LEAD PACK: FINDING THE CATBIRD SEAT

Do top marathoners ever watch tape on their opponents?  You know, like American football teams do, studying film from one game to prep for the next?  They always say what makes Tom Brady (quarterback for the New England Patriots American football team) arguably the best-ever to play the position is his commitment to the work, his preparation, including endlessly watching film.  So does anybody, or any management team in running do opposition research in the marathon game?  Should they? Or is it all about getting yourself as fit as you can, then just run the race, and the opposition will come along with the territory?

They say you can’t play defense in running, but is there nothing else you can do to prepare for your opponents except training your fanny off?

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We all know that every race has an Alpha, that one person every other runner pays special mind to.  Though there was a Big 3 in Berlin, I bet even Wilson Kipsang and Kenenisa Bekele kept a close eye on Eliud Kipchoge.  But I wonder whether if you deconstructed enough marathons you could learn anything by watching where the eventual champion took up his/her position in the lead pack? Is there an unrealized “catbird seat” that somehow gives one person an advantage in the critical later stages?

Red-shirt wearing Kipchoge in the catbird seat in Monza, Italy

Look where Eliud Kipchoge placed himself in the Breaking2 Project in May or, for that matter, in Berlin September 24th, right behind the pacers, just like the top 800 to 5000-meter runners do in IAAF Diamond League races on the track.

But on the track, there is an unspoken rule that the top appearance fee athlete gets that prime slot behind the pacers, and if that order is transgressed, odds are the interloper will be given a stern talking to either during the race itself or afterward as his future opportunities suddenly dry up.

Unlike the track, on the roads, there is no rail.  Plus, it matters what kind of marathon you are running, paced, for unpaced.  I’d figure it’s even more important where you slot yourself in an unpaced race like this weekend in Chicago, or New York City and Boston.  Those races are full on marathons where somebody who is a real contender has to take on the pace from the get-go.  And while there isn’t as much of a wind effect on foot compared to the wheelchair athletes, even as much a 5% energy savings over distance can be decisive at the end of the line.

Berlin, London, Tokyo, Rotterdam, Dubai, and other such races that use pacers really only ask the big boys to cut the wind for the last 12k after the final pacer pulls off.  And we see what a difference that can make in the final time.  For years, Chicago with pacers was a 2:04 to 2:06 type race, with a course record 2:03:45 in 2014. These last two years without pacers it’s been won in 2:09 and 2:11.

2016 NYC – Still on 4th Avenue in Brooklyn in the first 10K.  Defending champ Stanley Biwott fronts the pack, though was said to be off form after stomach problems in the Rio Olympics.  But look who is sitting pretty in the middle of the pack drawing energy from all sides, eventual champion Ghirmay Ghebreslassie of Eritrea.

So Sunday morning in Chicago, especially with the less than ideal weather conditions expected, keep an eye out for the guy who finds the pocket where the most support surrounds him throughout the day, and chances are we may be looking at the champion.

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5 thoughts on “LEAD PACK: FINDING THE CATBIRD SEAT

  1. Actually I thought with only a single line of pacesetters the best spot in Berlin was where Bekele was behind Kipchoge…you lose a lot of the windbreaking when you are not directly behind someone…even being a foot to the side loses most of the advantage…Bekele had the spot Kipchoge had in Breaking 2….but I don’t think Kipchoge likes being behind any rivals…

    Also the pace has to be at or below 4:35 per mile…i.e. 2:00.00 pace…to be effective…

    At 2:10 or so pace the wind blockage is much less dramatic…

    https://www.runnersworld.com/sweat-science/did-the-tesla-pace-car-aid-eliud-kipchoges-20025-marathon

  2. In this short video it shows that clearly that Kipchoge is hardly getting any wind blockage but Bekele is getting all of the benefits…and this was true until Bekele dropped back…I kept thinking during the race that Kipchoge hasn’t really learned the lesson Breaking 2 told him.

    • The Breaking2 folks did a lot of wind-tunnel testing, and I’m sure they conveyed to Kipchoge not only how the diamond-shaped array of the pacers would best serve him, but where his best position would be in relation to them.

      My view of Berlin was that Bekele, being under-trained, did not assert his position directly behind the pacers, but instead behind Kipchoge. I don’t view that as calculated to his advantage, but rather as a nod to Eliud’s superiority. I further see the fact that he crapped out at halfway as lending credence to that analysis.

      TR

  3. I agree that Bekele was under trained and knew it so yes following Kipchoge rather than a strategic advantage….I was just pointing out that I don’t think the big guns still understand how critical your position is…

    I’ll be curious where Rupp would have been in the Berlin race….I suspect Alberto would have had him right where Bekele was….

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