BUILDING THE WALL, FEELING IT FALL

Hono 2013 dawn     Honolulu, HI. — In today’s modern architectural aesthetic the open floor-plan has become the preferred design, a wall-dispensing motif to create an enlarged sense of space.  So, too, in today’s modern marathon world has the removal of barriers come into vogue, as the long-feared “Wall” has all but been torn down at the upper echelon of competition.

Born in the wispy tendrils of myth – see the legend of Pheidippides – the marathon “Wall” is what made the event such an epic challenge.  A much respected and feared barrier for any runner who assailed the marathon’s mighty length, The Wall is an invisible construction erected with the mortar of hubris and desire that stood as a bulwark against those who ran out of energy before the race ran out of distance.

But with today’s professional athletes building on training methods of the past, the marathon has been humbled.  Rather than a test of endurance the event has been turned into a test of speed over distance.  Athletes sequestered in monastic camps deep in the highlands of East Africa or in the rarefied atmospheres of the Rockies or Alps over-train for the distance.  These days we often hear of the top men doing at least one, and as many as three, 40Km runs in a training cycle, and many more 35Ks jaunts to bolster their longer runs.  Yes, today’s elite men and women stand on the starting lines of marathons world-wide unafraid of what lies ahead.  Yet there remain exceptions to the rule, and we witnessed one such exception this past Sunday at the 41st Honolulu Marathon.

Without a designated pacer to pull them into the darkness, the small pack of professionals signed for the 2013 Honolulu Marathon tentatively sought a leader after the 5 a.m. starter’s pistol sent them off on their journey.  For the first time in 20 years seven-time champion and course record holder Jimmy Muindi of Kenya would be riding rather than running the famed course over Diamond Head and back.  Without the event’s Obi-Wan to guide them, the Oahu newcomers searched fruitlessly for a leader, while not heeding the strong striding Japanese runner wearing number 24193 who pressed ahead toward the darkened towers of downtown unconcerned with any who might follow.

Makoni striding out early

Saeki Makoni striding out early

His name was Saeki Makoni of the Kawaguchi T&F Association, the some-time training partner of Japan’s famous “citizen runner” Yuki Kawauchi, who completed his umpteenth marathon of the year taking third at the Fukuoka Marathon the week before Honolulu.  But while Kawauchi is a legit 2:08 man, Makoni’s best is a more modest 2:21:42 off a 15th place finish at the 2012 Dusseldorf Marathon in Germany (amend to 2:20:59 from Seoul this spring).  Though at the time he was shooting for a sub-2:15 clocking in his European debut, not an unreasonable goal, given his 1:04:35 half-marathon best.

So when he strode out to an opening mile split of 5:17 on Sunday, then hit two miles in 10:37, it wasn’t like he was reaching for the sun and stars. Even so the pack of Kenyans and Ethiopians led by three-time London and two-time New York City Marathon champion Martin Lel (who dropped out of the November TCS NYC Marathon), never saw Makoni disappear into the predawn darkness, and thus allowed his advantage to build with each passing mile.

By five miles in the heart of Waikiki Beach his lead had swelled to a remarkable 1:45 as the unknowing chasers had eased through the 5K split in a truly desultory 17:15, unimaginably slow in this day and age.

When I ran into eventual race winner Gilbert Chepkwony yesterday as he shopped at the International Marketplace on Kalakaua Avenue, I asked of the pack’s approach to the race.

“Did you know there was a Japanese guy out front?”

“No, not until an official told us that he had a three-minute lead.”

“Well, why did you guys go out so slow?”

“Because there was no pacer.  Everyone wanted to win the race, and if you had been the one to push the pace, the others would have used you as the pacer.”

So without knowing there was a legitimate runner putting major distance on them throughout the first 30K, the pack simply eye-balled one another knowing they’d eventually drop into racing gear as Diamond Head loomed in the final miles, but thinking they only had themselves to consider.

Makoni still in full flight past half-way

Makoni still in full flight past half-way

Makoni hit the half in 1:08:33, the pack in 1:11:38 (It’s like we’re writing about a women’s race). But this is the consequence of almost every marathon in the world relying on pacers to drag their fields out. Of the majors only Boston and New York don’t use pacers, forcing the contenders into Big Boy competition mode where thinking on your feet is as necessary as delivering oxygen to those same extremities.

At 30K Makoni still had a 2:36 cushion at 1:38:05.  But his split between 25 and 30K had fallen to 16:42, a 5:23 per mile average.  Behind him a pack of six were beginning to make headway into the gap they’d allow to open, but they were still beyond our view in the lead vehicle as the deep umber colors of dawn began to spread over the rim of the eastern sky.

A 5:37 20th mile marked the beginning of the end for Makoni-San.  At first the grimace on his face gave proof of his suffering. Then one hand reached for his right side before his left joined as double knifing blades of pain wracked his insides even as the chase group came into view, hungry predators with his blood in their nostrils.

Suffering

Suffering at 35K coming off the highway

A 6:03 21st mile sealed Makoni’s fate; he was deep into his marathon death throes.  We in the lead vehicle calling the race of AM 940 radio — Honolulu Marathon president Jim Barahal and his son Sebastian — had already become invested in the brave Japanese athlete, and were rooting for his chances.  But he had long-since constructed his wall, and now it was crashing down on him with a heartless finality.

The Pass

The Pass at 22 miles

Turning off Kalanianaole Highway as the course neared mile 22 Gilbert Chepkwony and two-time Honolulu champion (2010-2011) Nicholas Chelimo blitzed past the agonized Makoni as they zipped along Kealaolu Avenue at a water stop heading toward the return climb over Diamond Head.  Chepkwony’s 4:36 23rd mile confirmed his break.  He followed it up with a 4:56 24th, and 5:04 25th mile over Diamond Head to polish off the first win of his marathon career in 2:18:47.

Punahou Hgh runner Sebastian Barahal watches Gilbert Chepkwony on his way to victory at Honolulu 2013

Punahou High School runner Sebastian Barahal watches Gilbert Chepkwony on his way to victory at Honolulu 2013

The second half of his race had been completed in a four-minute negative split, 1:07:09, on what was a calm, but humid day, difficult conditions when trying to cool rapidly heating bodies.  Chelimo finished in second place in 2:19:22, while fellow Kenyan Solomon Busendich took third in 2:19:39.

Seika Makoni more than proved his bravery by finishing in 17th place, though his time of 2:37:10 was done the hard way, 1:08:33 — 1:28:37.  His last 10K took a brutal 51:31, a wall, you might say, of major proportions.  Perhaps a new design will mark his next attempt.

END

 

SPLITS

5 km 16:35 (CHASERS, 17:15)  
10 km 32:21 (34:24) 15:46 (17:09)
15 km 48:40 16:19
20 km 1:04:49 16:09
HM 1:08:33 (1:11:42)  
25 km 1:21:23 16:34
30 km 1:38:05 (1:40:41) 16:42
35 km 1:56:36 18:31
40 km 2:12:14 15:38
Finish
2:18:47  6:33
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