NEW YORK 2019 PREVIEW – WELL TUNED

The marathon world is in the middle of a technological revolution these days, witnessing a new era of high performance. It will be interesting see if that revolution continues on the streets of New York City on November 3, 2019.

The revolution isn’t just coming from the ground up via the stacked midsole, carbon-plated shoes that have tongues wagging and federations investigating. Another developing change in the marathon world has been in the athletes’ total focus. Many men like world record holder Eliud Kipchoge and second all-time Kenenisa Bekele no longer do a tune up race at all before their marathons, while those that do are running them much faster than their predecessors.

For instance, last year Shura Kitata ran 59:16 in Philadelphia as part of his NYC buildup. That prepped him for a second place finish in NYC in 2:06:01 behind training partner Lelisa Desisa’s 2:05:59 win.

Back in the day it was rare for anyone to even break 61 in their half tune up for fear they would find themselves too sharp for the more conservative pace required in the double distance. Now that theory is another that seems to have been tossed into the dust bin of history. Continue reading

SOLES DISCRETION

First of all, the athletes out-trained the distance years ago. In that sense, the mighty marathon has been brought to heel. No longer a spirit draining test of endurance, today the marathon has been reduced to just another speed event contested over a longish distance. It’s no longer, runner beware. It’s distance be damned!

We saw a reflection of that again this weekend when Ethiopia’s Yomif Kejelcha won the Valencia Half Marathon In 59:05. A generation ago you would never have seen an athlete who set an indoor world record in the mile in March (3:47.01) transfer so fluidly to a sub-60 half-marathon in October of the same year (see list below).

Attitudes about the challenges in distance running have simply changed along with many other factors that continue to make headlines in and out of courtrooms.

These days for the marathon to grow its fangs back requires severe weather. And even then – as we saw in Doha at the World Championships in September – the very top echelon of runners are merely slowed rather than halted.

This coming weekend in New York City, the marathon will once again be finished by 95+% of its 50,000 starters, while up front a handful of contenders will race the entire distance and seem ready for more if the necessity arose.

To all of that, we now add a better mouse trap, the Nike Vaporfly shoes. This past weekend in Frankfurt, we witnessed a final four of identically garbed and footed runners battling into the final kilometer before a champion was decided.

Final four in final sprint in Frankfurt.

1. Fikre Tefera ETH 2:07:08
2. Dawit Wolde ETH 2:07:10
3. Aweke Yimer BRN 2:07:12
4. Martin Kosgey KEN 2:07:20

As long as all wore the same gear, then what ensued was indeed a test to determine who amongst them was the better athlete. But for those employing any other footwear than Vaporflys, the route was not level. The ones wearing the better energy transfer mechanisms were in another class. A different metabolic cost per stride was in play. Continue reading

SHOULDN’T A GOAT HAVE TO CLIMB?

The praise for Eliud Kipchoge continues to pour in from every corner. His masterful performance in London last weekend cemented his place as the preeminent marathoner of this and perhaps any era in most peoples eyes. But can we slow down for just half a second?

Greatest of all time?

Are we really ready to hand the title of Greatest of All Time to a man who has only run flat, paced races in near ideal weather along with one lab experiment in Monza, Italy? Certainly, Master Kipchoge’s Olympic gold medal in Rio 2016 was won without the aid of pacers on a warm muggy day. And his previous life as a track runner – especially in Paris 2003 at the IAAF World Championship 5000 – proved he can race with anyone. Nobody is suggesting otherwise.

But since he moved up to the marathon in Hamburg 2013, where is the variety? Where is the new challenge? Where is the ‘throw anything at me, I’ll take it on’ mentality?

In his 12-marathon career, Kipchoge has run four Londons, four Berlins, and Chicago 2014. Rotterdam 2014 was his other non-major.  Yet we just read today that Mr. Kipchoge said, “I trust that before I see the sport out that I will run all six major marathons.”

While that is wonderful to hear, there’s a difference between running all six and racing all six. Continue reading

PROFESSIONALIZING THE GAME

Ever wonder why average runners have to qualify for the Boston Marathon, but the elite runners don’t?

Well, for one thing, there is a competitive marketplace for the top athletes and invitations with appearance fees are the means of recruiting them. It’s a holdover from the sport’s shamateur (sic) past but one that has proven resilient to change, despite the introduction of prize money purses in the 1980s.

We have just gone through a small tempest at this year’s Boston Marathon after the Boston Athletic Association separated the “invited” men’s field from the Wave 1 runners for the first time – by two minutes – thereby bringing the invited men’s field into line with the elite women who have started 28-minutes ahead of the men for the last 15 years.

Depending on how you view the sport, this is either a welcomed and needed change or a travesty. Highly regarded scribe Jonathan Beverly in Podium Runner holds to the latter, calling the new separation policy “puzzling” and contrary to the spirit of the sport.

“It’s a seemingly minor change,” writes Beverly, “one that will economically affect only a few sub-elites who might have a breakthrough day. But it ensures that an anonymous runner will never stand on the podium, putting to rest the notion that we’re all competing together in the same race—a notion that is arguably one of the greatest aspects of our sport. Now, if you’re not one of the few pre-selected to be in the first start, you are, quite explicitly, running in a different competition.”

Jonathan has it exactly right except for the notion that we’re all competing together in the same race where the average Doheny is theoretically competing against the best in the world.  That has always been a misnomer. The thousands of citizen runners don’t run against or with the pros, they run concurrently.  Only a historic weather event like we had in Boston 2018 can wipe enough pros from the field that one or two “regular” runners can end up in the prize money positions from the mass field.

The example Jonathan gave of an uninvited runner winning the March 17th New York City Half Marathon missed the point that Ethiopian Belay Tilahun may not have been invited, but he was definitely elite.

Besides, Boston already makes a distinction between charity joggers, recreational runners, and Boston Qualifiers. That, among other things, is what makes Boston special.  But until the sport, in general, makes that same distinction between BQs and professional-class runners, we are going to have this amorphous amalgam that the public  doesn’t understand much less take seriously as a sporting event. Instead, they view even major marathons as more like, you know, the Pope’s visit, or the tall ships sailing into Boston harbor, primarily a big civic event. Continue reading

SEPARATE AND EQUAL

With today’s announcement of the very strong pro women’s field gathering for the 2018 TCS NYC Marathon, another old idea resurfaced in the attempt to help focus attention on the actual racing side of the game. 

2018 NYC Women’s Field

Just as I recently posited how it might be fun (though impractical) to stage a pure match race between Galen Rupp and his former training partner Mo Farah in Chicago in order to truly focus public attention, I have always thought that the two U.S. Abbott World Marathon Major partners in the fall, Chicago and New York, should work together rather than compete for the same stock of athletes. 

Imagine if each event focused on just one gender at the tip of the spear where all the top female athletes go one place, and the best males line up at the other. Then, the following year they swap.  Continue reading

MIND GAMES

These next two weeks will mark the end of the 2017 marathon year, first with the 71st Fukuoka International Marathon this Sunday in Japan, followed by the 45th Honolulu Marathon on December 10th (where I will be sending reports beginning next Wednesday).

But as the sport gears up for these big year-end competitions, I wanted to go back for one last look at what will go down as the defining race of the American running year, Shalane Flanagan‘s historic win at the TCS New York City Marathon November 5th.

Going back over the news coverage, I noticed an interesting observation in the New York Times story of the women’s competition.  And I was wondering whether other racers noticed it, or saw it as I did.  Here’s how the Times story led up to the moment of truth in the women’s race.

“After 21 miles, the lead pack whittled to three: Keitany, Daska, and Shalane Flanagan, a 36-year-old from Massachusetts, who finished second in New York in 2010. Keitany finally removed her sleeves. The race was on.”

Shalane leads Keitany and Daska down Fifth Avenue (Photo by Photo Run)

As I watched that critical stretch, Shalane, especially, had the contained but concentrated appearance of an athlete with horses at the ready, all controlled energy with a tight hold of the reins. To my eye at least, it looked like from the 20-mile mark on Shalane kept waiting for the real Mary Keitany to show up and throw down because she was poised to respond.

Both Mary and Shalane had come a long way since their marathon debuts in NYC 2010 – – where Shalane took second behind Edna Kiplagat by 20 seconds, with Mary in third, another 21 seconds back in 2:29:01.  Every race has its Alpha, though, and with Ms. Keitany coming in as three-time defending champion and women’s-only world-record setting London zephyr, there was no doubt as to who the leading lady in New York 2017 was.

But as Shalane, Mary, and Mamitu Daska battled down Fifth Avenue alongside the row of elegant apartment buildings on the Upper East Side this year (with Edna trailing in 4th place, BTW), Keitany’s face revealed a mask of just enough discomfort to betray a lost cause.  If she had been the Keitany of the last three years, one would have thought she would have tried to leave a long time ago – hell, last year she won by over 3 1/2 minutes! –  especially at what had been a desultory 2:32 marathon pace early on, no more than a tempo effort for the 2:17:01 winner in London this past spring.  Daska in her NYC debut was the wildcard.  Here’s the Times story again.

… as they made their way down Fifth Avenue, one runner began to break away. Surprisingly, it was not Keitany…In a bizarre decision, Keitany began to drift toward the east side of 5th Avenue, away from Flanagan’s tail, before zigzagging back into the customary route. At that point, though, it was too late to catch the runner from Massachusetts — .”

It’s that bold section I want to draw your attention to. Here’s the question, was it really a bizarre move? Unusual, yes, but –  Continue reading

MEB: WHAT’S IN A NAME?

Pride, rue, chagrin, the emotions any of us feel about our name can run a wide gamut. For instance, my name is Toni, but as you notice, it ends in an I, rather than a Y. That’s because in Poland, birthplace of my mother, they spell Anthony as Antoni, hence, Toni, not Tony (though I answer to both).

Since I reached my majority, no big deal, but as a young boy growing up in the American Midwest, having what my peers considered a girl’s name often proved challenging. In fact, it’s one reason why I started to run.  It was easier and less painful than fighting every time some chump chided me with my ‘girl’s name’ anomaly.

Which brings us to Meb Keflezighi, the American marathon star who was surprised  by several hundred friends, relatives, and fans Monday night (November 13, 2017) at San Diego’s Liberty Station two weeks after he concluded his remarkable career with an 11th place finish at the TCS New York City Marathon at age 42. The retirement  celebration also raised funds benefiting the MEB Foundation, which promotes health education and fitness programs for youth.

Meb arriving with wife Yordanos (photo by Bob Betancourt)

The evening brought into relief once again just how far the man has come. Not just through the long journey from war-torn Eritrea to Italy and finally America as a 12 year-old boy, or on the many ups and downs of his competitive career, from his days at San Diego High to UCLA all the way to the Mount Rushmore of American distance running. No, I mean simply in terms of culture.

Like the name Meb for instance.  The first time you hear it, sounds more like a distance than a name.

“How far did you run today?”

“I got in about sixteen Mebs, and threw in a couple of Hawis for good measure.”

But no matter the obstacle, be it cultural or sporting, Meb always found a way to surmount it and then triumph, while including many, many others in those triumphs along the way. Continue reading