Rupp, 33, somehow made qualifying for his fourth Olympics look easy, winning the U.S. marathon trials by 42 seconds, but he acknowledged the weeks and months leading up to Saturday’s race in Atlanta had been among the toughest he has faced.
“It’s been a long year and a half for me,” Rupp told reporters. “That’s the best way to put it.”
In his first big race without his longtime coach and his first full marathon since he underwent ankle surgery in 2018, Rupp posted a first-place time of 2 hours 9 minutes 20 seconds, punching his ticket to the Tokyo Games this summer. Kenyan-born Aliphine Tuliamuk won the women’s race in 2:27:23.
Rupp will be joined on the Olympic marathon course in Sapporo, Japan, by fellow Americans Jacob Riley and Abdi Abdirahman. Riley took second Saturday with a time of 2:10:02, and Abdirahman was third, finishing in 2:10:03. At 43, Abdirahman will become the oldest U.S. Olympic runner in history.
In the women’s race, Tuliamuk finished eight seconds ahead of 25-year-old Molly Seidel, who took second with a time of 2:27:31. Sally Kipyego was third, finishing in 2:28:52. All three qualified to race at the Tokyo Games.
Rupp has competed at the past three Olympics. He won silver in the men’s 10,000 meters in 2012 before tackling the marathon four years later at the Rio Games. He took bronze in the Olympic marathon there with a time of 2:10:05, even though it was only the second time in his life that he tackled a 26.2-mile course. His first marathon attempt came barely six months earlier at the 2016 U.S. marathon trials, where he turned in a first-place finish with a time of 2:11:12.
He made Saturday’s win look nearly effortless. Navigating a hilly course on a breezy Georgia day, Rupp started to pull ahead of the field at the 16th mile and led the front-running pack until the finish line.
It was his first big victory since he had surgery in October 2018 to address a bony growth on his heel that was hampering his Achilles’ tendon. In his only other marathon attempt since surgery — the Chicago Marathon in October 2019 — Rupp walked off the course at the 23-mile mark to receive medical attention.
“I was hurting for a long time,” he said. “The little things you take for granted — just being able to get out of bed, walk without pain, chase my kids around, do little things like that — I wasn’t able to do it for a long time. To be back, to be running, to be able to run well, there’s always a little bit of an unknown.”
He said Saturday that he has not yet fully bounced back, estimating his recovery at 90 to 95 percent.
“It’s just the nature of what I had done. … I had a lot of things wrong with my ankle,” he said. “It’s such a load-bearing thing in running. You start running differently, trying to compensate. You’re not doing things right, and you get in this bad cycle where things aren’t functioning properly. So the last several months have been about getting healthy, getting my mechanics good and getting everything working again.”
Rupp’s push to Tokyo was not without controversy. Last year his longtime coach, Alberto Salazar, was hit with a four-year ban for providing some of his runners with banned substances and tampering with the doping control process. Rupp has never tested positive for a banned substance and has since been working with Michael Smith, the head track coach at Northern Arizona University.
“A sign of a great teacher is how he passes all the information on to his people when he’s gone,” Rupp told reporters Saturday in response to a question about his former coach. “… I certainly learned a lot from him.”
The women’s race marked a changing of the guard of sorts. Des Linden, the two-time Olympian who won the 2018 Boston Marathon, finished in fourth place, 11 seconds behind Kipyego, which means all three female qualifiers will be making their Olympic debuts for the United States. Kipyego was competing for her native Kenya when she took silver in the 10,000-meter race at the 2012 Games.
“I have lived here for 15 years. I feel like this is my home,” Kipyego, the 34-year-old mother of a 2-year-old daughter, told reporters Saturday. “America has given me a lot of opportunities, and I just wanted to show my gratitude. I thought the best way to do that was to come out here and run my best and hopefully make this team.”
The women’s marathon is scheduled for Aug. 8 and the men’s for Aug. 9. Both races were relocated to Sapporo, about 500 miles north of Tokyo, because of concerns about the heat.
“I’m looking forward to continuing to get back,” Rupp said. “I got several months now to get even stronger and get ready for the Olympics because that’s going to be a whole other step up, running against those guys.”