LOS ANGELES — Some remarkable things took place Saturday in the warm late morning and early afternoon of a winter’s day, in a marathon race at the start of the Olympic year. A gifted man ran very fast and a beloved, much older man ran fast enough. Two women bonded by a friendship forged in thousands of miles run together, helped each other to the finish line. Yet another woman, a pioneer in her sport, seeking one last trip to the Games, fell painfully short. Afterward she cried until her shoulders heaved, and then she reminded the world that since this is the embattled sport of track and field and running, there cannot simply be drama, there must also be controversy. Always, there must be controversy, because the sport cannot run from itself.
Once again, as every four years, the race to select the three men and three women who will represent the United States in the marathon at the Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro proved itself a test unlike anything else in American sports, a punishing, all-or-nothing endurance race in which years of sacrificial preparation leave six runners rewarded and dozens of others gutted in disappointment, their next chance four years away at the least and forever at the most. Once again, the stage was littered with greatness and with emotion, with satisfaction and with emptiness, with the very good and the very bad.
Galen Rupp, 29, among the fastest and most accomplished U.S. distance runners in history and a silver medalist in the 10,000 meters four years ago at the London Olympics, dominated the men’s field in his first attempt at the marathon distance of 26 miles, 385 yards, laying waste to the myth that the race is not for beginners, much as his coach, Alberto Salazar, had done 36 years earlier. He finished in 2:11:12 and ran the second half of the race nearly two minutes faster than the first. Now he is in position to run the 10,000 and the marathon, eight days apart, in Rio. He could be a medal threat in both.
Behind him, the remarkable Meb Keflezighi, who will turn 41 years old in May, earned a place on his fourth Olympic team, the latest in a long list of superlatives that includes his historic silver medal in the 2004 Olympic marathon and his healing victory in the 2014 Boston Marathon, one year after the bombings. His performance came in his American home; Keflezighi and his family moved to San Diego from war-torn Eritrea and he graduated from UCLA. “This was my homecoming,” he said in an emotional post-race press conference that included references to Ryan Shay, who collapsed and died during the 2008 Trials marathon in New York, and Ryan Hall, the American record holder who retired this winter. Both were his training partners, mileposts in a long career. “I am so happy,” said the man the sport calls just plain Meb.
Four years after finishing fourth in the trials marathon, Amy Cragg won the women’s race. She went to the lead in the middle of the race alongside her training partner, close friend and 2012 trials winner, Shalane Flanagan, a gifted Olympic medalist who won the 2012 trials and is the second-fastest U.S. woman in history in the marathon. It was Flanagan who made Cragg better in training. “I was hanging onto her every day,” said Cragg. But on Saturday, it was Flanagan who struggled in the 80-degree heat and Cragg who helped will her home. “At one point, I said ‘Are you okay?’” said Cragg, “and [Flanagan] said, ‘No, I’m not.’ I said, ‘I know you can do this.’”
Cragg won the race in 2:28:20 and Desi Linden made her second consecutive team in second place. “This was the toughest 26.2 miles ever,” said Linden. “It seemed so much longer. It was such a grind out there.’’ Behind them, Flanagan, 34, staggered home, but held on to third and missed the celebratory post-race press conference because she was in a medical tent receiving intravenous fluids for the first time in her long and distinguished career.
There was worse pain for others. In fourth place, the toughest of all places for those seeking an Olympic berth and not moral victories, was 37-year-old Kara Goucher, 65 seconds behind Flanagan. In 2007, Goucher had won a bronze medal in the 10,000 meters at the world outdoor track and field championships in Osaka, Japan, the United States’ first track distance medal in 16 years, a performance that helped compel the improvements that have followed. She is hero to a generation. Goucher made the Olympic team in 2008 (10,000) and 2012 (marathon) and remains the fourth-fastest U.S. women’s marathoner in history.
But in recent years, she has fought multiple injuries and seemed unlikely to regain her best work. Also, last summer she was among the primary sources in a joint BBC/ProPublica investigative story that called into question the practices of the Nike Oregon Project, including Salazar and Rupp, and for whom Goucher ran for seven years. That report shook the entire sport (part of a brutal year for track and field).
In 2014, Goucher returned to Colorado and reunited with coach Mark Wetmore (who had been her college coach) and Heather Burroughs. She improved and came to Los Angeles with genuine hopes, rejuvenated physically and emotionally. She ran a solid race on Saturday, but when Cragg and Flanagan made their move, she didn’t feel like she could go. The runner knows. At 22 miles, Linden had gapped her by 15 seconds and set sights on the struggling Flanagan. “There’s nothing I could have done differently today,” said Goucher, standing in the sunlight near the finish line. “I pretty much knew at 22 [miles] that it wasn’t going to happen.” Those ahead were slightly stronger.
The more Goucher talked, the more she cried. “I’m just such a dreamer, that’s the way I’m wired,” she said. “I love racing and I love training. But I have such a good life. Mark and Heather took me in and brought me back. I was depressed and despondent about the sport and they brought me back.” Goucher paused to hoist her five-year-old son, Colt, into the air and cried into his chest.
But moments later, she summoned the ghosts of summer. (Disclaimer here: I walked away from Goucher to do other interviews after her emotional hug with her son. I was not present for the quotes that follow, which were spoken to several of my colleagues, confirmed to me and are available online). When Goucher was asked about Rupp’s impressive victory, she said, “Did he win? I’m not really surprised. Justice is coming.” [This was in reference to the ongoing investigation of Salazar and the Nike Oregon Project by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency]. “Do you think everything I know came out in the BBC documentary?” Goucher said. “There is an investigation going on. There will be a day…
“I don’t wish them ill will,” Goucher said. “I’ve done all I can do at this point. All I want [Salazar and the NOP] to do is stop doing what they’re doing. That’s all I want.’’ (In last summer’s comments to the BBC and ProPublica, Goucher alleged rampant use of banned and possibly dangerous substances for performance enhancement. Goucher was just one of several named sources in the story.)
In a brief interview with me and one other journalist, Salazar declined to directly address Goucher’s comments, citing the long statement that he posted last summer. “I’m not surprised [at Goucher’s statements], but we made our statement,” said Salazar. “We’re concentrating on Rio at this point. We’re not worried about it. We’re moving forward.”
Rupp said, “All I can say is that I’ve always been an advocate for clean sport, and I’ve worked really hard over the years to get where I am today. And I’m cooperating with whatever officials I need to be cooperating with.”
It was unexpected that Goucher chose to re-visit the issue on the day of the Olympic Trials (and the day of Rupp’s excellent performance), but not entirely shocking. She is passionate about the cause and firm in her beliefs that Salazar is breaking rules. She was also crestfallen and emotional. Her interjection cast a long shadow over a day that is often celebratory, but such is the state of track and field and distance running in the United States—and the world. There is little good that goes without the two-headed disclaimer of doping and corruption. Joy comes with an asterisk.
It should be said that in the vacuum of the performance alone—a place that scarcely exists—Rupp’s work was utterly dominant. The domestic running world expected that Rupp would eventually run a marathon, although his decision to enter these trials was mildly surprising. He qualified with a half-marathon in 1:01:20 in December. As the U.S. record holder in the 10,000 meters (26:44.36 in 2014), Rupp came into the race as comfortably the most talented track distance runner in the field. There is always a hint of mystery attached to a debut marathon, but Rupp obliterated it.
(This was not a surprise to Salazar, who said that three weeks ago, Rupp had done a 20-mile run at 4:52-per-mile pace and that his pulse rate had never risen above 149 beats per minute, a stunning effort).
Early in the race, Rupp sat in a pack of more than two dozen runners who, collectively respecting the heat, dawdled through the half-marathon in 1:06:32. Rupp regularly stuffed a wet cloth into his mouth for hydration, evoking images of the late Jerry Tarkanian, the former UNLV basketball coach who famously chewed on wet towels during games. Soon past the half, Tyler Pennel laid down the first serious move, breaking open the field in the 16th mile by running a 4:47 split. Rupp and Keflezighi were the only racers to follow. In the 19th mile, Pennel began to fade and would eventually be overtaken by Jared Ward for the third and final place on the team.
Keflezighi, running in his 23rd marathon and Rupp, running in his first, ran together until nearly the 22-mile mark. It was a fascinating study in contrasts. At one point, Keflezighi spoke to Rupp and motioned for him to perhaps take the lead, which Rupp did not do. “I said, ‘It’s not a track, the road is open,’” said Keflezighi after the race. “It was not a very friendly conversation.” Keflezighi made the comment in the post-race press conference, and Rupp arrived in the middle of Meb’s answer, throwing a chill over the room. (Keflezighi’s coach, Bob Larsen, also noted that Pennel’s surge was critical to Meb making the team, because it allowed Keflezighi to avoid making the key move himself and to avoid a group kick in the last few miles, not Meb’s strength. “We hoped somebody would make a move,” said Larsen.)
As Keflezighi and Rupp approached 22 miles, Rupp eased away, dropping Keflezighi in the space of 400 meters, en route to a winning margin of 68 seconds. “He looked easy to me,” said Salazar afterward. Asked what Rupp might have run in cool conditions, he said, “I think he’s a 2:05 guy.” (The just-retired Hall once ran 2:04:58 on a point-to-point course in Boston, but no American has run under 2:05 on a certified loop course). In Rio, the 10,000 meters comes first, and Rupp, with his finishing speed, will be a medal contender. The marathon is eight days later. “I don’t want to get ahead of myself,” said Rupp, “But the schedule makes the double a possibility.”
This should be cause for excitement. Barely a decade ago, U.S. distance running was abysmal and now there is a runner in red, white and blue talking bigger than Kenyans and bigger than Ethiopians. Bigger even, than his training partner, 2012 double gold medalist Mo Farah, who will stick to the track. But instead, there is not just a double, but also an ongoing investigation, veiled threats and the familiar and dogged specter of wrongdoing.
Because in this sport, always and especially now, there is always a but.