GEARED FOR THE DISTANCE  – NO WORLD RECORD IN BERLIN 2021

What effort for this pace? That is the question every athlete has to answer in the marathon. And when we control the effort, funny how that dovetails nicely with performance. It is only when we are forced to comply with somebody else’s rhythm, either a fellow racer or a time from the record book, that flow becomes difficult to regulate.

How many times have we heard, “I want to run my own race”?  That’s because running someone else’s race is a recipe for loss. Deficiencies in our efficiencies are what strip our fitness reserves in terms of effort required, energy expended, and, eventually, incremental time lost. 

Today, in Berlin, at the BMW Berlin Marathon, 2019 champion Kenenisa Bekele was going after Eliud Kipchoge‘s 2018 world record of 2:01:39, a time he missed by just two seconds in his 2019 victory. 

Obviously, it didn’t happen and Kenenisa came across the line in well-beaten third in 2:06:47 behind Guye Adola’s 2:05:45 win and Bethwel Yegon of Kenya who took his PB from 2:08:18 in Siena this year to 2:06:14 in the German capital. 

Did Kenenisa ever have a chance? 

In the time of Covid-19, the fall marathon season of 2021 was always going to be different. With the spring marathons forced onto the fall calender, the talent pool has been divided up even more than usual, creating less dense lead packs.

39-year-old Bekele hadn’t run a race in 18 frustrating months. In his last scheduled race, he didn’t even make it to the 2020 London Marathon start line. But though his training was said to have gone well for Berlin, once more we saw how his inefficiencies in terms of the marathon were a limiting factor at the dark edge of world record pace. 

Bekele rumbles down the road like a muscle car. He doesn’t look like he’s built for the long haul, at all. His power affords him the chance to overcome his physical traits, of course, and has in the past. But if the record was going to fall, it was going to be shaved ice rather than a big chunk he was after. 

Of course, by hitting the halfway mark in 60:48, his pacers were already putting him in jeopardy. Kipchoge assayed the halfway mark in 2018 in 61:06. 

This is a substantial world record, not one to be trifled with, nor beaten by a substantial margin. Keeping a tight rein on pace was a prerequisite, and they let it get away. The hole was dug early. The burial came later. He was behind the world record pace by 25K and leaking oil from there.

As I wrote in my last offering, Bekele is the third track world record holder at 5000 & 10,000 meters to go up in search of the 42.2K world record, too.  Kenya’s Paul Tergat and Ethiopia’s Haile Gebrselassie managed to achieve the goal. 

But recall how Halle came into the marathon as a big oxygen consumer, himself, which is what the 5000 and 10,000 meters on the track required. 

Haile was never a slow, even burner. He, too, had a V-8 engine rumbling beneath a sports car chassis. He won on the track with late-race thunder and lightning, not death by a thousand cuts. 

I go back to the year 2000, standing at the National Stadium in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia with Dr. Wolde Meskel Kostre, the coach of Haile Gebrselassie. It was still two years before Haile ran his debut marathon in London 2002 against world record holder Khalid Khannouchi of Morocco and Paul Tergat, Haile’s great track rival from Kenya. 

As Haile went through his workout in the bright Addis sunshine, I asked the coach if he thought Haile could be a good marathon runner one day. He said, “yes, but I have to change a sports car into a rally car. Because right now, he uses too much fuel and won’t be able to go the distance with that form.”

Watching Kenenisa in Berlin, it became clear that he carried far too much back kick and upper body roll for the marathon. It was easy to see while he ran alongside Ethiopia‘s Adole who is taller, thinner, had his arms tucked tighter, and had a stride with less animation.  

Bekele back kick (white top) compared to Adola

We have seen something of this in the marathon career of England’s quadruple Olympic track champion, Mo Farah. Within a certain rhythm, Mo’s long, loping stride can manage the marathon just fine, e.g. Chicago 2018, first-place in 2:05:11. But at London 2019, where Eliud Kipchoge won in 2:02:37 and Mo finished fifth in 2:05:39, that same stride was unable to produce a metabolic efficiency to cover the distance with Kipchoge.

Even in the early stages of the race, you could see Mo hanging just off the back of the lead pack, slightly uncomfortable with the tempo upfront. By halfway, he was completely adrift.

Today in Berlin, Kenenisa Bekele took on a great challenge. And he made a mighty attempt, finishing off the day bravely if not fully satisfied. At age 39, his chances to wrest the marathon mark away from Kipchoge are growing increasingly slim.

I still believe he deserves the title as all-around distance running GOAT. But to think he could lace up even the best of the new super shoes and run the world record off a 60:48 first half under less than ideal conditions was somewhere between a crapshoot and a pipe dream. Some laws of nature still hold, don’t they?

END

5 thoughts on “GEARED FOR THE DISTANCE  – NO WORLD RECORD IN BERLIN 2021

  1. Toni, did a small research project in 1983/84 while in grad school at Purdue in which I analyzed arm swing vs. VO2 at marathon pace in a small group of well-trained runners (including my wife, a 2:59 marathoner). It was a digital analysis, and compared their normal motion vs. one that was higher or lower than their normal (some carried high, some low). There was no statistical difference in their VO2’s. I submitted the abstract to the ACSM prior to the annual convention, but it was not accepted unfortunately. But it did make me think about your post. Though I do see that Bekele’s armswing is a bit more aggressive, and his back-kick higher, I have to think that his performance was 1) weather-related (too warm) and he admitted to “only” 3 months of serious training.
    Given he’s a 2:01 marathoner, I feel it’s more a matter of dedication and consistent training for him, but that’s just my hunch from afar. Love your insights, as you observe these guys VERY close up much more than anyone but their coaches.

    1. Mike,
      I agree, the warm weather and hot pace early were the most telling factors in the outcome. That said, his lack of training is something I’ve heard about for a while. Unlike Kipchoge, it doesn’t seem like Bekele naturally loves Marathon training. But as he ages, it would seem that more, not less, would be required.

      Also, I don’t see how the pandemic, in and of itself, could be responsible for not going outside to run. But

      Every opportunity we have as we age is more and more precious. You would think he would take full advantage of each cycle. Yet he is already talking about going <2; hours.

      As always, thanks for bringing an extra perspective to the discussion. Best regards,

      Toni

  2. I’m surprised they still went after the record given the warm conditions. I am wondering who makes the decision of what pace the pacers should run. Would the race director do so, effectively telling his star runner(s) he has no chance to run a record, or is the decision left unilaterally to the star runner (in this case, Bekele), effectively reminding the rest of the field this is his race and they are just guests?

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