The big running news of the weekend was that Zersenay Tadese, the Eritrean former World Cross-country champion and multiple world half-marathon champion, delivered on his promise to break the half-marathon world record in Lisbon.
His time, an amazing 58:23, breaks the old mark of Sammy Wanjiru, the undisputed number 1 marathon racer in the world and sets up what should be a great showdown in London in just over a month (assuming Tadese goes ahead and races it, as he has suggested).
The London Marathon will also be a chance for some redemption for Tadese – he made his debut there, to much hype as the next big thing in the marathon, but he failed badly, dropping off the lead group early and failing to finish. There is of course no guarantee that a super-fast half-marathon predicts a great marathon, and if anything, there may be concerns that he’s too fast at this stage. With a month to go, Sammy Wanjiru last year ran a mid-61 minute half-marathon and then dominated the Chicago Marathon. So for Tadese to maintain the form he clearly has in Lisbon will be a huge challenge, and one of the fascinating sub-plots of the 25th April race, which promises to be one of the greatest ever.
Tadese’s times – solo effort of 27:40s for 10km
To put Tadese’s performance into perspective, he reached 10km in 27:53, shedding the pacemakers at the ninth kilometer. He then sped up to run the next 5km in 13:40 (15 km time of 41:33). The next 5km split in 13:48 gave him a world record of 55:21 at 20km (30 seconds faster than Gebrselassie’s old mark). He brought the final 1.1km home in just under 3 minutes to eclipse Wanjiru’s 3-year old record.
It was an amazing performance, for its consistency of pacing, and the fact that he ran it alone for the final 12 km. Tadese has always been a favourite of mine, and he got some air-time back in 2008 when a scientific paper published his running economy – it was reported as 150 ml/kg/min, which is the lowest ever reported. There were some theoretical problems with that paper, but the implication was clear – he’d be a fearsome runner over the roads.
His track pedigree wasn’t poor, of course – a few silver medals over 10,000m in some magnificent races against Bekele, who he really pushed to the limit on a few occasions. But his territory always seemed to be the roads – absolutely dominant at the half marathon world championships, his future was always likely to come in the marathon. And now, with this performance, all eyes will be on his return to the longer distance in London, and possibly beyond. He is without doubt a potential world record holder, perhaps the next man to break 2:04. With the kind of front-running he delivered in Lisbon, and the known front-running capabilities of Wanjiru (think Beijing, London and Chicago), a fast time in London seems assured.
Gebrselassie bails in New York
Other racing news of the weekend is that Haile Gebrselassie was handed a rare defeat in New York, during the NYC half-marathon. The world record holder over the marathon had already lost one record (20km, to Tadese), and just before 15km, he pulled up while in the joint lead with Peter Kamais, holding his chest. He started again, but then stopped for good, checked into the medical tent and returned to the hotel. In his absence, Kamais went on to win in a respectable 59:53.
There’s a lot of chat about this on the running forums of the world, which is invited by Gebrselassie’s approach to his running these days. Very selective and very focused on times, which has meant that he hasn’t raced the likes of Lel, Wanjiru, Kebede at the marathon. Frustration and desire to see this race, particularly when Gebrselassie himself talks about the value of the Olympic Gold medal having pulled out of the Beijing Marathon and then breaking the world record a month later, leaves many feeling “cheated”. As a result, when he does enter a “race” (a debatable term for the NYC half-marathon – Kamais ran well, but it was expected to be a procession for Geb), and loses, it only re-inforces the perception that Gebrselassie is now a clock-runner, and unable to compete in a race.
I think that’s a little harsh, because for a decade he was the greatest runner in the world. And part of me accepts that he’s earned the right to earn big money racing the clock in races of his choice. However, I can’t help but notice that he has never raced head to head against a top-ranked marathon runner and won, with the possible exception of Duncan Kibet last year, who was just poor. Geb’s marathon wins have all been clock efforts, his failures coming in London, with the strongest field by a long way.
Also, I must confess I’m tired of excuses from Geb after every failed attempt. In London a few years ago, he missed a water station. Then a year later, it was because the rain had made the cobbles slippery. Then it was too cold, or too hot. And it’s always windy. Beijing was too polluted, and the bed was uncomfortable in Dubai earlier this year, causing him to sleep badly. Now, in New York, the lead vehicle kicked up too much dust, making the air difficult to breathe. Geb may well have asthma, granted, but sometimes you’re just not good that day. One excuse after the other for Gebrselassie in the last few years and it’s all becoming a little tired.
In any event, let’s see what unfolds over the next month – Paris kicks off the Majors on April 11th, followed by Boston and then London, and we’ll be covering it all for you!