After his impressive win at Saturday’s U.S. Olympic Team Trials Marathon in Los Angeles (in his debut at the distance) who knows how far Oregon’s Galen Rupp can take his career in the years to come — or if he will even have a sport left to build a career upon, given all the rot coming out of the IAAF Eyes Wide Shut hall of mirrors in Monaco these days. But let’s say the sport survives its current suicide attempt, just for argument’s sake.
Though the Oregon-based 2012 Olympic 10,000m silver medalist and American record holder is well on his way to a historic CV, and is now talking a probable 10K-marathon double in the Rio Games this August, Galen still has a way to go to match the career resume of his Trial’s runner up Meb Keflezighi. With Meb’s second-place finish behind Galen at the Trials last Saturday, earning his fourth Olympic berth, you have to say once and for all — though it’s a close call — that Meb has finally climbed to the very top of the U.S. distance running mountain as the best we have ever seen.
For years I felt that Frank Shorter held that lofty recognition with his Olympic gold in Munich `72 and Olympic silver (should’ve been gold) four years later in Montreal. And remember, as we talk about doubles, that Frank finished fifth in the Munich Olympic 10,000 m final five days before his marathon gold.
Plus, the Yale Eli got it done across the board: road, cross country and track, earning an NCAA 10,00m title in 1969 before adding five more U.S. 10,000m titles, another in the 5000m, four more national cross country crowns, two Olympic Trials victories in the 10,000m and the marathon, and three No. 1 rankings in the world in the marathon. Add on being father of the original Running Boom, co-founder of the Bolder Boulder 10K, a leading advocate for a drug-free sport, and one sees in Shorter a life’s worth of excellence and integrity in his sport.
But Frank’s athletic prime only stretched from 1969 to 1976 (if you can call that only), while Meb has been the sport’s Energizer bunny from 1997 to 2016. And he’s still going! It’s not even close. No American has put together a career of such length and substance in a sport of this rigor before.
Beginning with his four NCAA titles at UCLA, Meb has earned three U.S. championships at 10,000m, three more in cross country, two at the half-marathon, and six on the roads at 15K. Plus two Olympic Trials 10,000m wins and another at the 2012 Marathon Trials in Houston.
Then there was his Olympic silver medal in Athens 2004 (the first U.S. runner to medal in the marathon since Shorter’s silver in Montreal `76), and a fourth place finish in London eight years later. Before that came his historic marathon win in New York City 2009 and after London the cathartic Boston victory of 2014. Now a fourth Olympic team at age 40? It begs credulity.
Not that it’s all been cookies and cream. His longevity has come in the face of numerous setbacks, including a career-threatening injury in 2008 when he didn’t qualify for the Beijing Olympic team. Yet it is that perseverance that has elevated the Eritrean-born Meb to this craggy peak.
When asked how he managed to maintain his excellence and commitment over such an extended period, Meb pointed to the small, supporting aspects of the game, the stretching, the drills, the icing, the core work, all the boring, banal tasks that most everyone else eventually shuns, that have kept him supple and strong enough to place the hard training atop. He also pointed to his long-time coach Bob Larsen and his wife Yordanos as vital gogs in the making of a champion.
Has Meb been gifted genetically? Certainly. Over and above everybody else? Probably not. Instead it has been that attention to detail, the striving for excellence, the remembrance of the hardships of an uncertain youth in a war-torn land, which, taken together has added up to what is now the standard by which all those who follow will be judged.
Who knows, some future observer of the game may well pen a similar tribute to Galen Rupp. And Lord knows at age 29 he’s already off to a fast start with five NCAA titles at Oregon, 11 national titles (eight in the 10,000m, one in the 5000m, and now another in Saturday’s marathon), plus that glittering Olympic silver medal in London.
But there are still many, many more miles to go before he knocks Meb from his well-earned perch atop the impressive peak of American distance running greats.
But who is No. 1 is mostly bar-talk, a fun argument to have among friends. What I want to do mostly is congratulate both Galen and Meb on their achievements in Los Angeles under trying conditions, and kudos, too, to their Rio teammate Jared Ward. The best of luck in Rio, gents. Here’s hoping each of your resumes still have plenty of lines open to fill in.