The Inside Lane: What’s Rupp Got To Do With It?

The 29-year-old marathon debutant will change the dynamic of the men's race on Saturday.

It’s arguably the highest profile debut in American marathoning history, and athletes, fans and casual observers alike are curious to see what effect Olympic 10,000m silver medalist Galen Rupp has on the men’s race at the U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon on Saturday–providing he still plans to take the starting line.

The 29-year-old Nike Oregon Project athlete hasn’t had any pre-race media availability in Los Angeles, but he has been spotted making his way through the lobby of the J.W. Marriott next to L.A. Live, just a block from the race’s start-finish line area. By all accounts, Rupp appears ready to race, but there’s been speculation as to whether or not he’ll be a last-minute scratch due to the less-than-ideal weather conditions forecasted for Saturday.

So why would Rupp, who announced his plans to participate in the Trials on Jan. 28 in an exclusive USATF.TV-produced interview, not race at the Trials? It mostly comes down to risk. Obviously, an Olympic berth is the grand prize at stake on Saturday, not to mention a fairly sizable payday for finishing in the top-three and potential sponsor bonuses, but there’s also a track season right around the corner (including the World Indoor Championships in Portland next month, which Rupp has said he’d like to run), and the Olympic Trials on the track later this summer. If both Rupp and coach Alberto Salazar feel racing a hard marathon on a twisting, mostly concrete course in dry 80-degree temps would compromise his track goals later in the year—Rupp said his main focus for 2016 remains the 10,000m—I think there’s an outside chance Team Rupp cuts its losses at the last minute and scratches in order to refocus on his track goals over the next few months.

But let’s say he doesn’t. What does Rupp’s participation do for the men’s race?

From a fan’s perspective, it brings the excitement meter up a notch on what was already shaping up to be an awesome event. “How will Rupp handle the marathon?” is a question many people can’t wait to see answered. For the other top contenders, it changes the dynamic of the race in a serious way. Rupp racing means there’s another viable—and most importantly, unpredictable—threat to keep a close eye on for a couple hours on Saturday. Despite this being Rupp’s first marathon, he’s got the tools and the resume to contend not only for one of the three spots on the team, but also for the win. That’s rare for a debutant, especially at such a high-profile event with an Olympic berth on the line. Rupp’s presence will force the other runners to think a little harder about how they’ll handle a slow, strategic race. It’s hard to know what other racers are thinking, but I’m quite confident that the last thing anyone fighting for a podium spot wants with a 26:44 10,000m runner in the mix is a 20-mile warmup with a 10K race at the end of it.

So how will the race will play out? That remains to be seen, but given the conditions, the course and the competition, I expect it to be a slugfest from the start, with an honest tempo and a fair amount of surges thrown in from the early going in order to separate the contenders from the pretenders. Rupp certainly won’t be the only runner the other athletes are thinking about as they run lap after lap under a blazing hot Southern California sun on Saturday, but the longer the pace lags, the better the chances he’ll have the legs to blitz the final 10K—and no one who thinks they have a shot at finishing in the top three will want anything to do with it.