LONDON -- When, once every four years, Americans do pay attention to track and field, the marquee events are always the sprints. For good reason. Sprints are exciting, dramatic and short, perfect for our modern attention spans.
But maybe, just maybe, Mo Farah and Galen Rupp nudged that interest toward distance races just a little Saturday night.
In an extraordinary day that saw both the fastest man in history and a man with prosthetic legs run down the Olympic Stadium track, the most exciting race by far was the men's 10,000 meters. For just more than 27 wonderfully compelling minutes, the runners circled the track 25 times, again and again, with only a few dropping out of contention. A runner would surge ahead ever so briefly, but could never separate himself from the main pack. Unlike in a sprint that ends within seconds, the drama built minute upon delicious minute.
It was a race so uplifting, it almost made you want to pull on a pair of running shoes and go for a long run yourself, even if it was just to the local convenience store for a Slurpee and Slim Jims.
In the end, this race among the world's best came down to two men who run together in the cool rain of Oregon. Farah, 29, was born in Somalia but grew up in England and runs for Great Britain. Rupp is 26 but looks 14 and is a former Oregon Duck. They train together in Alberto Salazar's Portland-based Oregon Project, which the former marathoner started in 2001.
"I remember sitting down with Alberto in high school when the project just started with an audacious goal that we were going to put Americans on the podium in distance running, races that are usually dominated by Africans," Rupp said. "That's something we've always been pointing towards. I would be lying if I said there weren't times when I wondered whether that would happen."
It finally happened Saturday when first Farah and then Rupp sprinted away from the field in the final 200 meters. In the last 50 meters, it seemed Rupp might catch his training partner -- "I was scared, I was running for my life the last 200 meters" -- but Farah held on for the victory, winning by half a second (27:30.42). Eyes and mouths open wide with joy, the two embraced after crossing the line.
"This is the best moment of my life, it cannot get any better than this," Farah said. "I was in shock and tears, the whole lot. I didn't know what was going on."
Rupp's medal was the first by an American in the Olympic 10,000 since 1964 and just the third in history.
"It's unreal. You dream about this for a really long time, but then when it happens, you don't know what to expect," Rupp said. "The way things happened, to be able to go with my training partner, first and second, I'm real fortunate that I've been able to learn from him. He's been a great mentor. I wouldn't be here without him."
Rupp has worked with Salazar since he was in high school. Farah joined the project 18 months ago (Salazar's project has expanded to promote British distance running). Running together in Oregon, the two quickly became good friends -- Farah referred to Rupp in the postrace news conference as "my boy, Galen" -- and pushed each other to further excellence.
Farah and Rupp also worked together during Saturday's race, just as Kenyan runners are known to do. Rupp said he got antsy during some of the surges, but his more experienced training partner tapped him on the shoulder and told him to relax and wait for the right time in the final lap.
"It's really comfortable having a training partner in there," Rupp said. "At the end, it almost felt like practice where we spring at the end and finish off with a fast 400."
"We felt they could out-sprint anyone in the race," Salazar said. "We didn't care if it was a fast pace, a slow pace or whatever. They weren't going to try to win it until the last 400 or 200 meters. It was a very simple plan."
A simple plan, but the execution is never easy or quick in distance running. Rupp said that when Salazar first explained the Oregon Project to him, he warned it was going to take years, it would be hard and there would be no shortcuts.
That makes sense. There are no shortcuts in a distance race. You have to just keep pounding ahead, stride after stride, confident that eventually your work and dedication will carry you across the line.
Farah and Rupp are not finished, either; both run the 5,000, as well. Hopefully, that race, plus Saturday's drama and the medals that came with it, will make a case to Americans that a distance race can be just as exciting as a sprint.
"We just need to get more support and duplicate it to get more young American kids, more young Brits in good programs like we have," Salazar said. "And I think we're going to have more medals."