In 2009, Rupp lost his shoe in the middle of the 5,000 meter race at the NCAA Championships. He stopped, put it back on, and still won the race.
On Friday, seven years after his career as a Duck ended, Rupp went up against the best 10,000-meter runners in the United States and toyed with them. The Portland native attempted to create a tough race, but the 10k is his best event. He pulled ahead multiple times, then allowed runners behind him to slowly creep onto his heels.
“I had hoped to break away,” Rupp said at his press conference. “I didn’t, so I knew I was going to have a tough last couple laps on my hands.”
The final laps were close, but in the last 200, like he had been holding back the entire race up until this moment, Rupp pulled away and won by 20 or 30 meters. At the finish line, with his closest opponent Shadrack Kipchirchir trailing almost six seconds behind, Rupp crossed and swung an invisible baseball bat with both arms.
Rupp easily qualified for the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics with a time of 27.55.04 at the U.S Olympic Trials.
The win marked his eighth straight United States championship in the 10k, and with the victory at the Trials, Rupp matches Craig Virgin for the most American Olympic qualifications in the 10k with three.
The 10k might not be the only event Rupp runs: He ran his first marathon ever at the Olympic Trials in Los Angeles in January, placing first with a time of 2:11:12. On Saturday, July 9, Rupp will run in the 5k for his last event of the Trials.
If Rupp decides to run the 10k and the marathon or the 10k and the 5k at Rio and medals in both, he could cement himself as the greatest American distance runner ever.
If Rupp does qualify for Rio in the 5k, he will not run in all three races. He will compete in the 10k come August, and unless he records an impressive 5K next week at the Trials, the Olympic marathon will likely be his second event. Rupp’s personal best 5k time is 12:58.90, which he set in 2012. A sub-13 time is what it may take for Rupp to choose to compete in the 5k over the marathon.
“Whether it is the 10k and the marathon or the 10k and the 5k, that is a huge ask,” said Rupp. “If you try and do three, that would just be way too much.”
The last American to compete in the 10k and the marathon was Frank Shorter in the 1972 Munich Olympics. Shorter placed fifth in the 10k with a time of 27:51.32. His gold medal came in the marathon with a time of 2:12:19.8, making him an American running legend.
At that same Olympics, Finnish runner Lasse Virén earned gold in the 10k with a world record time of 27:38.35. He found a partner for his 10k gold medal by winning the 5k with an Olympic record time of 13:26.42. His statue now stands in Myrskyla, Finland.
In Virén’s 5k, a runner named Steve Prefontaine came in fourth.
Running in both the marathon and the 10k is rare, and for good reason.
“If you have an easy, moderate and killer workout for the marathon you can’t have an easy, moderate and killer workout for the 10k,” Rupp’s coach Alberto Salazar told reporters. “You have to decide, ‘we’re going to do a super hard marathon workout or a super hard 10k workout.'”
Rupp must manage the speed work of the 10k relative to the distance work required for a marathon. Since he began marathon training less than a year ago, he and his coach have little experience balancing the training. This inexperience could hurt Rupp in the future.
A more daunting challenge for Rupp is the training itself, not the balancing act of what to train for.
“We ride a fine line. Sometimes you try and do a little too much and then you have to back off and rest,” said Rupp. “You are doing a lot of miles — long, hard runs, and it is hard to recover from. … It has been a learning process.”
This was an understatement. For Olympians, post-trials is a time to put the finishing touches on what can be years of training. Could the wear and tear of juggling two events hurt Rupp’s his performance?
It has recently. Roughly a week before Rupp ran a 5k earlier this year, he ran an arduous 22-miler in training. Four days later he ran long intervals in the morning, and that evening, he returned for a 10k workout with fellow Oregon Nike Project runner Matthew Centrowitz.
“What impresses me most is his work ethic, his mental toughness and being able to get up and down with the pressure and limelight that’s on him,” Salazar said. “He works hard and dedicates his life. The only thing that ever takes him away from running is his family. That’s it.”
Only Rupp and Salazar have a full understanding of Rupp’s limits, but for them, it seems the opportunity for glory appears to outweigh the risk.
Intense training and the possibility of an historic performance may spark more conversations about Salazar and Rupp’s credibility. In June of last year, the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency began investigating Salazar and the Nike Oregon Project for bending and possibly breaking U.S Anti-Doping rules.
Salazar responded with a 12,000 word open letter that disputed all claims made by BBC and ProPublica, the initial publications to report on the story. Some people in the running community feel that the allegations made by BBC and ProPublica raised ethical questions, not legitimate rule violations.
The investigation is still active, and no findings have been published.
Rupp’s biggest competition in the 10k is training partner Mo Farah of the United Kingdom. Farah beat Rupp in the 10k at the 2012 London Olympics when Farah won gold and Rupp took silver.
Farah will be the favorite for the gold medal in the 10k. He won the 2015 gold medal at the World Championships with a time of 27:01.13, where Rupp finished fifth with a time of 27:08.91.
The marathon is more difficult to predict. Rupp has only run one in his career, and comparing times between different marathoners has it’s own challenges. Different courses have various difficulty levels, and weather always plays a role.
Why Rupp keeps the 5k as an option after he has already qualified for the marathon may indicate a possible lack of confidence in the marathon. Or, it is because of lack of training time for the event.
Mo Farah also took home the 5k gold at the 2015 World Championships with a time of 13.50.38. Rupp placed fifth with a time of 13.50.90.
Regardless of which event he chooses, medaling in both would be a legendary accomplishment.
Follow Jack Butler on Twitter @Butler917