The Fall 2014 marathon season is upon us, and with the 41st BMW Berlin Marathon about to step out this weekend, we can see how the efforts and budgets of the three fall majors were spent, and what might lie ahead in the coming six weeks.
As per usual, the clock is once again in focus in Berlin, as the USA’s Shalane Flanagan guns for Deena Kastor’s U.S. marathon mark of 2:19:36, set in London 2006. Shalane sacrificed quite a bit in terms of money by going to Europe rather than racing in the States in Chicago or New York City. But Berlin is the preferred record venue with its flat course, paced races, and more predictably seasonable weather. Plus, at age 33 the Marblehead, Massachusetts native feels the clock ticking. Not that she won’t have competition. Paris course record holder Feyse Tadese , and Tokyo record holder Tirfi Tsegaye of Ethiopia will also lace up in Berlin this Sunday, but Shalane has forthrightly admitted that time is the goal, not place, and she won’t sacrifice an even pace for a competitive surge.
But on the men’s side, Berlin has gone against type and recruited three ex-World Marathon Majors race champs rather than a single comet blazing toward another world record attempt behind a phalanx of pacers. In Dennis Kimetto, 2013 Chicago winner; Tsegay Kebede of Ethiopia, reigning WMM series champ; and former London course record holder Emmanuel Mutai, Berlin has three of the strongest racers in modern marathoning. Kebede once again leads the 2013–2014 standings with 55 points. Kimetto stands in third with 50, and E. Mutai still has an outside shot for the title, resting in fifth position with 30 points.
There are 25 points at stake for the Berlin win, and with $500,000 on the line for the WMM series winner, yet Mr. Kimetto’s “I know I am ready. My preparation has been good and I’m confident for Sunday. If the conditions are good, yes, we could break the world record,” indicates time seems always to be the primary focus in Berlin. But who doesn’t enjoy a bloody good race more than a sterile time trial? Even better when both occur as in London 2002 when Khalid Khannouchi broke his own record in a power tussle against Paul Tergat and the debuting Haile Gebrselassie.
In fact, that is the point of this post. Often, the events and the athletes tout themselves by comparing personal bests (PBs) instead of individual match ups. For men it is how many sub-2:04s, or sub-2:05 are in the field. For the women it is the number of sub-2:20s. But twenty years ago it was how many sub-2:10s and sub-2:30s were running. Times change, and when we reduce the competitors to their times, what we lose are their personalities – assuming they have one.
As a result, when you ask almost anyone but the hardest of hard core fans who they think will win a race, odds are they will say “a Kenyan”, or maybe “an Ethiopian”. While that response might be a market satisfier in terms of promoting Kenya and Ethiopia as places that develop great runners, it is a market dis-satisfier in terms of marketing the individual athletes or developing the sport to a wider audience.
Point is, in order to make it stick, it has to be personal. Enough of this “I am just trying to run my best race”. It has to become “I want to beat that guy!” Him against Him, Her versus Her, not them against the clock. There is no emotional appeal to a time-based presentation. Every once in a while, like with Flanagan in Berlin, it might make sense, but the general public doesn’t know a 2:03 from a 2:13 or 2:23. What they do understand is white hats and black hats, or stakes of $500,000 or more.
In 2010 the late Sammy Wanjiru of Kenya bested Ethiopia’s Tsegaye Kebede in a dual for the ages in Chicago. At stake was the WMM cycle title and the half-million dollar WMM bonus. Current women’s World Marathon Majors points leader Rita Jeptoo (75 points) and the second placer on the list, fellow Kenyan Edna Kiplagat (65), are in the same position in 2014. But instead of matching up in a winner-take-all showdown, Jeptoo will defend her Chicago title, while Edna Kiplagat, the 2014 London champ, will compete in New York City. In terms of promoting the sport, that is a lost opportunity.
Runners are a lot like prize fighters, putting two to three months of training into one competition. And as famed Philadelphia fight trainer Fred Jenkins once told me about boxing, “95% of it is fitness. The fittest guy generally wins.” But fight cards, unlike races, are presented as binary competitions, ala the recent rematch between Floyd “Money” Mayweather versus Marcos Maidana.
Foot races put a dozen or more runners on the line without any promotion to speak of, then expect people to pay attention as they compete against an impersonal clock. For years I have asked athletes which is more important, a fast time or a high place. Counter intuitively, the answer I get most often has been “I want a fast time”. “But isn’t it a race first?” I ask. “Isn’t a championship more important than a fast PB set while finishing fifth?” Evidently not. The question is whether that mentality has been seeded in them over the years by the purveyors of the sport?
As we all know, the sport of running engenders all the qualities a parent would like to see his or her children adopt: honor, integrity, the lesson of hard work applied toward a distant goal. Yet, for a host of reasons this most basic of all sports hasn’t been able to package its competitors in such a way that focuses rooting interest on the individual so as to lure fans, inspire kids, or, for that matter, to interest other runners. But look how Meb Keflezighi’s surprise win at this year’s Boston showcased the power of personality over time.
What the sport needs is more rivalries, fewer time trials. And the way things are setting up this fall, we are on our way to just those kinds of marquee match ups: Dennis Kimetto vs. Tsegay Kebede vs. Emmanuel Mutai in Berlin; Keninisa Bekele vs. Eliud Kipchoge in Chicago; and Wilson Kipsang vs. Geoffrey Mutai in New York City. Those are fights I am anxious to see whatever their finishing times might be.