Archive for April, 2009

The marathon’s paradigm shift

Monday, April 27th, 2009

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.)

Red, white & blueprint

Saturday, April 25th, 2009

I’ve promised a few times to post the text of the story I wrote for the Boston Marathon program. With the marathon over and all the programs distributed, here’s the text. (Note that I’ve started with the copy I submitted, and may have missed some of the edits made between submission and publication. Also note that the copy deadline, in early March, meant that some of the details here are obsolete; the discussion about the 2012 Trials has progressed since the time of writing.)

Headline: Red, white, & blueprint
Subhead: When it came to staging the Olympic Trials, Boston put on a clinic

In 2008, the organizers of the Boston Marathon added something to the weekend program they had never tried before: another marathon.

The day before 35,000 runners made their way from Hopkinton to Boston, 150 women lined up for the 2008 Olympic Team Trials–Women’s Marathon. The first three finishers would represent the US and run the Olympic Marathon in Beijing in August. The race started in front of the Hynes Convention Center and, after a short loop around Beacon Hill, ran four laps of a 10-km loop which crossed over the Charles River on the Massachusetts Avenue bridge (and featured long segments on Memorial Drive in Cambridge) before returning to Boston. The finish line was the same as that for the traditional Patriots’ Day event.

“I never anticipated what it would be like to come down Boylston Street,” says Blake Russell, “with the church bells ringing and the crowd yelling like thunder.” Russell, who is coached by longtime Boston-area coach Bob Sevene and lived in the area for years before following Sevene to California, finished third in 2:32:40 and went on to place 27th in 2:33:13 in Beijing.

“Everyone was trying to out-yell the person next to them,” says Deena Kastor of Mammoth Lakes, CA, who won a bronze medal in the 2004 Athens Olympic Marathon and won the 2008 Trials in 2:29:35.

“We put those women on a whole different stage,” says Dave McGillivray, race director for both marathons.

The problem is depth

Wednesday, April 22nd, 2009

John Powers of the Boston Globe has a pretty good column summing up the American performance in Boston. I don’t always agree with Powers but he nails this one:

For US marathoning, the challenge is not so much to get faster as to get deeper. While podium-level runners like Hall, Goucher, Deena Kastor, Shalane Flanagan, Meb Keflezighi, and Khalid Khannouchi can run with anybody on the planet, you still can fit most of the American contenders inside an airport courtesy van.

Ryan Hall had as good a chance as anyone to win on Monday, and despite post-race criticism of his tactics (unwarranted, I think), the fact remains that only one runner actually had perfect tactics. That’s the definition of a marathon champion, sometimes: the one runner whose strategy worked. The problem is that Ryan only had one roll of the dice. There were five or six guys in the field with a shot at winning, and one of them was American. What if two of them had been? What if we had two Ryan Halls entered? Maybe the one who actually ran still gets third or fourth, and the hypothetical one makes different bets and wins. Diversification isn’t just a good investment strategy.

Amby Burfoot discusses strategy in his blog, and even though Shira Springer disagrees with his analysis of the wind effect, Amby has a point: negative splits are the way to run Boston until someone proves otherwise. (Obviously they didn’t save Kara Goucher, though.) Here’s my challenge, though: the data is there. I’ve played with analyzing it before (albeit without much success). What questions do we ask in order to get some conclusions from that data?

About Boston in 1985

Monday, April 20th, 2009

Everyone has mentioned, in their Boston roundups (including mine) how the women’s winning time was the slowest since 1985.

Everyone mentioned in their previews that no American (male or female) has won the Boston marathon since 1985.

Nobody has mentioned that 1986 was the first year that the Boston Marathon awarded prize money.

I do not think these things are unrelated.

Watching Boston

Sunday, April 19th, 2009

What we really want to do is tell you how to understand what you’re going to see tomorrow, whether you’re watching it on TV or out on the course. I’ve been tossing around a bunch of ideas over the last day or two; some of them I’ve been talked out of, others I’m hanging on to.

A marathon, for a spectator, is a lot like reading a very long novel. In particular, like reading a very long novel which doesn’t appear to be strong in the plot department. There are hundreds and hundreds of pages of apparently meaningless events and details which don’t seem to be approaching resolution, and then suddenly in fifty intense pages it’s all tied up neat in a bow. You’d think you could just tune in for the last 30 minutes of the race and get everything you need to enjoy it, but the fact is that those first two hours or so, before the fireworks start, are just as important. They’re building up all the characters and ideas and questions that will be resolved later. Just tuning in for the resolution means missing out to some degree.

Knowing the characters never hurts. One plot-line which has been suggested for this year’s men’s race goes like this: Robert Kipkoech Cheruiyot is the protagonist. He was selected for the Kenyan Olympic team but withdrew due to injury, since healed. He’s run only one race since last year’s Boston, but the races run by his training partners in recent weeks suggest that he’s in phenomenal condition. He knows this course like nobody else running. He’ll wait for the hills, then try to bash everyone else to pieces on the climbs and cruise in to the city as the victor.

The spoilers in this scenario are a trio. His training partner, Evans Cheruiyot, is every bit as strong and has a faster PR. Evans knows Robert will work harder and run faster if pushed, so he will wait, shadow, and if he’s still in touch after the hills, make his move then.

Deriba Merga, the Ethiopian, is a wild card. He has the restraint of a compulsive gambler and the speed of a thoroughbred. His aggressive tactics have lost him more than one victory in the past (including a medal in Beijing) but his manager promises that he’ll do nothing but wait this year. His manager also admits that Merga is sometimes beyond controlling.

Finally we come to Ryan Hall, the American, the man who would be king. Hall has a mindset which is unfazed by pressure and expectations (he sees them as validations that he’s doing the right thing) and not crushed by them. He can run downhill as well as anybody. Where does he fit in all this? Is he Fifth Business, as he was in his PR run in London? Is he even a character? Does he wait, wait, wait until Kenmore and then try to crush everyone on a wave of crowd support? Or does he get chipped off the pack in the hills and passed by Brian Sell somewhere in Brookline?

There’s been a paradigm shift since Beijing. You can’t be just a strength runner or a speed runner anymore; you have to be able to deploy strength tactics at a speed pace. Sammy Wanjiru has the speed of a Tergat and the strategy of a Tanui. That’s the new standard. What happens when that hits the Boston course, which historically rewards patience and ruins hubris?

Messing with the press

Saturday, April 18th, 2009

My article from yesterday’s press conference is posted as of this morning. I have to say, though, that I was frustrated with the amount of information I was able to gather at the press conference (little) and more than a little confused by the behavior of defending champion Robert Kipkoech Cheruiyot.

I don’t want to make excuses for myself here; the situation, as I see it, is that Boston’s press conference setup is uniquely challenging and really requires a solo reporter to be on their “A” game, and I was not.

John Hancock sets up the press conference like an open market. After a welcoming statement from a JH official, the athletes are distributed to a dozen or so tables around the room, two or three runners per table. Reporters then go directly to the athletes they need. The advantage to this is that more athletes are available (twenty or thirty) than would be the case at a New York or Chicago pre-race, which brings in three or four athletes each for three or four press conferences. The disadvantage is that a solo reporter has to circulate around multiple previous champions and interesting contenders, asking the same questions half a dozen other reporters have already asked, in a noisy environment, often with sketchy interpreters.

Big outlets (Runner’s World, major newspapers) take a divide-and-conquer approach to the press conference, bringing four or five reporters and producing multiple stories. The setup works well for them. It worked less well for me, and I’m afraid the story shows it.

The other thing which threw me was four-time champion Robert Kipkoech Cheruiyot. I didn’t know it when I approached him, but “the Mwafrika” is extremely reticent before races. He’s gracious, so he’ll respond politely to every question, but he’s not going to give you what you want. At least, not me. For a moment I wondered if he was actually in touch with reality, but I’m pretty sure he knew exactly what he was doing; I just didn’t have the background to understand what was going on.

I’d really love it if John Hancock moved to a more organized press conference format in the future.

Ryan Hall and Kara Goucher, for the record, were mobbed.

Previewing Boston

Friday, April 17th, 2009

I’m in Boston for the day. I’ll be back tomorrow to stay until after the race on Monday, and believe me, it’s going to be busy. There’s an immense amount of energy spent, before this race like no other I go to, on discussing the possibilities. Who might challenge? How might they do it?

I did a preview for the IAAF last night, and in the wake of this morning’s press conference I should have two more pieces up there in the next few days. (I’ll link them as they appear.) I have two copies of the program, which means I should be posting my feature (feature! I had a feature!) after the race is over.

And I’ll have dozens of bits and pieces which won’t make complete stories, which I will post here if I have time.

Hurting and healing

Tuesday, April 14th, 2009

“…medicine is totally trial and error. And it is really time consuming trial and error because the body can take a long time to respond and long time to heal.” –a friend with medical problems far more serious than mine

I’ve been struggling since December with a round of Iliotibial Band Syndrome, or ITBS. It’s a well-known problem for runners at all levels (when I wrote a column about my last bout, six years ago, I got a sympathetic email from Craig Masback) and because the fundamental problem is tightness and inflammation, it takes a long time to go away.

After a winter of self-pity, weight gain, and runs of 20 to 30 minutes, I adopted a ritual of stretching and stability exercises which allowed me to extend out to about an hour pain-free–sometimes. That’s been in place for about a month and a half and I seemed to have reached a recovery plateau.

We have a theory here that some really stubborn injuries will only go away when faced with another injury. My last round of ITBS tagged off to plantar fasciitis (another familiar running ailment). I’ve retreated to the pool and resolved my running injuries by incurring overuse swimming injuries. I’ve known people whose running pains went away after they went skiing and broke an arm.

Sunday, I was on a trail run with a small group of dedicated psychotics. After a moderate “out” leg, we returned at a pretty brisk pace, and along the way I hooked a toe on one of the trail’s duckboards and went down hard among some roots. The bad part, I told them later, wasn’t the fall; it was the bounce and the slide which followed. I got up, caught my breath, inventoried all mission-critical parts and found them functioning, and we finished the run.

The total haul included some minor abrasions on my right hand and right quad, a more dramatic-looking scrape along the lower part of my breastbone, and another scrape and some very vivid bruises on my left forearm. 48 hours later, the scrapes are fading, but Sunday afternoon I was wondering if I had cracked a rib.

I’ve also done three runs totaling about 2:40 since then, and haven’t had even a tiny twinge of pain from the ITBS.

The mile’s dream team

Tuesday, April 14th, 2009
Peter Gambaccini's line about a 4 x mile record attempt in Oregon:
The world record of 15:49.08, set by Irishmen Eamonn Coghlan, Marcus O'Sullivan, Frank O'Mara, and Ray Flynn in Dublin in 1985, is not likely to be threatened.
You think? That wasn't exactly a team of scrubs, there. This leads to all kinds of questions. To break that record, four runners have to average 3:57 between them.
  • Is there a contemporary American team (by which I mean, ignore sponsor commitments and possibly even injury status: our criteria is that they be active athletes with a blue passport) that could even come close to that? (The Oregon team is chasing the collegiate record of 16:04.5 and will only need to average 4:01.) Lagat-Webb-Manzano-Lomong? Anyone? Would you pull in 800m specialists?
  • How about any nation? Morocco vs. Kenya vs. Ethiopia in a 4 x mile? Have Qatar or Bahrain bought enough depth? Even the Russians always seem to be able to run out of their minds for a good relay.
  • Certainly an all-star international squad could do it. How would you build a team like that?

Is World Cross on the decline?

Monday, April 6th, 2009

In the wake of last month’s World Cross Country Championships, held this year in Amman, Jordan, I’ve seen several different articles asking the question, “Whatever happened to World Cross?” (And, as usual, I’m late to the party.) Pat Butcher sums up the question best: World Cross used to be (ca. late 1970s, early 1980s) the single best distance-running event on the annual calendar. Now it’s not. Why?

Butcher (and, in a follow-up, Larry Eder) goes on to suggest a number of factors: Increased competition for attention and top athletes from spring marathons. Domination by East Africans (and the East Africans are aware that this is a problem, but like the lobstermen in my home town, they can’t figure out how to save their industry without also cutting off their own livelihood) (see also here and here). The loss of strong individual English-speaking personalities. The overall worldwide decline of the sport. IAAF mismanagement. (The specific form of this mismanagement is not detailed, but in this case simply failing to find the magic solution might count.) There is even a nod to my colleague Steven Downes’ argument that golf-course-like venues (“10,000m with one hill”) have had the unintended consequence of removing some unpredictability from the event’s results.

Despite my age, I have a lot of sympathy for World Cross nostalgia. As a budding track fan, my first brush with international competition was the last World Cross Country Championships held in North America, when Boston’s Franklin Park hosted the event in 1992. Every athletics fan remembers that year, even if, like myself, they weren’t actually there (my older brother was). Lynn Jennings won her third consecutive championship; John Ngugi won his fifth in astoundingly dominating fashion. The junior races included a entrants like Paula Radcliffe (who won her first international title) and Haile Gebrselassie. Runner’s World ran at least four pages of photos afterward. Yes, in print. Professionally, my return to international events was at the 2006 World Cross in Fukuoka, Japan. (It was also my first visit to Asia.)

But I wonder if maybe the nostalgia isn’t making us ask the wrong question. Perhaps the question isn’t, “What happened to World Cross?” but “How has the world changed since World Cross was at its height?” Look, for example, at this year’s venue: Jordan wants to become an international sports destination, and World Cross is a sort of starter event for them. Leave aside what that idea (and the Times) implies about the event’s status and consider the changing global landscape. Of course World Cross isn’t what it used to be; the world isn’t what it used to be, and the athletics landscape no longer centers around Europe. That kind of change is going to create casualties, and World-Cross-as-it-was is one of those casualties.

Looked at this way, one can still blame the IAAF for not finding the magic formula to maintaining at least the appeal and importance of the event, if not the same face of it. But at least they’ve been trying. To see the bin World Cross might otherwise be headed for, look up the history of the International Peace Marathon in Kosice, Slovakia, which once rubbed shoulders with Fukuoka and Boston as one of the preeminent international marathons.

If we stop asking, “How can we make World Cross what it was?” and ask the harder question, “What should World Cross be in today’s athletics world?” we’re going to get a lot closer to a great event.