Until the last five seconds, Jacob Riley didn’t have much fun in Saturday’s Olympic Marathon Trials. First, on Friday, the unsponsored athlete agonized over what shoes to wear—Vaporfly or Alphafly? He chose the latter. “Better than the slab of foam I ran on in the 2016 Trials,” he said of the race in which he finished 15th.

Then there was the course—hilly and windy, presenting many vexing questions about the best race strategy. Things grew more worrisome in the marathon itself when Galen Rupp made his move at 15 miles, pulling along Abdi Abdirahman, Leonard Korir, and several others. Sayonara lifelong Olympic dream. “It was nerve wracking to let them go,” Riley observed later.

And it got even worse as he began closing the gap after 20 miles, finally reaching them at 24. Now what? Someone’s going to make the podium, someone’s not. How do you enjoy that pressure cooker?

Success, Struggles, Surgery and Resurgence

Still, it wasn’t so bad as some of the preceding years. After a good but not brilliant career at Stanford, Riley finished 13th in the 2012 Olympic Track Trials 10,000. Several months later he won the 2012 USATF Club Championships.

Former Aussie marathon great Lee Troop happened to be there, and he was impressed. “Jake just obliterated the field that day,” Troop remembers. “I saw a great cross-country runner who attacked up and over the hills, and kept on pressing.”

Two years later, Riley ran 2:13:16 in the 2014 Chicago Marathon—a nice marathon debut. But he couldn’t build on that success, as he began to suffer from heel and Achilles pain. After the 2016 Marathon Trials and a 12th in the Track Trials 10,000, things turned south. The foot pain wouldn’t quit, and he and his wife got divorced.

Riley moved from Michigan to Boulder in 2017, and began working with Troop. There wasn’t much they could do, however, at least not until Riley got surgery for Haglund’s deformity in spring 2018. After three months on crutches, he was ready to start running again. “We had to do one minute running, nine minutes walking, two minutes running, eight minutes walking, that kind of thing,” Troop recalls.

Jake Riley Bolder Boulder
Jake Riley Bolder Boulder / photo: Brian Metzler

It took a year before Riley was ready to begin testing himself in races again. “He’s got more patience than I ever dreamed of having myself,” Troop jokes. “He combines that with a great work ethic, his Stanford intelligence, and a hunger to succeed after all the disappointments.”

By last summer, Riley was healthy and fit enough for a marathon buildup. “It went perfect,” Troop admits. “I thought he was ready for a 2:11-2:12.” Riley ran 2:10:36 at Chicago.

Train the Same, Only Better

That gave them the perfect amount of time to prepare for the late-February Marathon Trials. But how best to go from great shape to even better? “I have a rule,” says Troop. “After a good race, we don’t try to do more and different. That almost always leads to disaster. We do the same, only a little better, a little faster.”

Troop’s go-to marathon workout is an 18-mile “progression run.” It comes at the end of a heavy training week; Riley averaged 110–120 miles per week, with two quality efforts each week. The workout looks like this for Riley: 3 miles easy, 3 miles at 6:00 pace, 3 miles at 5:40, 3 miles at 5:20, and 6 miles at marathon pace. Before Chicago, Riley ran 5:00 to 5:05 for the last 6 miles. Before the Trials, he was 10 seconds per mile faster, 4:50–4:55, over the last 6.

Only one bump in the road: He appeared to have a disappointing half marathon in mid-January in Tempe, AZ. Six other Trials qualifiers finished ahead of him. But here’s the thing, as Troop now explains it: Riley wasn’t racing, he was training. The only goal for the day was to run 10 miles at 5:00 pace, and then push the last 5K. Riley split 14:20. (The course turned out to be short, so all times are a bit suspect.)

Wait For It

Together, Troop and Riley developed a Trials race plan—basically, don’t make a move until 30K.

“The first half, I was mainly thinking about a clean path to my drink bottles, while keeping an eye on Jared Ward and Scott Fauble,” Riley says.

So were many others. A large pack, including Riley and race favorite and eventual winner, Galen Rupp, crossed the half-marathon mark in 1:05:41. Rupp surged and broke the race open shortly thereafter, taking Abdi Abdirahman, Augustus Maiyo, Leonard Korir, and Matt McDonald with him.

Riley let them go, but not without some agonizing. “It was nerve-wracking,” he admitted. “I just had to hope they would pay later. That’s what Lee and I had discussed—that it was better to wait, because the hills, pace, and wind would get to a lot of people.”

By 20 miles, Abdi was almost 40 seconds ahead of Riley, who had now lowered his head and started to give chase. “It’s no fun being alone in no man’s land,” he said. “I kept telling myself, ‘No more next times. No more next times.’ I figured this was my last, best shot at an Olympic team.”

Riley, Korir, Abdirahman Olympic Trials
photo: Stone Malick

It took Riley four miles to catch Abdi and Korir. That left two miles to go. Riley would drift slightly ahead on the downhills, and Abdi on the ups. The Atlanta course had plenty of both, so they developed a sort of see-saw routine.

On one incline, Abdi said, “C’mon, we gotta push.” Both knew that Korir, now struggling, would likely have the fastest finish. “To have Abdi talking, that was like a knife in my side,” said Riley. But he hung with the 43-year-old, four-time Olympian, and they put 10 seconds on Korir.

One mile to go. A half mile. A quarter. On a gradual downhill toward the big Olympic Trials banner, Korir began coming back. But he was never able to mount a big kick, and he couldn’t catch his prey.

Besides, Riley had a plan. “I conserved enough for a sprint at the end,” he said. He used it to edge past Abdi in the final yards.

“You’re looking at a guy who just had the best day of his life,” he said. “Someone who just achieved his dream. The race was incredibly hard, but the last five seconds was fun. I guess that’s all that matters.”