When Ethiopia’s Haile Gebreselassie ran the current marathon world record 2:03:59 in Berlin 2008, he was paced through the half-marathon split by 2009 World Marathon champion Abel Kirui of Kenya in 62:03. Then, pushed by another Kenyan, James Kwambai from 32-35K after Kirui dropped away, Haile completed his record performance with a 61:56 negative split. That 62:03 from Berlin `08 is the fastest first half ever run on the way to a marathon world record. Not that people haven’t gone out in sub-62 before. Welshman Steve Jones blistered the first half in Chicago 1985 in 61:42. At the time it was the eighth fastest half-marathon ever run. But neither Jonesy, who came home in 65:33, nor anyone else who’s gone out sub-62 has ever closed strong. That’s why tomorrow’s ABN AMRO Rotterdam Marathon promises to be a real high wire act.
“It’s a risk, but a calculated risk,” said elite athlete race director Eric Brommert of his plan to send his six pacesetters out in 61:45 to 61:50 for the 31st running of the world’s second fastest marathon.
“I don’t want to sit on a motorbike, and see us come up five seconds slow,” continued Brommert. “I don’t want to blame myself. For us (the world record) is very important. For Rotterdam it is very important. The last two years we’ve have been number one in the world for time, and we have had the world record in the past. Our course is good enough, so I think it belongs here.”
In 2009 Duncan Kibet and James Kwambai ran identical 2:04:27s in Rotterdam, third best on the all-time marathon list behind Gebreselassie’s world record in 2008 and his 2:04:26 in Berlin 2007. Last year Kenya’s Patrick Makau won Rotterdam in 2:04:48. This year close won’t be good enough.
“Our first goal is the course record,” said Brommert. “Then, if we are close to that, we have the chance for a world record. Again we have a talented, well-balanced field. We wanted to bring back Patrick Makau, but he made another choice for London. Our belief is the world record is there to be broken. If not in Rotterdam, then London, Berlin, or Chicago, the world record will go this year.”
Tomorrow morning Brommert will send six Kenyan pacers out in 61:45 – 61:50, realizing that in the marathon the key is to overload each position.
“If you have ten guys, five will bring what they should. And of those five, two will run above while two or three will run what you expect. The other 50% won’t bring what you want. So we focus again on a world record pace if the weather is good.”
Rotterdam asks all their pacers to go 30 kilometers, hoping two or three can make it. 30K, they believe, is more important than just pulling the leaders through to the half-marathon. All the pacers this year are sub-60 minute half-marathoners, and they have one super pacer who Brommert has asked to go 35Km. The super pacer is Kenyan star Sammy Kitwara, who won the World’s Best 10K in Puerto Rico this February in 27:34, and beat Haile at the now-defunct 2009 Rotterdam Half-Marathon in 58:58.
“I know he is very strong,” Brommert told me. “There is also Peter Kirui who ran third at the City Pier City Half Marathon last month, Paul Kimugul, Eric Ndiena, Patrick Nthiwa, and Eliud Kiplagat. Maybe it is a risk (going sub-62), but it’s a calculated risk. We are able to do it with the pacers we have. But it will be a team effort between the athletes, the agents, and us. It cannot be an individual effort. We tell them that Abel Kirui, James Kwambai, and Wilson Chebet have all been pacers in Rotterdam in the past. So even pacing a world record will be a special experience in your career.”
Once again weather will be the key. The forecast calls of an overnight low of 39 degrees Fahrenheit, 4 Celsius, and an afternoon high of 61 F/16C. Perfect. Winds on the loop course are expected to be moderate. Last year the winds rose to Force 4, slowing the Patrick Makau – Geoffrey Mutai battle by just enough to keep the world record at bay.
“We made no concession on the pace early on last year,” recalled Brommert, “and the pacers came through in 61:57. We will wait till Saturday night to decide if we go sub-62 Sunday, but now it looks very good. I know our course is capable, and we have respect for Haile’s record, but we are not afraid of it.”
Compared to the two World Marathon Majors in London and Boston just one week after, Rotterdam has a limited budget. So speed is their calling card. And they aren’t shy about touting its appeal.
“London is all about appearance (fees),” explained Brommert, “They can get who they want. Here we need to be creative. We are the marathon who gives young talent the chance to break through. Even if you are third of fourth you will still run 2:04 – 2:05, which will bring you to the next level. Plus, the winner will make very good money. But if you run 2:06 you receive one amount. Run 2:04 and it’s a lot more. So it’s important to finish fast. Here it is all about the time.”
Though they wanted a Rotterdam `10 rematch between Makau and Geoffrey Mutai (he’s heading to Boston), attracting a psychologically well-matched field is as important as luring pure speed.
“Especially with Ethiopians and Kenyans there is a pecking order,” Brommert believes. “In 2006 we had Sammy Korir win, but Paul Kirui was breaking away at 32K until he turned around and saw Sammy about 30-40 meters behind, and he waited. He wasn’t ready to become champion. So we always try to find guys who don’t have big egos, who are willing to work together. If you have (Olympic champion Sammy) Wanjiru, everyone looks to him to see what to do. Here no one looks up to anyone. That’s what we work on.”
Now to the contenders. There are four sub-2:06 and a total of seven sub-2:07 men in Rotterdam, all with the credentials that could land them on the top step of the Rotterdam podium:
Eliud Kiptanui of Kenya may well be the favorite. The 21 year-old Kenyan won the Prague Marathon last spring in 2:05:39, running 63:16 – 62:23 negative splits. And Prague, with several kilometers of cobblestones, is not considered one of the fastest of the world’s marathon routes. Kiptanui was only fifth, however, in Berlin last September in 2:08:05.
The top finisher from Rotterdam 2010, Vincent Kipruto, is hoping to improve upon his third place 2:05:13 finish. He was only fifth in Chicago last fall in 2:09:08. His previous PR, 2:05:47, was run in winning Paris 2009.
Ethiopia’s Getu Fekele was the last man challenging Eliud Kiptanui in Prague 2010, but faded to fourth in 2:08:04. However, he came to Amsterdam in the fall and dropped a 2:05:44 win onto his resume, closing very fast in the final 5K. Now he wants a 2:04.
Another fearsome Ethiopian is Feyisa Lelisa, who ran valiantly with Sammy Wanjiru and Tsegay Kebede during their stirring duel last year in Chicago. Lelisa lasted until 35K, finishing third in 2:08:10. He was fourth last year in Rotterdam in 2:05:23.
Kenya’s Wilson Chebet ran the second fastest debut in history last fall in Amsterdam, 2:06:12, finishing second behind Fekele. He was also one of the pacers in Rotterdam 2009 leading Duncan Kibet and James Kwambai to their 2:04:27s. American road race fans remember Chebet from his third place finish at Joan Samuelson’s Beach to Beacon 10k and his runner up spot the following week at the Falmouth Road Race on Cape Cod, again to Gebre Gebremariam of Ethiopia.
Gilbert Kirwa’s PR 2:06:14 was run at the 2009 Frankfurt Marathon where he bested 2010 Boston champ Robert Kiprono Cheruiyot and broke the Frankfurt course record. He ran 2:06:59 to finish second at last year’s Seoul International Marathon. Rotterdam will be his fourth career marathon. He’s won two (Vienna `09, 2:08:21 and Frankfurt `09), and taken second in his other.
Finally, Chala Dechase of Ethiopia only began competing internationally in 2008. In early 2010 he finished second to Haile Gebreselassie at the Dubai Marathon in 2:06:33. He ran a disappointing 15th at last year’s Boston Marathon.
With more and more young men coming fast to the marathon, there is less and less fear of the distance. With a field as well-matched, and well trained as Rotterdam 2010, there is no limit to what may happen.
You can watch coverage of the 37th Rotterdam Marathon on UniversalSports.com and later on Universal Sports TV where American 50K record holder Josh Cox and I will provide the race call. Till then.