp had reckoned that conditions would be on the steamy side so he and Salazar had replicated them in Oregon. “We went to Home Depot and got some PVC pipe and some plastic sheeting and put in some humidifiers in,” he says, “and I did a lot of long runs on a treadmill.”
Rupp had sufficient stamina and speed to stay with the leaders on wet streets as the pace quickened and the pack splintered and he made it to the podium with nearly a minute to spare.
“I’ve never experienced anything like what I felt those last 3 or 4 miles,” he says. “Your body wants to shut down. You just want to stop and sit on the side of the road but you’ve got to find a way to keep going. I just kept telling myself, you cannot quit whatever you do. Just keep pushing. The Olympics is the best of the best and that gave me all the confidence in the world that I can run with anybody.”
Rupp’s placing and 2:10:05 clocking as a newbie at the distance revived skeptics’ suspicions that the Oregon program has been gaming the doping system, particularly the allegedly excessive employment of therapeutic use exemptions (TUEs) for prescription drugs.
“I’ve put in so many years of hard work and so many sacrifices,” says Rupp, who never has tested positive. “It is hard to hear that sometimes, but I can only control what I do. I’ve always been an advocate for clean sport, totally against doping. When you do things the right way, that’s all you can control. I’m going to let the results speak for themselves and time will tell. I would never do anything that’s against the WADA [World Anti-Doping Agency] code. When you do that, that other stuff you can’t worry about. I just keep my eyes on the prize.”
The prize still is Olympic gold, just at four times his original distance. “That’s my top priority,” Rupp says. “As soon as Rio ends, you target Tokyo. What’s going to prepare me best to run well there? Boston fit in perfectly. Experience plays such a big role in the marathon. You just need to run a lot of them, but you can only run two a year so you have to make those count. This is going to be a big first step toward running well in Tokyo.”John Powers can be reached at email@example.com.