BEKELE SIGNS ON TO DUBAI & LONDON

Bekele finishing 3rd in London 2016 signs on for 2017

Much of what push back there’s been against the three Sub-2 Hour marathon projects concerns their focus on time rather than competition.  Now comes word came that Ethiopian superstar Kenenisa Bekele has signed on to the April 23rd Virgin London Marathon, just days after being announced to run the Standard Charter Dubai Marathon on January 20th in what is likely a world record attempt.  Hmmm.

Now a cynic might conclude that with defending London and Olympic champion Eliud Kipchoge of Kenya, along with former Boston champ Lelisa Desisa of Ethiopia signed on to this spring’s Nike Project Breaking2 (at an as yet undisclosed location), London’s major name (if not two) has been stripped from the event marquee.  So, notwithstanding Bekele’s Dubai appearance 13 weeks earlier, London needed a big name to build its 2017 race around.  You can bet this isn’t the scenario the Abbott World Marathons Majors had in mind when they put together their series ten years ago.

But as the paydays of the marathon have continued to spread (if not actually grow), and the World Marathon Majors series title now paying off as a five-year $100,000 annuity rather than a one-fell-swoop $500,000 (because of Rita Jeptoo and Lilya Shobokhova stealing three Majors’ titles via drug disqualifications), we’ve begun to see more and more top athletes stretch their wings and challenge the old assumptions and the old-line events. Not only are the old warhorses like Bekele willing to squeeze more into less in terms of rest and recovery, youthful runners who might once have gone to the track ovals in Europe are now running marathons like they were halves.

With a marathon training cycle of 12 weeks, give or take, and a full recovery assigned one month, conventional wisdom has long held that two per year was the way to best schedule a top marathon career — with exceptions made for an Olympic year, where athletes were willing to compromise their fall effort for a shot at Olympic glory (World Championship not so much).  The original five Abbott World Marathon Majors built their series upon this convention. But racing is not simply an exercise in trophy collection, it’s a business opportunity with only so many years available to stake your claims.  Athletes like 22 year-old Lemi Berhanu Hayle is a prime example. Continue reading

2016 INTO 2017

OK, we closed the books on the 2016 campaign, which was a bit of a momentous year both in the sport and around the wider world.  Now we move on into 2017, which is an odd year, but at the same time it remains all pink and fresh and unsullied. That won’t last for long, of course, but at present we are all once again full of potential and optimism.  As always there will be lots of ups and more than a few downs over the next 12 months, but as a grizzled curmudgeon there were a few lingering thoughts that rattled around year’s closing.  So here we go with a few random considerations.

#1.

nyc-crowd-first-avenue

Come on 2017! You can do it!

I know they mean well, but don’t you sometimes wish bad things on the good people standing on the sidelines while they blithely cheer on passing runners?  Yeah, they can be a godsend, but late in the race when things have gone sour, and you just want to be invisible and get the darn thing finished, that one-cheer-fits-all lack of effort, I mean, depending on your state of affairs, can’t they sometimes just make the long journey that much more arduous?

First of all, the only reason races like the six Abbott World Marathon Majors have crowds the size they do is because their courses run past peoples’ houses.  It’s not like folks drove to the game; they just walked outside.  And with races starting so early to avoid upsetting even more of the driving public, you run through entire neighborhoods where half the people are standing out there in their pajamas, scratching their private parts, drinking coffee while mumbling encouragement with half-chewed cheese Danish hanging from their yap.

And if you have already gone about 20 miles, you’ve burned through your glycogen stores, lost all contact with endorphins, have sore feet, achy legs, bad breath, and the formation of a chip on your shoulder the size of Rhode Island.  So when some normal in PJs yells out, “you only have six more miles left”, thinking they’re being part of your effort, what they don’t realize is if there was a gun handy, and you could reach it, you’d shoot yourself in the head (and maybe them as you fell).

Don’t be telling me I’ve got six more miles to go! That’s like Moses telling the Israelites, “Suck it up! You’ve only got the Sinai left to cross to get home from Egypt.”  Not helpful. 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

 

BACK TO PACING AS USUAL

Running fast behind pacers is a thoughtless act. You know what’s coming — in fact, it’s been negotiated — and you can either do it or you can’t. But there is no thought required as there is in a pure racing format like the Olympic Games.

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Matthew Centrowitz and Nick Willis celebrate Olympic glory

One of the many highlights of the Rio Games was Matthew Centrowitz’s stirring front-running win in the men’s 1500 meter final. Yet, historic as it was — first American to take that title since 1908– there are some who question the standard of that gold medal run, because the 3:50 winning time was the slowest since the 1932 final.

Notwithstanding the Olympic motto, “Faster, Higher, Stronger”, such time-based considerations miss the entire point of the endeavor, and help define what’s missing in the staging and presentation of the sport in general. 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

THE OLYMPICS: SUPER BOWL OR PRO BOWL?

Steph Curry skips Olympics

NBA MVP Curry opts out of Olympic tourney

It’s not like USA Basketball will miss a beat without him, but when two-time NBA MVP Steph Curry of the Golden State Warriors announced that he was going to skip the Rio Olympics to rest a sore knee, it just reinforced the belief that for many professional athletes the Olympics are more like the Pro Bowl than the Super Bowl, a nice consolation for the guys who don’t make it to the Big Dance.  The only athletes who rely on the Olympics are the ones in track & field, swimming, gymnastics, boxing, wrestling, etc.  And for track athletes, at least, the irony is that they have to cover up what little sponsorship they do have when the world is finally watching.

It is kind of crazy, right?  So how’s this for a counter-intuitive “do the opposite” consideration?

Because the Olympics only comes around once every four years, and then so completely dwarf the non-Olympic year competitions in running, rather than help build up the sport, the Games actually restrict interest to their very small window.  Thus, as long as the Olympics remain at the top of running’s mountain, the sport will never experience new growth, leaving athletes with no voice, much less a financial interest in the biggest competition that defines their careers.

Continue reading