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.


  1. Wow that was odd. I just wrote an incredibly long
    comment but after I clicked submit my comment didn’t appear. Grrrr… well I’m not
    writing all that over again. Regardless, just wanted to say great blog!

  2. Zane,

    As long as race directors stage their events as world record attempts rather than open competitions, then this is type of discussion (and taint) they leave themselves vulnerable to. People aren’t talking about THE RACE in Berlin (like they did in Chicago 2010) because the last two men stopped racing after Mutai realized he couldn’t drop Kimetto with his 14:18 surge from 30-35Km. From there in it was just two guys running home with the time rather than finish position the only issue left in doubt.

    As for the faulty pace vehicle clock, the athletes have no one to blame but themselves. It is always an athlete’s responsibility to know the course, and be aware of his situation. Thinking is part of racing. Besides, intuitively an athlete feels the pace they are on, give or take. That comes from hitting your marks through months of preparation.

    Yes, the pace clock malfunctioned, but deep down they must have known this isn’t 2:50/Km pace, it’s too easy. It’s one thing to be off by a second or two per kilometer. But 2:50/Km = 1:59:33 marathon pace! They would know instantly that they weren’t running hard enough to hit those marks. So, start asking around, “what’s your watch say?”, “Are we on the right pace?” There were certainly enough guys around to come to a consensus as to what their real pace was.

    But, again, this is the consequence of a time trial rather than a competition. Not sure if any lessons have been learned, but what should have been a widely applauded effort by both Mutai and Kimetto has now reduced itself to a discussion about frozen time clocks and the value of a winner-take-all World Marathon Major bonus system.

  3. …Now is clock’s fault that there was no World Record?

    People have watches and pacemakers were receiving instructions all the time. One glance at a watch at 3K or 5K mark would indicate that they were slow when compared to WR pace. There is one simple point that seems to have been overlooked. If one takes a look at photos, Geoffrey Mutai was wearing an adidas watch (as was his wing man, Dennis Kimetto) and it amazes me that people are not asking if their watches were working, or not.

    The marathon world record is not as soft as many are suggesting. I believe to run sub 2:03.30 we need the perfect athlete, the perfect day, the perfect pace, and the perfect course.

    Due to unknown reasons they didn’t have the perfect athlete on the day in Mutai and that is more than clear. Are we saying that (arguably) the best marathon athlete in the world was not aware of his own pace? Of course he was!

    Perfect day – Almost there. A little breeze.
    Perfect pace – Not ideally delivered, but that’s a separate issue.
    Perfect course – seven world records in 15 years speaks for itself.

    Actually, I guess my point is – Is this main point of discussion (functional, dis-functional timekeeping on the pace vehicle; the guy on the bike shouting instructions to the pacemakers; the managers going from 5 km to 5 km on motorcycles to shout their encouragements; and the athletes themselves with their personal watches that the rely on every day of the running lives) really need to be the story that the 2012 Berlin Marathon needs to be tainted with? Shouldn’t we celebrate that great athlete that Mutai has proven himself to be? After all, his performance in Berlin was the 4th fastest in history and obviously a personal best for him (on a course recognized for WR purposes).

    I get a lot of value out of Toni’s blog posts — meals for thought. However, on this issue I’m still a little parched.

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