Last year, after the final pacer pulled off course at 30 kilometers, Kenya’s Wesley Korir shattered the integrity of the Chicago Marathon lead pack, ripping a sudden tear in the fabric of the race by accelerating past an aid station as others peeled off for their liquids.  But as he told me yesterday, “Even when I made that move, I was thinking of (Moses) Mosop.  I expected him to go by me, and when he did I gave up, and was happy with second place.”

What Korir just described is the Alpha Effect, the psychological control a single athlete has on his competitors by nothing more than his very presence.  The power an Alpha has over other runners can corrupt even their best moves before they have been played out. Last year in Chicago Kenya’s Moses Mosop, arriving as the 2:03:06 Boston Marathon runner up and world record holder at 30K on the track, was the Alpha male.  We’ve seen them through the years, men like Toshihiko Seko, Rob de Castella, Paul Tergat and Haile Gebrselassie, the athletes who everyone else has their eye on, waiting to see what he does, controlling the race no matter where he may be in the pack.

The professional athletes of the 2012 Bank of America Chicago Marathon met with the press corps yesterday at the host Chicago Hilton Hotel. Outside, the burly American city known for its architecture, music, and neighborhoods lay shrouded beneath low-hanging weather moving restlessly east out along the great lakeside where the bulk of the race will be contested this Sunday. 

The men’s competition in Chicago 2012 – which I’ll be focusing on for WMAQ-5 television – promises to be deep and balanced, even if not star-studded.  That said, Chicago race director Carey Pinkowski has assembled ten sub-2:07 men for the journey along the shores of Lake Michigan, though nary an alpha male in the gathering.  Meaning every man Jack is thinking, ‘this could be my day’.  Such things make a difference, believe me.

Last weekend we saw how an alpha can control a race.  Even though he was dead meat in the final kilometer in Berlin after attacking the world record unsuccessfully, Geoffrey Mutai’s Alpha-male stature held training partner Dennis Kimetto from challenging his mentor’s rightful place upon the top step of the award’s podium.

Here in Chicago the marathon has been dominated in the past by men like four-time champion Khalid Khannouchi, two-time champ, the late Sammy Wanjiru, and last year’s winner and course record setter Moses Mosop. But with Mosop headed for the worldly route in New York City in one month’s time, Chicago is an even match among a slew of thoroughbreds. 

Though Ethiopia’s Tsegay Kebede sports the finest resume in the field with two bronze medals, one at the 2008 Olympics, the other at the following year’s World Championships, and took part in what was in many people’s estimation the greatest race in Chicago history, the 2010 war against Kenya’s late Sammy Wanjiru, despite that and two Fukuoka and one London title, the diminutive Ethiopian wasn’t selected for the Ethiopian London Olympic team.  While that might make the tiny terror itchy for redemption, it doesn’t make him The Man in Chicago, the guy everyone accounts for every step of the way.

Wesley Korir returns to Chicago for the fifth straight year, not just as defending runner up, but as the 2012 Boston Marathon champion.  But Boston was a survival test beneath a broiling sun, and a win under such dire conditions doesn’t confer the same respect among one’s peers as one in benign conditions.

Weather has clouded the brow of race director Carey Pinkowski more times than he’d care to recall over the last several years here in Chicago.  It’s either been too hot, as in 2007 and 2008, or too slippery, as in 2006 when rain-slicked streets pulled Robert K. Cheruiyot’s feet out from under him with his final stride, leaving him prostrate on the pavement in victory.

Sure, Moses Mosop managed the course record last year with his 2:05:37.  But the start temperature was 65F and by the finish it was well into the 70s.  Sunday’s forecast now calls for start temps in the high 30s Fahrenheit – 4 Celsius – with light winds and partly cloudy skies.  Ideal.  The average temperature for the top ten marathon times of all-time is just under 50F/10C.

With this year’s pacers hired to pull the pack through the first half in a brisk 62:00, there will be more pretenders than contenders filling out the lead group. One man who won’t join that march, however, is America’s Midwest favorite Dathan Ritzenhein, the native of Rockford, Michigan who made his third Olympic team in 2012.  But with his Olympic focus at 10,000 meters after failing to qualify for the marathon in January, Ritz has to modify his tactics.

“If I had run 60:00-flat in Philadelphia (September 16th) like I did in Birmingham in 2009 (where he took 3rd at the World Half Marathon Championships), I would’ve thought about going out in 62,” explained Ritz.  “But 60:57 at Philly, that’s only one minute slower, it’s too risky.”

So Dathan will make his own pace with fellow Rockford native Jason Hartman, who ran 2:11:08 on this course in 2010, and is prepping for New York City November 4th.

“We’ve run together so many times,” Rich recalled, “and he’s like a metronome.”

They will be joined by Kenyan Erick Monyenye, winner of last December’s Cal International Marathon (2:11:50).  Hartman will go at least 10 miles, hopefully 13, and Monyenye will carry Ritz on from there. The goal is to get him into the later miles with running in his legs and stragglers in his sights.

“If I don’t PR (2:09:55) I’ll be upset,” Ritz informed us after prepping in Park City, Utah at over 7000 feet altitude since his 13th place finish at the London Olympic 10,000. “If I break 2:08 it will be a good day, but you know, I’d like to break 2:08:13. That was Alberto’s short New York City time.”

Ritz is coached by former three-time New York City Marathon champion Alberto Salazar. In 1981 Salazar set what everyone at the time thought was the marathon world record. But later the New York course was re-measured to be 149 meters short.

“I hope there’s going to be a lotta carnage after that 62-minute half,” Ritz concluded.  “I’d like to get into the last miles and say, “beat one more guy, beat one more guy.”

We’ve seen even 2:12 and 2:14 East Africans tie onto fast early splits like they were tow-in big wave surfers.  That’s the way they roll.  But that’s the way they wipe out, as well. Ritz might have many a carcass to climb over in the final stretch. But if and when he does, none of them will have been the Alpha. Not this year.  And that might make it an even more intriguing day after all.


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