Nike’s Oregon Project: Putting US Runners Back on the Podium
It was August 4th at the London Olympics’ 10,000 meter race and the East Africans, as usual, were the gold standard, the silver standard and the bronze standard. There were the Bekele brothers from Ethiopia, one of whom had won the two previous Olympics 10,000 meter races. Eritreans Tedese and Medhin would be contenders. Kenyans Kiprop, Muchiri and Masai were all vying for medals.
History was in the making in the London chill, but it wouldn’t include the usual favorites.
The last time an American had earned a medal in this event, Billy Mills, a member of the Sioux Tribes, sprinted past Mohammed Gammoudi of Tunisia and Ron Clarke of Australia in the last 20 meters to win the only U.S. gold. That was 1964. Since then, nothing. Nada. For her part, Old England was more likely to see the Queen galloping to Gangnam Style than witness a British runner on the podium in the men’s 10,000 meter. The Americans had Billy Mills a lifetime ago. Great Britain had nil.
Before the night was over, two runners from Nike’s Oregon Project would pull off the biggest upset since an unaffiliated bunch of U.S. college boys beat the world’s best professional hockey teams in the 1980 Olympics.
Galen Rupp and Mo Farah watched their coach, Alberto Salazar. Rupp, a 26-year-old from Portland who had spent the past eleven years on Salazar’s training schedule, noticed something different about him that afternoon. “Alberto was more calm than I have ever seen him,” he recalled. “He must have had a lot of confidence in us.”
Indeed, Salazar’s confidence in his team was high. The night before the race, he told Nike CEO, Mark Parker, that he thought Farah and Rupp would go one and two. Behind this gamble on The Oregon Project lay a decade, a generous Nike dollar or two and the professional reputation of Alberto Salazar. Rupp was, after all, what Tom Clarke, Nike president of new business development, called “the Project’s project.” Even so, in such a stacked field of East African elites, Salazar’s prediction must have seemed somewhat preposterous to Parker.
Twenty-nine runners toed the line of the race. Within the first five laps, the Eritreans established themselves in the front. Tadese, as Salazar had predicted, pushed the pace to a 62-second quarter mile split. Math majors playing along at home rightly calculated a brisk 4:08 mile pace. The Kenyans and the Ethiopians ran behind them, their faces showing no hint of effort. Farah and Rupp watched them from the middle of the pack.
With little more than ten laps to go, the Kenyans moved in disciplined unison up to the front. “This could be significant!” howled one TV commentator. Rupp, sensing the same, pushed his slim six-foot willow of a frame to third place, splitting the short Ethiopian Bekele brothers.
The appearance of a tall blond American in their midst—this late in the race—wasn’t something the East Africans were prepared for.
Just as they began to come to uneasy terms with Rupp breaking into this place they had always considered safe, Farah mobilized his equally bewildering endgame. The din of the mostly British crowd followed Farah into the lead with four laps to go. Quickly, though, the East Africans restored the natural order of the universe by retaking the lead with three laps to go.
With two laps to go, Salazar began to feel the pinch. “I was expecting them to begin to break away,” he said. “Galen and Mo pushed the pace, but the Bekeles countered. That was worrisome.”
Then the group of five began to kick and separate in the final lap— the Bekele brothers, Bedan Muchiri from Kenya, Mo Farah and Galen Rupp. The commentator’s voice grew steadily louder as Farah once again took the lead going into the bell lap of the beast. “This is a long sprint for Farah! Can he maintain it? He’s got the might of East Africa behind him, plus Galen Rupp.”
At a dead sprint and rounding the final corner, Rupp almost appeared momentarily satisfied with his position in fourth place. It wouldn’t be a medal, but it would be a heroic finish among the world’s best. Then he pushed even harder.
“I remember moving into third place and hoping that I could hold on,” Rupp said. “I was scared as hell coming into the last stretch and just trying to hold my form.”
In the final 100 meters, the crowd, one beast now, reared up on its hind legs and roared. Farah was closing in on Great Britain’s first medal in the 10,000. All eyes, all hopes, all emotions followed him as he kicked his way into the history books.
With 50 meters to go, Rupp put his might into holding onto third. The younger Bekele was in front of him and the elder Bekele closing fast from behind. It was then that Rupp sprinted on top of his sprint, and surged past the Ethiopian and into the most bizarre finish of the modern 10,000.
After a decade of false starts, The Oregon Project had two major victories. Salazar’s phone buzzed with more than sixty text messages— his prophecy realized.
Tom Clarke was in a hotel room in Atlanta watching the race and couldn’t hold back tears of joy as he watched Farah and Rupp in the final stretch. “I can’t remember the exact words, but I immediately sent a text to Alberto. I’m so proud. Congrats. TC.’”
The Oregon Project
The genesis for the upstart running team was disgust. Lunching in Nike’s Boston Deli on April 16, 2001, Alberto Salazar and Tom Clarke ate, talked and listened to the conclusion of the Boston Marathon. Korean runner Bong Ju-Lee had beaten an Ecuadorean and a trio of Kenyans to win the Boston in the time of 2:09:43.
“Then the commentators started gushing about an American taking sixth place,” Salazar recalled with incredulity. “We started talking—‘ How can we be so bad? How can American distance runners be so bad that we’re excited about sixth place?’”
As a younger man, Salazar had won three New York Marathons and the famed “Duel in the Sun,” the moniker given to the 1982 Boston Marathon in which he battled Dick Beardsley neck and neck for the seven last miles to beat his rival by just two seconds. In his prime, Salazar was considered one of the world’s top distance runners.
Now, the esteemed marathoner sat listening as Boston Marathon commentators heaped praise on the first American, some three minutes behind the winner. “I told Tom that I could coach Americans to do better,” he said. “Tom got out a pen and started writing down some ideas: coaching, talent, sports science.”
The Oregon Project was born. “We had to train harder, faster, longer and smarter,” said Salazar, now 56. “The mission was to develop American marathon and distance runners—Americans who could win marathons and distance races.”
One month later, a Portland soccer player named Galen Rupp would be celebrating his fifteenth birthday.
Salazar began recruiting talented runners whose biomechanics he could straighten out, whose training he could improve with Nike technology, whose workouts he could extend to match to that of the international elite, whom he expected them to, one day, conquer. These early recruits were young runners just out of college who already had impressive résumés.
There was Dan Browne, a Portland native, who became the first cadet to run the mile under four minutes. Browne was showing a knack for distance races, too, winning the USA Marathon Championships in Minnesota in 2002. Salazar had one of The Oregon Project’s first test pieces.
Ultimately his coaching could get Browne down to a 2:10 marathon— super human by most standards, yet far short of the 2:08 Salazar knew a marathoner would need to compete for a victory. A 2:10 finisher at the Boston Marathon that year would have placed fifth, hardly gush-worthy under the new project’s mission of getting on the podium.
Current and Past Oregon Project Athletes
Lindsay Allen | Jackie Areson | Amy Yoder Begley | Dan Browne | Matthew Centrowitz | Caitlin Chock | Dave Davis | Mike Donnelly | Mo Farah | Adam Goucher | Kara Goucher | Chad Johnson | Tom McArdle | Franklyn Sanchez | Ari Lambie | Cam Levins | Tara Erdmann | Treniere Moser | Luke Puskedra | Dathan Ritzenhein | Galen Rupp | Dorian Ulrey | Alan Webb
With no prize horse right out of the gates, Salazar began to question his ability to coach runners to the highest standard. Had too much changed in American culture that made the gap wider between us and the East Africans? Was the creation of the Oregon Project at the Boston Deli just knee-jerk bravado? Does changing a runner’s biomechanics make him faster? Was the excessive training regimen really a poison pill that ended in injury?
Many of these questions were Salazar’s own ghosts in crisp new sheets. The young Cuban immigrant turned distance runner honed his focus to the point of obsession that even obsessive runners noticed. “I was a special distance runner because I wanted it more. I sacrificed more,” Salazar recounted in his recent autobiography 14 Minutes. “I didn’t go out with Aileen Flynn. I didn’t go to my high school graduation. … After a bad race, I questioned who I was. I didn’t want to see anybody. I didn’t want to eat and I couldn’t sleep. I would go into black funks that could last for days.”
This mindset infused his running career. During the blazing 26 miles of the Boston Marathon in ’82, Salazar refused water, thinking it would slow him down. After winning, he collapsed at the finish line and had to be given intravenous liquids.
Often called the world’s best marathoner, Salazar could not give his own “seated” running style such high marks. In a 2010 interview with The New Yorker, Salazar admitted, “The way I ran, it wasn’t sustainable. The attitude at the time was: If you were gifted with perfect form, great. If you weren’t, you were just kind of stuck.”
For his Oregon Project runners, Salazar had a house in Northwest Portland hermetically sealed to create a low-oxygen high-altitude simulation of living in training camp with the most successful East Africans. If American runners were to compete with East Africans, they needed to, in some sense, become them. It’s no mistake that the U.S. Olympic Training Center is located at 6,035 feet in the thin air of Colorado Springs.
Early in the Oregon Project, Nike also introduced an underwater treadmill, essentially a treadmill inside a large hot tub. This presumably helped recovery times by healing muscle tissue.
Over time, Salazar relied less on the Six Million Dollar makeover and more on training and recruiting natural ability—such as runners Kara and Adam Goucher. Under Salazar’s tutelage, Kara, in particular, was able to thrive, taking third place in both the New York City Marathon in 2008 and in the Boston Marathon a year later.
These results on the national stage were major milestones for The Oregon Project. Eight years after cringing about the commentator’s sixth-place gushing over America’s best Boston Marathon in years, Salazar had an Oregon Project athlete on the podium. “What I’ve learned is that unless you find someone with talent, it doesn’t matter if you’re the best coach in the world.” he said. “It starts with runners who are already showing promise.”
At the same time, Salazar realized that, for the program to ultimately succeed, he had to get to runners before their biomechanics became incorrigible habits. He needed youth. “I explained to Phil [Knight] and Tom [Clarke] that I wanted to start The Oregon Project with the best available professional runners, but ultimately, Galen was going to be the star,” Salazar wrote in his autobiography.
The Project’s Project
More than a decade before he outsprinted the East Africans in the London Olympics, Galen Rupp was a skinny kid playing soccer for Central Catholic in Southeast Portland. He had made the varsity team as a freshman, but his coach, Jim Rilatt, recognized something different about this player. Rilatt took his findings to Salazar, whose kids also went to Central Catholic. “Jim told me,
We've got this kid who's a freshman and he's running 200s in thirty seconds," Salazar recalled. "I said,No way. Check your lines.'”
The Oregon Project was just underway and Salazar had found the perfect protégé—a young talent who could be perfected from cradle to podium. The high school freshman hadn’t even heard of Alberto Salazar before he joined the project. Rupp was born four years after Salazar hit the apex of his career at the Boston Marathon.
Salazar’s relationship with Rupp seemed almost preordained. As luck would have it, Rupp’s mother, Jamie, had been an Oregon state champion miler. Galen had shown no real interest in running, but unprecedented attention from Nike and Salazar was powerful persuasion to a 14 year old.
“When this all started, I told Galen’s parents that when this is all done, I want them to be able to look me in the eye and say that I was a great influence on Galen’s life,” Salazar said.
Rupp began training with Salazar on the one day a week he didn’t have soccer. He began competing in and winning cross country meets, including state and regional competitions. At the end of the soccer season, Salazar told him that the National Junior Olympics were in a few months, and he thought Rupp would compete well in them.
Rupp began training three to four days a week. In his first national race, the rookie took second at the Junior Olympics. “At that point, I knew he had tremendous potential,” said Salazar.
Rupp continued to flourish under Salazar’s coaching. He broke the high school records in the 2,000, 3,000 and 5,000 meter distances. He went on to shatter NCAA and American distance records while running for the University of Oregon. The Oregon Project’s “project” was paying dividends and bringing attention back to American distance running. The goal of putting American runners on the podium with East Africans was not a Quixotic tale, though it remained frustratingly elusive.
In February 2011, Rupp got a new training partner of the highest caliber. Farah, a Somali-born British runner, who was the European Champion in the 5,000 and 10,000. Rupp and Farah were training partners, but also became good friends. Salazar’s coaching benefitted Farah. Farah’s competition helped Rupp. Both of these relationships were invaluable to Salazar.
At the 2011 World Championships in Deagu, South Korea, the summer before the Olympics, Rupp ran to his season’s best 10,000 meter finish of 27:27:84. On a personal level, there was much to celebrate. Nevertheless, that time had earned him only seventh place, finishing far behind the tranche of East Africans he would soon face at the Olympics. Likewise, Rupp’s 5,000 meter race was disappointing from a tactical and ordinal point of view. Running stride for stride at the front with Farah into the final lap, Rupp burned what he had left and was outkicked by nearly the whole field, finishing ninth and five seconds away from the podium.
Before the London Olympics, Rupp remained focused. “At Nike, it’s cool because so many people want you to succeed, and they still care about track,” Rupp said. “At the same time, there is a lot of pressure to succeed. You’ve gotta get the job done. You just remember what you’re trying to do and not waste the opportunity that’s been given to you, and put yourself in a position to get on the podium.”
Rupp put his head down and trained. His mornings started with a long run or intervals. He’d come back for an afternoon track session, with Salazar clocking him and correcting his stride. In June 2012, he swept back into breezy form by breaking Oregon track legend, Steve Prefontaine’s last remaining record in the 5,000 meter, set at the 1972 Olympic Trials. Things were looking up.
On race day in London, Rupp napped before the race. His wife, Keara, let him rest while she set out on the daunting task of finding Rupp’s pre-race pancakes. An hour later, she returned, having found them hidden among a landscape dominated by scones.
Fueled by pancakes and coming off some of his best training, Rupp held went out strong and held pace among his East African peers and his British training partner. As the race entered the final lap, Farah strode out and wouldn’t be caught. “I think everyone was watching Mo and not thinking about Galen,” ventured Salazar.
The East Africans, remembering how easily they had shed the American in the final lap at the World Championships the prior year, set their sights on the finish line and each other. Rupp summoned all his reserves and flew past the Bekeles and into the history books.
Rupp and Salazar had accomplished what no U.S. male had in forty-eight years—winning an Olympic medal in the 10,000 meters. The years of wrestling with doubt, and experimenting with different training techniques and runners in The Oregon Project, were now coming back into focus for Salazar. Eleven-and-a-half years after pledging to restore dignity to American distance running, he had put two of his runners on higher podium perches than any East African.
The gold and silver medals held a special place for Clarke, as a former marathoner. “As a longtime distance runner and coach, I have suffered with the loss of stature of U.S. distance runners over the last twenty-five years. Galen’s silver was the sign that we have worked our way back.”