London 2009 revisited  //  on closer inspection...

27 Apr 2009 Posted by
Yesterday’s London Marathon closed off the big marathons for the next few months, and we now get to look forward to the Fall season, with Berlin (times two, with the IAAF World champs there as well), Chicago and New York the highlights to come. But now might be a good time to look back over the last month or so of marathon racing, which has been enthralling and high quality.

First came the “weekend that changed marathon running forever”, when Rotterdam saw two men race to 2:04:27 times. That a man can lose a marathon running that time says something about where we are in the sport today. This was followed by the Paris Marathon, where the course record was broken (2:05:47) and another five men broke 2:07. All in all, 13 Kenyan men broke 2:09 on one day, and people spoke of the new dawn for the marathon.

It was perhaps inevitable, when you look at the half-marathon, where sub-60 minute times are now commonplace. Eventually, this kind of speed would impact on the marathon, and we’re seeing a different pattern of racing emerging – competitive races are now being run aggressively, with favourites hitting the front earlier and harder than I can recall. There was a time when a record attempt was a record attempt – Gebrselassie in Berlin keeps this tradition alive – and a race was bound to be slow and tactical. But Beijing last year, Wanjiru in London, even Hall in Boston, have shown that competitive racing is now aggressive racing, and that has changed the face of the marathon.

Boston and London were actually quite similar in this regard. In Boston, the fast early pace (albeit on a downhill part of the course) was created by Ryan Hall, and then when it began to slow, Deriba Merga threw in surges over the Newton Hills to break the field open at about 30km. Yesterday in London, the pace was set, ridiculously fast, by the pacemakers, before Sammy Wanjiru blew the race open with a 4:25 mile, at roughly the corresponding distance to where Merga made his move.

The pacing strategy – great for a race, not for a time

One thing I can say with pretty high certainty is that this kind of racing strategy is not conducive to optimal performance. I know that is picking holes, given that Wanjiru broke the course record, but the way the race was run is certainly not how anyone should aspire to run for a fast time.

Yesterday, I compared Wanjiru’s winning run in London to Gebrselassie’s world record, and it was quite clear how the better pacing of Gebrselassie told in the second half of the race.

To look at this a little more in detail, I have put together the following diagram. It shows the gap between Gebrselassie (in green) and Wanjiru (in red), at 5km intervals during the marathon. Obviously, we’re comparing London to Berlin here, so it’s not a direct comparison, but it illustrates the point quite clearly.

Geb-vs-Wanjiru-compared
It’s pretty obvious that Wanjiru went out way too fast, and built up a lead of 51 seconds over Gebrselassie at the 15km point. From then on, though, it got progressively smaller and smaller, until eventually Geb “took over the lead” just before 30km. If it were possible to super-impose the races, it would have made for great TV as Geb would have come up onto Wanjiru’s shoulder at about 29km and then begun to move steadily away!

But what is interesting is that the biggest gap of all comes between 35km and 40km. That’s where Gebrselassie, you’ll recall from Berlin last year, put the hammer down and really created the sub-2:04 time (which up to that point had been an outside shot). He ran that interval in 14:29, whereas Wanjiru, despite having Kebede right behind him, ran a 15:14 interval. That was where the real effect of those first 10km told, because all through the race, gaps were opening up big time in this section. In the end, like in Beijing, Wanjiru got the closest to an “even-split”: his first half was 61:36, and his second 63:34. That’s a positive split of close to 2 minutes. Gebrselassie ran a “negative split” by 7 seconds!

super-fast start, combined with the surges at 28 to 30km all add up, and that’s why if you want a world record, you really have to have the right day, at the right pace, in the right race situation. Whether Wanjiru will ever get that, time will tell!

The pace – some questions

Speaking of super-fast pace, I’m still confused as to what was going on in the men’s race yesterday. The first mile was run in 4:38, which already projects a sub-2:02 time. Now, I’m led to believe that the clock on the car right in front of the runners was showing them the time, and was giving a PROJECTED time. This means that within the first 5 minutes of the race, the elite men MUST have known that they were going at 2-hour pace. By 5km, in 14:08, they’d have seen that they were on for a 1:59 marathon.

Now, why someone did not signal for a slowing down is beyond me. We know this didn’t happen, because the second 5km interval was run in 14:22, which is still too fast – the target time per 5km interval would have been 14:42. So they have “ignored” the signs at 1 mile, 2 miles, 5km and all the way through to 10km, and so it is amazing to have heard Wanjiru say that he hopes for “better pace-making” next time. I find it absolutely extra-ordinary that not a single person, not a pace-maker, not an elite athlete, not an agent, not the race director, would have at some point in the first 5 minutes sent a signal to ease off.

Therefore, I’m left to make the same conclusion that Amby Burfoot made in his comment to our post yesterday, that this was a deliberate, stated instruction. Perhaps these races are sending the pace-makers out too fast, trying to capitalize on slight downhill sections, and hoping that athletes hang on long enough to keep the advantage.

Unfortunately, this flies in the face of everything we know about optimal pacing. That is, if you want to run the best time, you must aim for even pace. That’s been pretty well shown in lab studies and by Gebrselassie in his two world records. So someone is missing a trick if the instruction is to go out too fast. Hopefully, lessons will be learned for the future. It did make for a super-exciting second half of the race though, because a progressively slowing pace sets it up perfectly for aggressive surges.

Sammy Wanjiru – fearless and fearsome

And aggressive surges are the name of the game for Sammy Wanjiru. Last year in Beijing, he set the race up by hitting the first 10km at sub 3min/km pace, despite the heat and smog and humidity. Then he threw in surges in the second half, at that pace in those conditions! It was the greatest marathon performance ever. London yesterday saw Wanjiru race the same way – surging off the front off a fast pace, from a long way out.

I am loathe to describe Wanjiru as “gutsy” because I’ve always felt that “gutsy” implies that the person lacks some talent, but makes up for it with courage and heart. Wanjiru, by that definition, is not gutsy, because he has extra-ordinary talent. But he’s absolutely fearless, so aggressive and courageous with the attacks. It really is a wonderful sight. When Kebede seemed to be reeling him back at 40km, he found another surge and the gap was created for good. It’s brilliant racing, and one wonders whether anyone in the world could match it? Lel, perhaps – big disappointment that he couldn’t race. Merga is a guy who seems to race the Wanjiru way, that would be a fabulous race! Gebrselassie? Can’t say I’d back him against what we saw yesterday.

Zersenay Tadese – back to the drawing board

Finally, a word on Tadese, the debutant who carried much hope into the race. He eventually bailed at 35km, after running the interval from 30km to 35km in 16:47. It was a forgettable first marathon for the half-marathon world champion. I’m not sure whether he might have had a problem, but I was really surprised that he folded as early as he did.

Once could blame the fast early pace, and the distance, but the fact remains – he didn’t make 30km with the other 6 guys, most of whom he is at least equal to over 21km. That’s not the marathon distance that undid him, it’s 28km, which shouldn’t happen.

Now, I’d fully expected that he’s struggle in the final 3 or 4km, that is where the distance will tell on the novice. But at 30km, he should have been able to hang for a little longer. Consider that his 10km best is more recent and just as fast as anyone else’s, his 21km performances are at least as good as everyone with the expection of Wanjiru, and yet he was blown right off at 28km. Perhaps something went wrong in the training?

Hopefully he’ll be back. What he needs now is to find a second-tier marathon, and get a 2:06 time under his belt, learn the race a little, and then hopefully return to a major in the future with a little more nous and experience, and maybe he’ll turn his 21km performances into marathon greatness. Bad marathons happen, perhaps he just got his worst one out the way early!

Looking ahead

That’s a wrap of London. Looking ahead, the track season starts soon, and so do the Grand Tours of cycling, which should provide some debate. We’ve also got our analysis of the Michael Ashenden interview to do, and I’m sure more will come up!

But bring on the Fall season!

Ross

This post is part of the thread: Marathon Analysis – an ongoing story on this site. View the thread timeline for more context on this post.