PERILOUS PEAK OF PERFECTION

     Runner’s World Newswire put out a story October 23rd by Peter GambacciniFormer Elite’s Advice for Ryan Hall – in the wake of Hall’s pull out from the November 3rd ING New York City Marathon, the third straight major marathon Ryan has been signed to run, but been unable to start.  The advice ranged from “…go back to Kenya and get into a group that most of the top guys are training in and give it more than a few months,” from fellow 2008 Olympic marathoner Brian Sell, to “…You should focus on breaking the 4:00 mile,” from 1972 Olympic 1500m bronze medalist and 1983 New York City Marathon champion Rod Dixon of New Zealand.

Everyone has advice and an opinion, a testament to the regard the industry has for Ryan, the man, and the hope it carries for his position in the sport.  But maybe the best advice would be for Ryan, or any other American, to discover a time machine and dial it back about 30 years when being number one from sea to shining sea could be the same as being number one in the world.  Today that connection has long since been broken, in fact, the gap between the two continues to spread with each passing season and each marathon run.

Khannouchi sets world record in London 2002 over Haile and Tergat

Khannouchi sets world record in London 2002 over Haile and Tergat

When Moroccan-born American Khalid Khannouchi broke his own marathon world record at the 2002 London Marathon, his scintillating 2:05:38 win over eventual marathon world record holders  Paul Tergat and a debuting Haile Gebrselassie was voted the greatest marathon of all-time by a panel of experts.  That designation wasn’t simply based on the winning time, but the quality and intrigue of the field.

Today that Special K performance only ranks #40 on the official all-time marathon list (Boston 2011 doesn’t count with its two sub-2:04s, and two sub-2:05s). Second fastest American Ryan Hall’s 2:06:17 fifth place finish in London 2008 stands at #65, while Dathan Ritzenhein’s marathon PR of 2:07:47 from the 2012 Chicago Marathon is no better than #221in marathon history, and only 69th best from that calendar year.

ON MY OWN

Ryan Hall

Ryan Hall

In Ryan Hall and Dathan Ritzenhein we have the two most accomplished American-born distance runners of their generation. They proved it as juniors, as collegians, and as pros. But they have chosen a very challenging generation in which to become professional distance runners.  Maybe not challenging financially, as both men do very well in that regard. But sport is more than money, and results are what motivate future performance.

So what to do now that Ryan can’t stay healthy enough to make it to another starting line? And after two years of injury-free training and a solid 10th place finish at the World Championships on the track what to make of Dathan only managing a 2:09:45 fifth place finish at Chicago two weeks ago in a 2:03:45 race?

Of course, after the fact we find out that Ritz was a little dinged up with a plantar fascia flare up in the last couple months training at altitude in Park City, Utah, and a feeling of fatigue brought on by “a long year with only two weeks off.”

*****

Ritz runs 2:07:47 PR in Chicago 2012

Ritz runs 2:07:47 PR in Chicago 2012

After last year’s ninth place 2:07:47 finish in Chicago where he sat off the lead pack by 34-seconds as the leaders came through the half in 62:51, Ritz felt like it was time to lay it on the line and run up front.   The feeling was, ‘if not now, when?’

But after just two miles (9:29) he was already drifting back, and though he came through in 63:05, twenty seconds faster than last year, the eight men up front were blitzing a 61:52, long gone and out of sight. Though half would come burn out and be caught, the other half didn’t.

But here’s the thing, and it’s something Ryan Hall discovered during his short time in Kenya (and wife Sara wrote so well about on her blog).  Kenyans race to win from the front, going with the leaders for as long as they can before succumbing, while hoping they don’t.  Americans, on the other hand, run a pace they think they can maintain the entire distance, and at the end see what place that gets them.  That’s why Ritz can finish four places higher than last year while running two minutes slower. It was all about the carnage up front.

For Ryan in Kenya it came down to “You can’t tell the difference between the 2:04 guys and 2:20 guys, because they all think the next race will be their big 2:04 breakthrough.” And they train and race with that breakthrough in mind.

We might not see the guys left broken on the side of the road by this all-or-nothing mentality back home in Kenya, but the mindset is on full display at any race you go to, including this year’s Chicago Marathon.

Though he hadn’t run a competitive foot race in 18 months, 2011 Chicago champion Moses Mosop inserted himself as the alpha male at the head of the lead pack and drove the effort to 30 km before fading all the way to an eighth place finish.  That’s 2:11:29 the hard way (61:52 — 69:37).  But Mosop was trying to win the race, even though an 18-month break might have suggested a tamer approach be taken.

Ritz went into the race with a goal of running a minute and a half to two minutes faster than last year.  It’s a completely different way of approaching competition, and leads to completely different set of training choices and race tactics.

With fewer options on the track at 10,000 meters, less money on the shorter distance road circuit, and lack of shoe contracts, the strong young runners of the world have now opted for the marathon right off the bat.  Chicago record holder Dennis Kimetto didn’t start running till 2010!  He doesn’t have a single track race on his resume.  More and more hungry athletes from Kenya and Ethiopia are training together in larger and larger groups, anxious to bring home the bounty just one top marathon finish can guarantee. And they train like there is nothing to lose, because there isn’t.

SINGLE MINDED

It is this perilous peak of perfection that keeps driving these athletes, and setting new standards, standards which seem to break the Americans down before they ever get to the race site.  If the world standard in the marathon were still 2:06 — as it was in 2006 — I’m sure we’d see a healthier Ryan Hall, and a less dinged up, more aggressive Dathan Ritzenhein.  But Ryan and Ritz are competing in a 2:03 world now where 2:06 is only the 20th best time of the year, and the strain on their bodies is showing.

When I first visited Kenya in 1999 I asked the now sadly departed Joshua Kimaiyo, younger brother of two-time Honolulu Marathon champion Eric, where he lived.

“Where?”

“Yes.”

“Close by.”

“How close?”

“A few kilometers.”

“How often do you go home?”

“Maybe once a week to see if things are alright, but no sex for two months before the marathon; wife get pregnant after marathon.”

Forging the metal

EARLY MORNING SHIFT AT THE FACTORY

They don’t even go home at the end of the training day!  Others watch their children, others tend their lands.  They are 100% committed to eat, sleep, and run, period!  Add to that the sheer numbers and quality of the sparring partners, and it’s lights out come race day.

This marathon cycle alone world record holder Wilson Kipsang trained with Chicago course record setter Dennis Kimetto, and 2011 Boston and New York course record holder Geoffrey Mutai in Kapngetuny, a camp so isolated that no actual road leads to it — with dozens of other acolytes training by their side every day.

That combination makes Ryan Hall’s flights from Flagstaff, Arizona to Redding, California to Iten, Kenya to train inconsistently on his own, and Ritz’s two-months solo marathon training duty in Park City, Utah, seem disconnected to the best-use practices of their craft.  And that is totally setting aside the question of pure talent and cultural reinforcement.

“It is all about training harder and harder in these hills and valleys that are in places like here or Iten,” Geoffrey Mutai told Captital FM Sports, “staying focused, and when you make it, avoiding the kind of lifestyle that will finish your strength.  The secret is simple, train, train and train more.”

We have outlined the financial imbalances that exist in running, and that allow Kenyans to lead all but monastic lives of training — Top East African Runners Earn like Major CEOs.  Add the genetic elements of a more ideally suited body composition and stride mechanism, and fair or not that’s the competition top Americans find themselves racing against.

The end result is even the very best Americans who train functionally by themselves are simply no match for the factory-like group training in East Africa.  Which is why individual attempts to reach similar heights on race day, or even in training, continue to prove as frustrating and fruitless as milking the local bull.

END

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24 comments on “PERILOUS PEAK OF PERFECTION

  1. esondag says:

    At the end of the day, at least the bull is happy.

  2. bobhodge1979 says:

    Ryan has had a great career and I wish him a speedy recovery from injury. If we were to provide the level of support say that the Nike Oregon Project provides for a handful to 500 of our country’s most promising distance runners I believe we would be seeing some regular 2:04 performers and many more Americans on the world list. Perhaps if all the major events in the country, Boston, Chicago, NYC etc. supplied money for development… Perhaps if USATF got their act together… Perhaps if the marathons top racers were as respected and admired as Pro Basketball, Baseball and Football stars…

    • Toni Reavis says:

      Hodgie,

      As you all proved to a certainty with GBTC, training in big groups, especially for speed and long runs, is the key. I agree that if the top events in the nation all sponsored a training group we would spread the base and raise the peak. This one-by-one method simply won’t work against the competition that currently exists. That acknowledgement is the first order of business.

      Greg Meyer moved to Boston to train with Bill and you guys. Herb Lindsay moved to Colorado to train with Shorter and the Colorado TC. The best need to train with the best if that’s how your competition is sharpening its blade. If you don’t, you’ll be a dull boy by comparison.

    • Toni Reavis says:

      Hodgie,

      Wider the base, higher the peak. It can’t just be Ryan, Ritz and Meb against the East African hordes.

      T

  3. zgerweck says:

    A college coach once criticized the Lydiard 100-mile-a-week training method as being like putting 100 guys in a room with a baseball bat; the one or two tough-ass mothers would emerge, but there’d be 98 bloodied and battered victims left lying on the floor.
    That’s how it is in Kenya these days: a bunch of 2:15 guys left with their tongues dragging on the roadside, but from their carcasses emerge a half dozen sub-2:05 runners. Until and unless we can gather that critical mass here, forget about an American running world-leading times ever again.

  4. Anonymous says:

    I went to college here coming from Kenya in 2003. The biggest problem facing American is detraction. The second lack of team or group training and lastly, the great distance runner’s jump from one event to the other. I once told someone Ritz will never go nowhere further because today, it’s 10K, tomorrow, its 5K, next day Marathon. That is the problem.

    • Toni Reavis says:

      Anon,

      Those priorities sound right to me. Focused, uninterrupted, almost monastic training is the current state of the art. Fall back in any one of those and you will fall back in the race as well. Thanks for adding to the conversation.

      Toni

  5. timothytays says:

    The blog and comments all make sense to me in a diagnostic way. Providing it’s all sound reasoning, can Americans not only match the East African model, but then take the next step and use our assumed advantage of science, technology, facilities (potential funding) to equal and then take the lead at distance running in general, and marathons in particular? How exciting would that be? And then, once we had some success and a star or two in the public consciousness (similar to Shorter, Rodgers, or Salazar in their day), then the better it gets, the better it gets. American distance runners would be familiar faces with the leaders in the major marathons.

    • Toni Reavis says:

      Tim.

      It’s a little like the Americans are running family farms while Kenya has developed an agribusiness model. Of course, the finances work for them much better along the risk-reward continuum. That is a huge component of the imbalance in public interest and athlete sacrifice. (BTW, enjoyed the book quite a bit. I recommend “Wanna Be Distance God” wholeheartedly.)

  6. Dan says:

    Excellent read. There is certainly something to be said about the inalienable dedication to the sport and craft that East Africans exude. With athletes like Hall and Ritzenheim, you can argue that while they are certainly competitive, talented and strong, they can’t match the hunger of someone like Dennis Kimetto. If Hall bails on a race, which we have seen many times, Asics still renews his contract. If Kimetto does so, that’s a serious blow to his potential livelihood.

    In a way, this very reason makes me root very loudly for Jason Hartmann, who is currently outside the sponsorship limelight and could use a break. While he wouldn’t stand to benefit more from a Majors win than someone from Ethiopia, I do believe he is clawing more at the possibility than Mr. Hall since he doesn’t have the luxurious privilege of signing autographs at race expos.

  7. Bill Fasula says:

    Kenya has a per capita income of $1700, while the U.S. has a per capita income of about $40,000. So an equivalent prize for Americans as to a Kenya would be over 3 million dollars. Winning a marathon for Kenyans is like winning the lottery, as a result every Kenyan kid has a dream to run and win a marathon. Imagine the desire and the number of runners motivated to train in the U.S. if the marathon prize was a 3 million dollars instead of $130,000 which is the New York Marathon prize.

    • Toni Reavis says:

      Bill,

      I’ve written about this imbalance before, and it plays a huge role in how the sport is perceived and where heroes are made. As in all endeavors, follow the money. Thanks for the reply.

      Toni

  8. Bob Donegan says:

    In this country it is virtually impossible – except for a small number of elites – to devote 100 percent of your time to training given the financial constraints. But in East Africa you have multitudes of runners of all ages living and training together and doing nothing else. So how are they able to afford it financially? I think this factor is overlooked and it’s something that just dawned on me.

    • Toni Reavis says:

      Bob,

      As the above comments suggest, this is a topic that is near the very top of why Kenyans and Ethiopians are driven to extremes in the running game, while Americans only pay it a passing fancy.

      It will be interesting to see how 2012 Boston Marathon champion Wesley Korir does in New York City this November 3rd. He spent a considerable amount of time running for Kenyan parliament in late 2011, early 2012. Due in part to that change in focus he only finished fifth at Boston 2013. He hasn’t raced since. So even a major Kenyan champion who doesn’t adhere to the strict training regime exhibited by the Geoffrey Mutai’s, Dennis Kimetto’s, Wilson Kipsang’s will suffer in comparison come race day.

      I joked in my April Fool’s column that events should pay prize purses in the athlete’s home country’s coin of the realm. If a Kenyan wins, he is paid the prize figure in Kenyan Shillings, an Ethiopian in bir notes, and only U.S. runners in U.S. dollars. That would even the playing field in a hurry.

  9. Shue Lace says:

    I can buy the training hard model but for the African kids barely not even 20 years of age just putting down times that likes of Ritz and Hall worked their whole life for. And there are a bunch of them. At the end though, I don’t care who runs fast as long as they are clean. It is just jaw dropping to watch the times drop so fast. The days of hanging back at 5 min per mile in the marathon to have a surge mile or two of 4:40s are over. You have to run that pace that whole race now.

    • Toni Reavis says:

      Shue,
      Dennis Kipruto Koech, RAK Half-Marathon 2012
      In February 2012 Dennis Kimetto won the the RAK Half-Marathon in 60:40, but went by the name Dennis Kipruto Koech and was listed as being 18 years old. By the time he set the 25km world record in Berlin that May he was 28 and went by the name Kimetto. This year’s Chicago Marathon press guide lists his birthday as April 22, 1984, making him 29 years of age. Who knows who’s how old these days? All we know is that the clock at the finish line is correct. Small consolation.

  10. David Gordon says:

    I came up in the 80s in Eugene. In that era there were two groups of talented athletes in town following the guidance of either Bill Dellinger or Bob Sevene. The spirited but friendly, daily competition within each group and between groups definitely raised our game. The concept is valid. Whats missing from this conversation is recognition of the strength of the genetic and cultural differences between American and East African runners.

    Genetic: Generations of East Africans have been raised in an environment seemingly engineered to produce endurance runners. Pick 100 East African school kids at random and run them against 100 randomly selected American school kids and I think we all know who would win. The best East Africans are starting from a completely different place than the best Americans. Not sure this advantage can ever be overcome. Occasionally yes, but if you believe in Darwinism, the deck is definitely stacked in biomechanical favor of kids from East Africa.

    Cultural: In America, the sport of distance running competes for athletic talent with soccer, baseball, football, xbox, etc… Living in the land of opportunity presents American distance runners with a unique set of problems. We are taught from an early age that we can and should ‘have it all’. The same sense of entitlement does not exist among the East Africans. In comparison, they are focused on running as the pathway to greatness.

    Should American distance runners simply give up? Hell no! The great thing about sports is that upsets are always possible. Unpredictability is what makes sports fun. The Yankees don’t win every year. We (our media) should recognize and appreciate our best runners for their outstanding achievements against incredible odds. As anyone who has ever attended a high school cross country race on a crisp fall day can tell you, the beauty of distance running is that the most satisfying victories don’t always belong to the first runner accross the line. I’ll keep pulling for our American distance runners because upsets and fairy-tale endings can and do happen.

    • Toni Reavis says:

      Hi, Dave,

      Thanks for the input. For those who may not remember, Dave Gordon ran for Athletics West, finished 4th in the 1984 Olympic Trials Marathon, and won the `82 Honolulu Marathon in a then course record 2:15:30.

      Just as boxing heroes spur young Mexican fighters, the culture of running in Kenya (and Ethiopia) serves as a major influence in the development of their success. However, studies by Danish scientists (Saltin et al., 1995b) comparing Kenyan kids to Danish kids did not show a marked difference in Max VO2 and other such biological metrics between the two.

      However, their findings highlighted biomechanical factors that may play a significant role in the success of Kenyan distance runners. One is their slim limbs, which means Kenyan runners are able to swing their legs forward faster through the recovery phase of the stride, and through a greater range. Over distance that makes for a measurable difference.

      All that said, it’s a much tougher world in which to reach the top than when Dave and I first got involved in the sport. That’s why, as coach Bob Larsen once said, “We’re not going to out-talent the African runners, so we have to take advantage of things we do have in our favor.” But training in small groups or alone can negate any scientific advantage we might otherwise employ.

  11. Good to see that Toni doesn’t mention altitude-training too much, because whatever it is it ain’t about the atitude. See here :- altitudeheretic.blogspot.com

  12. Anonymous says:

    The Chinese women did this before 1993 when they set a lot of world records and they got sick of it.

  13. DC says:

    Numbers matter, but are not the whole story. In college I ran D1 CC. We would start the season with 50 and end with 20. This was before Title IX started enforcing inequality everywhere so we did not have cuts, just attrition. In theory, our numbers and punishing training should have mad us NCAA champs right? But no. We lacked scholarships and therefore talent. We had a bunch of 4:15-4:30 HS milers. Arkansas and Stanford had the sub 4:10 guys. Once you reach a certain level of training, talent again dominates. Kenya has an abundance of that talent.

    Maybe the US is watering its talent down with other sports, lack of distance running support, etc., but track is still the highest participation sport in the US. I think this is also true of college. The number of people running distance in the US far surpasses the Kenyan numbers. Yet this is not translating to world domination for the US. Why? One from my college ran 3:58 for the mile a few years back and hung up the spikes upon graduation because he got a job that pays $60k per year without living like a monk and shoe contracts are non existent for a guy who barely made All American. If that opportunity existed in Kenya, they would have the same problem. This is not a terrible problem to have as a society.

    Because other opportunity is very limited in Kenya more are willing to pursue a near impossible dream that has a chance for lottery like payoff. And likely 98% of them end up just wasting years of their life with no financial gain and abandon their families in the mean time. That same big race payoff is not worth nearly as much to an American because of cost of living and opportunity cost. And if you believe a German journalist and a few other reports, Kenyans are willing to stack the odds that they can win that lottery using PEDs. Out of competition testing in Kenya is minimal so maybe the phenomenal race times we are seeing are not just human performance. As you stated, in 2006 the world class marathon standard was 2:06, now it is 3min faster. That is not a natural progression. When something does not look natural, it probably isn’t.

  14. […] PERILOUS PEAK OF PERFECTION […]

  15. […] were under 3 hours, and offers tips for the course he knows so well. Later on, Brenn discusses Tony Reavis’ blog entry on keeping up with the Kenyans, and Gregg gets on the Soapbox to say enough to all the advice for […]

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