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

 

SELECTING KENYAN OLYMPIC MARATHON TEAM

     Say what you will about the American trials system for Olympic selection, how it discounts consistency or past excellence for a one-day, all or nothing performance, but how would you like to see a Kenyan Olympic Trials Marathon?  Now that might be a marathon I’d pay to view!

Think about the Kenyan men’s team for London 2012.  You can’t keep Abel Kirui, the two-time World Champion off the squad, can you?  Not after he destroyed the field in Daegu this August.  And after Patrick Makau’s world record performance in Berlin today, giving the 2010 World #1 three wins in his last four marathons – his only loss a third in London this spring after he took a hard fall at 22k – he has to be chosen, right?

Which means either Boston champion and course record holder Geoffrey Mutai (2:03:02), or London champion and course record holder Emmanuel Mutai (2:04:40) isn’t going to make the cut!  And that doesn’t even take into consideration three-time London champ and runner-up in 2011 Martin Lel, or Boston runner-up and track 30K world record holder Moses Mosop.  And forget about relative old-timers like Duncan Kibet, James Kwambai, the two Robert Cheruiyots. But what about current killers like Wilson Kipsang (2:04:57, 1st, Frankfurt 2010), Wilson Chebet (debut winner in Rotterdam 2011, 2:05:27), and Vincent Kipruto (2nd in Rotterdam, 2:05;33)?  How can they simply be dismissed?  Then think of the guys like Sammy Kitwara who have yet to try a marathon, but are brutes in the half (PR 58:58), and who you know will be monsters in the full eventually?  Talk about your embarrassment of riches!

But let’s wait till after this fall season, after Wilson Kipsang makes his defense in Frankfurt and Mosop and the Mutais show their wares, as well.  Can you imagine the kind of performance it will take in Chicago or New York to stamp a visa for London?

Florence lets it flow in Berlin

And the women’s squad is no selector’s picnic, either.  There’s 2011 world champion Edna Kiplagat. The Kenyen federation generally rewards those who run for the nation rather than rack up big city marathon wins.  Recall that in 2000 the KAA kept that year’s Boston champion Catherine Ndereba off their Sydney squad even though she’d beaten defending Olympic champion and three-time Boston winner Fatuma Roba of Ethiopia. Instead they gave the nod to Ester Wanjiru who came in third place in Osaka at 2:23:31 just because that time was better than Ndereba’s in Boston.  Ndereba heard about not making the team on the radio while waiting in line in a bank in Nairobi. Crazy.

So tell me how they can possibly keep 2011 London champion Mary Keitany off the squad now that she’s the second fastest Kenyan woman in history behind Catherine’s 2:18:47 from Chicago 2001?  And today Florence Kiplagat delivered on her promise as World Half-Marathon champion and record holder with a 2:19:44 cruise job in Berlin, besting world record holder Paula Radcliffe (third in 2:23:47) and two-time World Marathon Majors series champ Irina Mikitenko of Germany (second in 2:22:18). How’s that for a top three?

That means women like Priscah Jeptoo and Sharon Cherop, the World Championships silver and bronze medalists ,may be on the outside looking in.  And poor Catherine Ndereba, twice Olympic silver, and two-time World Champion is probably an afterthought again.

Please, Kenyan federation, forget the London Games.  Stage a Kenyan-only marathon trials and let’s see if we can get Jim Lampley and the boxing boys from HBO to call it live on pay-per-view.  Cause we’re not talking foot-racing, we are talking your heavyweight championship of the world!

END

BERLIN MARATHON PREVIEW

     The Fall marathon season kicks off in Berlin Sunday morning with both world record holders on the line anxious to prove themselves ready for the run up to next year’s Olympic Marathon in London.  With Ethiopia’s Haile Gebrselassie and England’s Paula Radcliffe sharing top billing, it marks only the third time in history that both the men’s and women’s world record holder will compete on the same day.  In 1989 Belayneh Densimo of Ethiopia and Ingrid Kristiansen of Norway ran in New York City, and in 2005 Kenya’s Paul Tergat joined Paula Radcliffe in London.

Sunday in Berlin, both record holders arrive with questions and high hopes.  The oft-injured Radcliffe is returning to marathon competition for the first time since finishing fourth in ING New York City Marathon in 2009 where she was compromised with tendinitis in her knee. In the mean time she has given birth to her second child, son Raphael, and then had to overcome post-partum hyperthyroidism and a bad disc in her back.  Haile Gebrselassie is making his first return to the distance since dropping out in New York City last November in mile, also due to a knee injury.  Though he rashly announced his retirement in the aftermath, Haille quickly reversed his decision, and even signed up for the February 2011 Tokyo Marathon.  Another knee problem in training, however, forced him to withdraw. But he comes to Berlin with his old smiling countenance and good cheer, a sign he is in form.

 This will be Radcliffe’s first go over the swift Berlin layout, while Haile has won four times in the German capital, and set two world records there, as well. Continue reading