2014 Spring season recap

25 Apr 2014 Posted by

The Spring marathon season produced some intriguing debuts, a few course records, and many unanswered questions. Let’s look back at the big four races – Paris, Rotterdam, London and Boston – in the context of who produced, who didn’t, and what we can expect from the rest of 2014.  Here are five thoughts from 2014’s Spring season.

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1. The winners

Two majors and two other big city marathons of note.  Here are the winners:

1. Paris – Kenenisa Bekele (2:05:04 CR) and Flomena Cheyech (2:22:44)

2. Rotterdam – Eliud Kipchoge (2:05:00) and Abebech Afework (2:27:50)

3. London – Wilson Kipsang (2:04:29 CR) and Edna Kiplagat (2:20:21)  (Full analysis of the splits and race here)

4. Boston – Meb Keflezighi (2:08:37) and Rita Jeptoo (2:18:57 CR) (Full analysis of splits and racing here)

So two men’s course records, one women’s course record, though the world record was never really in sight in any of the races.  The season also produced five Kenyan champions, two Ethiopian winners and the USA-win for Meb in Boston.

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2. The best of the best

Wilson Kipsang established himself as the world number 1 marathon runner by breaking the course record in London, and defeating arguably the strongest field of any of the Spring marathons.  London always gathers the best field, so its winner always features in the discussion of the current best marathon runner.  2014 brought together champions and course record holders galore, and Kipsang dominanted them.  A 14:33 followed by a 14:38 5km split from 30km to 40km first put paid to the challenges of everyone except Stanley Biwott.  Then he continued to ramp it up, running the final 2.2km at 2:51/km.

Kipsang’s claim to the #1 ranking, despite being the world record holder as of Berlin 2013, was tenuous because 2013’s other multiple marathon winners, Lelisa Desisa (Dubai & Boston) and Dennis Kimetto (Tokyo & Chicago, in a brilliant course record) were racing in Boston the week after London.  Had either of them won that race, the debate would have remained open.  As it turned out, neither even finished (more on this later), and so the number 1 ranking, for now, is undisputed.

An honorable mention goes to Eliud Kipchoge who won the Rotterdam Marathon in an unheralded time of 2:05:00, but it came on a windy day, and means Kipchoge has now run 2:05:30, 2:04:05 (chasing Kipsang home in the Berlin world record), and 2:05:00.  An impressive sequence, but the wins in Hamburg and Rotterdam don’t carry the weight of a win in London.  Kipchoge needs to win a Major in the Fall season to put himself more firmly in the discussion.

On the women’s side, the best performance is clear – Rita Jeptoo ran 2:18:57 in Boston to become only the fifth woman in history to break 2:19 for the marathon.  In fact, this is objectively the best performance of the 2014 Spring season, because her performance ranks her  eighth on the all-time list (Kipsang’s London time is 14th).  And she did it in Boston!  For the talk of Boston being an overall downhill course (which puts an asterisk next to Jeptoo’s run, however unfairly), it’s the slowest of the major races, and the anomaly of 2011 that saw the massive tailwind blow Geoffrey Mutai to 2:03:02 does not count toward the discussion.

Fact of the matter is that Jeptoo broke the course record by almost two minutes, and it ranks as one of the great women’s performances in history.  Her final 7km was particularly extra-ordinary – 15:44 between 35km and 40km, and 6:51 for the final 2.2km, almost the same as the men’s winners were spectacular indeed.

When the Spring season began, it was another Jeptoo, Priscah, who had all the hype, having soundly beaten Dibaba and Defar in the Great North Run last September, narrowly missing Paula Radcliffe’s course record.  She was also the defending London champion, but her defence, and claim to the women’s unofficial #1 ranking, disappeared when she too failed to finish in London.

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3. High profile debuts

The 2014 Spring season saw the debuts of three extremely high profile runners in Kenenisa Bekele, Mo Farah and Tirunesh Dibaba.  All are pedigreed track runners – in the cases of Bekele and Dibaba, perhaps the greatest of all time on the track, and so the translation up attracted much attention.  Bekele wins the prize for most prudent selection of race, because he avoided the hype of London, and it must be said, the competition (though this may have had contractual, sponsorship and financial reasons) by racing in Paris the week before.  There, he was the focal point of the pacing, and was largely unchallenged on route to a course record on a relatively blustery day.  Not the fastest debut in history, that belongs to Dennis Kimetto in 2:04:15.  Bekele did easily beat the debut performances of two other marathon greats – Haile Gebrselassie ran 2:06:35 first time out, and Sammy Wanjiru 2:06:39.

That stat is a little misleading because Gebrselassie debuted in 2002, when the WR was 2:05:42, so he was less than a minute outside it (it was in fact broken to 2:05:38 in that very race, by Khannouchi).  So Bekele is a little further off the current benchmark than Gebrselassie was, such has been the improvement, but nevertheless, Bekele’s debut was excellent, and it will be interesting to see if he chases times or Major victories in the Fall.  Times means either Chicago or Berlin (the marquee race, presumably against Kipsang for the record) or possibly even Frankfurt (if he wishes to fly under the radar again).  The other option is New York.  It’ll take until then to gauge just where he belongs in the current pecking order.

It was also a good debut Dibaba, who finished third in London in 2:20:34.  Time-wise, it puts her 34th on the all-time lists in her first race, which is objectively better than Bekele, at least ranking wise.  Dibaba also has the ‘fine-print’ of having lost contact with the leaders at around 30km when she dropped her water bottle.  The time she lost there was never made up, but didn’t really get out of hand either, leaving many to speculate that the drop had cost her the win.  Impossible to know but I suspect it wasn’t quite as simple as that, because she lost ground even after the drop, having made much of it up.  Or was that the effort to catch up that cost her?  We’ll never know, but we do know that if she chooses to run another marathon, sub-2:20 is a very real possibility, and once that happens, sub-2:19 comes into view and that means top 10 all-time.

The final debut, the most hyped, was that of Mo Farah, stepping up in distance while at the peak of his track powers.  He raced in London, which amplified the focus on him (though this too is likely the result of commercial factors), but unlike the other two, did not deliver a great debut performance.  He was never in touch, though this was apparently the plan, with Farah planning to go out with the second group on the road, and not the world record group.  The gap was amplified by the ridiculous pace set by Haile Gebrselassie, which pulled the front through 5km in 14:21 (2:01 marathon pace).  Farah kept back, running 2:06 pace from the gun.

What would then be most concerning for him is that having never been in the race at 2:03-2:04 tempo, Farah then got slower and slower off a 2:06 pace, eventually even missing out on the British record of 2:07:13, as a result of a 63:08-65:13 split for a 2:08:21.  Farah lost around 3 minutes to the leaders in the final 10km, after Kipsang’s surge.  Now, bad days happen, and so Farah should not be totally discouraged.  The Mutais, for instance, finished only a few seconds ahead of Farah, and one would fully expect them to compete for wins later this year in New York, Chicago or Berlin, wherever they may race.  However, the Mutais also went through 5km in 14:21, and were running with the leaders to 30km when Kipsang broke everyone’s challenge.  They ‘blew’ probably more spectacularly than Farah did, to lose more time over those final 10km, but the comparison is almost meaningless considering the way they raced, compared to Farah.

That said, Farah ran pretty much by himself because of how the pacing unravelled on the day.  That too has to count for something.  Ultimately, though, given that Farah ran a 3:28 1500m last year, the range required to step up to the marathon within 10 months was always going to be too large, as the Letsrun.com guys pointed out in the preview.  Yes, speed can translate up in distance, but physiologically, if a guy is a 3:28 1500m runner, who races 10,000m to those strengths by closing final laps in 53s, then 42.2km is always going to stretch the boundaries of normal physiology.  They stretched to breaking point for Farah, and while he may be back, I expect he’ll stay on track until he has to leave it, a little like Bekele.  I actually don’t expect Farah to ever mount a challenge in the marathon, and 2:05 is probably out of reach.  I wait to see if that prediction is wrong!

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4. The “losers”

There were some disappointing performances in the Spring season, by athletes who will want to return in the Fall and address their status on the world marathon stage.  Already mentioned, Lelisa Desisa and Dennis Kimetto started the Boston race firmly part of the discussion of who is the best marathon runner in the world.  Kipsang had staked his claim the week before, and neither Desisa nor Kimetto could respond.  Neither finished, having first allowed Meb Keflezighi to open up a 1:21 lead over them.  Kimetto tried to respond, and was one of the chasers at 30km, but apparent hamstring problems put paid to his race, and like Desisa (who lost 2 min to his group from 30 to 35km), did not reach 40km.  Kimetto is the defending Chicago champion, so I’d expect him to return there, where he ran 2:03:45 last year.  Desisa won Dubai and Boston last year, in his first and second marathons ever (a 2:04:45 debut there too), but has now discovered a different side of the event, which makes it interesting to see if he bounces back in the Fall.

The Mutais, Geoffrey and Emmanuel, will also be disappointed with their London showings.  Geoffrey was coming in off the back of a New York Marathon win in November (a return to form of sorts after a few unsatisfactory marathons) and a win in the New York Half Marathon, but couldn’t respond to Kipsang’s move at 30km.  Emmanuel Mutai had come close to wining London in 2013, and then went under 2:04 in Chicago.  In both races, he was second.  This time, well off that even.

Finally on the women’s side, Priscah Jeptoo, no relation to Rita of Boston fame, entered London the favorite, but left it without finishing.  All will be eager to return to the top in the Fall.

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5.  Pacing problems

One other thing that plagued the 2014 Spring Marathons was pacing.  In various forms, each race suffered from problems with its pace-makers, or the pacing strategy (read: tactics) adopted by the elite field.  When Bekele ran 2:05:04 in Paris, there was some criticism of his pacemakers there, who had pulled him through halfway in 62:09, before dropping off and leaving Bekele to run alone to the finish.  In truth, Bekele surged to help that situation develop, but the pacing was criticised.

London made it look excellent by comparison, and it was Haile Gebrselassie who did that damage.  He led through 5km in 14:21, which was far too fast, and was actually gone from the race by 15km.  Talk before was that he’d lead all the way to 30km, so this was a fairly disastrous pacing job.  The other pacemakers also fell off soon after halfway, by which time the early pace had dropped considerably – 62:30 for a 2:05:00.  It was only Kipsang’s outrageous final 12km that gave him the course record.  When I spoke to him last week here in Cape Town, he expressed disappointment at the pacing job done, because a more measured effort might have provided more company to 30km, and the time might have been even faster.  He felt in sub-2:04 shape, and pacing may have cost him that performance.

Then finally, there was Boston, a race that does not employ pace-makers, and as a result has the potential to produce intriguing tactical battles, which we saw this year.  Few would have given Meb Keflezighi a chance, coming in with the 15th best PB in the race.  But he was brave, went to the front just before 15km, and the pack allowed him to build a considerable lead without ever really running fast.  Meb was able to run steadily, ranging between 15:00 and 15:30 per 5km, and see his lead reach 1:21 with only 12km to go.

At that stage, the chasing pack, for all its quality, was reliant on a combination of them speeding up, and Meb slowing down, if they were to catch up.  The move eventually came at 30km, and it turned out to be too aggressive.  14:57 over a difficult section of the race and a 14:29 brought Wilson Chebet within sight of Keflezighi, but then the slow-down was required.  It never came – Keflezighi ran what was, for him, the perfect race, and he was able to hold on for a famous and very popular USA-victory.

The racing strategy from behind was bizarre, however.  It’s one thing if you allow a leader to escape to 1:21 by running exceptionally fast – then the bet that he’ll slow down is a little safer, and if he doesn’t, then you simply acknowledge that he was to good.  But allowing that gap for a man who has won Majors and Olympic medals, however “slow” he may be on paper, was simply neglectful tactics.  Even once the move came, it was too aggressive too soon.  Overall, Meb produced an excellent race, and the rest produced a race to forget, at least tactically.

The reason that happens, of course, is the absence of pacemakers, and that’s something I’d like to see less of.  New York and Boston are the two races that don’t employ pacemakers, and they make for intriguing races, less predictable than the all-out, race against the clock efforts of London, Chicago and especially Berlin.  Sure, the Berlin race produces world records, and those are equally memorable, but imagine a London race this year without pacemakers – Farah would likely have been in the lead group at least to halfway, creating more intrigue (better coverage too) and an overall better race.

Perhaps the solution is to alternate, as per the suggestion made recently by Letsrun.com, where either the men’s or the women’s race (but not both) get pacemakers, and then alternate years.  I’d certainly like to see more races, putting the onus on the athletes to think and execute tactics.  Meb Keflezighi showed the value of doing that, the East Africans in Boston showed the opposite, and the combination of the two, in the same race, created terrific suspense.  More of that, please…!

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6.  Onto the Fall

So the marathon world now takes a break, and track takes over, until October, when Berlin brings another world record attempt, Chicago brings a fast race and New York offers the intrigue of hills and tactics through Central Park.  The protagonists have asked more questions than they answered in the Spring, perhaps the Fall will provide more answers.

Thanks for following the coverage!

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.

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