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Inside The Salazar-Rupp Mystique

Can the American 10,000-meter record holder defy critics, break up the Africans and medal in London?

Can the American 10,000-meter record holder defy critics, break up the Africans and medal in London?

Forty-eight years have passed since an American man has won an Olympic medal in the 10,000 meters. That’s the sort of acidic fact that stokes Alberto Salazar’s competitive rage. Once the brash, force-of-nature runner who, in the early 1980s, strung together three consecutive New York City Marathon wins and ran the fastest time in the world at the 1981 race, Salazar is now the venerable, meticulous Nike Oregon Project coach who believes that his star pupil, 25-year-old Galen Rupp, the fastest American ever at 10,000 meters and 5,000m indoors, is destined to end the drought.

The Cuban-born Salazar, raised from the age of 2 in Wayland, Mass., became famous for his brazen declarations: “If somebody runs 2:10 tomorrow, I’ll run 2:10,” he told reporters in 1980 the day before his first marathon, where he stunned the world by finishing first in 2:09:41, a New York City Marathon course record and the fastest debut ever at the time.

Salazar’s unrelenting work ethic and alpha male arrogance ignited a fire that pushed him through epic race battles, but also led to a painful decline, early retirement and soul-crushing depression. Salazar knows what it takes to be a world-beater, and he’s invested 12 years in coaching Rupp and instilling nearly the opposite of what he did as a pro. Through incremental progressions, microscopic physiological scrutiny and tempering the competitive fire so it doesn’t engulf, Salazar is molding Rupp into a beautifully fluid, well-rounded champion. The amiable, down-to-earth Rupp has no objections. “I’ve been real happy with the way things have gone and I wouldn’t change a thing,” Rupp says.

Medaling in the Olympic 10,000m would require beating the consistently dominant Africans. “We’re not at all intimidated by the Africans; they’re great runners but there’s so many of them. With our [American] runners, we have so few of them that we have to do everything perfect,” says Salazar. Doing things perfectly comes at a price, but it’s one Salazar and Rupp are willing to pay.

The reed-thin, clean cut, baby-faced Rupp—son of Greg and Jamie Rupp—had to be bribed with McDonald’s as a child to complete runs with his mom, a middle school track coach at the time. A varsity soccer player as a freshman at Central Catholic High School in Portland, Ore., in the fall of 2000, Jamie prodded her son to introduce himself to the new cross-country coach at a fall sports school barbecue. That coach was Alberto Salazar.

As luck would have it, Rupp’s head soccer coach had trained one of Salazar’s sons on his club team, and the two friends chatted about Rupp’s natural running ability. They worked out a system where Rupp trained with the soccer team six days a week and spent the seventh day working out with the cross-country team; after only a few months, Rupp’s running talent eclipsed his soccer abilities. After graduating from high school in 2004, Rupp trained with the Oregon Project full time. When Salazar urged him to consider college, Rupp enrolled at the University of Oregon, Salazar’s alma mater, in 2005. Salazar remained Rupp’s coach during college, where he blossomed into one of the most decorated distance runners in NCAA history, earning 14 All-American titles, five NCAA titles and the collegiate record in the 10,000m.

Salazar instituted rest days and time completely off from running at a young age so his prodigy wouldn’t burn out. In Salazar’s competitive days, a post-marathon win “recovery” week would include a total of 70 miles with no intervals. Salazar has since learned how aggressive training without breaks damages the adrenal system, causing inadequate responses to training stimuli. Currently, Rupp gets two weeks off twice a year; breaks are followed by one month of stress-free jogging with gradual progression of weekly mileage.

“Having consistency in training is really important. Look at a lot of the Africans—they have one coach who’s with them throughout their careers. Having that consistency in training throughout my career has been huge for me,” Rupp says.

Through careful, closely monitored progression, Rupp has finally hit 100-mile training weeks over the past year. “Alberto’s always said he never wanted to give me everything all at once,” Rupp says. “That’s the best advice I ever got for training—keep at it little by little. If I’m going to peak at a certain age, around 30 or so, there’s no rush to do all the work right away.”

When competing against podium-dominating Africans, Rupp looks completely at home. On Sept. 16, 2011, at the Diamond League meet in Brussels, Belgium—where Rupp broke the 10,000m American record—Rupp’s long, smooth stride, swift backswing, graceful push-off, stable core, forward-facing pelvis and upright carriage mimicked the fluid movements of opponents Kenenisa Bekele of Ethiopia and Lucas Kimeli Rotich of Kenya. In fact, as the finishing kicks were unleashed and Rupp trailed in third, Rupp’s rapidly pumping arms remained properly aligned in front of his chest, whereas Rotich circled his left arm around and across his chest, an inefficient motion that exposed his fatigue.

A scientist in his own right, tweaking and refining are mainstays of Salazar’s job; he’s studied proper running form at exhaustive levels. He’s worked with Rupp since his early teens to perfect his form; diagnosing the root cause of a slight hunch in Rupp’s shoulders and correcting it is their latest adjustment. He’s had Rupp’s oxygen consumption measured and his running efficiency tested; the results show that Rupp’s highly efficient—close to where Salazar was during his prime.

Since 2001, Salazar has ensured that his small crop of Oregon Project runners have access to every technological, physiological and psychological advantage available. From altitude simulation tents and rooms to both anti-gravity and underwater treadmills to the Cryo Sauna, a cylindrical chamber that turns liquid nitrogen to gas to cool an athlete’s body at bone-chilling temperatures for rejuvenating purposes, Nike, who reported revenues of $19 billion in 2010, pays for and houses them on their 193-acre Beaverton, Ore., campus.

“There’s a great misconception that we’re not doing real running or we’re trying to use gimmicks. My standpoint is, I don’t care what people think,” Salazar says, waving his lanky arm dismissively. “We’re on the cutting edge and using stuff that friends of mine who are coaches and trainers for major professional teams in other sports are using. If my peers in running don’t want to do it, that’s fine with me. It’s just another advantage for our guys.”

Being ridiculed, criticized and questioned by some in the running industry and media doesn’t bother the 53-year-old Salazar, who’s survived far worse—he conquered severe depression when his competitive career ended at age 27 with Prozac and Catholicism, and was revived from a temporarily fatal heart attack in June 2007. Rupp, who suffers from pollen allergies as well as exercise-induced asthma, has also been mocked on running forums and blogs for the black allergy mask he sometimes dons; he’s also been labeled overly privileged. The keep-to-himself Rupp responds in a manner that’s similarly nonchalant but less rebellious than his mentor. He says little and instead shifts the conversation to his own motivations.

“The mantra is control the controllables,” explains Nike’s sports psychologist, Darren Treasure, who was hand-plucked by Salazar in 2007 to improve Rupp’s mental focus during races. “It’s about Galen making 100 percent sure that his emotional, physical and psychological energy is directed into things he knows he can do something about, and to not allow anything else to negatively affect him. That doesn’t mean he’s not aware of what’s going on around him, but he doesn’t let it compromise what he’s going to do.”

Treasure works tirelessly with Rupp to focus on the big picture—this outlook minimizes pressure on any one race. He sees Rupp once a week in private and the two also have a weekly sit-down with Salazar. When Rupp speaks of his mentor, it’s with deep respect and without complaints about Salazar changing race plans or workouts at the last minute. “He’s the most thorough coach I think there is. There’s no stone that goes unturned,” Rupp says. “He really learned a lot from some of the mistakes he made as an athlete and he knows what it takes as a coach.”

It’s this fondness that’s made it difficult for Rupp to express an opinion that differs from one held by his mentor. When faced with an opposing view, Salazar can launch a rapid-fire attack of rhetorical questions that exhausts the listener’s resolve. But, with Treasure’s help, Rupp’s learning the intricate art of becoming politic. “At the highest level of sport, if you don’t have people who are willing or have the strength of character to disagree with a dominant personality like Alberto, then eventually, you’re no longer at the elite level,” says Treasure.

Developing open communication between the three remains an ongoing process—Treasure revealed the trio has the occasional screaming matches followed by, “tears, but that’s usually Alberto crying in the end,” he jokes. Disagreements are often absolved quickly because of the shared goal for Rupp to realize his potential.

“I can be domineering,” Salazar admits. “My wife will tell me, ‘you just don’t listen.’ But it’s not because I wasn’t trying to listen, but because I was so focused on my ideas and plans that I didn’t realize there was a disconnect there.”

The fireworks originate from a tender place. Salazar’s chosen an elusive life quest—to achieve greatness in running—and he pursues that goal with monk-like discipline, not for self-gratification, but because it’s become a part of him. He takes months-long trips with his athletes so they can train supervised at altitude; he attends every race and important workout, and on the rare occasion he can’t be there, he sends his assistant coach, Steve Magness, to observe and evaluate. Charismatic, friendly and forthcoming when relaxed, if Salazar appears brusque, it’s probably because he needs to attend to an athlete.

“It’s all for the athletes,” Salazar says. “They’ve entrusted it all to me and I want them to be happy.”

Prior to stepping on the track before a race, Rupp and Salazar pray together, and Salazar encourages Rupp to enjoy himself. After two years of racing without a best-in-the-country or world result—including the 2010 Cardinal Invitational 10,000m, where Rupp ran 27:10, under Meb Keflezighi’s nine-year-old American record, but didn’t get the record then because Chris Solinsky surged past him to finish first in 26:59.60—Rupp felt confident he would medal in the 10,000m at the 2011 world championships in Daegu, South Korea. He focused so intently on medaling that he lost concentration and finished seventh.

“What’s great about Galen is that he’s good at making changes and, in two weeks [after Daegu], he changed his mindset and was recommitted to a process-oriented approach that helped him in the race in Brussels,” Treasure says. Rupp set the new American record in the 10,000m not by focusing on splits, but by concentrating on relaxing, maintaining good form and closing the race as hard as possible. But, the new accolade doesn’t stand out in Rupp’s mind as the most memorable moment of his life so far.

“Getting married is the best thing that’s ever happened to me; I’m lucky she said yes,” Rupp exclaims, laughing. “The lifestyle we live isn’t easy; we travel a lot and there’s a lot of last-minute changes to things. She’s beyond supportive and flexible. I couldn’t be more thankful.”

The couple started dating in 2007 and married on Sept. 25, 2010. A former University of Oregon runner, Keara Rupp is the ultimate support system—she goes nearly everywhere her husband does and appears content with their quiet home life in Beaverton, Ore., that, for Galen, involves restful activities such as watching Oregon football, napping and playing soccer online with Mo Farah and Salazar’s son.

A much anticipated marathon debut floats somewhere in Rupp’s future. It could’ve been the Olympic marathon trials in Houston on Jan. 14, but the experiment proved too risky with the track trials looming five months later. “Galen’s durability—he’s very strong and very injury-free, is efficient, has great biomechanics and good form—says to me that he’ll be a great marathoner someday,” Salazar says.

Rupp could test the marathon waters as early as this fall, depending on how the summer unfolds. If Rupp makes the Olympic team at the track trials in the 5,000m and 10,000m, recovers well from a double in those distances at the London Games, and has a good bout of marathon training in early fall, he could make his debut in Chicago or New York.

Ten years from now, Salazar predicts that Rupp will have a family, retire from professional running and work for Nike. In the future, Salazar hopes to reminisce with Greg and Jamie Rupp. “I hope they don’t thank me for helping with Galen’s running, but for being a positive influence. And that’s what I want with Galen. When he’s retired and has a family, I’ll hope running didn’t screw him up somehow like it did me,” Salazar says, eyes a touch moist. “And that will make me feel successful.”

This piece first appeared in the March issue of Competitor magazine.