Runner’s World Newswire put out a story October 23rd by Peter Gambaccini – Former Elite’s Advice for Ryan Hall – after Hall pulled out of the November 3rd ING New York City Marathon, the third straight major marathon Ryan had been signed to run but not been able 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.
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 race.
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
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.”
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 that just one top marathon finish can provide. And they train like there is nothing to lose, because there isn’t.
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.
“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.”
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 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.