Today, I learned from my friend Ed Caesar, a British writer who lives in Iten, Kenya while researching a book on the two-hour marathon, that the marathon world record attempt yesterday in Berlin by Geoffrey Mutai might have been (partially) scuttled by a faulty timing clock atop the pace vehicle.
Ed was in Berlin and spoke with Geoffrey after the race in which Mutai missed the world record by 34-seconds with his 2:04:15 finish, one second in front of his training partner Dennis Kimetto. Mutai told Ed that the clock atop the elite athlete pace vehicle froze on 2:50/kilometer read-out early in the race, thus giving the athletes the impression they were well under their intended 61:40 first half pace, which averages out to 2:55.8/km. Afraid that the pace they were on was too hot, Mutai and the boys cooled their heels, only to learn at the half-way mats that their time was actually 62:12, 32-seconds slower than intended.
“He thought he was coasting to a 61-minute first half,” Ed told me from Aberdeen, Scotland where he is visiting family. “Once they saw the mistake, they panicked and ran the next kilometers too quickly.”
After the 62:12 first half, the next three 5ks dropped in 14:36, 14:33, 14:28 (some have reported a 14:18 split between 30-35K when the final pacer dropped off and Mutai broke everyone except Kimetto, but I have the times as 1:42:39 at 35k and 1:28:11 at 30k, a difference of 14:28). In either case, the average 5K split needed for the record is 14:39. It’s not a huge difference, but in the rarefied atmosphere of a world record, a little becomes a lot later on. In other words, was the first-half hole too deep to dig out of? What we do know is that Mutai’s stomach went on him after 35K, and that was that. He faded home in the final 2.2K, and won because his training mate, Kimetto, acted as escort rather than competitor.
Something of the same thing happened last year in Berlin. Rather than a clock malfunction, Patrick Makau and Haile Gebrselassie got into a competitive tussle between 25-30K, notching that 5K in 14:20, fourteen-seconds faster than any other 5K split for the entire race. That effort broke Haile, but drained enough fuel out of Makau’s tank so that he could only post a 14:59 split between 35-40k, the slowest 5k of his race.
Which is why observers like Ed Caesar and I both believe, “there is still time in the record to come out”. But it will require an almost laboratory-like setting and perfect pacing to pull off, not to mention a working pace clock.