Tracktown USA has always been an incubator of running talent.
Tradition, pine-lined trails and cool rain make this a haven where endurance athletes thrive.
Bill Bowerman, the legendary University of Oregon coach, invented the waffle sole in his Eugene kitchen and teamed with one of his runners, Phil Knight, to create Nike.
The latest in a long line of Duck greats won the 5,000 meters at the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials on Thursday in commanding and symbolic style. Not only did Galen Rupp kick past the hard-charging Bernard Lagat down the stretch but he broke the meet record held by none other than Steve Prefontaine.
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The charismatic Pre, born in Coos Bay, Ore., is worshipped here and by distance runners everywhere. He was the James Dean of running and held American records in all distances from 1,500 to 10,000 meters when he died in a car accident at age 24 in 1975.
Rupp grew up in Portland and ran many memorable races on the Hayward Field track. On a damp, pure-Oregon evening, the crowd went wild for the native son as he won another one — his second gold medal of the trials. Rupp won the 10,000 meters last Friday. He holds the American record in that 6.2 mile event.
The unassuming 25-year-old Rupp — who looks 10 years younger — flashed a grin as wide as the Willamette river as he signed autographs.
Yes, at historic Hayward Field, 10K runners are celebrities.
He may not be as dashing as Pre, but he’s faster. He offers hope that the renaissance in American middle and long distance running has legs.
Rupp has been nurtured since age 16 by his coach, Alberto Salazar, the former marathon world record-holder and Oregon star.
Salazar has been the patient genius behind much of the country’s progress. He started the Oregon Project with funding from Nike. A building at the shoe giant’s Beaverton campus is named after Salazar.
Salazar has brought Rupp along slowly and carefully. He doesn’t want Rupp to succumb to the over-training burnout that shortened his own career. Rupp also has the advantage of training with Mo Farah, gold medal contender from England. Farah, a native of Somalia and the current 5,000 world champion, has also flourished in Oregon.
Rupp has been honing his kick. It’s the one ingredient Salazar saved for last.
“He can hang with anybody until the last lap,” Salazar said.
On Thursday, Rupp ran on Lagat’s shoulder until the bell lap. He edged into the lead. With 200 to go, Lagat made his move. But in a sure sign that the training is working, Rupp found another gear to pass Lagat in the closing meters, winning by .15 seconds. Lopez Lomong was third. Rupp’s time of 13.22.67 was not remarkable because it was a tactical race. But it broke Pre’s trials record set here in 1972.
“I’m on cloud nine,” Rupp said. “I knew this would be the hard one because of Bernard. I was pleased with my finishing speed. Alberto has been telling me that’s what it’s going to take in London. The last 400 you’ve got to buckle down. Don’t panic and keep driving.”
Rupp is one of the promising runners who have taken U.S. distance fortunes out of the wasteland. He should contend for a medal in the 10K at the London Olympics and the ageless Lagat, 37, should be in the mix in the 5K.
At last year’s world championships, Jenny Simpson was a surprise winner in the 1,500 meters and Matt Centrowitz took an unexpected bronze in the metric mile.
Lomong, kidnapped at age 6 in his native Sudan by rebel militants, spent 10 years in a refugee camp in Kenya before being adopted by a family in Syracuse, N.Y. He carried the U.S. flag at the 2008 Games. He finished third in the 10K Thursday.
Kara Goucher, Shalane Flanagan, Nick Symmonds, Alysia Montano — all are emerging names for the United States.
In the marathon, Meb Keflezighi (silver at 2004 Olympics), Deena Castor (bronze in 2004) and Ryan Hall have made breakthroughs.
Americans have become more competitive but no one has broken this streak: No American male has won an Olympic medal at 1,500 meters or longer on the track since Jim Ryun took silver in the 1,500 in 1968. No American, male or female, has won an Olympic medal at 5K or 10K since 1964.
In 2012, keep your eye on the thin runners in the red, white and blue. They are catching up with American sprinters in terms of respect and productivity. The London Games should be another milestone.