Until recently, being a running fan in the United States was a pretty melancholy experience. At the start of this millennium, if you cared about American performances in professional track and field or road racing, you probably felt the way that this placid gentleman does about the men’s national soccer team.
How things have changed.
Following last year’s remarkable showing at the Olympics in Rio, the renaissance of American running continued in 2017. Above all else, this year proved that American runners are not only capable of getting on the podium in the most competitive races in the world, they are capable of straight-up winning them. Even ten years ago, such success would have seemed like a total fantasy.
Here is our (deeply biased) list of the ten biggest running stories of 2017.
10. The Strangeness of Breaking2
The Nike-sponsored Breaking2 project garnered a lot of attention earlier this year, both positive and… less so. Regardless of whether you felt that the carefully orchestrated attempt to run a marathon in under two hours was just a really elaborate way to sell expensive sneakers, or distance running’s equivalent of the Moon landing, it was certainly an event. Even the haters tuned in to watch Eliud Kipchoge, Zersenay Tadese, and Lelisa Desisa go for broke behind a rotating team of pacers with a laser-beaming Tesla Model S leading the way. It was utterly bizarre to behold, but captivating nonetheless.
9. Kipchoge Is the Boss
As the (Nike-produced) National Geographic documentary made clear, Eliud Kipchoge was the only Breaking2 athlete who had any real chance of running a sub two-hour marathon. In the end, the “Boss Man,” as Kipchoge is affectionately known in the hallowed training grounds of Kaptagat, finished in an unofficial world record time of 2:00:25. Five months later, he triumphed in Berlin for his seventh consecutive victory in a major marathon. It’s totally perverse how good this guy is. In a sport where so much can go wrong, the Boss Man has achieved a level of success and consistency that is as astonishing as it is unprecedented.
8. Jordan Hasay Has Arrived
Speaking of unprecedented, Jordan Hasay’s 2:23:00 at Boston last April was the fastest debut marathon from an American woman by a margin of almost three minutes. (Kara Goucher, who held the previous record of 2:25:53, was gracious about being dethroned.) To say that this was a “breakout year” for Hasay would be putting it mildly. Before 2017, the former University of Oregon track star had never raced a half marathon, let alone a full 26.2 miles. Following her 2:20:57 performance at the Chicago Marathon in October, Hasay is suddenly #2 on the U.S. all-time list. And she’s only 26 years old. Fortunately for running fans everywhere, Hasay will have her hands full this coming Patriots’ Day against arguably the strongest U.S. field ever assembled at the Boston Marathon.
7. Bolt Bows Out
“There’s something about transcendent talent that causes people to root for it, no matter their allegiances or their usual embrace of the underdog,” Nick Paumgarten wrote in a recent New Yorker profile of Mikaela Shiffrin. There is no athlete to whom those words are more applicable than Usain Bolt, who retired at last summer’s IAAF World Champions in London. Over the past decade, the Jamaican sprinter inspired levels of adulation that were completely incongruous with the humble sport of track and field. We were sad to see him go.
6. Mo’s Revenge
Unfortunately, a third-place finish in the 100-meters and an injury in the 4X100 relay meant that Usain Bolt didn’t get the farewell victory he wanted at the World Championships. Likewise, the crowd favorite Mo Farah was upset in the 5,000, losing to Muktar Edris of Ethiopia. (For context: going into last summer’s World Championships, Farah had won every major championship 5,000-meters since 2011.) A few weeks later, Farah ran another 5,000 at the Weltklasse meet in Zurich in what would be the final track race of his career. Once again, Edris and his Ethiopian teammate Yomif Kejelcha tried to move past Farah on the back straight of the last lap, as they had done in London. This time, however, Farah responded, and somehow managed to maintain a sliver of a lead all the way to the line. It was sweet revenge and one of the most exciting finishes of any track race ever.
5. Ingebrigtsen Sub-4
Typically, when a sub four-minute mile makes headlines, the story involves an American high school student. After all, the distance, while rarely contested abroad, is still the go-to benchmark for young distance running talent in the U.S. It was therefore a bit of a surprise that the biggest mile story of 2017 didn’t involve an American (or East African), but a Norwegian. In May, 16-year-old Jakob Ingebrigtsen became the youngest runner in history to run a mile in under four minutes when he clocked 3:58.07 at the Pre Classic in Eugene, Oregon. Incredibly, Ingebrigtsen would follow it up by running almost two seconds faster in front of his home crowd in Oslo, improving his mile PR to 3:56.29.
4. Meb Finishes Where It All Began
No disrespect to Bolt and Farah, but for our money, the most significant farewell story of 2017 was the retirement of Meb Keflezighi. As mentioned, this list is biased—and we love Meb. We love that he stuck it out until age 42. We love that he raced Boston the year after the bombings and won the race. We love that he ran the New York City Marathon eleven times (including a victory in 2009), making the storied five-borough course the place where he both started and ended his marathon career. We love that, in the last race of his career when he had nothing left to prove and could have just phoned it in, he ran so hard that he collapsed at the finish.
3. Coburn and Frerichs Go 1-2
The women’s steeplechase final at the World Championships was, hands down, the best race of the competition. Bahraini world record holder Ruth Chebet went out aggressively, but faded on the final lap, opening the door for Americans Emma Coburn and Courtney Frerichs, who had valiantly maintained contact with Chebet and a trio of Kenyans. By the final water jump, there were four women still in contention. Coburn came off it better than anyone and never looked back, while Frerichs managed to overcome a slight stumble to hold off Kenya’s Hyvin Jepkemoi for the silver. Both women set huge PRs, and pulled off one of the biggest upsets in track and field history. “I don’t think anyone thought that we’d have two medals tonight,” an elated Coburn said after the race.
2. Rupp Takes Chicago
It’s not always easy to root for Galen Rupp. There’s the fact that he competes for the Oregon Project, the beleaguered training group that always seems to exude an air of scandal and intrigue. There’s his aloofness; Rupp eschews social media and rarely gives interviews. There’s that horrible semi-sneer; call it Resting Rupp Face. At the 2016 U.S. Olympic Trials in the marathon, Rupp even managed to get on Meb Keflezighi’s bad side by running too close to him during the race. Of course, Rupp probably doesn’t care if you like him or not. He doesn’t need to be Mr. Simpatico to be the best American marathoner of his generation. He’s made the podium in all four marathons that he has contested so far. In October, he won the Chicago Marathon by running the last five miles at sub world record pace. Love him or hate him, Galen Rupp has found his event.
1. Shalane Wins in NYC
How could this not be our favorite moment of the year? Hell, it might be our favorite moment of the decade, next to Meb winning Boston in 2014. Watching Shalane Flanagan charging up Central Park Drive in the closing stages of the New York City Marathon, it was easy to still feel incredulous that it was finally going to happen for her. Although Flanagan has amassed a wealth of national titles (and several national records) since turning pro in 2004, she always fell just short of a big win in major international competition: An Olympic bronze medal (subsequently upgraded to silver) in the 10,000 meters in 2008. Second place at the 2010 NYC Marathon. Third place in Berlin in 2014. At age 36, and coming off an injury earlier in the year, Flanagan was a long shot to win in NYC, especially since she would be running against three-time defending champ Mary Keitany. But entering the Central Park for the critical final miles of the race, Flanagan had more in the tank than any of her rivals. Her 25th mile was the fastest of the race. By mile 26, she had secured an insurmountable lead. The first American woman to win the New York City Marathon in 40 years. Brava!