Had things gone to plan, the current Olympic dialogue would be less about what happened six months ago in Tokyo, and more about who the biggest medal threats for Paris 2024 may be.
But here we are, a year of coronavirus-inflicted shutdowns behind us, less than five months until the Opening ceremonies, and only six U.S. track and field Olympians on the roster. (For reference, we sent 129 track and field athletes to Rio.)
From one perspective, those six athletes—Aliphine Tuliamuk, Molly Seidel, Sally Kipyego, Galen Rupp, Jake Riley, and Abdi Abdirahman—lucked out, with the Olympic Marathon Trials just squeaking in before the global pandemic set the world into a tailspin. (President Trump announced the first known COVID-19-related death in the United States during that race.) But from a different lens, those athletes have been through the ringer in the last 12 months, practicing immense flexibility, adjusting their timelines, sifting through rumors, and crossing their fingers that their Tokyo dreams would eventually manifest.
Thanks to USATF-hosted Zoom sessions and a WhatsApp call to Ethiopia, we recently caught up with our “2020” U.S. Olympic Marathon team. Here’s how they coped last year, what their plans are for the coming months, and how they’re approaching the upcoming and unprecedented Olympic Games.
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Olympic Trials champion Aliphine Tuliamuk offered the running world a much-needed jolt of joy (not to mention a huge surprise) when she announced last December that she was expecting a baby girl in January. Unsurprisingly, her pregnancy dictated most of 2020, which she calls “a roller coaster.” Now that her baby is 2 months old, Tuliamuk’s return-to-running plan has officially begun. (Since the delivery, she’s been cross-training and strength training to prepare her body for a safe return.)
Although she’ll spend this spring getting back into training, Tuliamuk hopes to run a race or two this summer so that she doesn’t go into Sapporo, where the Olympic marathon will be held, cold. In the meantime, she’s dreaming of the Olympic race “and doing things that no one can imagine that I’m going to be able to do—even myself,” she says. Tuliamuk anticipates a conservative start since it will likely be warm, and picking off competitors as she goes—similar to her performance at the 2019 Rotterdam Marathon, where she broke through with a personal record of 2:26:50.
No matter how the race unfolds, Tuliamuk says, “To have my daughter go with me to the Tokyo Olympics is a dream that I’ve always had.”
No member of this team has taken bigger strides in the last year than Molly Seidel, runner-up at the 2020 Olympic Trials, which was also her first marathon. She lowered her marathon PR to 2:25:13 in London last October, and her half marathon PR twice, ultimately clocking 1:08:29 in Atlanta in February.
She also signed a contract with Puma, which allows her to continue training under coach Jon Green and split time between her home in Boston and her high-altitude training base in Flagstaff. Seidel calls 2020 a “cool opportunity to get this full extra year of experience,” and says that, at this point, she’s now had more consistent training than she’s had in years.
Seidel’s racing spree shows no signs of slowing, with the Gate River Run (which serve as the U.S. 15K Championships) on March 20, plus some 10,000-meter track races on the horizon. She’d love to race the Olympic Track Trials, and thinks that pushing her 10K and half marathon strength will pay off in Sapporo.
In typical fashion, Seidel isn’t dreaming small for her first Olympic experience. “We’re preparing for this to be the hardest, fastest race of my life,” she says, “and that excites me… I’m going in with the mentality that I’m not there to be a spectator. I’m there to compete and I’m there to run the gutsiest race that I possibly can.”
Sapporo won’t be Sally Kipyego’s first Olympics, but it will be her first wearing a Team USA uniform. Since earning a silver medal in the 10,000 meters in the 2012 Games while representing Kenya, she became a U.S. citizen and gave birth to a daughter, both in 2017. For her, this last year has been all about laying low, maintaining a baseline level of fitness, and entering her Sapporo buildup feeling healthy and fresh.
Kipyego has been riding out the pandemic in Kenya, where her and her husband’s families live and where she’s found the virus easier to avoid than in the United States. “We’ve gotten a lot of help from our family,” she says, “and that has made it possible for me to train the way I really would like to train to be an elite runner.”
Kipyego’s time in Kenya will end when she returns to the States this month to kick off some pre-Sapporo racing. She’ll likely focus on 10K to 15K distances, with the goal of qualifying for the 2022 World Track and Field Championships in Eugene in the 10,000 meters. Come June, she’ll be all in on the Olympics, and her goals are clear. “I’m trying to get myself in 2:20 or sub-2:20 shape,” she says, “and I think if I’m in that kind of shape, then my chances are pretty good at medaling.”
Two-time Olympic Marathon Trials champion Galen Rupp has been hibernating in Portland since last year’s Trials—a race he says he feels fortunate to have gotten in. It’s been his longest stint at home with his family, which includes four kids ranging from two to six years old, and he’s pleased with his fitness at this point.
Rupp has now had a year working with coach Mike Smith (director of cross country and track and field at Northern Arizona University) under his belt, and he has nothing but great things to say about their partnership. “He’s really just done an unbelievable job” of blending familiar workouts with new ones, Rupp says. “I couldn’t be happier with the way things have worked out and where things are going.”
While it doesn’t look like Rupp will run a spring marathon as he’d hoped, he says he definitely wants to race this spring, as nothing quite replicates the feeling of racing. Beyond the small half marathon he raced near Eugene last October, which he won in 1:00:22, he hopes to keep the rust at bay with some shorter races in May, June, and July, before shifting focus to the big one in Sapporo.
When asked about his goals, Rupp, who has silver and bronze medals from the 2012 and 2016 Olympics, says, “I want to win. There’s no ifs, ands, or buts about it. That’s definitely my goal.”
As kind as 2020 was to Jake Riley—he made his first Olympic team in February and inked a deal with On Running in July—it also dealt him some tough blows. In addition to the global shutdown and Olympic postponement, Riley suffered from hamstring and peroneal pain after the Trials, and found it took him longer to get back into the swing of training than he expected. In late June, he returned to racing with a series of low-key, virtual competitions: a team challenge between his team (T.E.A.M. Boulder) and Northern Arizona Elite, a 5K against 2016 Olympian Jared Ward, and a virtual running of the Bix 7 road race.
Until he’s vaccinated, Riley will stay within driving distance of his home base of Boulder, tentatively racing a half marathon in Nebraska in late April and more than likely, some 5,000- and 10,000-meter track races in May and June. He raced only once in his Trials buildup (a half marathon in Phoenix), so he doesn’t feel the need to prove fitness through lots of racing.
More important to Riley is showing up in Sapporo ready to roll. “I’m going with the expectation that I need to be in shape to run a pretty significant PR if I want to have any chance of making my mark,” he says. If he runs to the standard that Jared Ward, a source of inspiration, set when he finished in sixth in the 2016 Olympic Marathon, Riley will consider it a big success.
Although Abdi Abdirahman’s Olympic experience runs deep—Tokyo will be his fifth go—a lead-in like this one is uncharted territory even for him. Due to a combination of few racing opportunities and then a stress fracture that knocked him out for most of October, November, and December, he hasn’t raced since the marathon trials. For the last two months, Abdirahman has been rebuilding fitness in Ethiopia alongside Mo Farah of Great Britain and a handful of other international stars. He’ll be there two more weeks before heading back stateside to sharpen up and toe some lines.
Abdirahman says he’ll definitely race before the Olympics, likely focusing on the 10K and half marathon before honing in on his marathon training. As far as Sapporo, he doesn’t have a clear picture of where his competitors are at, given that many of the top contenders won’t have raced a marathon in the year prior. But Abdirahman’s approach is steadfast, founded on decades of experience at the highest level of sport.
“I just want to control what I can control,” he says. “I want to get as fit as I can and stay healthy. Anything’s possible: top 10, top 5, I don’t know. At the end of the day, that’s why we have races.”
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