Get access to everything we publish when you sign up for Outside+.
For the first time in a long time, Jake Riley will toe a starting line as a professional runner.
It might be a virtual starting line, but Riley, a 2021 U.S. Olympic marathoner, is lacing up his shoes as a bona fide pro and will be running as hard as he can. After inking a long-term deal with On today, he’ll be racing in On’s Cloudflow shoes for the first time tomorrow.
On July 4 at 8 a.m. MT, Riley and 2016 Olympian Jared Ward will go head-to-head on separate 5K courses about 500 miles apart in a virtual match race aimed at raising money for COVID-19 caregivers. Riley will race in Boulder, Colo., while Ward will race in Provo, Utah. Known as the Virtual 5-K Challenge presented by KT Tape, it’s the latest in a recent string of events that have given elite American runners a chance to get their competitive juices flowing again.
“It’s going to be a lot of fun,” Riley said this week after completing an 8 x 200m session in Boulder. “Jared and I have been acquaintances a long time, since about 2006. We’re the same age and have been on the same trajectory. When he made the team in 2016, that was a big thing that I held up and felt that was a great example of something I believed I could do. So when I was trying to come back, I held him up as an example of someone to follow. But now my goal is to take it to him and kick his (butt).”
Securing a Sponsorship
Riley entered the U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon on Feb. 29 in Atlanta as a 31-year-old unsponsored runner on the comeback trail, fresh off a new PR of 2:10:36 at last fall’s Chicago Marathon. A few shoe brands were interested in putting their shoes and logo on him before the race, but they were small, short-term deals, and Riley and his agents, Lee Troop and Jim Estes, figured it would be better to gamble on Riley’s fitness and determination and hold out.
It seemed like a brilliant move after Riley finished second in 2:10:02 and earned his first Olympic team berth. But then the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the world and suddenly shoe companies weren’t interested in spending marketing dollars on athletes who wouldn’t be racing. Although the 2020 Olympics were postponed, Riley was holding out hope to run in the New York City Marathon. But then that was canceled recently, too, and the rest of 2020 looked pretty bleak.
But Troop and Estes kept working their connections and suddenly On looked like a perfect fit. The deal secures Riley’s recently revived running career through the next Olympic cycle and it gives him a chance to apply his master’s degree in biomechanics by having input into On’s shoe development process, including a much-anticipated new racing flat. On the other side, it allows On — a fast-growing Swiss brand with a U.S. office in Portland, Ore. — to have the high-profile presence of a likable, hard-working athlete like Riley as one of the faces of its brand.
“Not only has he proven himself an outstanding athlete, he embodies the resilience and drive to succeed that powers performance running here at On,” says On co-founder and former World Duathlon Champion Olivier Bernhard.
Emerging Racing Opportunities
Although there are still no big international races for the foreseeable future, there are many reasons to stay race-sharp and some emerging opportunities for simulated racing, and that’s especially true for Riley.
Troop, who is also Riley’s coach, has been keeping his Team Boulder training group trained up and setting up virtual races for the past month. Three weeks ago, Team Boulder athletes squared off in low-profile virtual races with runners in Flagstaff and Salt Lake City. Then last Friday night, Team Boulder raced Northern Arizona Elite in men’s and women’s 2-mile match races, a fun event watched by close to 1,000 people live on Instagram.
Last Saturday, several athletes from Joe Bosshard’s Boulder-based Team Boss group traveled to Grand Junction, Colo., with the hopes of breaking the men’s and women’s state records in the mile. Although men’s winner Morgan McDonald came up short of breaking Joe Klecker’s 4:01:00 effort from earlier this year, Emma Coburn set a new women’s mark of 4:32.72 and was followed by fast efforts from Cory McGee (4:33.39) and Dani Jones (4:34.50).
Earlier this week, Nike held a small, private meet at a high school in Portland, Ore., and Elise Cranny ran an impressive 14:48.02, a world-leading time that puts her at the No. 7 slot on the all-time U.S. list. Clearly, elite athletes — like the rest of us — are excited and eager to race. Both Riley and Ward admit not being in top form after averaging 80-100 miles per week, but they’re eager for the challenge.
“This race will be different, but we hope to put on a good show for our social media fans and provide support to the CV19 caregivers,” Ward said.
What’s Next for Riley?
As for Riley’s deal with On, it gives him security to continue chasing his running dreams. Unlike many American runners who tend to retire in their early 30s, Riley has a chance to keep progressing in the sport. He was also fortunate to receive a $5,000 USA Track & Field Foundation grant earlier this week.
“It gives me an opportunity to develop,” Riley says. “It will give us a chance to be more creative in the kind of racing I do and the things I build up for. It doesn’t need to be about the spring-fall marathon cycle or chasing road races. I can really spend some time developing in shorter, faster races and have a little bit of a longer term plan. The average aerobic peak isn’t until 34, so I think I have plenty of time to keep improving and keep racing strong.”
Two years ago, Riley thought he might be done running. He was going through numerous life changes and was hampered by a bad Achilles injury that would eventually require surgery. But instead of giving up, he moved to Boulder, enrolled in graduate school, connected with Troop, got healthy and got back to the business of running fast marathons again. Now, thanks in part to the new deal with On, the future looks very bright.
“For a long time, my goal was just to get back and run healthy again. The idea of being competitive was already a little bit of a stretch goal,” he admits. “Now the four-year plan is completely changed and I am a professional runner. It’s incredibly exciting. It’s a whole restart to my entire career and it’s very gratifying.
“It’s a completely different perspective. I’m really excited to have access to all of these new opportunities with On. Once we get back to real racing, it’s going to be really, really fun.”