Two Oceans Marathon  //  Paying the price for poor pacing

13 Apr 2009 Posted by

As promised, a brief recap of the Two Oceans Marathon is the topic of today’s post. Many of you may have run the race (or the 21km), and are hopefully enjoying a well deserved day off work and off your feet today.

There are few more beautiful races in the world, as I’m sure anyone who ran will testify. The Cape Town weather played along this year, providing a cloudless sky and ideal conditions for running, although those who are coming out of a winter (northern hemisphere visitors, that is) would have found it warmer than they’d hoped. You can read the race report here – my post is more of a commentary on the tactics and the standard of running, as highlighted by the results.

The elite races produced two very different stories. In the men’s race, the pre-race favourite was Marko Mambo of Zimbabwe, the defending champion and a winner of the race back in 2004 and 2005 as well. He was heavily favoured to win this year, mostly because the local runners are now so poor over the marathon that they would have to run a miracle to feature.

What Mambo didn’t bargain on was a Kenyan – John Wachira. Kenyans have never really turned their attention to our races here in SA, and I don’t expect Wachira’s performance to start a trend (more on that later). But Wachira, a security guard who is now based in Johannesburg, seized upon a racing error by Mambo and took the title in a time of 3:10:06.

How it unfolded

The race went pretty much according to script for the first 54km (at least for Mambo, that is). The men’s pack started pretty conservatively, and at times resembled a cycling peloton with small attacks coming off the front, with the main contenders sitting in and waiting. Those attacks were all by runners who lacked any credentials, so the main pack was content to let the jousting continue. For example, at one stage, two local athletes with marathon bests of 2:24 and 2:26 went off the front.

Consider that at the pace they were running, the marathon mark would be reached in about 2:21, and you realise that when a 2:26 man heads off the front, you’d be a fool to chase him. He’d have to run a PB by 5 minutes and then continue for another 14km. Little wonder that the South African men struggle to compete, given that a 2:20 marathon is now seen as “fast” by many in this country. Sadly, it’s fast enough to win prize money in many races, and therein lies our problem.

The jousting continued up to the bottom of Chapmans Peak, at around 28km. The halfway mark was reached in 1:33, relatively slow. It was at this stage that some of the main contenders started to appear at the front. A small pack of about 10 athletes formed, including all the main protagonists. The surging continued, but this time, with a difference – the big names were now tracking those attacks.

It was a remarkable period of racing, considering that the finish line was still 27 km away. Imagine the elite field of London throwing in surges after 15km of the marathon and you get the idea. Moses Njodzi, himself a former Zimbabwean winner, was one of the first big names to throw in a surge, and he was immediately tracked by Mambo. Mambo then went straight by, and drove the pace on over the top of Chapmans Peak. That little surge-countersurge exchange reduced the size of the lead group to two – Mambo and Njodzi. Amazingly, the elite field had been trimmed with more than a half marathon to go. I’m told that the pace coming over Chapman’s Peak was around 2:50 per kilometer, which partly explains why this would happen.

At the time, I remember being surprised at how early this was happening and how easily the race had been trimmed. Sitting in the commentary booth, I was assured that Mambo was in superb shape and was not making an error in judgement. And given that he’d won three times, it certainly seemed to be the decisive break.

However, as anyone will tell you, the Two Oceans race only really starts on the climb of Constantia Nek, a steep and winding climb just after the marathon mark. Perhaps it’s the combination of the timing with the steepness, but this is a brutal climb, and it was here that the first signs of weakness appeared for Mambo. He looked laboured, but was by this stage well clear of second place. Just how far clear is impossible to say, because no time splits were being provided.

He crested the climb and began the long descent towards the finish line looking tired but with a large lead. The second man on the road by this stage was John Wachira, a 2:11 marathon runner who was looking far stronger. However, in the absence of time gaps, it was difficult to anticipate how secure Mambo was.

As it would transpire, very insecure. With 5km to go, we received our first time split of 1:21, which meant Mambo had 15 seconds per kilometer in the bank. With 3km to go, it was reported as 55 seconds, and it seemed as though Mambo had done enough to claim his fourth title.

However, as it turned out, that split was incorrect, much to everyone’s surprise, including the TV commentators at the time, who declared that Mambo had a secure lead only seconds before he was caught by a fast finishing Wachira! With just under 2km to go, the lead changed hands and Mambo was gone. So dominant was Wachira’s finish that he built a lead of 46 seconds in those final 2km.

Mambo therefore paid the price for his earlier efforts, over-commiting to the race over Chapmans Peak when he might have been a little more prudent. Wachira becomes the first Kenyan to win the race, only a day after I wrote that I didn’t think that the best Kenyans would run here. I stand by that, by the way, because to me, a Kenyan with a 2:11 marathon is not the “best” Kenyan (given that most of their top men are running 2:07 these days). Wachira is a Johannesburg-based security guard who probably lacks the pure speed to feature in global marathons, but his 2:11 marathon makes him the class of the field in South Africa. Sadly, the size of our pond is shrinking and the bigger fish from elsewhere are moving in

Women’s race – a procession as normal for the Nurgalieva twins

Speaking of small ponds, South African women’s running is in dire straits. Twenty five years ago, Helen Lucre, who was commentating with me, ran 3:52 to win the race. In those 25 years, the women’s record in the marathon has plummeted by 10 minutes, training methods have improved, and yet South African women are now SLOWER than they were then. In the late 1980s, we had Frith van der Merwe, who ran a 2:27 marathon and a Two Oceans record of 3:30.

On Saturday, the best South African woman finished fourth, in a time of 3:59. Little wonder then that the Russian Nurgalieva twins, Elana and Olesya, have come to South Africa to bank their cheques for the last five or six years. Between Comrades and Two Oceans, the Nurgalieva twins have reduced local athletes to extras in their timed training runs. On Saturday, so dominant were they that they held hands over the finish line with a lead of 16 minutes, and effectively dead-heated the race. Rules don’t allow dead heats, and so Elana was given the win ahead of Olesya, but it really was academic.

Third went to a Zimbabwean, Samukeliso Moyo, fully 16 minutes back, with South Africa’s first finisher, Farwa Mentoor, a further minute down in fourth.

The sad dilemma for the race and the future of SA running

Sadly, this dominance by international runners does little for the appeal of the elite race to locals, as does the dominance of the men’s race by non South Africans. In the absence of local interest, media interest dwindles and neutrals will never be attracted to the race. Most South African running people know who the Nurgalieva twins are, but very few care. So low was the media interest this year that the press truck that carries journalists on the route was cancelled.

Against this backdrop, the governing body for the sport in this country have remain unchanged and continue oversee a dramatic decline in our standards. They are quick to remind us that athletics provided South Africa’s only medal in Beijing, as though this justifies their existence (and salaries). No change, no implementation of grand ideas, and meanwhile our races continue to support the GDP of our African neighbours. If that seems harsh, bear in mind that in the 1980s and 1990s, we had about half a dozen men running the Half Marathon in 61 minutes, and have produced winners in New York, the Olympics, Fukuoka, as well as three or four men ranked top 10 in the world lists.

What then should be done? Well, talk is cheap, to begin with, and much has been said by those in charge about their grand plans. Usually, they say the right things. Those involved in the sport will tell you that nothing is being done though. The biggest problem we face is that we have supported and rewarded mediocrity among our runners. When a man wins a marathon in 2:18, he is NOT fast. He is in fact very poor compared to global standards. Yet he’s now fast enough to win locally, and so given the incentive to make money off running, we have succeeded in incentivizing mediocrity.

Our athletes race almost every weekend, and there is no long-term development strategy. This should commence with juniors, and a ten-year plan should be put in place to manage the athletes better. This begins in schools, but should be focused on what is, in South Africa, a very well developed club running scene. Unfortunately, given the abysmal quality of our coaches, we have reaped what we have sown, and expecting it to change with the same people involved is a day-dream. So for now, I am resigned to saying the same things for another generation at least.

Until the governing body, the clubs and the athlete’s coaches recognize that we must benchmark against global standards, and then realize that changing the incentives is the only way to change behaviour, races like Two Oceans will continue to be money-machines for international athletes.

Apologies for the doom-and-gloom review of the race, but it’s impossible, as a South African (especially one who coaches and is involved in the problem) to discuss local running without pointing out the problem. The saddest part of all is that every year, we produce hundreds of men who run 2:20 for the marathon, and can’t turn a single one into a world class marathon runner. Only fifteen years ago, we had some of the best in the world. Much like the stocks of GM, Chrysler and Ford, SA athletics is in freefall, and now worth very little. Unlike those companies, we will have the same leadership for years…

My own Two Oceans from the commentary box

In the interests of finishing off positively, I had a good Two Oceans from behind a microphone making my commentary “debut”. I’m sure there is room for improvement, but I did get to explain some of the research that was being done at the race, and hopefully dispel a few myths about dehydration, heatstroke and muscle cramps during my stints. I would have liked to do more race-specific commentary, but perhaps in the future, that will happen. My role instead was to comment on related aspects of physiology, like the heat, cramping athletes, physiology of running etc.

And like every other commentator, I was fooled by the provision of the split times in the elite men’s race, and had pretty much given the race to Mambo, only to be proved incorrect!

But that not withstanding, it was a good experience and hopefully added some value to the broadcast and the race! Like this post, I hope!


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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