We admit bias on this one, because our focus on The Science of Sport does tend to drift towards the endurance activities, but this one couldn’t have escaped our attention – today, the 3rd day of the IAAF World Champs, brought a great 10 000m race, a race that was so good, and interesting, that we decided to do a post on it, and a separate post looking at the rest of the day’s action. But this is dedicated to the 10 000m final, and a great race – from a physiological and a tactical point of view, it was one of the great races that I’ve ever seen.
Bekele defends and becomes a 3-time 10km champion
Much as expected, and if you logged onto the internet, you’d see the following result:
- Kenenisa Bekele 27:05.90
- Sileshi Sihine 27:09.03
- Martin Mathathi 27:12.17
So, you’d be forgiven for thinking you’d missed pretty much a repeat of Bekele’s last few world and Olympic titles, because the time gaps at the finish would be consistent with a blazing final lap, during which Bekele would pull away from competitors and win relatively comfortably (3 seconds, in this case). Nothing could be further from the truth. For what actually transpired, was, in my opinion, one of the great 10 000m races.
From a physiology point of view, this was a race to savour, and tactically, the way it played out is a great case study in the physiology, which is what we will address now.
The physiology of the race
Dealing with the temperature
Two things made this race remarkable. The first was the temperature – 29 degrees celsius at the start (84 Fahrenheit), with high humidity means that to have run just outside 27 minutes was itself an extra-ordinary performance. In fact, so remarkable was this performance that I wouldn’t be surprised if the equations that we (exercise scientists, that is) often use to model the physics of racing in the heat don’t apply! To expand on that, there are all sorts of equations and models that can be used to predict how much body temperature would rise in an athlete when running at a certain speed in certain conditions. I will certainly make a point to check, but the concept of running 2:42/km for 10km in 29 degree heat is without doubt right up there on the limit. We have written a bit about exercise and the heat in recent posts (which you can read here and here), and this race was ample proof of the importance of acclimatization and small body size – it’s no co-incidence that the larger runners were first to drop out or fall off the pace.
So to run 27:05 is incredible, but it was the way it was achieved that was most amazing and the second reason this race is worth analyzing. This was not a typical 10000m Championship race, because usually, no one is willing to take up the lead and so the first 5000m is usually quite slow, and only in the second half do the Africans take up the running and it usually ends with an incredible last 2km. This was different, and that was due to the efforts of one man – Zersenay Tadese of Eritrea. And this brings us to the second really fascinating part of this race – physiological differences between athletes and how it dictates strategy.
The physiology of race strategy
Yesterday evening, in a preview of the race, I wrote that Zersenay Tadese, the world Cross-Country champion, would fancy his chances of beating Bekele, given the expected hot conditions and the fact that he had done it in Mombasa, putting an end to Bekele’s remarkable streak of world titles. The problem for Tadese is that in a tactical race, he would have little chance of staying with the Ethiopians in the final lap sprint finish. His strength is his strength. This is an athlete who has a 59:16 half marathon, one of the fastest ever, and he is the world 20km champion. So over the longer distances, he’s quite comfortable.
Bekele, on the other hand, is all about speed. Yes, he is a complete runner, and has shown ability to run at pace for long periods, but particularly this year, there is no doubt that his training has been focused on the shorter distances. He has run two Personal Bests over 3000m in the month leading up to this race, and his final lap speed in legendary.
So what you had in this race, then, was a clash of two different athletes – Tadese, whose strength was his weapon, against Bekele, who has such speed over the final 400m that his manager was quoted as saying that as long as Bekele was in contact with 500m to go, the race was over.
So, if you are Zersenay Tadese, standing on the start line, you are likely thinking three things:
- The last time I raced Bekele, it was in the heat of Mombasa, and I beat him, the heat beat him and he must be worried about that again.
- If this race comes down to a final lap sprint, I’m going to be blown away. But I am strong, I win races at 20km, Cross Country and I have half marathon credentials that are second to none in this race.
- Bekele has been doing a lot of racing at 3km. I wonder if his endurance is up to the level that might be required?
Given this collection of thoughts, the strategy that Tadese would adopt is to go out hard, run the middle hard and try to run the last part of the race hard! And this is exactly what he did, taking the lead from the first lap and just running a relentless tempo that ended up shedding all but 3 men.
But what of Bekele? His thoughts before the race will have been very different, for he will go into a race like this knowing that over the final 400m, he has no peer. So a slow race is perfect for him, and he would not take up the lead unless it was absolutely necessary, and that is usually with about 400m to go. Was Bekele concerned about the heat? He must have been. It was his longest outing since that race in Mombasa, and he had to have been slightly apprehensive about the prospects of a fast pace. We’ll never know…
So you have two completely different approaches, and it was Tadese who should be given credit for turning this race into the classic that it was. The biggest injustice was ultimately that he failed to medal, because he deserved it.
How the race unfolded
The physiology of the race
As mentioned, Tadese hit the front and stayed there, and stayed there and stayed there, until 3 laps from the end. There were times when Gebremariam, the tall Ethiopian, moved to the front, but the pace slowed immediately whenever he did. In fact, it would not surprise me if this were a deliberate tactic, and that the other Ethiopians (Bekele and Sihine) were sending him up there precisely to slow the race down! Whenever he led for part of a lap, it was a 66 second lap, compared to the usual 64-65 pace that Tadese was setting. Gebremariam’s stints in the lead were thus short, about 150m, before Tadese moved by and the pace returned to its normal 65sec/lap rhythm.
Watching this unfold, I could not believe it to be possible that the runners could sustain this pace, particularly at the front, and eventually Tadese failed. Three laps from the end, he slowed. Not by much, maybe a second, but it was enough that Bekele, Sihine and the Kenyan Martin Mathathi began bunching around him. With 3 laps to go, it was Mathathi who moved into the lead, and Tadese was gone. Mathathi ran a 61 second lap, and Bekele was in trouble!
A gap began to appear between Mathathi and Bekele down the back straight, with 1000m to go, and Bekele even gestured to Sihine to move past. This quote from Bekele reveals what was going on:
With three laps left, I was tired, but after some minutes, my body started to recover a bit. When the other guy took the lead, I encouraged Sileshi to go after him. If I could have, I would have.
So the gap appears, the first time since his arrival on the world scene that Bekele has looked troubled in a track race. And that gap grew, but never blew out. Coaches and runners often talk about an invisible elastic band, which stretches and must no be allowed to break. I got the impression watching the race that the band was almost stretched to breaking point – with 2 laps to go, Bekele was about 3 m back, with 500m, it was about 5m, but he hung on and hung on, and then at the sound of the bell, he bridged that gap, and then moved past the Kenyan.
What he still had to do was move past Sihine, his team-mate. Sihine turned it on down the back straight, opening up a gap of about 8m on Bekele, but by this stage, Bekele’s final lap speed was all that remained, and over the final 200m, he shifted into a gear that no other runner has, and put four seconds on Sihine in the final 200m. The last lap, unofficially, was 55.5 secs, but the damage was done in the final 200m, which was 26-something, I think.
The mystery of what actually happened
The way the race unfolded in the final 2km was incredibly exciting, and as a scientist, incredibly difficult to explain. In my opinion, Bekele was in real trouble. There was a point with about 600m to go that Mathathi gestured to Sihine to come passed and help with the pace. Of course, Sihine didn’t, but had he done so, any slight increase in pace might have been enough to put paid to Bekele. Similarly, I believe that had the race been 10.4 km, a mere 400m longer, Bekele might have had too much to do on the final lap. These ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’ are of course mere conjecture, we’ll never know, but Bekele was hanging on. So then how do we explain his 4-second winning margin? How does a runner who was hanging on with 1km to go sprint the final 200m 4-secs faster than anyone else?
It may surprise you to know that there is no explanation for this is in all of exercise physiology and if anyone tells you different, they’re lying! One theory is of course one that you may have heard – the runner has become anaerobic, his muscles are starved of oxygen and lactate is poisoning them. If this is true, then how does he speed up? Because if lactate is affecting the muscle (or any other metabolite, for that matter), then speeding up would be impossible, unless he could override the effect of lactate…but how does that happen? We don’t know. The other theory, of course, which many of you will consider a no-brainer, is that he was never maximal to begin with. In otherwords, he always had a reserve – muscle that he could have used, but did not. And upon hearing the bell, with only 400m to go, suddenly that muscle, which was previously unrecruited, is used to produce a 55.5 s final lap. That theory, which states that there is always a muscle reserve, regulated by the brain, has yet to be widely accepted. It’s intuitive though, and I’m sure many of you reading this think it to be obvious!
There is so much more about this race that could be written, but we’ll leave it that for now. To end, my vote for the man of the day goes to Zersenay Tadese, who set the race up. Any other conditions, and I actually believe he could challenge the world record, such was the strength he showed to lead for so long under those conditions. His chance may well come in Brussels in a few weeks.
The rest of the day’s action is summarized in our other post for today
Until next time!
R & J
This post is part of the thread: World Championships – an ongoing story on this site. View the thread timeline for more context on this post.