1:59 VIENNA REDUX

Early on Vienna’s Prater Park looked like a scene out of the Ken Burns’ Civil War documentary, light fog clinging to the trees half expecting a skirmish line to emerge with percussion cap rifles clattering with bayonets affixed.

Emerging from the mist

Instead, Kenyan Eliud Kipchoge came charging out of that mist tucked neatly into the cockpit of his squadron of low-flying reverse-V pacers following green laser lines projected on the road soft-treading headlong into history.

However he did it – pacers, lasers, drinks, and shoes – he still did it! Eliud Kipchoge ran the marathon distance in 1:59:40.2 in Vienna, Austria at the INEOS 1:59 Challenge to become the first man ever to accomplish the feat of finishing 26.2 miles in under 2:00:00. And the world watched in rapt attention.

From Letsrun.com’s Jonathan Gault, concurrent livestream viewers peaked at 779,000 on Youtube while 4.8 million total views have been seen since. (The Red Bull Stratos space skydive in 2012 holds the concurrent livestream YouTube record at nearly 9 million viewers).

It was a simple goal but a monumental achievement, considering that it took over three years to accomplish when you add up the Nike Breaking2 Project that preceded the INEOS 1:59 Challenge. But in the end, the actual running in Vienna proved to be less of a challenge than it had been in Monza. Continue reading

Eliud Kipchoge’s INEOS 1:59 Challenge

Here we go –  again.

Marathon Master Eliud Kipchoge (Runner’s World)

 But this time it’s different. This time it’s not only not improbable, it’s likely. 2:00:25 in Monza, Italy in May 2017 tells us that much.  So the awe factor, the mind-numbing conception of a human, in this case, Eliud Kipchoge of Kenya, running sub-two hours over the marathon distance has been somewhat diminished – perhaps even more after Ethiopian rival Kenenisa Bekele ran 2:01:41 in Berlin just two weeks ago, two meager seconds off Kipchoge’s 2018 official marathon record. Now Kenenisa feels like another legit sub-2 candidate. And whoever thought sub-2:00 might one day be considered prosaic?

On top of which, as much as they might like to present this as such, the first sub-2:00 marathon is not like the first sub-4:00 mile, or the first summit of Everest, much less the moon landing.  All those challenges carried in the public consciousness the possibility of death. This is a second chance marketing exhibition for a plastics manufacturer and springy shoes. Continue reading

CHICAGO 2018: TOO MANY CANDIDATES ON THE BALLOT

Though it was a Frenchman, Michel Bréal, who first suggested that a distance race be held in the 1896 Olympic Games and be called the Marathon, it may be that fate, too, had a hand in the formulation.  You see, Athenian democracy, described as the first known democracy in the world, developed around the same fifth century BC time frame as the myth of Pheidippides, the Greek messenger whose run from Marathon to Athens telling of a great military victory over an invading Persian force was the genesis of our modern sport. And what is the Marathon but the most democratic of all sporting events where all are welcome to participate and the winners are decided by open competition?  It is in the light of that history that I make the following observation.

The 2018 BofA Chicago Marathon has set up another great open field for October 7th.  Announced yesterday, it is loaded with past and current champions from around the racing world. 2018 Boston, Dubai, Prague, Paris, Rotterdam, and Tokyo champions have all signed on. But hidden deep within that collection of mostly anonymous talent is something this sport has longed for since the days when Bill Rodgers first challenged Frank Shorter in the short mid-1970s window when both were at the top of their game, a great mano a mano duel. 

Here we have defending Chicago champion Galen Rupp and his former Nike Oregon Project training partner Mo Farah signed and sealed. It’s something the sport (and track and field) has been starved for and lax in developing for years, a truly intriguing match race. The last such match race worth its spit was staged in 1996 when Olympic long sprint champion Michael Johnson of the USA took on short sprint champion Donovan Bailey of Canada over an intermediate 150-meter distance in Toronto following the Atlanta Games. And though the race itself fizzled with Johnson pulling up lame midway, the promotion itself was a big success.

Now, for the first time in memory, we have two well branded Olympic distance medalists, men who used to be teammates, going head-to-head for the first time in the marathon, both looking to bust a fast time on one of the fastest courses in the world. Accordingly, Chicago is reinstating pacers after discarding that crutch following the 2014 race. And it makes perfect sense because both Rupp and Farah are past track burners who have yet to break through in terms of marathon times on par with their 10,000 meters PRs.

Here, then, is a natural rivalry that people might actually want to see, one that can be marketed, Galen versus Mo,m. And then they go lard it up with all these admittedly fast but anonymous extras who do nothing but steal the spotlight from the one thing that might get average people to stop and pay attention. Why?  Cause we’ve always done it this way? Continue reading

“IT’S GOTTA BE DA SHOES”

Spike Lee as Mars Blackmon

In his classic Nike ads from a generation ago, Spike Lee (as Mars Blackmon) asked Michael Jordan what made him the best basketball player in the universe. Was it the vicious dunks?  The long shorts? The short socks?  

“No Mars, “ replied MJ. 

“Money, it’s gotta be da shoes!”

I have never written a shoe review in my life, but how can shoes not be an issue in a sport where footwear is the only equipment used?  Like tires on a car, shoes are where rubber meets the road/track in foot racing.

If the kicks weren’t so important. why has every shoe company continued designing and experimenting for the last 50 years?  Obviously, marketing is one answer, but there is always more to learn, more performance to squeeze out. Not that a new pair of Air Jordans will make you approximate Mr. Jordan on the court, but in the realm of performance, the small difference is where the money gets divided. Which makes new strides in technology open to new rules in governing. Which, in turn, illustrates why a shoe company sponsorship of a governing organization eventually leads to conflicts of interest both unwanted and unneeded in a time when the integrity of the sport has been called into question over and over again.

So, say, someone goes out and breaks the women’s steeplechase world record by eight seconds, but does so like she were taking the pet terrier out for a walk in the park, and instead of unalloyed encomiums, inevitably some will say, “Whoa! That sure looked easy!”  That’s how you know a sport has a PR issue, when a great performance raises red flags rather than simply goosebumps, and the big, red carpet sports awards show (ESPYs) doesn’t even take note of two of the historic American marathon performances in 30+ years.   Continue reading

LONDON 2018: PACING OR RACING?

Watching the races in London last Sunday I couldn’t help contrast forms, because in the marathon more so than the track (until you get to the kick at the end) the question of form is also the matter of fuel management, especially on the quivering edge of world record pace. As Ethiopia’s Tirunesh Dibaba wrote on her Facebook account afterward:  “Even though my training went very well, I misjudged the pace, and did not have the strength to finish.”

She didn’t misjudge the pace, she misjudged the conditions for the pace.  Maybe if the day had dawned overcast at 43F (6C) with calm winds, talk of a world record would have been very much in order. But it was 59F (15C) at the start!  And rising, going on to become the hottest day in London Marathon history.

Paula Radcliffe‘s 2003 world record 2:15:25 stood some 2:31 faster than Tirunesh had ever run (2:17:56 finishing second to Mary Keitany’s 2:17:01 last year, the second-fastest time in history). What did she think the odds were going out significantly faster than Paula Radcliffe had in 2003 in those conditions?  I know that modern runners have out-trained the distance, at least on a benign day, but can they be so dismissive of the distance and the records that they think basic physiological norms no longer apply?

You could see right away that Mary Keitainy had a tighter, more efficient form than Tirunesh, both above and below the waist. She also showed less core rotation per stride.  That difference in per-stride energy expenditure adds up. The fact that Mary staggered home at all in fifth place in 2:24:27 after falling off world record pace before 30K was a testament to her fitness and form. The fact that Tirunesh didn’t get past 30K after falling off Mary’s pace at 15K makes its own point. Continue reading

MARATHONING 2017 – BY THE #s

When the calendar flips I always like to do a deeper dive into the past year in marathon running, just to see what the numbers might suggest.  And from the looks of it, not much changed in 2017 other than the Breaking2 Project in Monza, Italy in May when world #1 Eliud Kipchoge of Kenya came oh, so close to 1:59:59.

Other than that, it was more general excellence out of East Africa,  undercut by yet another drug sanction of a TOP echelon athlete (2016 London and Rio Olympic champion, Kenyan Jemima Sumgong).  And, finally,  though their times weren’t any different than in previous years, there were two American breakthrough wins in Majors at the end of the season, Galen Rupp in Chicago, then Shalane Flanagan in New York City.  But in this post I focus on the men.

Here are the numbers, then, as I attempted to count them on the IAAF.org site, and a comparison with the earlier years of this teens decade in century 21.

BREAKDOWN OF SUB-2:10s 2017

Total – 186
Kenyan –   113 (60.75%)
Ethiopian – 41 (22%)
American –    2 (Galen Rupp, 2:09:20, 1st in Chicago)
TOP time – 2:03:32, Eliud Kipchoge, Berlin

2016
Total- 150
Kenyan –     98 (65.3%)
Ethiopian-  39 (26%)
American –   0 (Galen Rupp, 2:10:05, 3rd, Rio Olympics)
TOP time – 2:03:03, Keninisa Bekele, Berlin

2015
Total – 172
Kenyan –     97 (56.4%)
Ethiopian – 57 (33.13%)
American –    0 (Luke Puskedra, 2:10:24, 5th in Chicago)
TOP time: 2:04:00, Eliud Kipchoge, Berlin

2014
Total – 180
Kenyan –  106 (58.88%)
Ethiopian – 57 (31.6%)
American –    1 (Meb Keflezighi,  2:08:37, 1st in Boston)
TOP time – 2:02:57, Dennis Kimetto, Berlin

2013
Total – 189
Kenyan –    99 (52.4%)
Ethiopian- 61 (32.2%)
American –   1 (Dathan Ritzenhein, 2:09:45, 5th in Chicago)
TOP time – 2:03:23, Wilson Kipsang, Berlin

2012
Total – 220
Kenyan –  120 (54.5%)
Ethiopian – 64 (29%)
American –    5 (Dathan Ritzenhein (twice), 2:07:47, 9th in Chicago, also Ryan Hall, Meb Keflezighi, Abdi Abdirahman)
TOP time- 2:04:15, Geoffrey Mutai, Berlin

2011
Total – 182
Kenyan –  110 (61%)
Ethiopian – 42 (22%)
American –    3 (Ryan Hall (twice), 2:04:58, 4th in Boston, also Meb)
TOP time – 2:03:02. Geoffrey Mutai, Boston

2010
Total – 144
Kenyan –     79 (54.86%)
Ethiopian – 47 (32.6%)
American –    0 (Brett Gotcher, 2:10:36, 7th in Houston)
TOP time – 2:04:48, Patrick Makau, Rotterdam

Conclusions?

END

LEAD PACK: FINDING THE CATBIRD SEAT

Do top marathoners ever watch tape on their opponents?  You know, like American football teams do, studying film from one game to prep for the next?  They always say what makes Tom Brady (quarterback for the New England Patriots American football team) arguably the best-ever to play the position is his commitment to the work, his preparation, including endlessly watching film.  So does anybody, or any management team in running do opposition research in the marathon game?  Should they? Or is it all about getting yourself as fit as you can, then just run the race, and the opposition will come along with the territory?

They say you can’t play defense in running, but is there nothing else you can do to prepare for your opponents except training your fanny off?

*

We all know that every race has an Alpha, that one person every other runner pays special mind to.  Though there was a Big 3 in Berlin, I bet even Wilson Kipsang and Kenenisa Bekele kept a close eye on Eliud Kipchoge.  But I wonder whether if you deconstructed enough marathons you could learn anything by watching where the eventual champion took up his/her position in the lead pack? Is there an unrealized “catbird seat” that somehow gives one person an advantage in the critical later stages? Continue reading