I button-holed old friend Alberto Salazar to discuss last weekend’s 3:50.92 indoor mile PR by Galen Rupp at the B.U. Terrier Classic across town. Salazar has coached Rupp since his high school days in Oregon, and lead him and training partner Mo Farah of Great Britain to the gold and silver medals at last summer’s London Olympic 10,000 meters. Of course, Alberto grew up in nearby Wayland, Mass. where he began his own legendary running career. Tonight, Al and a bunch of his old Greater Boston Track Club mates will meet up with their old coach Bill Squires for a laugh-filled dinner in the Back Bay.
Rupp’s 3:50.92 solo mile at B.U. was the fifth-fastest indoor mile in history and # 2 on the all-time U.S. list. His coach was pleased, it’s what he expected, but wasn’t overly impressed.
“He ran 3:334.7 last year for 1500 meters,” said Al. “That’s equivalent to a 3:51.7 mile. So he’s just a little faster now. It’s a natural progression as he gets older, not like a WOW! all of a sudden sort of thing. He’s gotten faster at all distances from the mile to 10,000 meters.”
The Salazar-Rupp connection began when Al saw Galen play soccer on the same team as one of his sons in junior high. That led to a long-term relationship similar to the foundation of the old British club system where an athlete is coached by one man his whole career. But even now with success at the highest levels, Galen has only whetted his appetite for more.
“Looking back (at the 10,000 Olympic final) I should have gone earlier,” Galen told me over a ham sandwich. “With 300 meters to go is when Mo began pulling away. I started to go around the two Ethiopians (the Bekele brothers, Keninise and Tariku), but said, ‘just wait’ instead. I’m not saying I would have won the race, but if I’d committed it would have given me a better chance. You have to be 100% committed when you race. Half-ass moves just get you in trouble.”
What stands out about Rupp is his normalcy. The boy-next-door demeanor does not insinuate world-class athlete walking through the mall. Only when he strips into his racing kit and opens that honed stride is the talent expressed. But that very quality is something Salazar and Rupp have been working on since they first began working together in 2000.
“He’s been under one program his entire career,” explained Alberto. “If I would disappear for two months, he’d be fine in terms of coaching himself. He knows our system that well, not that he knows what tomorrow’s workout may be.”
The question is, can the Rupp example be transferred to other athletes, or is he a special case?
“You need a plan to do this amount of work,” is Salazar’s impression. “Now, is there someone out there who is so talented that he wouldn’t need that? Maybe. But there are thousands of East Africans with talent who also have a lifetime of fitness behind them, an aerobic head-start. I’ve read studies which say that the average Kenyan 18 year-old has logged 28,000 miles. The average American, say he begins as a freshman in high school. If he ran 50 miles per week, and trained 50 weeks per year for four years, that’s 10,000 miles by age 18. And that doesn’t take into consideration altitude, or genetic build, or the drive to improve life through the earnings of running. You could be the tenth-ranked Kenyan at 10,000 meters, and you wouldn’t make either an Olympic or World team. So you get an agent who could get you into road races.
“But if you wanted to improve, what would you do? Maybe you’d take a chance and run 180 miles per week, or do two track sessions a day. The ones who might survive such training only last for a year or two. We can see how quick the turn-over rate is with Kenyan runners. Every year or two there’s another new star. But the Ethiopians, who have great running form, tend to last many years.
“So how do we compete as westerners without 28,000 miles under our belts by age 18, and didn’t grow up at altitude, and don’t, generally, have the same financial incentives? Galen’s dad is not very athletic, though his mom did run. So we better do everything perfect. We need to put all our eggs into one basket long-term.
“For instance, 2008 was the last time Galen was injured. He strained a groin after doing a tempo run on grass. That was the last time in four years when he missed any training. In that time he hasn’t missed five days of training or some alternative like the Alter G or treadmill work. Uninterrupted training is huge!”
Alberto, the coach, reminds me of Al, the athlete: dogged, determined, ultra-focused, and ready to go to the wall to win.
“Biomechanics is the most important thing,” he concluded. “We have facilities that allow us to measure an athlete’s ground contact time, power off each foot, stride length. With that data we can help our physios and orthopedists correct any imbalances. I’ve seen an athlete with a 6% power difference from one side to the next pare that down to 1% over a six week period. You get people symmetrical, and it’s like a well-oiled machine. And Galen is completely symmetrical, to 1/10,000th from one side to the next.”
Rupp is well-oiled at the moment, of that there is no doubt. His 3:50 indoor mile last weekend was proof enough. Saturday night at the Reggie he will take on the Olympic silver medal over 5000 meters Dejen Gebremeskel. Galen finished seventh at the London Olympic 5000. So will he run proactively or reactively?
“Little of both, I guess,” said Galen. “You definitely have to be aware of what he’s doing and where he is. That shouldn’t be too hard after 2k or so (when they’ll likely be alone, perhaps with Hagos Gebrhiwet, also of Ethiopia, a lurking danger as he was ranked #6 in the world over 5000 last year). But you can’t get caught up in others. You just have to do what’s your best chance to win.”
And make no mistake, winning is now the goal for Galen Rupp.
“He definitely wants to duplicate or improve on last year,” Salazar summed up. “He didn’t win a lot of races last year. He medaled, but not gold. He wants faster times, to win more, and lose to fewer people. He’d like to medal again (at Moscow World Championships), preferably the gold. It’s a natural progression, and one the stepping stones is getting faster in the shorter races.”
His first major stepping stone of the year will be laid out tomorrow at the Reggie Lewis Center. Last year Galen ran the mile at the NBIGP, leading through much of the second half before getting outkicked and finishing third in 3:57.10. Third place tomorrow night would have to be considered a disappointment.
“We want to win,” Galen said polishing off his ham sandwich. “We are determined to win, and believe in the system we’re in that we can win, and should win.”
Sounds like the Salazar of old. Before the 1981 New York City Marathon Alberto said, “I have no particular strategy. My strategy is to run 2:08 (world record) and to win.” He arrived in Central Park in 2:08:13.
Remember, as Mohammed Ali once said, “It ain’t braggin’ if it’s true”.