HEADING BACK TO BEEF STEW?

What is it with money in this game?  While purses and contracts in every other sport have continued to grow well into seven figures, in this fish market the scale has either remained stagnant or just gone down.

For their Series XI, which began in London last weekend, the Abbott World Marathon Majors announced a drop in its top prize from half a mill to a quarter mill, while thumping a new charity component that outstrips the top athletic prize by thirty grand, $280k to $250k. Yet can you blame them?

What would you do if international diversity completely disappeared from the top end of your sport, or if half your women’s series champions turned up doped – then didn’t give the money back, so you had to pay out twice?  Not to mention all the negative PR that comes with the news. Not quite the idea you had in mind a decade ago when you began the series, then, is it?

And just today we read that the Abbott World Marathon Majors has announced a ten-year strategic partnership deal with Wanda Group in China to develop marathoning in Asia (outside Japan) and Africa with the emphasis on participation, charity fundraising, and economic impact.

“The World Marathon Majors Series was founded in 2006 to advance the sport of marathon running and to honor the world’s best male and female runners and wheelchair athletes,” read the press release. “Now, every year, more than 250,000 runners participate in the AbbottWMM races worldwide, raising nearly $150 million annually for good causes, and the Series celebrates its Six Star finishers, runners who have successfully completed all six races in the Series. Additionally, Abbott WMM is a world leader in anti-doping initiatives, financing the biggest private-funded drug testing program in sport.”

Notice the order of focus and intention. Sport is still involved, yes, but now it is last in line and focused on doping, no longer the centerpiece of the enterprise.

But that aside, why is the money in this sport still organized the way it is in the first place? Because for some odd reason we can’t shuck our amateur past where the illusion fostered was that there was no money at all, while the reality was there was no ‘visible’ money? Continue reading

TOM FLEMING (1951 – 2017)

Tom Fleming winning 1981 Jordache Marathon (Mike Plant photo)

Tom Fleming was always a hard charger, a larger than life presence whether on the road in competition or at the post-race party where stories flew as fast as the miles had just hours before.  With his black Prince John beard and 6’1” frame drawn down by mega 150-mile training weeks, T. Fleming toed the staring line with his fitness visible beneath the barest of singlets, frame in relief, energy up, engagement pending.

There was something chivalric about TF, who left us yesterday at age 65, much, much too soon, his mighty heart beating its last as he collapsed while coaching his Montclair Kimberley Academy team at a track meet in Verona, N. J.  The running pack will not find another in its midst like him again anytime soon. Continue reading

GEEKING ON KENENISA’S NUMBERS

2014 Paris Marathon champion Kenenisa Bekele

2016 Berlin Marathon champion Kenenisa Bekele

On January 20th Ethiopia’s triple Olympic track gold medalist Kenenisa Bekele will start the sixth marathon of his career at the Standard Charter Dubai Marathon.  Coming off a near-world record 2:03:03 win in Berlin last fall in his last start there are indications that the great Ethiopian track and cross country runner may have his sights set on the current marathon world record of 2:02:57, set by Kenya’s Dennis Kimetto in Berlin 2014.

Now I am one of those journalists who has consistently lobbied for a greater concentration on competition over time, but since this is what is on offer, I thought I would take a deeper dive into the probabilities of a new world record, using the past as prologue.

Though I have heard some faint murmurs from Addis Ababa that the political climate in Ethiopia is affecting some people’s ability to train freely – the troubles are in line with Olympic silver medalist Feyisa Lelisa’s anti-government protest at the Rio Olympics and his subsequent move to the U.S to seek asylum  –  let us assume for this study that all is well with Bekele’s preparations, and that he will arrive in Dubai in top form.

On April 6, 2014 Kenenisa Bekele ran his marathon debut in Paris, France.  Against a less than competitive field the 31 year-old won by over 2 ½ minutes, stopped the timer at 2:05:03, which was a course record, sixth fastest debut in history, and fastest first-time marathon ever by a man over 30.

At the time I thought it would be interesting to look ahead by looking back (NUMBERING UP BEKELE’S MARATHON DEBUT).  After all, record performances are the links that allow fans to compare and contrast athletes of different eras in much the same way baseball fans compare stats across time (at least until the steroid era kind of ruined that –  Oops, do we have more in common with baseball than we realize?)

Anyway, I decided the best way to compare Kenenisa’s potential in the marathon would be to judge his marathon debut and projected career personal best (PB) against other former track record holders who subsequently moved up to great success in the marathon. Accordingly, I saw Kenya’s Paul Tergat and Ethiopia’s Haile Gebrselassie, as the canaries in this very high quality coal mine, as both pre-dated Bekele as world record holders at 5000 & 10,000 meters on the track before adding the marathon record to their resumes.

After Bekele’s near-world record 2:03:03 win in Berlin in September 2016, I thought it might be fun to see how those projections from 2014 have played out so far. Continue reading

SUB2 PACK FORMS UP

Like the murmur of far off hooves that rises from a distance on a tailing breeze the Sub Two Hour marathon quest became a lot more audible this past week.

First, Nike’s Project Breaking2 was publicly announced on Monday 12 December with a goal of breaking the 120 minute mark this coming spring. Two years in the making (though secretly) and featuring three of the world’s top distance runners, Kenyan Eliud Kipchoge, Ethiopian Lelisa Desisa, and Eritrean Zersenay Tadese, the project still remains somewhat hazy in its particulars as if the announcement came in haste to pip the Adidas announcement, which showed up later in the week via the Wall Street Journal.  Nike’s joint announcement through Runners World and Wired. com arrived as the second entry in the sub2 quest, coming on the heels of University of Brighton sports science professor Yannis Pitsiladis‘ 2014 Sub2Hr Project, which is affiliated with top running agent Jos Hermens.  That project carries a stated five year time frame, but is still searching for full funding.

So, now there are three going for a sub2 over 42km, and you know, we may finally have something here after all.  Perhaps something ironic, in that none of the three projects are using actual runner competition as the mechanism to 1:59:59 or below. Instead, like in the days of  Wes Santee, John Landy, and Roger Bannister, who independently pursued the sub-4 minute mile in the late 1940s, early `50s, it will be through the three-way project chase itself that the Everest marathon mark may be reached.  But that shouldn’t come as a surprise.  This blog has written on the topic of competition vs. record setting before. And again here. Continue reading

CHICAGO 2016

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. 

END

 

MONDAY NIGHT RAW

Two titans in Berlin

Two titans in Berlin

What were they thinking — or not thinking, as the case may be? In a race that close, the stakes so high, I mean, why didn’t Wilson Kipsang invite Keninise Bekele’s goat-getter (maybe Mo Farah) onto the Berlin Marathon press truck just to needle him a little in the final kilometers? In a marathon 10-seconds is a blink. It wouldn’t have taken very much to throw him off his game. Didn’t these guys follow news reports between training sessions?

The BMW Berlin Marathon might have kicked off the 2016 Abbott World Marathon Majors fall campaign in real style (Bekele in 2:03:03 to Kipsang’s 2:03:13), but there’s no doubt which is the major race of the season. Continue reading

YOU GOTTA BELIEVE!

Sport, like life, is a series of self-fulfilling prophecies, for what you think you can do sets the stage for the reenactment of the belief in performance. As such, championships are first won in the mind before coming to life via blood, breath, and bone.

It’s not like 2016 Olympic Women’s Marathon champion Jemima Sumgong of Kenya hadn’t been a winner before. In fact, she began her marathon career with the win at the Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon in Las Vegas in 2006 (2:35:22). But though she also took victories in Castellon, Spain in 2011 and again in Rotterdam 2013, her Abbott World Marathon Majors record was that of a solid contender, but not a champion. Not until the spring of this year did she mark herself as a medal favorite for Rio when she stood atop the podium at the Virgin London Marathon, the de facto Olympic prelim. Continue reading