The Standard Chartered Marathon in Dubai offered the richest payday in the history of the sport – $250,000 for the win and a bonus of $1 million dollars for breaking a 4-month old world record. And Haile Gebrselassie had his eye on both prizes as he lined up for his first marathon since claiming the world record with his 2:04:26 performance in Berlin last October.
However, it was not to be, and Gebrselassie missed out on the world record by 27 seconds, running a time of 2:04:53. His reward – the win in the second fastest time ever. The first man to run sub-2:05 twice. The two fastest marathon times in history, achieved in consecutive races in a 4 month period. The consolidation of his position as the fastest marathon runner ever. Yet, strangely, a sense of disappointment that is the result of just how good he is.
Where it went wrong – too fast, too soon and pacing problems
Haile Gebrselassie had talked up his chances of a world record in Dubai, and everyone else seemed to echo his sentiments. The talk from many circles leading up to the race was 2:03-something, with Gebrselassie himself talking of the 2:03 limit, both in the immediate aftermath of his Berlin World record and leading up to this race. But Gebrselassie is an entertainer and inspirational character for this reason – he’s never been shy to talk up the chances of a world record, and 26 successful attempts suggests he is able to walk the talk.
However, in Dubai, a suicidal early pace put paid to any chances of a world record. Remember, at the start line, he needed to average fractionally faster than 2:57/km to crack the world record. His first 10km was run in 28:39 – that’s a pace of 2:52/km, which projects a 2:01 finishing time!
For comparative purposes, when Gebrselassie broke the world record in Berlin, he covered the first 10km in 29:25, a full 46 seconds slower than in Friday’s Dubai race. It’s difficult to know just how the pacers managed to get it so badly wrong (5 secs/km is an enormous pacing error at that level) – you’d have thought that some feedback on the course after the first two kilometers would have seen the pace drop down. But this never happened, and the pace continued unabated.
We actually suspect that the feedback might have been purposefully ignored, and that Gebrselassie most likely asked for the pace to be maintained, perhaps feeling in great shape. Remember, no major challenges or threats were going to be coming from behind, and so Gebrselassie may have decided to “take the plunge” and see what happened off the back of this pace. It’s difficult to know how else an experienced runner would get the pacing this far off.
Between 10 and 21km, Gebrselassie continued to grow the margin between himself and the world record pace. At halfway, Gebrselassie’s time in Dubai was 61:27, projecting a 2:02:54. Remember, that when Geb ran the world record in Berlin, his SECOND HALF was covered in 61:57, and that was a remarkable performance. He now ran the first half a full 30 seconds faster, and it was perhaps inevitable that he was going to slow down in the second half.
That he did, and between 35km and 40km, the record slipped away. Eventually, a second half of 63:26 saw Gebrselassie finish in 2:04:53, a second inside Tergat’s old record.
An indication of just how tough 2:03 will be
This race, then, is an indication of just how difficult a 2:03 will be for the marathon. After breaking the record in October, there was a lot of debate in the media about whether the 2:03 would be possible, particularly for Gebrselassie. We had this debate here at that time, and predicted that based on Gebrselassie’s splits from the world record, this was very premature talk. Simply put, there just didn’t seem to be margin to suggest that a 2:03 was on the cards.
That showed today, where the pace required for that time was simply too fast – a low 2:04 is perhaps possible, but the halfway split which projected 2:03 was too fast, by perhaps 45 seconds. And Dave Bedford’s call that a 2:02 is possible in the next 6 years does really seem out of reach – that would require the athlete to run 30 seconds faster than Gebrselassie for his first half in Dubai, and repeat it all over again!
Looking ahead – Gebrselassie’s next marathon – BEIJING
So ultimately, a disappointment, but only by the standards set by Gebrselassie. He cannot be unhappy with the performance, however. Consistency in marathon running is a valuable commodity, since the margins for error in the event are so small – training, race day conditions, pacing, and all other aspects of preparation have to be absolutely ideal to run a great time. And so to run two consecutive sub-2:05 times means that Geb has clearly mastered the preparation for the marathon, which will stands him in good stead for Beijing.
One training period too far?
On the other hand, two incredibly fast marathons in two starts within four months, and the prospect of another six months of preparation for Beijing (Gebrselassie is not running London and there are unlikely to be other marathons between now and the Olympics) lies ahead for Gebrselassie. Looking back on his last two years, this means that by August, Gebrselassie will be into month 24 of his quest for the perfect marathon – remember that he began the “quest” for the perfect marathon in October 2006, with his near miss on Tergat’s world record. That was followed shortly after by an attempt in Fukuoka, then London, then Berlin, and now this race. And that does not include his races prior to Berlin 2006.
In effect, then, every marathon in the last two years has represented a hyped-up focal point in Gebrselassie’s career and training cycle leading up to the race. Six marathons in 24 months (if we include Beijing), and every one a world record attempt…there has been little opportunity for downtime given this schedule, and the demand of both training and racing for these enormous performances might be a physiological warning signal. Will Beijing be one marathon too many? That’s impossible to tell, though it would not be the first time a great athlete has stretched himself over one too many big training periods. It is yet another pointer towards a fascinating Beijing marathon.