Watching the races in London last Sunday I couldn’t help contrast forms, because in the marathon more so than the track (until you get to the kick at the end) the question of form is also the matter of fuel management, especially on the quivering edge of world record pace. As Ethiopia’s Tirunesh Dibaba wrote on her Facebook account afterward: “Even though my training went very well, I misjudged the pace, and did not have the strength to finish.”
She didn’t misjudge the pace, she misjudged the conditions for the pace. Maybe if the day had dawned overcast at 43F (6C) with calm winds, talk of a world record would have been very much in order. But it was 59F (15C) at the start! And rising, going on to become the hottest day in London Marathon history.
Paula Radcliffe‘s 2003 world record 2:15:25 stood some 2:31 faster than Tirunesh had ever run (2:17:56 finishing second to Mary Keitany’s 2:17:01 last year, the second-fastest time in history). What did she think the odds were going out significantly faster than Paula Radcliffe had in 2003 in those conditions? I know that modern runners have out-trained the distance, at least on a benign day, but can they be so dismissive of the distance and the records that they think basic physiological norms no longer apply?
You could see right away that Mary Keitainy had a tighter, more efficient form than Tirunesh, both above and below the waist. She also showed less core rotation per stride. That difference in per-stride energy expenditure adds up. The fact that Mary staggered home at all in fifth place in 2:24:27 after falling off world record pace before 30K was a testament to her fitness and form. The fact that Tirunesh didn’t get past 30K after falling off Mary’s pace at 15K makes its own point.
I don’t mean to be harsh here. I have watched and celebrated Tirunesh since she first came to America to run the Carlsbad 5000 in 2002 as a budding teenager when the late Mike Long dubbed her “The Baby-faced Assasin”. But just as the men in London seemed dismissive of the conditions and Dennis Kimetto‘s 2014 world record by going out at 4:22/13:48 through the mile and 5K, wouldn’t you as a fan rather have seen a pure race?
The fields were brilliant, as always in London. But the day was cautioning, just as the freezing rain and headwinds in Boston were cautioning the week before. Both sexes in London would have run great times, as the weather wasn’t horrible, just less than what was needed for a world record assault. Imagine the strategy and tactics we would have seen along the way. It would have been riveting, the packs more structured, the moves more telling. Instead, we got a Quixotic attempt at the world records, where people just fell off the crazy pace, and the winners survived, spoiling what would have been a brilliant day of competition, perhaps especially for England’s own Sir Mo Farah, who still hung on gamely for third.
I get Berlin going for the record every year. The last six men’s world records have been composed there. I get Dubai having pacers, being a flat runway of a course. New York City dropped pacers years ago, and Chicago finally gave up the pacing ghost after 2014 when Eliud Kipchoge won in 2:04:11. For years race director Carey Pinkowski eliminated every last turn he could to shrink his route to its barest minimum, and still could only get his course record down to 2:03:45 in 2013 (by the same Dennis Kimetto who has the Berlin and world record). I also get that the pre-race hype generated by talk of a potential world record builds interest. But once the day dawns –
What’s the first thing they teach you in distance running? Have realistic expectations. These are great athletes, but as we witnessed in Boston this year with Yuki Kawauchi and in 2014 when Meb Keflezighi out-foxed his faster opponents, part of what makes a champion is critical thinking in times of crisis. Adding a phalanx of pacers eliminates those decisions, and robs the public of the intellectual honesty of the race.
As Boston women’s champ, Des Linden told ESPN’s Bonnie D. Ford, “…the day can throw anything at you. And that’s what Boston does. Racers pick Boston”.
World record attempts are fun, but they should be rare, special, like the Nike Breaking2 Project last year in Italy. But when they get staged every year they become banalities, especially when all they do is set up unrealistic expectations when the conditions don’t cooperate. Then all you do is turn what would normally be successes into failures. Let’s have a little faith in our athletes. It is the human factor that makes all sports compelling. Let’s not lose sight of mano a mano as opposed to mana a tempo as the sport continues to try to form up an expanded pack of fans.