Abel Kirui over Dickson Chumba in Chicago 2016
Abel Kirui over Dickson Chumba in Chicago 2016

For the second year in a row the Bank of America Chicago Marathon staged a no-pacesetters competition. And for the second year in a row the men dawdled throughout the majority of the course until the final miles where it became a compelling duel between eventual winner Abel Kirui (2:11:23) and defending champ Dickson Chumba (2:11:26) both from Kenya.

On a perfect morning for racing the men generated the slowest winning time since 1993 (2:13:14, Luiz Antonio of Brazil) when Carey Pinkowski was still trying to resurrect the event from a near-fatal loss of its title sponsor and the ashes of the previous management.  But moderate finishing times is what will most likely occur when winning is held to be more important than running fast. And you can tell which is more important by where the money goes. Just like we first heard during the Watergate scandal, follow the money.

The win in Chicago was worth $100,000 for Mr. Kirui, but time bonuses wouldn’t have kicked in until 2:08.  So with no pacers in place to generate early momentum, the course record bonus of $75,000 for a sub-2:03:45 (Dennis Kimetto, 2013) was all but erased from the get-go.  

The way the incentives were laid out — forgetting for a second the hidden appearance fee arrangements between athlete and race organization — the value accorded a win in whatever time, in this case $100,000 for a 2:11:23, was of much greater value, and much easier to attain, than an eyeballs-out risky go at an extra $75,000 for a sub-2:03:45. 

It’s called imposing the narrative.  So until time bonuses are more heavily weighted in financial terms than simple placings, a non-paced format is unlikely to generate a fast time.  That‘s why Sammy Wanjiru‘s 2:06 gold medal win at the Beijing Olympic Marathon in 2008 was so shocking. He ran fast under difficult weather conditions when there was nothing in it except risk to run fast. But that was Sammy. Ain’t a lot of him around, and unfortunately, not him either. 

But were people any less enthralled with today’s men’s race in Chicago?  Interestingly, this theory of incentives does not seem to hold for women, as Florence Kiplagat defended her title in a sparkling 2:21:32.  But except in mixed races, women have not had pacers to get the rolling.  As such, they have always been racers.  But a culture of pacing as standard issue has developed over time on the men’s side in this sport. So when you pull the rug out, it leaves everybody a little unsettled. The sport has not developed racers over the last generation, as much as it’s developed runners. Which is why Meb Keflezighi has stood out as a pure racer rather than a time-trialer.  Abel Kirui, too, has proven to be a championship style racer with two World titles and an Olympic silver medal to go with today’s Chicago win.

For their entire careers some men have prepared to run behind pacesetters developing the physical tools to run a very fast rhythm before settling, gathering, and then pushing for home. This is how they prepared physically and psychologically, because that is how we were incentivized to prepare. In that sense the sport had developed physical talents, but not psychological ones. 

We heard a similar give-and-take after Matthew Centrowitz won the Olympic 1500 meter final in Rio in 3:50 (equivalent of a 4:07 mile). Some people said, “oh, that’s racing, time doesn’t matter.” While others were frustrated that the race didn’t go hard and produce a Herb Elliott-like record in the Olympic final (Elliott set a world record in the 1960 Olympic 1500 at 3:35.6).

Today, in Chicago on a perfect day the men went out and tempo’d through a 1:06:50 first half, then failed to even break 2:11.  Some fans may be left feeling disappointed about an opportunity lost.  But the sport has been so wrapped up in world records and talk of a sub-two hour marathon that pure competition alone won’t get it done for some people. We have taught racers and audiences alike that the only thing that matters is how fast they go.  And fast is fun.  I have heard innumerable times from Kenyan guys that they would rather run fast and finish fourth than win in a slow time.  And don’t you think there may be a few performance enhancement consequences to such a time-based focus?  

Only an extended period of non-paced racing can break the hold that an only-fast-counts mentality has created.  You just wonder if a no-pacers format might better serve the long-term interests of the sport and the Abbott World Marathon Majors circuit, as only the three American marathons hold to that format now.

Ironically, only time would tell. 



17 thoughts on “CHICAGO 2016

  1. Toni

    I was out of town…so only just caught the streaming….for most of the race it reminded me of a training run in Boulder back in the 80s…..seemed to me the Kenyans were going as slow as they could…and the finish was alright…but hardly that great….it’s not even clear Chumba cared that much about winning…after all the difference in prize money isn’t that much.

    You talk about not being use to actually racing being the problem…but to me the Kenyans are really interested in maximizing their payday with the least amount of effort. And I don’t blame them….

  2. Why pay appearance fees at all for such poor times…2:13 was third….I’m curious how long this model will last…just straight up prize money with time bonuses would be far more interesting…but steady 5 minute miles….the whole way is pretty dull….it would be one thing if off a slow pace someone took off with 10k or 10 miles to go but this is pretty forgettable.

  3. On a related note, I can recall a Chicago Marathon from the recent past (I’m not sure what year) when ONE OF THE PACERS wound up winning. Instead of fading during the final miles he decided to go for it. The TV commentators were arguing about whether that was “legal”. Perhaps it was unprecedented up to that point? Does anybody know?

    1. Don,

      Ben Kimondiu in 2001 beat Paul Tergat in Chicago on a very chilly morning after serving as a pacer. Tergat didn’t look at Kimondiu as a threat until it was too late to catch him. After that it was written into contracts for Pacers that they shouldn’t finish, even though by rule they were official entrants in the race.

  4. I like the idea of a time bonus for a halfway split. Or they could offer a monetary prize for the most combative/aggressive runner like in the Tour de France (not sure if TDF has money, or just the award, though).

  5. One of the overlooked aspects of the “no pacers” movement is the impact that this has a bit on down the pecking order.

    In these paced races, pacers are typically provided for second, third time goals, etc, often serving the interests of developing and emerging elites – guys not in the hunt to win but looking to produce a sub-2:10, etc. – a time that benchmarks them in the eyes of sponsors, races, etc.. This is one reason pacers at Chicago often made sense – it’s one of two “fast-but-fair” courses in the US (Houston being the other when the weather cooperates), and having pacers offered breakthrough opportunities for emerging athletes who might not be in a position to run Berlin, Frankfurt, or other other time trials in Europe.

    Not arguing in favor of the pacers, but just noting that their elimination changes the complexion of the race in more ways than one.

    1. Anon,

      Thanks for that insight. Now consider this. For years these top marathons have been staged for runners to run fast, hence pacers. And your explanation for the other pluses for having pacers, like improving the CV of lesser runners, adds to their primary purpose. The focus, therefore, is on the runners themselves from an event management standpoint. But what about trying to make the runners interesting to an audience?

      To make that happen, you have to impose a narrative. Who is racing who today? Why is it of interest? What are the stakes? Without pacers there is mystery to the race right from the gun. Anything can happen, even if nothing does. Pacers, on the other hand, establish a known outcome until the final pacer pulls off the course. Until then there is NO mystery.

      The pattern has not changed in a generation. In short, there is a difference between a Race Director and a Race Promoter. A generation ago boxing had the wild-haired Don King, and his rival Bob Arum as top promoters. Today, we have Golden Boy Productions with Oscar de la Hoya, the former world champion. And look how Dana White sold UFC (Ultimate Fighting) for $4 billion in 2015 after buying it for just $2 million in 2001. That is world-class promotion.

      In my article I say that marathoning hasn’t developed racers over the last generation because of the way pacers have staged the event. But the sport hasn’t developed race promoters in that time, either. And there is a big, big difference between a race director (cones, and traffic and travels, and expos, etc.) and a race promoter. Where are the sport’s race promoters? Such topics are never raised at conclaves like the annual Running USA meeting. That’s all about the nuts and bolts, not the hearts and minds.

      Again, thanks or adding to the conversation.


  6. While I like not having pacers (running with training wheels), I do think that the US should have one of their Majors luring some faster times than NYCM or Boston might get. I think an offered ‘prime’ or bonus for first to 13.1 / splitting the half in, say 63:30 or at some other point(s) on the course would be a nice addition and would add another dimension for fans to follow.

  7. Another enticement of these no pacers marathons, for me at least, is seeing Americans still on the screen, even towards the latter stages. And as for the above referenced race between Wanjiru & Kebede, I hope you count your blessings everyday Toni that you were in the right place at the right time. Your call of that epic contest will go down in the annals of T & F history. I never tire of watching the replay.

    1. I agree wholeheartedly with your assessment. Did you see this sentence in the description of the Wanjiru YouTube video?

      “The NBC commentators on this marathon broadcast (Mike Adamle & Toni Reavis) are some of the most in-sync, spirited and genuinely interested that I’ve ever heard.”

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