By David Monti, @d9monti
(c) 2020 Race Results Weekly, all rights reserved
ATLANTA (29-Feb) -- Gusting winds and cold temperatures couldn't stop Galen Rupp and Aliphine Tuliamuk (a 2019 RRCA elite grant recipient) from claiming the USA Olympic Team Trials Marathon titles here today in what was the largest, and perhaps the most-anticipated, Trials in history. Over 700 athletes qualified to race here today where the top-3 male and female finishers earned berths on Team USA for this summer's Tokyo Olympics. Rupp, 33, who successfully defended his title from the 2016 Trials, made his fourth Olympic team and his second as a marathoner, finishing in 2:09:20. Tuliamuk, 30, who was born in Kenya but became a USA citizen in 2016, made her first Olympic team, clocking 2:27:23. In addition, both athletes earned $80,000 in prize money.
RUPP GOES EARLY
Rupp is a patient marathoner, fond of sitting in the lead pack until the last stages of the race. That strategy worked well for him when he won the Bank of America Chicago Marathon in 2017, but today he followed a different script. He said that he and coach Mike Smith played out many different scenarios for today's race which was contested on an unusually hilly course for a high-profile marathon. But in the end, Smith left the decision-making to Rupp.
"'Trust yourself,'" Rupp said was Smith's final advice. Speaking in the post-race press conference he continued: "'Whatever you do, you just need to commit and be 110% in.'"
Whereas in Chicago where he waited until the 35th kilometer (22nd mile) to make his move for victory, he decided today to move in the 16th mile, single-handedly reeling in the early break by the fading Brian Shrader. He did not intend that to be his definitive move.
"I took off a little bit earlier than I anticipated," Rupp told reporters, explaining that the early move was designed to test his rivals, not break them. He added: "Once I got a little bit of a gap it was about keeping the pedal down."
Rupp ran miles 17, 18, and 19 in 4:49, 4:40, and 4:48, respectively. By the 20 mile mark (2:09:20) he had a 42-second gap on his nearest chasers. Then, he said, his job was to trust his training and finish strong.
"I was confident in my preparations," Rupp said, adding, "I did a lot of runs that were longer than 26 miles."
The final 200 meters was all downhill, and Rupp cruised into Centennial Olympic Park to receive the cheers of the thousand of spectators who lined the finish straight. His time was the third-fastest in Trials history, and only 18 seconds slower than Ryan Hall's record of 2:09:02 set in New York's Central Park in November, 2007.
"It's incredible," Rupp said in his post-race interview on NBC. "I feel relieved more than anything."
The battle for the final two team positions was intense. Forty-three year-old Abdi Abdirahman, a four-time Olympian, led the chase, joined by 2:07 marathoner Leonard Korir and unheralded U.S. Army staff sergeant Augustus Maiyo. Abdirahman, who did his preparations for these Trials in Ethiopia, felt strong and trusted his experience.
"I knew there was a lot of rolling hills, and that's my strength," Abdirahman said.
At the 24 mile mark Abdirahman, Maiyo and Korir were all together, but another athlete, Jake Riley, had worked his way up and was only two seconds behind. Riley --who lost nearly three years of his career to injuries before bouncing back last fall to run 2:10:36 at the Chicago Marathon-- was running upright, and looked strong.
"I knew if I kept working the downhills I could come close to them," Riley said.
Maiyo was the first to crack, and faded back (he would finish fifth). Riley and Abdirahman managed to drop Korir, but in the final descent to the line Korir poured it on to try to catch them. Riley broke Abdirahman to finish second in 2:10:02, but Abdirahman managed to hold off Korir to get third just one second behind. Korir finished fourth in 2:10:06.
The 43 year-old became the oldest-ever American to qualify for an Olympic Marathon.
"I never count myself out in the big championships, the big race," Abdirahman said. He continued: "I think it will be my last Olympics, but I don't think it will be my last Trials."
Jared Ward, who finished sixth in the 2016 Rio Olympics and was heavily favored to make the team here today, finished 27th in 2:15:55. It was a rare off-day for the 31 year-old father of four.
"There are worse things than bad races," he told Race Results Weekly.
TULIAMUK AND SEIDEL BREAK AWAY
The women's race played out closer to what was expected, at least for the first two-thirds of the race. The women packed-up together to fight the wind, and settled into a not-too-fast pace of about 5:41 per mile (2:29:00 finish pace). All of the top contenders --Molly Huddle, Emily Sisson, Sally Kipyego, Steph Bruce, Kellyn Taylor, Jordan Hasay, Sara Hall, Des Linden, Laura Thweatt, and Emma Bates were in the lead pack, 14-strong through the 14 mile mark.
But the pace started to pick-up in the 17th mile, first to 5:33 then to 5:25 through mile 18. The pack whittled down slightly to 12, when Tuliamuk and marathon debutante, Molly Seidel, decided to take control of the race. The two athletes, who had trained together at different points in Flagstaff, Arizona, ran 5:31 for mile 21, then 5:16 for mile 22. That was enough to give them an eight-second lead over third place Kipyego. The pair supported each other, they said, to keep the breakaway going.
"Just having Aliphine there I don't think I would be as calm in that breakaway," Seidel told reporters. She added: "It was a feeling of working together on it. For me, that's truly what made it."
By the 24 mile mark, their lead was 38 seconds over Kipyego, and now it was a question of who would win. It was only in the 26th mile that Tuliamuk got the upper hand, using the final downhill to full advantage, and breaking the tape eight seconds ahead of Seidel.
"Today was amazing," Tuliamuk said, wearing a red, white and blue hat she had crocheted. "I did not see this coming."
Seidel --who was supposed to make her marathon debut last month in Houston, but chose to do a half-marathon instead-- was the upset story of the day, clocking 2:27:31 in her debut and making her first Olympic team at age 25.
"Today was pretty amazing," Seidel said wearing a Boston Red Sox cap. "I definitely did not expect to be up here. Honored to share the stage with these women."
Kipyego, the 2012 Olympic silver medalist at 10,000m when she represented Kenya, held on to third and clocked 2:28:52. She said that she had struggled since the birth of her daughter, Emma (2), to get back to running and had nearly given up the sport.
"I came to America 15 years ago, and I always knew I wanted to be an American," said the former NCAA champion for Texas Tech University. She added: "To make this Olympic Team is a great honor."
A record 565 athletes finished today's race making it the largest Trials in history. Thousands of raucous fans lined the special three-loop course in downtown Atlanta to cheer the athletes on, perhaps channeling Atlanta's Olympic history.
"It was a 26 mile scream tunnel," said Seidel, shaking her head.
PHOTO: Galen Rupp of Portland, Ore., wins the 2020 U.S. Olympic Team Trials Men's Marathon in Atlanta in 2:09:20 (photo by Jane Monti for Race Results Weekly)
PHOTO: Aliphine of Flagstaff, Ariz., wins the 2020 U.S. Olympic Team Trials Women's Marathon in Atlanta in 2:27:23 (photo by Jane Monti for Race Results Weekly)