ENDURANCE OR SPEED: THE MARATHON STILL SERVES UP A LITTLE OF EACH

The Marathon along with its half distance cousin is the only footrace that has a name rather than a distance as it’s calling card.  And in that name there lies multitudes because for more than a century that name has represented the great endurance challenge of the modern age, at times even a life-threatening one.  And why wouldn’t it? After all, it was born in the mists of myth and legend, then resurrected two and a half millennia later as an Olympic challenge.

Until the 1960 Olympics in Rome, however, the name Marathon stood for endurance alone, not speed. Only with the arrival of Ethiopia’s Abeba Bikila did the event give way to a runner who could attack the distance rather than simply survive its length. Still, until the first running boom of the 1970s, it was either-or, either you were a marathon runner or you competed at the shorter road, track, and cross country distances. Today, top runners move back and forth more fluidly, taking the opportunities as they present themselves.

Look at this year’s Standard Charter Dubai Marathon, always the bellwether of the coming year. Winner Mosinet Geremew of Ethiopia was 25 when he ran 2:04:00 this January. His PBs include 13:17, 27:18 and 59:11 over 5000, 10,000, and the half-marathon distances, hardly the makings of a pure endurance athlete.  Dubai runner-up Leule Gebrselassie, also Ethiopian, also 25, carried a 13:13, 27:19, 59:18 resume. And third-placer  Tamirat Tola, again of Ethiopia, a year older at 26, had 26:57 and 59:37 credentials.  

In the past, the best runners avoided the marathon until evidence of their inevitable slowing on the track forced them to transfer allegiance to the roads.  For many, and still to a few like Kenenisa Bekele, Galen Rupp, and Mo Farah, the Marathon was the last stop on the career arc from shorter races to the more strength oriented 42k.  Continue reading

CONVENTIONAL WISDOM

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Lemi Hayle & Lelisa Desisa battling in Boston

Boston, MA. – Modern day conventional wisdom held that professional runners could optimally race only two marathons per year, one in the spring, one in the fall. With a full marathon training cycle taking 12 weeks or so, and a proper marathon recovery requiring one month, it was felt that two per year was the way to best schedule a marathoner’s career for both excellence and length.

But as the popularity of the marathon continues to spread around the world, and opportunities crop up in parts of the world outside the U.S. and Europe where the weather is conducive to marathon running in non-traditional months, we’ve begun to see more and more top athletes stretch their wings and open their calendars.

With the money that now attends these newer events, and with youthful runners who might once have gone to the ovals in Europe now running marathons as a primary profession, the two-per-year order has evolved.

Racing is not simply a trophy collection exercise, but a business opportunity. And youthful legs like those of Lemi Hayle, 21, who just won the Boston Marathon after taking second place in Dubai in January in a PR 2:04:33, don’t seem to experience a perceivable drop-off even with a shortened training regime and following recovery.

In 2015 Hayle won Dubai in 2:05:28 then came back in April to win in Warsaw in 2:07:57. And we can be fairly certain that if he is selected for the Ethiopian Olympic team for Rio (and why wouldn’t he be?) there’s even a chance he might run in the fall again, as well. Young legs and hungry hearts bounce back quicker.

Whether there are any other factors involved we will set aside for the moment. Though the cynicism that might have been decried in the past is hard to dismiss out of hand anymore.

But returning to the gist of the post: Last year two-time Boston champion Lelisa Desisa ran four marathons, taking second in Dubai (2:05:52), first in Boston, then seventh at the Beijing World Championships and finally third in New York City.  Yemane Tsegay ran three majors, second at Boston and the World Champs before fifth in NYC.

Those results didn’t appreciably slow them on Monday in Boston where they went second and third in slow conditions. And their countrywoman Titfi Tsegaye finished second at Boston in the women’s race coming off a 2:19:41 PR winning Dubai in January, which was get 19th career marathon.

What jumps out from this list is that it’s all Ethiopian.

“Most Kenyans still listen to us,” said athlete manager Federico Rosa, whose Kenyan, Paul Lonyangata, finished fifth yesterday. “It is in Ethiopia they want to run more. They want to keep rolling in races, but we don’t want to kill the body. We want the athletes to be 100% ready for their next race, and to have a long career.”

Exuberance and indestructibility are hallmarks of youth. Perhaps the old marathon isn’t such an endurance event anymore, but a speed test over a long distance.  Then again maybe it’s just luring youthful prey into its less than tender trap.  It will take a few more years to determine how sharp the old distance’s teeth still are.

Good recoveries and congrats to all the Boston finishers.  Let’s see what London has in store next week.

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DUBAI CHARGES INTO NEW YEAR, BUT WHAT’S THE NEXT STEP?

Ethiopia's Lelisa Desisa win Dubai

Ethiopia’s Lelisa Desisa wins Dubai

Yesterday’s 14th Standard Charter Dubai Marathon came out, on paper, as one of the most thrilling and historic in marathon history. In a final 800 meter flurry five men, led by debutante Lelisa Desisa, 23, of Ethiopia, crossed the line sub-2:05:00, one better than the record set in Dubai 2012. Four of the top five finishers were also debs at the distance, cementing the understanding that the sport has fundamentally changed from an experienced-based test of endurance to a youth-based examination of speed over distance.

Yet, as scintillating as it may look in today’s news accounts, to actually watch the 2013 Dubai Marathon unfold was like watching a benighted hunting party running headlong through the mists of a post-apocalyptic cityscape with “eyes dead white and sightless as the eggs of spiders”, as Cormac McCarthy so luridly wrote in The Road. Except for the celebrating crowd of flag-waving Ethiopians at the finish, the rest of early morning Dubai was as empty as a ghost-town, not a soul out along the dead-flat palm-lined course.

And though a pack stretching 17-deep or more ran together past half-way, there wasn’t one graphic on the computer screen listing who was who, not one split, not one close up shot of any individual in the pack. Meaning, if you didn’t have an already highly developed interest in the game, there would be no discernible reason whatsoever to invest your time. But somehow as long as the thousands come and pay their entry fees, and fast times are created, all is well.

This morning I had a long conversation with British sports agent Ricky Simms of Pace Sports Management. Among others, Simms represents Olympic kings Usain Bolt and Mo Farah. Continue reading