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The Men's start, 2020 U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials, photo by Kevin Morris

Pandemic Challenges USA Olympic Men Marathoners to Craft a New Plan B

 [Part One of a two-part series]

"Life is What Happens to You While You're Busy Making Other Plans." -- John Lennon.

The best marathoners possess an array of skills. They are disciplined and goal-oriented as they map out a training build-up for a season-capping race. They are resilient enough to rise above the inevitable injuries, the interruptions in training, And they respond quickly and adapt to unexpected challenges: last-minute changes in race day weather conditions; a mid-race surge; a missed aid station; even an untied shoe lace. But no marathoner has been prepared to face the unprecedented and pervasive challenges currently presented by the COVID-19 virus. Here are the stories of 3 of the 6 American marathoners who have made Team USA and will compete in the marathon in the Tokyo Olympic Games, if held as currently scheduled for next summer.

Abdi Abdirahman is a soft-spoken, talented, and durable distance runner who was born and raised in Somalia, later to become a United States citizen in 2000. That same year he represented the USA and competed in the 10,000 meters in his first Olympic Games. On February 29th this year in Atlanta, Abdirahman finished 3rd in the United States Olympic Team Trials for the marathon to garner a berth on his 5th USA Olympic team. And when he toes the marathon starting line in Tokyo next summer he will become - at age 44 - the oldest Team USA runner to compete in the Olympic Games..

Lightly touted by many due to his advanced age, Abdi knew he would be competitive at the Trials. "During the buildup leading up to that race, the people I was training with [in East Africa] were Mo Farah and Bashir Abdi - two of the best runners in the world - and I was working with Coach Gary Lough. That session gave me an indication of what I was capable of," Abdi reveals. "My work had been amazing leading into the Trials. And I was healthy. When I got to Atlanta I knew I had done everything in my power to get ready for that race." A measured early pace combined with Abdi's savvy racing tactics positioned the former University of Arizona athlete right in the mix, late in the race to wrestle for the last two Olympic team spots. With Galen Rupp well ahead and on his way to complete a successful defense of his OT title, a furious 3-way battle over the final two miles ensued.. Abdi [2:10:03] captured the 3rd and final Oly berth - one second behind runner-up Jake Riley who also made the team and 3 seconds ahead of hard-luck Leonard Korir who did not.

Abdirahman Riley 1 OTM20

For Abdi, a joyful post-race celebration was followed a few days later by a coach - athlete meeting to map out the 5 months leading to the Olympic Marathon. "I did sit down with Coach Gary that first week after the Trials. I started getting phone calls just trying to figure what the racing plan would be. The Pittsburgh half marathon was going to be my first race back," states Abdi who, after a sobering pause, adds "But everything changed a week and a half later." The newly-minted Olympian outlined the evolution of his reaction to the invasive virus. "I never realized how bad COVID-19 would be until it began infecting us in the States. If it wouldn't have affected our daily life, our personal life, everything would be OK. Now it seems so real."

Like so many, it took a while for Abdi to understand the potential magnitude of the COVI-19 outburst. "We knew the pandemic was getting worse, but we thought it was something that would happen for a few months, just a bug," offered Abdi as he explains his initial assessment. Later he would revise his outlook. "I knew as it was going to have a large impact on the world when they started cancelling events like the NCAA College Basketball Championships. Then I knew this was going to be a big problem." Could this spreading disease impact the Olympic Games? "We didn't know for several weeks what the Olympic Committee was going to do," admits the 4-time USATF 10,000 meter champion. "To be honest, at that point for me it was more like just being a human being. I was more interested in what was going to happen in the world than what I saw in sports. The last thing I was worrying about was the Olympics. I just told myself that this [the pandemic] is a lot bigger story than sports."

It was no surprise to Abdi when the 2020 Summer Olympic Games were postponed, to be held in Tokyo essentially a year later than its initial scheduling. "I expected that," says Abdi. "You have to look at the bigger picture. I knew that until they get that vaccine in the next six or seven months, nothing is going to happen." The initial pre-Olympics plan for recovery, build-up, and racing he assembled with Coach Lough was now in shambles. The way forward had to be recreated.

"Every road race got cancelled," explained the 7-time USATF champion. "So we thought we're just going to maintain fitness - don't do anything crazy; just take it like a recovery; let your body recover," outlined Abdi who explained that his Plan B maintenance program calls for "70-80 miles a week; nothing hard; every two weeks I do a long [20 mile] run. In a few months, there might be something we can plan: maybe run one marathon before the Olympics; perhaps run a couple of half marathons. But we really don't know what kind of racing we are going to do, though." It was a startling awakening to the pervasive uncertainty of the new Corona Virus reality.

Notwithstanding the pandemic, Adirahman - a calm and unflappable competitor on the track and on the road - has found his abiding sense of gratitude as his own personal pathway to serenity. "I never take anything for granted in life. I am just so happy to have made Team USA.," proclaims the 3-time PAC-12 champion without hesitation. "There are so many guys who would want to be in my position and they work all their life just to accomplish one thing: to be called an Olympian. For me to make the team, not just one time, but 5 times as an Olympian is something for which I am so thankful. I know my time will come. Whenever I feel antsy, I just remember where I came from, where I am now, and what I have accomplished and it keeps me humbled and grounded."

In the weeks leading up to the Trials former Stanford star Jake Riley was flying under the media radar.. Not getting the pre-race buzz that, in hindsight, he perhaps should have received did not faze him . "Going into the race, I had the 5th fastest [marathon qualifying] time which doesn't mean a ton.," offers Riley. "But I think it was enough to make me feel like if I was there between 18 and 20 miles, I would have as good a shot as anybody else in the field."

On race day Riley was ready. Staying alert, he tucked into a crowded lead pack reminiscent of I75 during Atlanta rush hour. While Rupp's preliminary surge at 15 miles resulted in only four contenders taking the bait, Riley was among those who chose to hang back. "Talking to coach [Lee Troop] beforehand we said anything before 18 miles was probably going to be too early," explains the Team Boulder athlete. "I thought [Galen's move] was a little too early given how tough the course was. If you get caught up too early in that surge game then the hills and the wind are going to just take it out of you." As the race rolled on, Riley remained sincere to the plan he and Troop forged. "Coach said once you get to 18, then all bets are off and you make your move any time then. But until then, just stay patient, stay in the big pack, and stay out of trouble while the conditions of the course wear everybody else out. Lee's a pretty smart guy."

Riley Jacob St OTM20

But Rupp and the four who kept the defending champion in close contact were creating separation. At 19 miles Riley and his chase pack were down 31 seconds. "I was a little concerned that I left it too late. I was dealing with some intestinal problems and that lead group was still pretty far away." Doubt was creeping in. "I was a little bit worried that I was going to have to start resigning myself to finish this out with pride. But I made my move and at that point there was no reason to look for a threat."

Riley's plan was working as he was reeling in the slowing quartet which had lost contact, dropped by Rupp's decisive move in the 20th mile. "At 24 miles I had that group of four in my sights for about 4 miles at that point. I think one of the big reasons I could catch them was that I could see that I was making gains. I was able to make up 15-20 seconds on them per mile. So when I caught them, I thought if I threw in a hard move, I could break at least a couple of them. As it turned out, I only broke Augustus {Maiyo]. Once I caught them, I knew I had to keep this momentum going. This was not a race I could leave to be a kicker's race. I needed to keep the pressure on, keep them responding, keep them working, keep them guessing." Riley recalls those closing moments on the final straightaway. "At a certain point, there is just not enough time to respond. I could feel him [Abdi] fall back enough to the point that I just had enough momentum that he wasn't going to be able to respond. And that was when I could finally start celebrating because I had been stressing for the last 2 miles "don't get caught, don't get caught.'"

In days that followed, Jake had a skull session with Coach Troop to assemble a 5 month plan of recovery, build-up, and racing that would place Riley on the Tokyo starting line ready to run yet another PR race. "One of the things we wanted to do was to get me into some shorter, faster, competitive races, some more championship racing where you need to be able to change gears and really be anaerobic," explains Riley who has run sub-28 minutes for 10,000m. We were looking for events that would be a different style than the marathon - this long slow grind - and just get used to having to run in more responsive, competitive races.

But COVID-19 swiftly dashed those plans and impacted the new Olympian. "There was cautious dismay to begin with," notes Riley choosing his words with care. "But then it was like 'Man, it really looks like we're really going to have to shut things down.' And then it just became more and more inevitable. So by the time they made the final announcement [to postpone the Olympics until 2021] I guess I intellectually came to terms with it. But at the same time it was a pretty big 180 from the euphoria of making the team. Because with making the team there are these other kinds of fringe benefits: speaking engagements; and I was finally going to have a sponsor, multiple sponsors; be able to get into different races; and all of these other kinds of opportunities. And you just kind of had to realize we're just going to take everything and push it back.

The unexpected disappointment hit Riley hard. "So essentially there isn't anything we can do for at least 3 months. So I guess I went into a little bit of hibernation. I came back a little slower and looked a little fuller than I otherwise would have. I had a little bit of knee pain that I was lazy in taking care of. I was somewhat inclined to just go through the motions a little bit for a while. - which I am now regretting. I didn't feel like I was in a funk or a little depressed. But now I realize I was probably bummed out, thinking 'what the heck is the point?' we're probably not going to be able to race until October. So I had to break myself out of that kind of thinking."

"We're scrapping plans at this point," laments Riley in noting that virtually all major fall marathons have been cancelled, victims of the global pandemic. Jake knows he must recapture motivation, but he finds that task difficult. "All of my plans at this point come with a big fat backdoor exit on them. I am not getting too excited about anything until it is about a week out and then I can honestly envision this happening." Somewhat grudgingly, the OT runner-up acknowledges what he knows he must do. "We are still implementing the shorter/faster strategy. We're working to use this as an opportunity to break off those bits of rust which are still clogging my shorter/faster gear so hopefully when we get back to a place where longer races are happening, I've got that in my toolkit."

Through it all Jake Riley has found a not-so-secret way to keep his spirits up, to stay focused during these trying times. His approach is nothing complicated. It is an image - an absolutely classic head-on photo of Riley about 20 meters from the OT finish line with Abdi Abdirahman a stride and a half back. It shows a wide-eyed Riley bellowing out an emotional scream the moment he realizes that, yes, he will make the Olympic team, he will be an Olympian. "It's my background on my social media programs," explains Jake with a tinge of sheepishness.. "That's something I look at on my phone when I'm feeling a little bit down. I just try to recapture that feeling and know that I'm good to go." And he is.

We've seen it over the years. Nothing seems to rattle Galen Rupp. And the last 10-11 months further confirm this. Even before the early stages of the current global pandemic, the former Oregon star had to deal with two formidable disappointments. Last year in early October, USADA issued a 4-year ban to Rupp's long-time coach, mentor, and friend, Alberto Salazar for what amounted to purported improper use of performance-enhancing drugs. {The matter is now under appeal.]. Less than 2 weeks later, Rupp DNF'd in the Chicago Marathon, forced off the road around 20 miles by a lingering, unhealed injury. Undeterred. the reigning Olympic bronze medalist in the marathon moved on. "I've always taken the approach: what are you going to do about it now.? You've always got to keep moving forward. That is really what I did. I was still getting over it [the Salazar ban]. I had a disappointing race at the Chicago Marathon that fall [DNF]. After that it was all about doing everything I could in working with a new coach. I am so fortunate to be working with Mike Smith [Director of Cross Country and Track & Field at Northern Arizona University]. Things have been going great. Mike and I hit it off pretty much right off the bat and have developed a great relationship since then. My sole focus was about getting ready for the Olympic Trials. I knew it was going to be a really tough race. Given where I was at the time, there still was a long ways for me to go. It wasn't a sure thing by any means. It was about getting back to work."

At the USA Olympic Marathon Trials 5 months later, the defending OT champion was well prepared yet uneasiness lingered. "I certainly had a lot of confidence in myself. But since I was coming back from a major injury [2018 surgery for Haglund's Deformity] and missing a lot of time, there still was that uncertainty. It had been a long time since I had finished a marathon and ran well. I got a lot of confidence running a half marathon in Arizona about a month before the Trials. I ran 62 minutes and I did a lot of stuff toward the end of that race. You just have to have faith and believe in the training you have done. Mike did an unbelievable job getting me ready." And Rupp was ready. The successful defense of his crown was one of total domination Never threatened,, the now 4-time Olympian was able to savor those final miles and cruise over the finish line 42 seconds ahead of his nearest competitor.

Rupp Galen 2776 OTM20

Unlike many, the inaugural Bowerman Award honoree had been attentive to the emerging coronavirus even before the Trials. "I was certainly aware of how serious the coronavirus was - even before I left to go to Atlanta. I was masked up on the plane going over there," laughed Galen. That [mask wearing] is something I've done a lot in the past with traveling. I'm always nervous about getting sick. Cancellations [e.g. NCAA indoor track championships; the NCAA basketball tournament] happened pretty soon after the Trials," recalls Rupp. "Everybody I'm close with then realized the severity of this pandemic, even though it hadn't yet really hit Oregon that badly."

As in OT preparation, Galen and Coach Smith were working off the same page regarding a pre-Olympic approach.. "The plan was always to take two weeks easy after the Trials. We remained really fluid throughout the whole process." And both have been grateful realists. "We both knew [the pandemic] was so far out of our control. We talked about how important it is to always be grateful - not just about the Trials outcome, but also for simple things like having good health. And unlike so many in our country and around the world, we are not really hurting, or losing sports seasons, or losing our jobs, or getting severely ill, or even dying. Of course it was rough witnessing so many cancellations of sports and events I was hoping to do. But at the end of the day, the consequences of the pandemic are so much bigger than that. We all have to do our part if that's what it takes to rid ourselves of this deadly virus ."

While a good number of athletes see the Olympic postponement as an unfortunate, unstructured delay, the 5-time NCAA champion sees it in a unique and positive light. "The focus is still the Olympics for next year. I look at [the postponement of the Games] as an opportunity for me to try to get better in certain areas and to really work on some deficiencies," states Galen frankly. "I was gearing up for another marathon which just requires so much volume, long runs, pounding, and intensity. I look at [the Olympics postponement] as a way to give my body a little bit of a break from that. [At this time] I don't need to be running an extreme amount of miles. We've kind of taken advantage of that a little bit. We've been working on getting back to shorter work, really hitting the speed hard . I've gotten back into lifting a lot more and really working on strengthening my whole body. " And in a departure from others, Galen, who holds 4 American distance records, is not a fan of "maintaining." "I want to come out of this better than I was before. We've been really trying to attack some things that would be very hard to do if we were going through a marathon buildup right now. I think if you're not trying to get better and you're just trying to 'maintain', that's when you're actually falling behind."

Unlike others who may have given up on 2020 racing, Galen sees it differently. "I wouldn't say that yet. I don't have any [racing] plans at the moment. Whether it's doing something on my own or doing something locally here, I certainly haven't ruled that out." He is even open-minded about racing 25 laps at the Olympic Trials next June in the gleaming new Hayward Field. "I certainly wouldn't rule it out. I don't think there is much chance that I would run [the 10,000 meters] at the Olympics. Certainly the [10,000 meter race at the] Trials is something I've thought about and would definitely consider doing.

Galen Rupp is a forward-thinking optimist who looks to find positive ways forward in nearly every circumstance. After Atlanta's Trials, the two-time Olympic Trials champion revealed that he pushed himself through the always-difficult final miles by repetitively focusing on a simple phrase: "Calm Mind, Strong Body, Full Heart." Until the coronavirus is harnessed, Galen Rupp's silent chant might be the soothing mantra not just for him, but for all of us.

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Dave Hunter

Dave HunterDave Hunter is a track & field journalist, announcer, and broadcaster.  Dave reports on the premier track & field gatherings around the globe, frequently serves as an arena or stadium announcer for championship events, and has undertaken foreign and domestic broadcast assignments in the sport.


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