The internet, Facebook and Twitter are thrumming this morning with questions and opinions about the finish of the 39th BMW Berlin Marathon last Sunday. With the world record leaking away in the final few kilometers, Kenya’s Geoffrey Mutai found countryman, training partner, and debuting marathoner Dennis Kimetto still locked to his stride. Their breakaway 5 kilometer split of 14:18 from 30 to 35K was now coming home to roost. Mutai’s stomach was cramping, and he – and Kimetto – had nothing left in the tank as the clock ticked menacingly away from the glory he had hoped to attain. But still there was a race to be won, record notwithstanding.
But no race came to pass. Instead the final few hundred meters resembled the finish of a daily recovery run, simply an apprentice ushering his mentor to the line as any proper wing man would.
As the race ended, the controversy began. If anyone but one of his stable mates had been on his shoulder, wouldn’t Mutai have felt worried? Desperate? Vulnerable? Wouldn’t he have tried to muster whatever last vestiges of energy he had to squeeze out a final kick of some sort to hold on to victory? Wouldn’t the other man have done the same?
Perhaps in a perfect world, yes, but neither man did in Berlin, leading pundits and fans alike to question the veracity of the outcome, especially since Mutai had sealed the deal on the $500,000 bonus for winning the 2011-2012 World Marathon Majors series title with the Berlin win added to those in Boston and New York City from 2011.
This morning I received the following message from Mutai and Kimetto’s manager, Gerard Van de Veen of Volare Sports:
To be very clear: there was no ‘deal’ between Geoffrey and Dennis!!! Yes, the pacemakers were very disturbed by getting wrong information.
After the race we found out that a faulty timing clock atop the lead pace vehicle had led the leaders to believe the pace they were running was under their halfway goal time of 61:40. Only when they hit the halfway mark 32-second slower than intended to did they realize the error. But ramping up the pace in the second half eventually took its toll in the final few kilometers, which is where Mutai and Kimetto faded off the record.
As to the ethics of two men not fighting for the win in a major marathon, we have many similar circumstances, from Berlin 2003 with Paul Tergat and training partner Sammy Korir, to Boston 2007 with Robert Cheruiyot and his training mate James Kwambai. But here’s another from way back when I first got into the marathon broadcasting game.
At the 1979 Nike OTC Marathon in Eugene, Oregon, I was on the lead men’s motorcycle. Athletics West teammates Tony Sandoval and Jeff Wells had broken free and were running low 2:10 pace, which is the equivalent of a 2:04-2:05 today…On our radio broadcast I kept saying, “Any minute now one of these guys is going to downshift and try to get away.” But even after my moto had pulled away to get to the finish, there had yet to be an attack. When Jeff and Tony finally entered Hayward Field they eventually grasped hands, held them high and finished in stride, tied at 2:10:20, which, as it turns out, was one-second off Sandoval’s career best time.
Said Sandoval: “At the finish, I just put my arm out and Jeff put his arm out. No words were spoken.”
The point is, athletes who go that far down into the well together create an unbreakable bond that nobody from the outside can fully appreciate. I’m sure to this day Sandoval and Wells, Tergat and Korir, Cheruiyot and Kwambai, along with Mutai and Kimetto are just fine with their races and Sunday’s outcome in Berlin, no matter what anyone says, including yours truly. Which is why event organizers must understand this bond that develops between athletes in the pit of competition, and construct systems which lead them to fight to the end rather than settle for a gentlemanly easing to the line.
As others have suggested, Berlin 2012 underscores how stern Patrick Makau’s 2:03:38 marathon record from Berlin 2011 is. If everything doesn’t go just right, the record won’t fall. But remember this, as well, it is every athletes’ responsibility to know not only the course, but to be aware of his circumstances in terms of time. Everything else that might be put in position by the event to enhance performance – aid stations, timing clocks, pacers – is gravy. YOU are primarily responsible. And there were certainly enough men with enough watches in that lead pack in Berlin to begin questioning the pace once it became clear that 2:50/Km (which is what froze on the pace clock) couldn’t possibly be the pace they were running. That’s 1:59:33 marathon pace!
But thinking clearly when all available blood has been shunted to the legs to fuel oxygen to working muscles – and thereby deprive the brain of its own fuel – is part of what makes the marathon an intriguing event. Take away the thinking process, and we take away one of the measures of a man and the event.
President Barack Obama made an interesting observation to writer Michael Lewis in a recent Vanity Fair profile piece that applies to elite marathon runners, as well. And it underscores why a “frozen” pace car clock could wreak such havoc in a marathon world record attempt, and why athletes have to be prepared for such an eventuality.
“You need to focus your decision-making energy,” Obama said. “You need to routinize yourself. You can’t be going through the day (in our case the race) distracted by trivia…You can’t wander around.”
For instance, part of Obama’s routine is to wear nothing but gray or blue suits, because in doing so he rids himself of another daily decision, minor though it might be, thereby saving energy for the important decisions a president has to make on a daily basis. That same principle holds true for making a world record attempt in the marathon.
The very reason for having pacers, for pace clocks, for training partners, is to strip away as many unknowables as possible, to free the athlete to do nothing more than monitor the internal working of the machine at the outer edges of performance. Any additional requirement leeches energy from that singular focus. That is how fine the line is when the task is breaking the marathon world record. At the same time, you must have redundant programs in place in case one system goes down. And that redundancy was not in place in Berlin on Sunday.
That said, I more firmly than ever hold to the proposition that competition needs to be emphasized over finishing time. The battle between two carbon-based life forms is always more intriguing than the cold calculation of a time trial no matter how fast.
As we head into Sunday’s BofA Chicago Marathon, all we need do is recall the majesty of the Sammy Wanjiru – Tsegay Kebede battle in 2010 to underscore the point. I still don’t know what time they ran that day. It didn’t matter. It was the race that counted. It always should be.