Commentary

How fast can Galen Rupp go?

The U.S. distance runner hopes to bust a stubborn myth in London

Originally Published: August 3, 2012
By John Brant | ESPN The Magazine

Galen Rupp Christian Petersen/Getty ImagesGalen Rupp wants to prove that, rather than an innate trait possessed exclusively by East Africans, world-class finishing speed is a skill that can be taught.

A clang of the trackside bell tolls for the final lap of the 5,000 meters at the 2012 U.S. Olympic track and field trials in Eugene, Ore. The 22,602 spectators filling Hayward Field rise as one on this June evening, their trademark rhythmic clapping combusting into a bass roar as Galen Rupp steps to the lead.

The same roar had rolled down over Rupp less than a week earlier, when, in driving rain, he closed out his winning performance in the trials' 10,000 meters. But that night he'd been cruising more than 50 meters ahead of the field, his closest pursuers two other native-born Americans. This 5,000, by contrast, is shaping up as a balls-to-the-wall stampede to the finish against formidable African-born rivals Lopez Lomong, one of the Lost Boys of Sudan, and Kenyan Bernard Lagat, perhaps the fastest closer in the sport's history.

Besides qualifying Rupp for his bid this week and next for medals at the London Games, these final 400 meters form a rehearsal for the kind of ferociously competitive, surreally fast final laps he will face. Assuming he can qualify for the finals in the 10,000 on Saturday and the 5,000 on Aug. 11, Rupp hopes to become the first U.S. male to earn a medal in either race in 48 years. "In the Olympic 10,000, after 24 laps of covering surges and dodging elbows, the winner is going to have to run the last 400 in about 52 seconds," says Alberto Salazar, Rupp's coach. "In the past, the only athletes who could finish that fast were born in East Africa."

With 200 meters to go, the past looks like prologue. Lagat, who's defeated Rupp the past 12 times they've met, spurts to a one-step lead. As the rivals turn into the final straightaway, the crowd senses the familiar moment when Rupp normally loses his focus and his form deteriorates against Lagat, and they emit a collective, near-subliminal sigh.

[+] EnlargeBernard Lagat
AP Photo/Henny Ray AbramsKenyan Bernard Lagat is considered the fastest closer in the history of distance running. Can Galen Rupp of the U.S. outduel him?

But with 70 meters to go, instead of surrendering and settling for a top-three finish, Rupp pulls even with Lagat. He locates a higher gear that has always seemed beyond a native-born American's ken. Over the final 20 meters, he surges ahead, outkicking the renowned kicker. He blasts across the line with a winning time of 13 minutes, 22.67 seconds, breaking the 40-year-old meet record held by the late Steve Prefontaine.

Rupp jabs his fist into the air: He has covered the final lap in a blistering 52.54 seconds. That split both improves his previous best closing-lap time by nearly 3.5 seconds and signals a new era in the sport of distance running. Rupp has just proved that, rather than an innate trait possessed exclusively by East Africans, world-class finishing speed is a skill that perceptive coaches anywhere can teach and talented athletes of any nation can master. "For most of the last year, all of my training, just about every moment of my life, has been focused on one goal," Rupp says, "learning to run that final lap in 52 seconds."

Much of that learning took place in Park City, Utah, where Rupp and his training partner, Somalia-born British citizen Mo Farah, the 2011 world champion in the 5,000 meters and the U.K.'s hope for a track gold medal, logged their pre-Olympics altitude training under Salazar's watch. There, they hammered speed workouts at the town's high school track: On one morning in June, they logged 8x200 meters at under 27 seconds per rep and a 200-meter jog recovery, all at 7,000-foot elevation. "We're basically in an arms race with the Africans," says Salazar, 53. "Right now, at some training camp in Ethiopia or Kenya, there might be a dozen guys capable of running the kind of workout we're doing. Basically, in the whole rest of the world, we have only two runners of that caliber. So we have no room for error."

The intensity of the training regimen reflects Salazar's almost Ahab-like quest to determine the perfect running form and close the speed gap. Over the past dozen years, he has devised a maverick training system, with Rupp as his cardinal pupil, based on building core strength and muscular explosiveness. "A glitch in your form catches up with you eventually," Salazar says. "Back in my day, nobody tried to fix my form. And sure enough, it caught up with me."

Salazar's day was the late 1970s and early '80s, the peak of the first running boom. Born in Cuba and raised in New England, Salazar racked up an All-American career at the University of Oregon, and at age 22, during his senior year, he won the 1980 New York City Marathon. He successfully defended his title for the next two years, setting a then-world record of 2:08.13 in the 1981 race. In 1982, Salazar won the Boston Marathon, narrowly beating fellow American Dick Beardsley in a classic race remembered as the Duel in the Sun.

But shortly after that marathon, just as he seemed to be approaching his prime, it all went south for Salazar. Piling obsessive levels of training -- month after month of 120-mile weeks, with no rest periods or even down days -- onto his ungainly form, he suffered a decade-long period of injury that ended his Olympic-level career. He eventually went to work for Nike and started to coach. Commissioned by company head Phil Knight to break the foreign stranglehold on the major marathons and other high-profile distance races, Salazar simultaneously pursued a private goal: to save young athletes from repeating his mistakes.

Enter Rupp. Salazar discovered him when he was a 14-year-old soccer player in Portland, Ore. Now Rupp is 26 and married, and he's still had only one running coach. Nurturing Rupp's talent as part of the Portland-based Nike Oregon Project, Salazar has helped his runners avoid the overtraining and injuries that cut short his own distinguished running career in the 1980s. He has guided Rupp to five straight national championships in the 10,000, a 2008 Olympic berth at that distance and a 26:48 American record in the 10,000, only the second sub-27-minute time logged by a non-African native. (Ethiopia's Kenenisa Bekele holds the world record at 26:17.53.)

Farah joined Salazar and the Oregon Project to escape the British tabloids and to train alongside Rupp, with whom he shares a love of soccer. While the Briton runs with a fluid, almost circular grace, Rupp's stride is more powerful and muscular. "At first I was skeptical about Mo coming aboard, but pretty quickly I realized it was the best thing that could have happened," Rupp says. "We do almost every workout together. I wouldn't have gotten my American record in the 10 last summer without Mo pushing me, and I don't think Mo would have nailed his world championship in the 5 without my pushing him."

And Farah agrees. "Working with Alberto and Galen and the guys has given me the extra 5 percent I was missing," he says. "And in Portland, unlike in London, I can walk down the street without getting hassled. I love that. Here in the U.S., I can just focus on my family and my training."

During this year's run-up to the Olympics, the Mo-Galen partnership has assumed an almost mystical aura inside track circles. "Those two guys are running on a higher plane right now than anybody else in the U.S. and maybe the world," says the Project's Dathan Ritzenhein, also competing in the 10,000 for the U.S. "When it comes to the speed work, the specific training that lets you close a race, Mo and Galen are in a world of their own."

In forging that world, they might be changing the future of the sport, proving that world-class kicking speed depends more on nurture than nature. When the American, the Briton and their competitors from other nations step to the starting line of the distance races in London, the outcome won't hinge on where a runner happened to be born but on how hard and intelligently he has trained, how thoroughly he has prepared for the bell lap and those 52 decisive, shattering seconds.