Peter Gambaccini pointed out Bryan Green’s post about what he calls “The Rotterdam Shift,” laying out what he considers the changes in the sport of marathoning in the last year or two. Green breaks it down into three steps: the shift of track speed into the marathon (Gebrselassie and Tergat leading the charge,) the raising of the competitive stakes by Sammy Wanjiru in Beijing, and finally the generalization of both of those changes in Rotterdam. As Green aptly frames it,
Rotterdam wasn’t just an aberration. It wasn’t just a fluke where Duncan Kibet and James Kwambai ran surprisingly fast world class 2:04:27s. (And let’s not forget Abel Kirui–before Rotterdam, could you imagine a guy running 2:05:04 and NOBODY talking about him?)
As you can imagine from reading my pre-Boston posts, I agree with this viewpoint: the marathon has changed. I don’t think it’s quite as clear as Green suggests, though, just how it has changed, though I agree with him that Tergat and Gebrselassie started the change (I said this a few years ago), and Wanjiru’s run in Beijing was unquestionably a watershed moment. Rotterdam was just the proof, so to speak, the confirmation of a theory.
I think things are still unsettled, though, and in the long run Rotterdam is going to be just the first of many. Bannister said “Aprés moi, le deluge” and Rotterdam is the first stormy squall of the same kind of transition in the marathon. If you want to single out a single race where “everything” changed, I think it has to be Beijing.
Green’s theory matches one I considered myself, but in Boston I discussed this with David Monti of the Race Results Weekly. Among other things, Monti lines up the elite fields for the New York City Marathon, and he knows a little bit about the state of the marathon. Monti’s opinion is that this change isn’t about raw speed. Rather, what Wanjiru did in Beijing was to first set a scorching pace, and then surge off it: he was running a strategic race off a faster pace than anyone ever had before. (Possible exception: former World Record holder Khalid Khannouchi.) The message Wanjiru sent from Beijing was that it would no longer be enough to win by running fast, or win by waiting and surging. If you tried to run away, Wanjiru would stay with you and then break you. If you tried to conserve energy and then break away, Wanjiru would run you off your feet.
Look again at the finish in Rotterdam. Here’s what was remarkable about it: not that there were two Kenyans running sub-2:05 pace. What was remarkable about Rotterdam was that two Kenyans ran sub-2:05 pace and then had to sprint for the line. In Rotterdam. That’s a great collection of speed, sure, and it should have been enough for one of them to break away. It wasn’t. You need a total package now, as I said before: the speed of a Tergat and the strategy of a Tanui.
I would really love to hear what Marty Post thinks about all this.
(I also think this may complicate the move of many Ethiopians to the marathon. Ever since the Gebreselassie era, Ethiopia’s track stars have benefited from an orchestrated team approach to the 10,000m, adapted from the very tactics the Kenyans used to try and beat Geb. That approach doesn’t yet translate to the marathon; I’m curious to see if it ever will, or if another strategy will be used.)