Easter Weekend musings  //  Two Oceans, two extra-ordinary marathons, two tournaments to go

10 Apr 2009 Posted by

If it’s Easter weekend, then it must be the Two Oceans Marathon. For those not in the know, the Two Oceans Marathon is one of South Africa’s biggest running events, a 56 km ultra-marathon and a half-marathon around the Cape Peninsula. You can read my post about the race from last year here, including a profile of the course, and some comments. I won’t do the same this year, other than to say we’re in for a beautiful autumn day, perhaps a little warm for super-fast times, but a good day out for most.

The race has been dominated by Zimbabweans for the last few years, defending champion Marcus Mambo going for a fourth win. The Zimbabwean runners flood south over the border to claim what is, in their terms, enormous prize money (R150,000 for the winner, or about $15,000), and have had the better of the locals for a long time. Added to this is the fact that they don’t race as much as our athletes do, and the combination of incentive and preparation is usually enough to relegate local runners to the minor placings.

Compared to international marathons, Oceans is a “minor” race, however, with regards to prize money. Consider that the big marathons offer six figures (dollar amounts) appearance fees plus prize money and you see what we’re up against. For SA, the problem is exchange rates as well – a weak currency compared to the dollar, pound and euro. Many people have in the past said that the Kenyans will one day come down here and dominate as well, but given that a second level Kenyan can make twice as much money winning a B-level marathon in Europe, that’s unlikely.

I’ll be commentating this year’s race for the local television broadcast, which should be fun. I am on-board as a ‘technical’ analyst, so I’ll be brought in to discuss, among other things, performance limits, causes of fatigue, hydration and fuel strategies, and other physiology issues that might (hopefully) add a bit of value for the viewers. I’m looking forward to it, we’ll have to see how it goes.

The marathon world looks back to days of old

Meanwhile, while South Africans are basking the glory of “fast” 2:18 marathon times (seriously, the media are reporting that the top local MALE runners are in great shape because they ran 2:18 marathons recently), the rest of world is now racing competitively at sub-2:05 pace!

Last weekend, in a momentous day for marathon running, 13 Kenyan men broke 2:09 on a single day (only 6 Americans have ever done it, according to LetsRun.com). The Paris Marathon saw 11 sub-2:09 clockings, a record for a single race, with a winning time of 2:05:47. The Rotterdam Marathon, while not as deep, was even more spectacular, with two men running 2:04:27.

That’s right, a sprint for the line, and a victory margin of less than a second in a marathon run in 2:04:27. Duncan Kibet and James Kwambai were 1 and 2, and they ran the third and fourth fastest marathons in history that day.

It was, for marathon running, a definitive statement that a new era has arrived. A lot of people, including a coach on the LetsRun.com boards, are proclaiming that this was a weekend that changed the marathon world, the start of a new era. A revolution, certainly, but it is a change that started a long time ago. And so it is not so much that we are seeing a new era, it’s just that the era which began three or four years ago is now so obvious that it’s starting to punch us between the eyes.

Looking back, Rotterdam and Paris were spectacular, but predictable. It’s easy to look back in hindsight, but the ripple effect of what happened on the track in the 1990s, driven by Gebrselassie, was bound to reach the marathon (once again, it was Geb who has played a key role). It is actually not dissimilar to what happened in the 5,000m event in the mid-1990s. In 1994, the world record stood at 12:58 (Said Aouita). That year, Gebrselassie broke his record for the first time, taking it down to 12:56. Moses Kiptanui “borrowed” it in early 1995, before Gebrselassie produced what might be one of the greatest runs of all time, to take almost 11 seconds off the record when he ran 12:44.39 in Zurich.

What happened next is that the rest of the world was “pulled” into faster times. Where before 1995, it was remarkable to break 13 minutes, it suddenly became commonplace. Sub 12:50 was the new standard, and by 1997, Gebrselassie’s “untouchable” world record had fallen to Daniel Komen, and easily half a dozen men were running 12:50 times each year.

The same has now happened in the marathon. One year ago, only one man had ever run under 2:05. Last weekend, four men did it on one day (once again, credit to LetsRun for the stat). Yet the signs were there. Elite half marathons that are NOT won in sub-60 minutes are now deemed “SLOW”, because so many men are running 59-something for that distance. Gebrselassie, Tergat and other men with 59-credentials are translating that speed (and their obvious track speed) into 2:04 marathons, and the rest of the world is following suit. To me, the key moment came in 2003, when Paul Tergat and Sammy Korir raced to a world record of 2:04:55 in Berlin. That was the start of the current era, in my opinion, and Kibet and Kwambai are the next step in the evolution of the race, the steps now being taken more and more frequently.

Added to this, the huge money on offer provides an enormous incentive (as for the Zimbabweans in Two Oceans, though it’s all relative), and the rest, as they say, is history and a race for 2:04:27 “photo finish” in the marathon.

Best of all, there are still two big marathons to go. First is Boston, which probably won’t produce those kinds of times thanks to the tougher course, but should give us a great race between American favourite Ryan Hall (who is apparently in awesome training shape) and defending champion Robert Cheruiyot, who won last year’s race in brutal, dominant fashion.

Then the week after is the big one – London. Last year, London produced six sub-2:07 clockings, which is a record that was matched in Paris last weekend. This year’s London race promises to be even better – Lel vs Wanjiru vs Goumri vs Gharib vs Tadese. There are world champions, Olympic Champions, World Series Champions, debutants with magnificent half-marathon credentials. It promises to be an extra-ordinary race.

Closer to the time, for both Boston and London, we’ll recap our analysis from last year and look forward. And then obviously, on race day, I’ll be doing my “real time” splits and race commentary, as has become custom here at The Science of Sport.

Sevens rugby: Two to go, as we near the end of the season

Finally, it would be remiss of me not to mention the Sevens Tournament in Adelaide, seeing as how I’ve been updating you on the tournaments in Dubai and Hong Kong.

We won Adelaide (huge celebrations), and are now within striking distance of claiming the overall World Series title. That was of course the big goal for the year and so we approach that with the chance to wrap it up in London at the end of May (followed by Edinburgh a week later).

The Adelaide tournament was really just a war of attrition. It was the 5th tournament in 9 weeks, and came only a week after a tough Hong Kong tournament. Players were battered, bruised and fatigued, and it was always going to be a survival of the fittest contest.

In the end, I have little doubt that we won because of superior fitness, for which the coaching staff and fitness and conditioning staff (Allan Temple-Jones, to be specific) must take a bow. We had injuries, as did the other teams, but our intensity remained closer to normal than anyone else’s throughout both Hong Kong and Adelaide, and that made a difference, along with the other changes made after the Dubai trip.

So a successful trip, with one to go, which I’ll hopefully report good news on in due course!

Enjoy Easter, have a wonderful break, and join us for more next week!

Ross

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