When Jake Riley started at Sehome High School in Bellingham in 2003, he was just a regular kid. He’d graduated from Fairhaven Middle School, where he’d liked playing soccer, but he was looking for something new. That’s when he started hanging out with a group of guys a year older than him.
“It [was] really easy for me to just look at them and be like, ‘Oh, those are some cool guys that are fun to hang out with, I’ll just keep doing what they do,’” Riley says.
Lucky for Riley, the guys he fell in with were runners.
“These guys, they were committed to running every day. They were committed to running in the off-season,” Riley says. “And it wasn’t necessarily because they had any massive aspirations, it was just because they [had] fun running together.”
Sprinting Toward the Olympics
It’s been 17 years since that first brush with running, and Riley hasn’t looked back. In fact, in his peak training times, he runs about 110 miles each week. Last year, he began training for a crucial race: the Chicago Marathon. His time in the marathon would determine whether he would clinch a spot on the U.S. Olympic team. The marathon was also his first big race since an Achilles tendon injury that required many months of physical therapy and rehabilitation work. For some athletes, such an injury poses a major setback.
“It probably took me six months to really get into a place where I could train on a regular schedule, and then another six months before I was able to race again,” Riley says.
But Riley pushed through. Leading up to the Chicago Marathon, he had the fourth fastest time out of all the runners. But only the three fastest make the team. For Riley, making the Olympic team would be a symbol of victory and achievement — a dream come true.
“This is the be-all, end-all. This is the pinnacle of the sport,” Riley says. “So if you are a runner, this is what you dream about.”
After only 2 hours, 10 minutes, and 36 seconds, the race was over for Riley. He finished second, officially qualifying for the 2020 Olympics.
“I’m running out of adjectives to describe just how special this is to me and how big a deal this is within the running community,” Riley says. “I’m just so pumped.”
A Dream Postponed
After years of training and preparation, Riley had finally qualified for the Olympics, but then something happened that nobody could have predicted. In March 2020, with the rise of COVID-19, Riley began to hear rumblings within the running community. Despite mounting evidence that the 2020 Tokyo Olympics might be postponed, he was reluctant to give up hope. Finally, on March 24, the official announcement arrived: For the first time in history, the Olympics would be postponed.
“I woke up and was on my phone and saw [the announcement], and even though I prepared myself, it was definitely a little bit of a gut punch to actually see it there in writing,” Riley says.
Although Riley agrees with the decision to cancel the games, which attract large crowds and athletes from all over the world, the decision still feels monumental, because it is. The games have only been disrupted three other times, during the first and second World Wars, when they were cancelled altogether. This is the first time the games have ever been “postponed.”
As of now, the games are set to happen in 2021, barring further disruption due to COVID-19. For Riley, that means his training will continue. He currently runs seven days a week and trains with his coach Lee Troop, an Australian Olympic marathoner. When the games do finally come around, Riley will be ready and proud to compete.
“Winning the Olympics? That’s probably a goal that’s a little bit too big to put on my goal sheet,” Riley says. “[For me it’s about] the experience, and performing well, and representing the U.S. well.”
Riley is currently a masters student at the University of Colorado studying mechanical engineering. When he’s not training or studying, he’s working as an ACT and SAT tutor for high schoolers. His favorite place to run in Bellingham is on the Lake Padden horse trails up toward Galbraith Mountain. While he doesn’t think he’ll return to Whatcom County in the near future, Riley says he’ll always consider Bellingham, the place where he fell in love with running, home.