During his second term in office, President Barack Obama was vilified for his policy of “leading from behind” in Libya. Whether such a strategy is viable in the realm of geopolitics is open to argument. But can leading from behind be a winning strategy in running?
I thought about that while watching yesterday‘s IAAF World Cross Country Championships from Denmark. One of the questions asked when the very difficult race course was unveiled was whether or not somebody laying off the pace could come from behind and still win. We don’t see much of that on the track or, as it turned out, yesterday at World Cross in Aarhus. In shorter distances races, contact is everything. But the marathon is another matter because you can let someone go early with the goal of reeling him/her back in later. But it’s more than that.
2010 in Chicago, tiny terrors Tsegay Kebede of Ethiopia and Sammy Wanjiru of Kenya battled one another in an epic duel. Throughout the final 12 kilometers of that marathon race, after the final pacesetter had dropped off, it was the Ethiopian Kebede who had the lead and stretched the pace. By the final 5K when the course turned back north toward the finish, the race had been reduced to just those two, Kebede and Wanjiru.
Over the length of that final stretch, Kebede attacked wantonly at least three times, stretching Wanjiru to the breaking point. But Sammy never fully broke. Each time Kebede looked like he had put him away, Sammy somehow snapped back. But looking back, it seemed like that was Wanjiru’s game, to spur Kebede from behind so that he would use up all his fuel before the final turn onto Roosevelt across the railroad tracks to the finish in Grant Park.
And indeed that’s where Sammy struck for the win with only 600 meters remaining. It was a brilliant cat-and-mouse game with Wanjiru as the cat and Kebede the mouse. To this day, it remains the most exciting marathon I have ever called (though Meb’s victory in Boston 2014 was the most emotional).
Well, it seemed like Elisha Barno played a similar cat-and-mouse game with John Korir last weekend at the Los Angeles Marathon, though he played it even closer to the edge than Wanjiru.
2017 LA champion and 2018 third-placer Elijah Barno took several runs to the front during the 34th LA Marathon last Sunday, once from 30 meters off the back to five meters in front, rolling right by the pack in a rush.
That spurt in the 19th mile seemed to ignite the 22-year-old John Korir who finally jumped from a 5:03 18th mile to a 4:38 19th. And away he went like a bottle rocket.
Not sure Barno planned it exactly down to the second, but the next seven miles all fell sub-4:50 (3:00/Km). Korir looked great, riding high in the saddle, elegant, galloping to victory, ready to join his older brother Wesley (2009 & 2010) as LA Champion. Or so it seemed.
But he had done something similar in Ottawa, Canada last spring in his marathon debut. There he had attacked as well, only to have his mid-race breakaway come up painfully short as he got gobbled up in the final 2k, though he finished well for second in 2:09:14.
Again in Los Angeles, young Korir set off on a series of sub-4:50 miles from 19 all the way to 26. Then his well of energy left him like water swirling from a bathtub. WHOOOSHHH!
Caught in a vortex of fatigue, Korir slowed like a record on a turntable that had its plug pulled. There wasn’t anything wrong with his legs. He just ran out of the gas necessary to move them.
Barno even stumbled as he came up alongside Korir on Ocean Avenue with 150 meters to go. But he still had the course dialed in down to the last millimeter. Because after crossing the tape, Barno sank to the ground and sat there on the road to take in what had just happened. Not quite believing it had worked out in his favor.
The Kenyan flag, which had been prepared for Korir, was laid over his shoulders as he shook his head in wonder. Who says a 2:11 marathon can’t be exciting?
Later on, somebody was complaining on social media about the quality of LA’s fields this year, asking why I had mentioned a 2:19 guy as one to watch on our KTLA TV coverage. But it wasn’t any 2:19 runner, it was Brandon Wolfe of Pasadena, the top local guy in the race. Why wouldn’t you want to give that position a shout out on local TV? Don’t you want to encourage that high level of local talent?
I also said I thought elite athlete coordinator Matt Turnbull had done a particularly good job this year. Without much in hand, he put together the closest men’s finish in LA Marathon history and produced a snapping new women’s course record, as well. I’d call that some fancy-ass coordinating.
In any case, look for new and bigger things coming out of LA in the next several years. With the 2028 Olympic Games returning to the City of Angels for the third time (1932, 1984), the LA Marathon will link back to its founding Olympic impulse as the area ramps up for the big world gathering. I guess they will be leading from the front this time.