On a chilly, blustery day in Atlanta, Galen Rupp showed he’s still the best marathon runner in America.

Rupp wins Trials
Galen Rupp reacts as he crosses the finish line to win the Men’s U.S. Olympic marathon team trials / Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

The 33-year-old embattled former prodigy won the 2020 U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon on Saturday in 2:09:20 by surging over the second half and running away from a talented cast of contenders. Rupp ran a negative-split second-half of 1:03:39 on a hilly course amid winds that gusted as much as 20 miles per hour.

Meanwhile, Aliphine Tuliamuk, a 30-year-old native of Kenya who became an American citizen in 2016, continued to exemplify her American Dream script, winning the women’s race in 2:27:23 after a neck-and-neck race with Molly Seidel (2:27:31) over the final miles.

Sally Kipyego, also a recently minted American citizen, took third in 2:28:52. Desi Linden ran a strong race, as usual, but missed her third straight Olympic team with a fourth-place 2:29:03 effort.

Following Rupp to the finish in the men’s race was a hard-charging Jake Riley, who continued his feel-good comeback tour with a runner-up finish in a new PR of 2:10:02 to make his first Olympic team at age 32. Seemingly ageless Abdi Abdirahman took third in 2:10:03 to earn his fifth Olympic team berth at age 43. Lenny Korir, one of the pre-race favorites, was fourth in 2:10:06.

photo: CoopsRun Photography

Negative-Split Strategy

The men’s race started out with Abdirahman and Luke Puskedra going out hard in the first few miles, but then it was Brian Shrader and Dan Nestor, two unsung runners who entered with modest qualifying times, breaking away from the pack and leading the race by as much as 49 seconds through the 12-mile mark. Although Nestor fell off the pace, Shrader continued to lead through mile 16 until Rupp and the rest of the men’s pack caught up.

From there, Rupp took control. The 2016 Olympic bronze medalist ran away from the field over the final 8 miles. Rupp, Riley, Abdirahman and Korir were followed by Augustus Maiyo (2:10:47) and a horde of guys who had breakthrough days—Martin Hehir (2:11:29), Clayton Albertson (2:11:49), Jonas Hampton (2:12:10), Colin Bennie (2:12:14) and Matt McDonald (2:12:19).

“I went a little bit earlier than [coach] Mike [Smith] had suggested. He wanted me to wait and go at about 19 or 20, but I was confident and how I felt and knew that I had conserved a lot of energy in the first half of the race,” Rupp said. “It was a hard race out there, but my fitness had indicated I was strong and could hold on.”

Emerging from the Women’s Pack

The women’s race featured a huge pack of runners that didn’t really start to dwindle until the halfway mark. But even with 10 miles to go there was a huge bunch of contenders, including Kellyn Taylor, Laura Thweatt, Nell Rojas, Lindsay Flanagan, Molly Huddle, Julia Kohnen, Stephanie Bruce, Emily Sission, Sara Hall, Linden, Seidel, Tuliamuk and Kipyego.

That group finally began to splinter after mile 20, but it wasn’t until Tuliamuk, Seidel and Kipyego broke away at mile 23 that the leaders clearly emerged. Tuliamuk finally outran Seidel in the final mile, throwing in a 5:44 split to gain a six-second gap before the final sprint to the finish.

Aliphine Tuliamuk reacts after winning the Women’s U.S. Olympic marathon team trials / Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

“Wow, what a race,” Tuliamuk said just after she finished just ahead of Seidel and was wrapped in an American flag and donned one of her crocheted beanies in a red, white and blue color motif. “That was so hard! But now it feels so good.”

Thweatt wound up fifth in 2:29:08, followed by Bruce (2:29:11), Emma Bates (2:29:35), Taylor (2:29:55), Rojas (2:30:26) and Kohnen (2:30:43).

Top finishers took home a total of $480,000 in prize money, equally awarded to men and women. The prize money was distributed as follows: first, $80,000; second, $65,000; third, $55,000; fourth, $20,000; fifth, $10,000; sixth, $6,000; seventh, $3,000; eighth, $1,000.

Historic Field, Challenging Course

Today’s field was by far the biggest ever in Marathon Trials history, including 510 women qualifiers and 261 men qualifiers. Four years ago in 2016, with essentially the same qualifying times, the equivalent numbers were 246 and 211. (The women’s qualifying standard was easier than the men’s; the standards are established by separate committees from USA Track & Field.)

In an unprecedented show of support, the Atlanta Track Club’s bid included travel and lodging costs for all qualifiers, and not just the top-rank “A” qualifiers as in previous Trials.

The first Men’s Trials were held in 1968 in Alamosa, CO. The first Women’s Trials took place in Olympia, WA, in 1984. The course records for Trials races are Ryan Hall’s 2:09:02, established in the 2008 Trials, and Shalane Flanagan’s 2:25:38, which she recorded in Houston in 2012.

The Atlanta marathon course is the most challenging ever seen in a Trials marathon, with almost constant undulations of the type that eventually produced significant wear-and-tear on a runner’s body, especially the hips and knees. The 3-lap Atlanta course included 1389 feet of uphill climbing and 1382 feet of downhills, for a net start-to-finish gain of seven feet.

The Centennial Park in Atlanta, at sunrise, is a great run
The Centennial Park in Atlanta, at sunrise. / photo: Getty Images

The course started and finished at Centennial Olympic Park near the College Football Hall of Fame, the Georgia Aquarium, and the SkyView ferris wheel. It ran up and down Atlanta’s famed Peachtree Street, passing the Margaret Mitchell House (author of “Gone With The Wind”). The course also toured the city’s fourth ward, which includes the Martin Luther King National Historic Park, with both the birthplace and burial site of the famed civil rights leader.

The Men’s and Women’s Olympic Marathons will be held August 8 and 9 in Sapporo, Japan, 500 miles north of Tokyo. They were moved from Tokyo amidst fears that the Tokyo heat and humidity could affect runners’ health.

Two previous Trials winners have gone on to win gold in the Olympic Marathon: Frank Shorter in 1972, and Joan Benoit in 1984. Two second-place Trials finishers have also won Olympic medals. In 2004, both Meb Keflezighi and Deena Kastor placed second in the Trials ahead of their silver- and bronze-medal performances in the Athens Olympic Marathon.

The Olympic Marathon qualifying times for 2020 are 2:11:30 and 2:29:30. However, World Athletics named the Atlanta Trials a “Gold Label Race,” meaning that the first five finishers are automatically eligible to run the Olympic Marathon. This covers the possibility that one of the top-three runners from today could get sick or injured in coming months, and need to be replaced by an alternate American.

Today’s Trials race included an impressive range of ages among qualified marathoners. The youngest runner was 16-year-old Tierney Wolfgram from Woodbury, MN; the oldest, 48-year old Perry Reeves Shoemaker from Vienna, VA. The youngest and oldest male runners were Sean O’Connor, 22, from West Hartford, CT and Bernard Lagat, 45, from Tucson, AZ. Lagat has competed in every Olympics from 2000 onward, making him the most decorated athlete in the field. An impressive 35 women in today’s race were over age 40. Four of the men were older than 40.