Make no mistake, in foot racing like war it is axiomatic that the best laid plans rarely survive the instant of engagement. That is also why in today’s Kenyan dominated world of elite marathon racing the competition isn’t limited to a specific race. Instead, as many of today’s giants train together or in close proximity in the Rift Valley crucibles of Iten and Eldoret, competition stretches between and among races, as well.
And so, as we exit today’s TCS Amsterdam Marathon and head toward November 3rd and the ING New York City Marathon, the field there will not simply be competing against one another for the five-borough title, and/or the World Marathon Major cycle title. No, 2011 New York champion and course record holder Goffrey Mutai and the lads will be competing against what has just transpired in Berlin, Chicago and Amsterdam over the last month and a half. In fact, it was Wilson Kipsang’s world record in Berlin which spurred his sometime training mate, Geoffrey Mutai, into supposing that a sub-2:05 is possible in New York given the conditions.
In that light I had an interesting tête–à–tête with my Chicago broadcast colleague Tim Hutchings during the latter stages of last Sunday’s race. As eventual champion Dennis Kimetto and runner up Emmanuel Mutai battled over the final 7 km, I mused on-air that their competition would prove detrimental in their chase for the marathon world record set just two weeks before in Berlin. Tim countered, saying it was competition that often spurred athletes toward record performances.
It’s a fascinating topic, one I’ve written about in a previous post – CALCULUS OF A MARATHON WORLD RECORD. But while I agree with Tim that competition can catalyze a fast time, it depends on how that competition plays out, rather than its mere existence. Let’s compare the races in Chicago and Berlin 2013, then, as we look forward to New York.
Only three times in marathon history have both halves of the distance been successfully completed in under 62 minutes. (We are not counting Boston 2011 where Geoffrey Mutai split a mind-spinning 1:01:57 & 1:01:05, and Moses Mosop went 1:01:57 & 1:01:09. Right or wrong, Boston is not recognized for record purposes because the course is downhill and point-to-point).
The three record eligible double sub-62s include Patrick Makau’s 61:45 — 61:53 halves in Berlin 2011 to post his 2:03:38 world record. Wilson Kipsang managed it again this September 15th in Berlin for his 2:03:23 (61:34 – 61:49). And Dennis Kimetto split the Chicago course into almost perfect halves of 61:52 and 61:53 to notch his 2:03:45 course record. But time isn’t just numbers on a page or pixels on a computer screen. In Chicago the pace at the end was by no means evenly distributed, much less ramping up like Kipsang’s in Berlin.
LEANING INTO THE TURNS
We were leaning hard into the turns all day on the lead TV motorcycle in Chicago, as the pace was necessarily stern from the start. American Jason Hartman hit 5km dead on in the prescribed 14:45, and that was the second slowest 5K stretch of the entire day. With many 90-degeree turns on the course coming in the first few downtown miles, six in the first 2.3 miles alone, there was a lot of centrifugal force built into that pace. And such was the severity of that effort that the five pacesetters got burned out earlier than expected.
After Hartman drifted back to assist his friend Dathan Ritzenhein, Morocco’s Abdellah Falil took able control, passing halfway in 61:52 before casting free at 14 miles. But at the technical meeting on Saturday, race director Carey Pinkowski announced that the agreed upon pace up front would be 62:05 through 21.1 km. The fact that the field came through in 61:51 was due, in part, to conversations held in the days leading up in which Emmanuel Mutai and Sammy Kitwara kept talking about a 61:45 first half. It’s that competition thing again.
Knowing what the guys went through in Berlin, it was as if the Chicago Kenyans were saying, ‘We can’t go 62-plus if the guys in Berlin hit the half in 61:34. We know those guys. We trained with those guys. Anything over 62 would be embarrassing.’ That’s the nature of competition within those large training groups in Iten and Eldoret. You don’t think that same mentality will emerge in New York after the raft of fast times this fall everywhere else? It’s like big-time pool hustling, where the players make their own side bets over and above what the race has on offer.
Though Abdellah Falil had been scheduled to go 25 km in Chicago, he never made it past 14 miles. And his pacing compatriot’s, Shadrack Kosgei and Simon Ndirangu, both of whom were scheduled for 30 km lasted only half-way (Kosgei) and 25 km (Ndirangu) respectively. P44, Belete Assefa, the 2013 Ethiopian national 10,000m champion, had been assigned to go all the way to 35 km at the southern-most tip of the course, but he didn’t even come close. As such, the Chicago contenders were cast free much sooner than anticipated. And that carried consequences.
CRACK THE WHIP
Competition best serves a marathon’s finishing time when it is the final crack-the-whip sling to an already hard but measured pace. With the Chicago pacesetters gone at 25 km, and another lonely 17.2 km stretched out menacingly ahead, the battle for the win took precedence over a purely fast time. And that’s the difference between an event like the BMW Berlin Marathon and Chicago. While both had pacers and A-level contenders, Chicago’s race engaged earlier and lasted longer than in Berlin where Wilson Kipsang , having trained specifically for breaking the world record, took control of the race in the final 10 km, breaking away from Eliud Kipchoge and Geoffrey Kipsang as the tempo dropped.
As we can see from the above chart (provided by Spanish stats man Miguel Calvo) the race was still in doubt in Chicago until 40 km. And the 5 km from 35 – 40 km was rather combustible, at that, as Kimetto yo-yo’d his effort in his attempt to drop Emmanuel Mutai. In Berlin Kipsang had broken free of Eliud Kipchoge with 10 km remaining and could manage his pace more closely.
At the same time, what small breeze there was blowing in Chicago was now coming into Kimetto and Mutai’s face along wide, unprotected Michigan Avenue after the course turning north from 35 km. Among my contemporaneous notes – scrawled aboard the leader TV moto — I wrote, “at 1:50:26 (between 37 and 38 km) big push by Kimetto, but only ten strides or so. A test! Softening his opponent.” Again at 1:55:40: “Kimetto pushes, but Mutai still right there.”
It is precisely that kind of in-and-out surging and easing that breaks an opponent, but doesn’t add up to necessarily a fast time overall. In Berlin 2011 Patrick Makau began zig-zagging across the street at 25 km as he sensed the weakness in his opponent, then world-record holder Haile Gebrselassie. Makau accelerated through a 5:30 2km from 25 — 27 km, which dropped Haile, but probably cost Makau some time by the finish. If he was simply going for a fast time there is no way he would have pressed the accelerator like that. But that is why we surmised there was more to be taken out of the world record in the future, because a better management of fuel might allow a longer thrust over the final kilometers.
Look at Kipsang’s splits over the final stretch in Berlin 2013 versus Kimetto in Chicago. At 37 km, Kimetto was actually one-second under Kipsang’s record pace. But in Berlin the final pacemaker had forged ahead to about 31km before departing. That’s when Wilson Kipsang took control and began to ramp up his effort.
In Chicago the final pacer pulled off at 25 km, leaving Kimetto and Mutai to fight with Sammy Kitwara and Micah Kogo from 30 – 35 km before taking on one another after 35 km. That fight and the uneven pace that resulted ended up draining Kimetto’s tank more quickly over the final 2 km than Kipsang’s solo final kilometers in Berlin.
Plus, even when Kimetto had broken free, Mutai remained close enough to strike if Kimetto faltered. So there remained something of a governor on Kimetto throwing all caution to the wind. Then for good measure the small climb on the overpass above the train tracks on Roosevelt with 550 meters to go was enough to strip a few seconds off the final time.
So while racing can be the spur that produces a record performance, that competition has to be contextualized. And in Chicago 2013 the competition over the final 17+ km was uneven enough to mark the difference between a course record and a world record. It isn’t by chance that the last five marathon world records have been set in Berlin. Chicago should be proud it came as close as it did.
As for New York City? Well, it will not be run in a vacuum, nor will it be run with pacers. Course record holder Geoffrey Mutai, 2013 London champion Tsegay Kebede and the rest of the powerhouse field may well have to channel the late, great Sammy Wanjiru — who led the sport into the modern era with his front-running attack of the 2008 Beijing Olympic Marathon — if they intend to take down G. Mutai’s 2:05:06 course record from two years ago. Not that they won’t try. It’s become that sort of competitive world out there.