Galen Rupp is the greatest American distance runner of the 21st century.
Galen Rupp is a mystery: media-shy, and once the signature runner of a team whose leader, the marathon champion turned disgraced coach Alberto Salazar, transgressed the sport in so many ways.
Galen Rupp is a hero, especially in his home state of Oregon, site of the World Athletics Championships that begin this week, where he was just about the fastest teenager anyone had ever seen, which is saying something in America’s unofficial running capital.
Galen Rupp is a cautionary tale, an object lesson in the cost of loyalty in a sport where athletes have to prove their innocence every day. And even if they do that, an association with someone who has been found guilty of cheating can cause eyebrows to forever be raised.
Galen Rupp, the former teen phenom who is now 36, is ready to toe the starting line in the World Championship men’s marathon on Sunday, an opportunity to cement his legacy on the homiest of home soil.
He is all of those things, and more.
He is a fierce and fearless competitor, ready and willing to elbow the field out of his way on tracks and roads if necessary. He is a champion at the most important distances in distance running, so dominant in the marathon in the United States since 2016 that national competitions became races for second and third.
He knows how to find the podium, whether the race is fast or slow or a test of speed or tactical.
He is durable, with a career reaching the last half of its second decade that has been filled with its share of injuries, but none that have kept him from challenging in the biggest races and often on the final lap.
And yet, fairly or unfairly, he is the embodiment of elite running in the guilt-by-association state it has existed in for decades.
“Every athlete is entitled to the presumption of innocence, unless and until proven guilty through the legal process, that they have committed a violation,” said Travis Tygart, chief executive at the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency. “It’s not fair to convict any athlete otherwise, but the reality is, in today’s world, it’s the same lesson I tell my kid, your choices do have consequences, and not everyone accepts that principle, and the choices of who you hang out with, you will be viewed by the company you keep.”
Weldon Johnson, once one of the top distance runners in the country and a co-founder of Letsrun.com, the influential website that serves as something of a superego for American running, said associations will breed distrust.
“I think we should evaluate his career like everyone else but with more skepticism since one athlete is tied more closely to Alberto than anyone else and that is Galen Rupp,” Johnson said last week. “Based on performance, he’s the greatest American male long distance runner of his generation, since Steve Prefontaine probably.”
Rupp, whose agent, Ricky Simms, declined to make him available for this article, has never failed a drug test. There have been many of them, both the regularly scheduled ones at races and random, out-of-competition tests that all international athletes must submit to at random.
Salazar, a former world-record holder in the men’s marathon, a three-time champion in New York and the Boston champion in 1982, discovered Rupp while watching him play high school soccer in Portland, Ore., believing that his mix of speed and endurance would translate perfectly into elite distance running.
In 2001, Salazar founded the Nike Oregon Project, a distance running team singularly focused on developing athletes — especially Rupp after his University of Oregon career and, for a brief period, Mo Farah of Britain — who could beat the dominant East Africans in the biggest meets.
It worked. On a magical Saturday night in London at the 2012 Olympics, Farah and Rupp sprinted past the mighty Kenyans and Ethiopians to finish 1-2 in the 10,000-meter race. A week later, Farah also won the gold medal in the 5,000, while Rupp finished seventh. Rupp went on to win the U.S. Olympic Trials marathons in 2016 and 2020, burying the field in both races. He won the bronze medal in the marathon at the 2016 Games. He also won the Chicago Marathon, one of the world’s fastest, in 2017.
In 2019, after years of investigations and litigation, Salazar received a four-year ban from the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency for multiple doping-related offenses, including trafficking testosterone and tampering with the doping control process.
That same year, Salazar came under scrutiny after two female athletes he coached, Mary Cain and Amy Yoder Begley, said he publicly ridiculed and body-shamed them when they ran for the Oregon Project. Last year, an arbitrator for the U.S. Center for SafeSport ruled that it was “more likely than not” that Salazar digitally penetrated one of his runners during a massage. The center, which is charged with investigating and ruling on such cases, barred him from the sport for life.
Nike had decided in 2019 to shutter the Oregon Project. Rupp now trains with Mike Smith, the coach at Northern Arizona University.
No one has suggested that Salazar’s treatment of his female athletes should in any way taint what Rupp has accomplished. But running has such a long and sordid history of doping violations that its participants, fans, officials and historians must navigate its fraught terrain. Nearly every great champion, even those who have never tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs, has a connection with a coach, friend, teammate or physiotherapist who has run afoul of the world’s anti-doping rules.
“Rupp is hands-down the greatest American distance runner of all time,” said Amby Burfoot, the 1968 Boston Marathon champion and the former editor of Runner’s World. “He’s awkward — not media friendly — and, yes, has that association with Alberto. But he has been at the top for an unbelievably long time, almost two decades, has never failed a test of any kind that I know of, and almost always performs at his best in the big-time competitions.”
Can he do it again?
Rupp skipped the paydays he might have received for running one of the major spring marathons to focus on the once-in-a-career shot at winning a world championship marathon in his home state.
The dents in his armor are chronic now. He told Runner’s World last month he has battled back pain for a year, and in the spring doctors diagnosed a herniated disc and pinched nerve. He had Covid-19 last month.
Like nearly every other elite runner, Rupp knows a singular truth that is an inevitable part of his chosen pursuit — elite racing is never as simple as he might have hoped it could be. And when the gun fires Sunday morning in yet another big race, he’ll be off once more.