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Friday, August 31, 2007

IAAF World Champs - whirlwind recap of Days 4 to 6

The IAAF World Champs in Osaka are approaching their final weekend. Sadly, I missed much of the action over the last few days, but I did manage to catch highlight of some races, which I thought I'd summarize very (very) briefly in a quick post. More detailed analysis of Day 7 onward will begin again tomorrow...

Women's 400m - a "Triumph or a Travesty?", as Christine Ohuruogo of Great Britian wins on her comeback

This was the headline in one of the papers in England. I happened to be in London the day of and after the race, and the papers had a field day. The first thing one has to realise about English athletics is that everyone, almost without fail, recalls the glory days of Coe, Ovett, Cram, Thompson, and more recently, Christie and Jackson. The last few years have been, to put it mildly, very barren, and so the hosts of the 2012 Olympic Games are understandably terribly excited about the fact that they won not one, but two medals in this race. Nicola Sanders run out of her skin, first in the semi-finals, and then in the finals, setting consecutive personal bests, but the athlete dominating the headlines was Ohuruogo.

Christine Ohuruogo had just completed a one year ban for failing to show up on three doping tests. This constitutes a one year ban, but also a life-time ban from the Olympic Games, issued by the British Olympic Association. So the reason the headlines in the papers were equivocal was because Britian's great athlete is also, as things stand, not eligible to run in the Beijing Olympic Games! This lifetime ban is in the process of being appealed, and there seems to be an excellent chance that it will be overturned, allowing Ohuruogo to run in Beijing. She is still young, and so should (in theory) continue to improve. She was in fact earmarked as the "face of the 2012 Olympics" until her career turned sour a year ago. It will be interesting to see how the story develops in the next few weeks.

As for the race, it came down to who had the strongest finish. Novlene Williams, of Jamaica, won bronze, but paid dearly for a pace that was far too fast in the first half. Pacing is critical in the 400m event - everyone slows down in the second half of the race (see this post for some explanation of this fact). The key is to slow down the least, and that's something Ohuruogo did to perfection, coming through strongly (which actually means slowing down least!) to win by a narrow margin (0.04 secs). It would have been interesting to see how the race would have developed had Sanya Richards, arguably the world number 1, been running. Likely everyone would have been dipping for silver, with gold being won a little more comfortably. But, in athletics, one can only beat the athletes in the race, which Ohuruogo did. I will be very interested to see how the remaining Golden League races go, where Richards will surely take on the three medallists. One final mention for Ana Guevara, who was near unbeatable a few seasons ago, and seems to be on the comeback trail, much like Felix Sanchez is in the hurdles race. The Beijing 400m race for women is shaping up nicely.

Women's 800m - historic win for Jepkosgei and Kenya

In my opinion, one of the greatest performances I've seen in recent times came in this final. Kenya's Janeth Jepkosgei time-trialled away from the next 7 best 800m runners in the world to set a new PB, improving on the old one, which was only 2 days old from the semi-final. It was a masterclass, but the kind of race you just don't see anymore. Gone were the cagey tactics and slow first lap, this was simply an athlete saying to the rest "I have a time in my legs that no one else in this race can do, and I'm going to go for it." It was tremendous stuff.

I wrote in a post after the semi-final in a post that Jepkosgei looked a good bet, but it remained to be seen whether she would be able to deal with the pressure of front-running in a final. She shattered that scepticism, leading just about the entire race. She took the pace out hard, running the first 200m in 26-something (faster than some of the men's qualifying races), and then did three consecutive 30-second 200m splits, to come home in a new Kenyan record of 1:56.04. It is probably not the ideal way to run the race - a slightly more balanced first lap (starting in say 27 seconds, followed by a 29, perhaps, and a second lap of 59) might see her break into the 55-second range.

But tonight, she simply ran everyone else off her heels - the gap was opened in the first 200m and it just remained there. In the final 200m, just as it seemed the rest might bridge the gap, she responded, subtely, and moved away. It was a fabulous run, and at the age of 24, there must surely be more to come. The final word must go to Moroccan Hasna Benhassi, who won the silver medal and said afterward:

“I'd have liked to go for gold but the pace was suicidal..."
Not for Jepkosgei it wasn't...

Men's 400m Hurdles - Kerron Clement delivers for the USA

The Men's 400m Hurdles race was quite open. Ordinarily, it would be the Americans versus the rest, but for this race, the USA seemed vulnerable, as I wrote in a post earlier this week. Defending champ Jackson had clattered a hurdle in a qualifying round, failing to make it through, and Carter and Clement did not look especially sharp in their qualifying rounds. But cometh the final, cometh the man, so to speak, as Clement, second in the US trials behind Carter, produced a great performance to win in quite dominant fashion.

The winning time, 47.61, is still some way off Clement's best (47.24sec), but that is merely testament to just how talented this athlete is. Clement has long been tipped for greatness, but two years ago, failed in Helsinki, finishing fourth. But in this race, he blew that memory, and everyone else away in an awesome display. Clement has fantastic flat 400m speed (44.48 secs, set this year), and so speed is never an issue. In fact, Clement has set all his PB's from 100 m to 400m THIS YEAR - clearly, his focus has been on speed. Technique has been his problem in the past, with his stride patterns and the last two flights often causing problems. This graceful athlete has often messed the strides up so badly at the end that he looks almost clumsy. But not this year, and he won going away. This is another race that looks good for Beijing 2008, as Felix Sanchez, so dominant a few years ago, seems to be coming back into form, and there is great depth. So like the women's race, we have new talent which may clash with old talent in Beijing for the Olympic title.

That's about it of the days I missed. There were a couple of races I did not get to see, so I won't speculate wildly about how they developed. But from tomorrow, it's back to normal with insights and previews.

Join us then!


Thursday, August 30, 2007

Heart attacks in sport - a tragic death and call to action

For the last week or so, we've focused exclusively on the IAAF World Champs in Osaka. But over the past few days, two very sad events in soccer have also made headlines. First, the tragic death of a Spanish International footballer, Antonio Puerta, aged just 22 (see news article here). This was followed only days later by a heart attack to Clive Clarke, suffered during half-time of a Carling Cup match in England. Clarke is reported to be in a stable condition (click for article).

The case of Puerta, in particular, sent shock-waves through the football community, when it was announced that he had died in hospital. He collapsed on the field after 35 minutes of the opening La Liga match. Team-mates and doctors rushed to his aid, prevented him from swallowing his tongue, and then escorted him off the field, as he recovered enough to walk to the change rooms. However, once there, he collapsed again, was given cardiac resuscitation and rushed to hospital. Sadly, his condition deteriorated and he died in hospital. The images of a professional sportsman collapsing on the field were of course extremely disconcerting, another reminder that even professional athletes are not immune to cardiac arrest or heart failure.

In this light, Professor Jiri Dvorak, who if FIFA's Chief Medical Officer, has called for regular heart screening of professional players. This was actually done prior to the 2006 World Cup, and Dvorak stated that FIFA "wanted to send a clear message that if you're in professional sport, we believe cardiac screening should be mandatory".

In terms of logistics, it's not immediately clear who would be responsible for the screening, most likely the clubs. One would think that even though this might impose quite a burden on the clubs, it would be met with little resistance if recommended (officially) by FIFA. This remains to be seen.

From a sports science point of view, the cause of death is of course very difficult to identify after the fact. About one month ago, we did a post looking at marathon runner Alberto Salazar's heart attack (non-fatal), and SOME of the possible causes for it. Even on that occasion, we received some emails commenting that electrical disturbances in the heart might be more likely to blame. Of course, we do acknowledge that these are possible, although in that particular instance, we were pretty close to accurate in our article on Salazar (and other runners, like Jim Fixx, doyen of running in the 1970's).

But the emails were correct - we didn't cover everything, because it's just not possible, unless you were prepared to plough through dozens of possible causes. And the post-mortem on Puerta and the tests of Clarke must first ascertain just what happened. At this stage, it's still not even clear whether these players suffered heart attacks or cardiac arrest - a heart attack is a circulatory problem, while cardiac arrest is electrical. It's been reported as both, mistakenly in some instances then. Most of the reports, and certainly the comments from Professor Dvorak and other experts suggest that this was electrical, cardiac arrest, and thus different from the situation we wrote on previously.

The screening processes will have to examine a range of possibilities, which we won't go into here. What the testing would involve is a stress-ECG, where players exercise while connected to a machine that monitors the electrical activity over the heart. There is a 'normal' heart rhythm, and during the test, any deviations from that normal rhythm can be identified and specific problems detected for further investigation. These include fibrillations, often lethal conditions, where the heart muscle contracts in an unco-ordinated fashion, failing to pump blood. This is often treated with a defibrillator, as was reported to be the case in the two footballers recently. It is not the only condition, however. The testing/screening is believed to be successful, reducing the number of cardiac arrests in Italy, for example, where it is used more widely.

For now, these events serve as another reminder that everyone is susceptible. Regular testing would pick up most (but not all) of the potential causes, allowing management or avoidance of risk, and so perhaps FIFA's approach, which is certainly the prudent one, is the one that should be adopted, but all sporting codes.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

IAAF World Champs report - Men's 1500m

OK, so having said that I would be off-line until Friday, I managed (fortuitously) to catch one lone race out of today's action from Osaka. While standing at a bus station waiting for an eternally non-arriving bus, Ladbrokes, which happened to be directly behind the stop, was broadcasting the racing. And in my 10 minutes of downtime, it just happened to be the men's 1500m final, so I managed to watch it and thought I'd put a few thoughts down on the race.

First, the result. The Champion - Bernard Lagat, formerly of Kenya, but running for the USA in his first international competition. Second went to Rashid Ramzi, the defending champ and the bronze was won by Shedrack Korir of Kenya. The official result:

1. Bernard Lagat (USA) 3:34.77
2. Rashid Ramzi (BAH) 3:35.00
3. Shedrack Korir (KEN) 3:35.04

So Bernard Lagat, Olympic Silver medallist and second fastest 1500m runner in history (a time that is 6 years old now) wins his first World title in his first international race for the USA.

IAAF rules state that once an athlete has competed for another country, he must wait 3 years before racing for the adopted country. Lagat last competed for Kenya on August 24, 2004, and so became eligible to run for the USA on August 25th 2007. And not a moment too soon, as he because the USA's first gold medal winner in a middle distance event in 99 years!

How the race unfolded - reluctant leaders and a tactical meltdown

The race was always going to be wide open. Apart from Lagat, who had perhaps the best HISTORICAL pedigree, there was Rashid Ramzi, defending champion (and an 800m world champ), Alan Webb (USA), the fastest in the world this year, and then of course the usual assortment of Kenyans, and Moroccans to make the race interesting.

And the lack of a clear, outright favourite (think el Guerrouj) showed, because from the gun, it was actually quite a peculiar race (at least, that was my view from the street corner!)

The reluctant leaders

Alan Webb took up the early pace, but the pace was typical of a championship final - unspectacular and conservative. Webb has run races in the past where he has gone to the front and pulled the race out hard. Tonight, that did not happen - instead, he found himself an almost reluctant leader, and the pace was neither slow nor fast - the first 800m took around 1:58, which is much slower than the runners are accustomed to racing during the season (they are usually escorted by pacemakers in about 1:52), but a good deal faster than the super slow semi-final we saw the other night (2:08 at 800m). This is nothing unusual for a major 1500m final - the pace is usually on the slow side to begin with.

But this is where things get really interesting. On the 3rd lap, when one expects things to jump into overdrive, the Kenyan Asbel Kisrop went to the front, threatened to move the race into high gear, and then...nothing happened - the third lap was run in 57 seconds, meaning that the first 1200m had passed with two leaders, neither of whom really did anything decisive for the race. Typically, that third lap is where the pace comes down into the 55 second range, but this was different. The result was that with 300m to go, the entire field was still bunched, whereas usually, the acceleration trims the contenders down to about 4 or 5.

Of course, taking the lead out in a World Champs final is an exceedingly difficult prospect - the temptation is to slow it down, refuse to do the work and thus save energy for what all the athletes know will be a furious final 300m. The alternative, pushing hard from the front, is often 'suicidal', because all it does is set the race up for those coming from behind. So Webb can hardly be blamed for not pushing any harder - he did what he could and running from the front is the way he chose to go, to his credit. But tonight's race really lacked a 'boss'. This is, in my opinion, good for the race. In the past, we've seen one athlete dominate the race, even using team-mates as pace-setters in a final, but this was a pure race.

At the sound of the bell, the entire field was lurking for what promised to be a vicious kick, but...nothing happened. The next 100m (between 1100 and 1200m) were covered in about 14 seconds (hardly a last lap explosion), and down the back straight, it still seemed that no one had done anything decisive.

The tactical blunder

But it was over the final 200m that things unfolded. The final 300m, for what it's worth, were covered in about 39 seconds, but the running only started at the 200m mark. And it was Lagat who ran the smartest race of all. The biggest loser in the tactical stakes was Ramzi, who perhaps took a leaf from the Medhi Baala book of 1500m tactics, as he was utterly boxed in over the final bend. His mistake came with about 250m to go, when Lagat moved forward, and he had a clear opportunity to move wide. But for whatever reason, he stayed where he was, and with the race having been so cagey up to that point, he was soon passed by about 4 or 5 athletes, making their own bids for glory. And so coming off the final bend, with 90 m to go, Lagat found himself with clear air and an open track, whereas Ramzi was walled in by two Kenyans, Webb and Lagat.

With nowhere to go, Ramzi threw what looked like a side-step that would have made Christian Cullen proud (Emmet Smith, for the USA readers - Cullen is a rugby player!) and tried in vain to catch a speeding Lagat. But it was too late, Lagat was too strong and won comfortably in the end, a deserving victor, both for his tactical acumen and his clearly superior speed. Perhaps, on another day, Ramzi might have been closer, but he either didn't have a legs down the back straight, or he lost concentration - either costs world titles, as he discovered.

So, Lagat breaks a 99 year streak for the USA. The next gold might not be so long in coming, because Lagat will line up in the 5000m event later this week, and with the kind of speed we saw today, he has a great chance. I'll preview that race in much more detail later in the week, because like the men's 10 000m final, it offers up a fascinating contest between a speed merchant and the 5000m 'regulars', who will have to do something to negate that finishing speed.

So that's all from today - I would want to watch the other races before commenting on them, but that will have to wait. Join us later in the week for the 5000m preview, and a wrap from other races and events from Osaka!


Tuesday, August 28, 2007

IAAF World Champs - a brief break from the action

Just a quick post to let you know that I'll be travelling for the next 3 days, so unfortunately (for me, that is), I probably won't be watching any of the racing from Osaka. At least not live, anyway...So until Friday, we unfortunately won't be bringing any analysis of the races, which is a shame.

However, I'm back on Friday, and hopefully can catch up on the action then!

Until then, enjoy the athletics!


Monday, August 27, 2007

IAAF World Champs - Day 3 insights and analysis

In another post, we looked extensively at the Men's 10000m final, because it was such a good race, from a spectator point of view, but also because it was so intruiging for physiological reasons.

here, we look at the rest of Day 3's action:

Women's 3000m Steeplechase - the expected Russian Dominance

As predicted, the Russians dominated the 3000m Steeplechase, winning gold and silver. It was Yeketerina Volkova who won, in an impressive time of 9:06, given the conditions in Osaka. Her compatriot, Tatyana Petrova was 3 seconds back. The biggest surprise was that the world record holder, Gulnara Samitova-Galkina, failed to win a medal, finishing some 24 seconds behind. She took the race out hard, running the first 1km in world record tempo, but then fell away badly, perhaps a victim of heat and over-enthusiasm.

The third medal was taken by a Kenyan, Eunice Jepkorir. The race was quite uneventful, more of a mass 'time-trial' than anything else. It is clearly a new event, because the relatively basic level of racing is characteristic of an event that is constantly evolving. We watch the pioneers of the event, but the massive time-gaps between runners will eventually come down - time acts as a filter for elite athletes, and the 3000m SC for women has not yet had the time to be 'filtered'. It will be interesting to see how the race differs in two years, and at the Olympics next year.

Women's 100m - the eternal wait and the photo-finish

The Women's 100m final was won by Veronica Campbell of Jamaica, but only after what seemed at eternity as officials examined the photofinish of what must be one of the closest 100m races in history. It was not super fast, the winning time was 'only' 11.01 seconds, but the top 6 were separated by only 0.07 seconds! The examination was between Campbell and Lauryn Williams, defending champion, but who was not given too much chance coming in. The bronze was won by another American, Carmelia Jeter, with the third American, and perhaps the most favoured, Torri Edwards, in fourth.

So the 100m finals ended up one apiece for the USA and Jamaica, with USA winning the men's, but Campbell exacting revenge for Jamaica today. The relays should be awesome!

1500m semi-finals - some drama and excitement

The final races to comment on are the 1500m semi-finals, which were nothing if not exciting. IN particular, the first one was dramatic, with a pre-race favourite, Medhi Baala of France being disqualified for his part in a high speed scuffle in the final 50m that saw two men hit the tartan hard. Youssef Baba of Morocco was one of the athletes who ended up on the ground, but he was put through to the final after Baala's DQ. It developed this way because Baala got himself horribly boxed in during the final 400m and coming off the final bend, he had a wall of about 7 runners in front of him, with only 5 qualifying. So he did what anyone would do, and ran straight through the wall! All this, in turn, happened because the pace was so incredibly slow over the first two laps - 2:08 after 800m, which, to put into context, is slower than the world record in the 10 000m event! This meant that the final 600m were a free for all, and it was Baala who was caught out.

In the other semi, which was far less dramatic, Alan Webb, the number 1 this year, ran what can only be described as an interesting race. He sat right at the back, about 2m behind the next guy for about 1200m, and only in the final 300m did he move forward. And that was far from convincing, he seemed to struggle to come through, eventually claiming fifth. It was either a very professional performance, planned to perfection, or he is not feeling all that good. Wednesday's final will reveal all!

R & J

IAAF World Champs - The Men's 10000m Final

We admit bias on this one, because our focus on The Science of Sport does tend to drift towards the endurance activities, but this one couldn't have escaped our attention - today, the 3rd day of the IAAF World Champs, brought a great 10 000m race, a race that was so good, and interesting, that we decided to do a post on it, and a separate post looking at the rest of the day's action. But this is dedicated to the 10 000m final, and a great race - from a physiological and a tactical point of view, it was one of the great races that I've ever seen.

The result - Bekele defends and becomes a 3-time 10km champion

Much as expected, and if you logged onto the internet, you'd see the following result:

1. Kenenisa Bekele 27:05.90
2. Sileshi Sihine 27:09.03
3. Martin Mathathi 27:12.17

So, you'd be forgiven for thinking you'd missed pretty much a repeat of Bekele's last few world and Olympic titles, because the time gaps at the finish would be consistent with a blazing final lap, during which Bekele would pull away from competitors and win relatively comfortably (3 seconds, in this case). Nothing could be further from the truth. For what actually transpired, was, in my opinion, one of the great 10 000m races.

From a physiology point of view, this was a race to savour, and tactically, the way it played out is a great case study in the physiology, which is what we will address now.

The physiology of the race - dealing with the temperature

Two things made this race remarkable. The first was the temperature - 29 degrees celsius at the start (84 Fahrenheit), with high humidity means that to have run just outside 27 minutes was itself an extra-ordinary performance. In fact, so remarkable was this performance that I wouldn't be surprised if the equations that we (exercise scientists, that is) often use to model the physics of racing in the heat don't apply! To expand on that, there are all sorts of equations and models that can be used to predict how much body temperature would rise in an athlete when running at a certain speed in certain conditions. I will certainly make a point to check, but the concept of running 2:42/km for 10km in 29 degree heat is without doubt right up there on the limit. We have written a bit about exercise and the heat in recent posts (which you can read here and here), and this race was ample proof of the importance of acclimatization and small body size - it's no co-incidence that the larger runners were first to drop out or fall off the pace.

So to run 27:05 is incredible, but it was the way it was achieved that was most amazing and the second reason this race is worth analyzing. This was not a typical 10000m Championship race, because usually, no one is willing to take up the lead and so the first 5000m is usually quite slow, and only in the second half do the Africans take up the running and it usually ends with an incredible last 2km. This was different, and that was due to the efforts of one man - Zersenay Tadese of Eritrea. And this brings us to the second really fascinating part of this race - physiological differences between athletes and how it dictates strategy.

The physiology of race strategy

Yesterday evening, in a preview of the race, I wrote that Zersenay Tadese, the world Cross-Country champion, would fancy his chances of beating Bekele, given the expected hot conditions and the fact that he had done it in Mombasa, putting an end to Bekele's remarkable streak of world titles. The problem for Tadese is that in a tactical race, he would have little chance of staying with the Ethiopians in the final lap sprint finish. His strength is his strength. This is an athlete who has a 59:16 half marathon, one of the fastest ever, and he is the world 20km champion. So over the longer distances, he's quite comfortable.

Bekele, on the other hand, is all about speed. Yes, he is a complete runner, and has shown ability to run at pace for long periods, but particularly this year, there is no doubt that his training has been focused on the shorter distances. He has run two Personal Bests over 3000m in the month leading up to this race, and his final lap speed in legendary.

So what you had in this race, then, was a clash of two different athletes - Tadese, whose strength was his weapon, against Bekele, who has such speed over the final 400m that his manager was quoted as saying that as long as Bekele was in contact with 500m to go, the race was over.

So, if you are Zersenay Tadese, standing on the start line, you are likely thinking three things:
1. The last time I raced Bekele, it was in the heat of Mombasa, and I beat him, the heat beat him and he must be worried about that again.
2. If this race comes down to a final lap sprint, I'm going to be blown away. But I am strong, I win races at 20km, Cross Country and I have half marathon credentials that are second to none in this race.
3. Bekele has been doing a lot of racing at 3km. I wonder if his endurance is up to the level that might be required?

Given this collection of thoughts, the strategy that Tadese would adopt is to go out hard, run the middle hard and try to run the last part of the race hard! And this is exactly what he did, taking the lead from the first lap and just running a relentless tempo that ended up shedding all but 3 men.

But what of Bekele? His thoughts before the race will have been very different, for he will go into a race like this knowing that over the final 400m, he has no peer. So a slow race is perfect for him, and he would not take up the lead unless it was absolutely necessary, and that is usually with about 400m to go. Was Bekele concerned about the heat? He must have been. It was his longest outing since that race in Mombasa, and he had to have been slightly apprehensive about the prospects of a fast pace. We'll never know...

So you have two completely different approaches, and it was Tadese who should be given credit for turning this race into the classic that it was. The biggest injustice was ultimately that he failed to medal, because he deserved it.

How the race unfolded - the physiology of the race

As mentioned, Tadese hit the front and stayed there, and stayed there and stayed there, until 3 laps from the end. There were times when Gebremariam, the tall Ethiopian, moved to the front, but the pace slowed immediately whenever he did. In fact, it would not surprise me if this were a deliberate tactic, and that the other Ethiopians (Bekele and Sihine) were sending him up there precisely to slow the race down! Whenever he led for part of a lap, it was a 66 second lap, compared to the usual 64-65 pace that Tadese was setting. Gebremariam's stints in the lead were thus short, about 150m, before Tadese moved by and the pace returned to its normal 65sec/lap rhythm.

Watching this unfold, I could not believe it to be possible that the runners could sustain this pace, particularly at the front, and eventually Tadese failed. Three laps from the end, he slowed. Not by much, maybe a second, but it was enough that Bekele, Sihine and the Kenyan Martin Mathathi began bunching around him. With 3 laps to go, it was Mathathi who moved into the lead, and Tadese was gone. Mathathi ran a 61 second lap, and Bekele was in trouble!

A gap began to appear between Mathathi and Bekele down the back straight, with 1000m to go, and Bekele even gestured to Sihine to move past. This quote from Bekele reveals what was going on:

With three laps left, I was tired, but after some minutes, my body started to
recover a bit. When the other guy took the lead, I encouraged Sileshi to go
after him. If I could have, I would have.

So the gap appears, the first time since his arrival on the world scene that Bekele has looked troubled in a track race. And that gap grew, but never blew out. Coaches and runners often talk about an invisible elastic band, which stretches and must no be allowed to break. I got the impression watching the race that the band was almost stretched to breaking point - with 2 laps to go, Bekele was about 3 m back, with 500m, it was about 5m, but he hung on and hung on, and then at the sound of the bell, he bridged that gap, and then moved past the Kenyan.

What he still had to do was move past Sihine, his team-mate. Sihine turned it on down the back straight, opening up a gap of about 8m on Bekele, but by this stage, Bekele's final lap speed was all that remained, and over the final 200m, he shifted into a gear that no other runner has, and put four seconds on Sihine in the final 200m. The last lap, unofficially, was 55.5 secs, but the damage was done in the final 200m, which was 26-something, I think.

The mystery of what actually happened

The way the race unfolded in the final 2km was incredibly exciting, and as a scientist, incredibly difficult to explain. In my opinion, Bekele was in real trouble. There was a point with about 600m to go that Mathathi gestured to Sihine to come passed and help with the pace. Of course, Sihine didn't, but had he done so, any slight increase in pace might have been enough to put paid to Bekele. Similarly, I believe that had the race been 10.4 km, a mere 400m longer, Bekele might have had too much to do on the final lap. These 'ifs' and 'buts' are of course mere conjecture, we'll never know, but Bekele was hanging on. So then how do we explain his 4-second winning margin? How does a runner who was hanging on with 1km to go sprint the final 200m 4-secs faster than anyone else?

It may surprise you to know that there is no explanation for this is in all of exercise physiology and if anyone tells you different, they're lying! One theory is of course one that you may have heard - the runner has become anaerobic, his muscles are starved of oxygen and lactate is poisoning them. If this is true, then how does he speed up? Because if lactate is affecting the muscle (or any other metabolite, for that matter), then speeding up would be impossible, unless he could override the effect of lactate...but how does that happen? We don't know. The other theory, of course, which many of you will consider a no-brainer, is that he was never maximal to begin with. In otherwords, he always had a reserve - muscle that he could have used, but did not. And upon hearing the bell, with only 400m to go, suddenly that muscle, which was previously unrecruited, is used to produce a 55.5 s final lap. That theory, which states that there is always a muscle reserve, regulated by the brain, has yet to be widely accepted. It's intuitive though, and I'm sure many of you reading this think it to be obvious!

There is so much more about this race that could be written, but we'll leave it that for now. To end, my vote for the man of the day goes to Zersenay Tadese, who set the race up. Any other conditions, and I actually believe he could challenge the world record, such was the strength he showed to lead for so long under those conditions. His chance may well come in Brussels in a few weeks.

The rest of the day's action is summarized in our other post for today

Until next time!

R & J

Sunday, August 26, 2007

IAAF World Champs - Day 2 analysis

Day 2 of the IAAF World Champs bought the much anticipated clash between Asafa Powell and Tyson Gay, and this is the race that dominates our analysis of Day 2's action, since it was also the only track final of the day.

Men's 100m - Tyson Gay triumphs over Powell

The much awaited race was ultimately something of a disappointment. Such was the hype that everyone was expecting a world record, which didn't materialize, but then neither did the close head to head race everyone expected. In fact, Derrick Atkins separated them on the line, the final result being

1. Tyson Gay 9.85 s
2. Derrick Atkins 9.91 s (PB)
3. Asafa Powell 9.96 s

So of the top 3, only Atkins really extended himself (though that is a discredit to Gay, who really did dominate the race). As for how it unfolded, it was Powell who got off to the faster start, but only marginally, as Gay, running on his immediate right, held on and then began to move clear after about 50m. Powell had looked good up to that point, much in the way that he looked good in yesterday's qualifying rounds and the early evening's semi-final, where he effectively shut off the engines with about 30 m to go, coasting to the line.

Tonight was however different - instead of being afforded the luxury of coasting, he found himself being caught, and then passed, on his right, as Gay clearly had something extra. For Powell, it then got even worse as he was passed by Atkins, ultimately losing the silver. It was a race that I'm sure Powell would want to forget, and rightly so. I wrote yesterday that the start would be critical, because it would apply pressure that may cause an opponent to seize up and lose form. Tension strangles speed, and in tonight's final, it was Powell who seemed to strangle himself. The replays will show just how badly he tied up in the final 40 m of the race, once Gay moved past him, and it ultimately allowed Atkins through too.

Gay, for his part, was a deserving champion, he handled the pressure really well from the start, and didn't allow Powell's superior start to affect his race. He will carry a great deal of confidence into the 200m event, not that he needs it with his 19.62s performance from earlier this year. Few would bet against a second gold medal...

400m Hurdles semi-finals - some surprises and a familiar face into the final

The other big track event of the evening was the men's 400m Hurdle semi-finals, which we wrote about yesterday. And what a turn-up they were, with Bershawn Jackson failing to make the final after basically 'bunny-hopping' straight into the final hurdle, when he was comfortably in the lead. He came to a virtual stand-still, allowing Felix Sanchez to storm past. Even worse for Jackson, he was passed for second and by virtue of the first semi-final being the fastest (his was second), he was eliminated.

So it is left to the other Americans, Kerron Clement and James Carter to fight the final alone. They take on the afore-mentioned Sanchez, as well as a very surprise fastest qualifier, Marek Plawgo of Poland. Few would have given him a chance before this, but he came through from the outside lane to surprise Carter in the first semi-final.

The Americans seem to me to be quite flat. Perhaps they are playing a tactical game, because they are running easily one second off their best times from the season, but they really do look pretty sluggish. Considering that all three have bests in the low 47-sec range, one would expect them to fly through qualifying when the races are being won in the mid-48 second range. Imagine Jeremy Wariner struggling at 44.8 sec pace and you have a comparison.

Perhaps American 400m hurdling is, in a strange way, a victim of its own strength. The American athletes who run in Osaka have had to qualify in their national championships, held this year in June. And because they have such strength in depth, a 400m hurdler who wishes to run for the USA must be in the sort of condition to run 47.8s at those championships (Carter won the race in 47.72 sec, by the way: Clement was 2nd in 47.80s). But the problem, from a physiological point of view, is that having reached this kind of physical condition, they then have to maintain it through July and August before the World Champs. That is very difficult to do, and I suspect that we are seeing the USA hurdlers on the 'downer' that inevitably follows a physiological peak. It will be a fascinating race, they may well be good enough to win, but whether they will get near those times from June remains to be seen. If they can, the race is theirs, but the Pole and Sanchez may fancy their chances for medals, perhaps gold.

Women's 800 semi-finals - another old face, and perhaps a new one from Africa?

Very briefly, the women's 800m threw up one or two surprises, but the big names who made it through yesterday also made it through to the final. Maria Mutola, Hasna Benhassi, Sviatlana Usovich, Svetlana Klyuka, and most impressive of all, Janeth Jepkosgei, made the final in impressive fashion.

Mutola is something of a sentimental mention, it would be a major surprise if the great Mozambiquan can win a medal in the final, but the other two Africans, Benhassi and Jepkosgei, look a real chance. In particular, Jepkosgei, a relative newcomer in the last 2 seasons, looked awesome, running a world-leading time and a personal best of 1:56:17. She ran it almost entirely from the front, running away from the rest of the field, after a 56-something first lap. Very impressive indeed, and it will be fascinating to see if she can produce this in the pressure cooker of the final, with a couple of eastern Europeans breathing down her neck. The Russians (Klyuka in this case) always seem to produce someone with merit for these championships and they will be dangerous. But Jepkosgei looked super in her semi, and should she go on to win, will be a hero in Kenya, where women's athletics has taken a bit of a dent in recent times. That final is in two days time, and it should be awesome.

Preview of tomorrow - the men's 10000m and a rematch of a distance race in the heat

Tomorrow sees three track finals: Women's 3000 Steeplechase, the women's 100m final, and the one we like most, the men's 10 000m. Few would bet against Kenenisa Bekele, but he is taking on his conqueror from Mombasa earlier this year - Zersenay Tadese of Eritrea. The World Cross-country champion Tadese conquered Bekele and the heat, and he will be optimistic about doing the same in the heat of Osaka. However, Bekele has really shown himself to be in great form, with speed over 3000m that few will match, so he must be the favourite, to join his compatriot Dibaba in defending his 10000m title.

Join us tomorrow for the report on that race.

Until then, happy running

R & J

Saturday, August 25, 2007

IAAF World Champs - Day 1 insights and analysis

The IAAF World Championships in Osaka began with a bang, and the temperatures matched some of the action. At this stage, the action is dominated by qualifying heats (a pun, in this particular case) but even that has been quite explosive, with a number of surprises on the first day. Two major running finals to report on, the Men's Marathon and the Women's 10 000m final, which was a stunner. And of course, we move ever closer to the potential world record in the 100m and the show-down between Tyson Gay and Asafa Powell (see our Picture above). But let's begin with the Men's Marathon...

Men's Marathon - New World Champion Luke Kibet

The story of the men's marathon was always going to be the heat. I have to somewhat sheepishly admit that I yesterday wrote about the women's marathon, a faux pas I will blame on the fact that I am on a travelling holiday around Europe, combined with the Swiss Mountain air at the time of writing...! So apologies for that, it was in fact the men's marathon today and a real racer's marathon. The winning time of 2:15:59. We wrote yesterday that the heat was always going to be a factor, and it most certainly was, contributing to the slowest major championship time in history. In an era where we have become accustomed to sub 2:07 races, this may seem tepid, but temperatures were extreme. For the record, the temperature was 28 degrees Celsius (82 Fahrenheit) at the start, despite the 7 am time, and by the end it was 32 degrees (90 Fahrenheit), with 67% humidity!

We spoke yesterday of the impact this would have on the race, because of how the brain adjusts the pace from the start to slow the athlete down, preventing the development of heatstroke. This probably seems unremarkable, and somewhat obvious, until you consider that there is still no real theory for how this is achieved. If you picked up a textbook, you would read that the athletes slow down because they are hot (their body temperature hits a certain level - 40 degrees is commonly mentioned). In fact, they slow down so that they don't get hot - the reduction happens because they feel hot, not because they are...intelligent pacing, based on physiology, if you will.

And it was Luke Kibet, a fairly unknown athlete coming into the race, who was best of all, becoming the first gold-medallist courtesy of his winning what was ostensibly a war of attrition - the halfway time was 1:08:29, with 29 runners in the group. By 35km, that group had been trimmed to five, and then Kibet pulled away without actually doing anything spectular. The attritional nature of the race is evidenced by the fact that the second placed finisher, Mubarak Hassan Shami of Qatar, was 1:29 behind, finishing in 2:17:18. This means that he ran the second half in 1:08:49, slower than the first despite running a pace that is, on any other day, pedestrian. The fact that Kibet was the only runner in the field to run a faster second half further confirms just how tough conditions were. But Kibet came through the test.

Women's 10000m final - Dibaba is unstoppable

Turinesh Dibaba is just 21 years old, but she already owns 9 world titles. But the race was far from a formality. The pace was again unremarkable - the halfway mark was reached in 16:29, at which time the group was still pretty large. Then, almost amazingly, the defending champion Dibaba dropped off the pace. I was watching the race on Swiss television, and my German is limited to fewer than 100 words, so I was completely in the dark as to what has happening, and it is still too recent to know just what happened there. But Dibaba spent about 2 laps off the back of the field, trailing by at most 10 m, and then suddenly surged to the front four again. From then on, it was business as usual, the race only really came alive with 2km to go. The Turkish athlete (actually born in Ethiopia) with the unpronouncable name, Elvan Abeylegesse, hit the front and shifted the pace forward. They had been running 76 to 78 seconds per lap (a slow pace, which made the dropping of Dibaba all the more amazing at the time), but with Abeylegesse at the front, it became 72 seconds/lap (3:00/km), and that was enough to drop everyone but Dibaba, who just sat in second, looking serene and in control.

She is an absolutely beautiful runner, clearly cut from the same cloth as Gebrselassie at his peak. She runs as though on air, with the most elegant stride seen in women's running for a long time. And she has a kick over the final lap that no woman in history can match. This race was no different - she went to the front with exactly one lap, allowing the bell to inspire an incredible last lap kick. Abeylegesse, herself a fast runner with a sub 4:00min 1500m best hung on for perhaps 80 m, but then it was all over, and Dibaba finished in isolation, having reeled off a final lap in under 60 seconds, for a final kilometer of 2:47. Absolutely incredible, and unique among women to see this kind of finishing speed. The Ethiopians have it in abundance, but until recently, it has been the men. Dibaba may represent the first of a generation, much as Yifter was in the 1980's. She is certainly well on the way to becoming the greatest women runner in history.

All that remains for her in these championships is what is perhaps the race of the championships against Meseret Defer (see our preview of top 4 Events here). Dibaba has raced sparingly this year, preferring to train from her base in Ethiopia, while Defar has set world records. But this win was evidence that Dibaba is indeed in great condition and it should be a great race.

Men's 100m - Early rounds

The event that many are looking forward to is still on course to happen. Tomorrow evening, Tyson Gay and Asafa Powell will race in the two semi-finals for the chance to meet in the late evening for a world title and potential world record. Powell, for his part, looked awesome in his second round race, winning in 10.01, but really, he only sprinted about 60m, before shutting down and coasting to the finish. His start was magnificent, and he put Atkins, running alongside him, to shame from the blocks. Remember that Atkins is a good bet for a medal, and has won a few big races in Europe this year. But 50 m into this qualifying race, Powell was in a different league and only his slowing down enabled Atkins to close the gap.

Gay looked good, though not as dominant. It's difficult to compare, of course, but his start seemed much less powerful, and in the end, he sprinted perhaps 90m before being safely through to the semi-finals.

As for what will happen in the final (assuming they do the expected and qualify), that's anyone's guess. Powell has something of a cloud hanging over him after a couple of poor performances at major championships, but he may have put all that behind him after his brilliant season last year. Gay is relatively untested, particularly on this stage.

What will be absolutely vital is the start - the better start will immediately put pressure on the other athlete, and with the stakes as they are, that pressure could easily build exponentially, forcing one of these men into tightening up. And for a sprinter, that is the ultimate failure - the idea is to remain relaxed and powerful, and any tension only slows the speed down. So look for the athlete who maintains his form and fluidity to win the race, and that's as much a mental battle as it is physical.

Other events - disappointment for South Africa

Speaking as a South African now, it was an extremely disappointing day, continuing what has become a tradition for SA Athletics at major championships. First, Hendrik Ramaala, many people's favourite for the marathon, could only finish 27th, in 2:26. I was personally amazed to read that he was even running, considering his racing scheduled in recent months. I read in an interview recently that Ramaala feels he is 'different' compared to other athletes, because he actually needs to run many marathons. Most elite men are doing perhaps two major marathons a year, Ramaala prefers to run 4, sometimes 5, and that doesn't even include his half-marathons. Perhaps this performance (and a recent disappointment in the New York half marathon) will cause him to reconsider this opinion that he is 'different'. It is a very disappointing way for a good athlete to perform, and he perhaps needs to consider his approach for next year.

Even more disappointing was the 400m Hurdles for men, which was often been SA's best event. LJ van Zyl, one of the few men who has beaten the Americans this year, could only finish 5th in the first round, in a time that he probably would run in training. Alwyn Myburgh, a potential finallist, could not finish his heat, and only Ter de Villiers managed to get through to the next round. Of course, one does not want to be overly critical, but I would love to know just what went on in the last 2 weeks, particularly with van Zyl, because he was a medal chance, and could not make the top 40 in the world. Very disturbing for SA athletics...

400m Hurdles - shaping up as a great event

That aside, the 400m is shaping up as a great race. Felix Sanchez, dominant for two years until just after the Athens Olympics, ran a season's best to win his heat in the fastest time of the day. The Americans will however remain favourites. James Carter looked very comfortable, and Bershawn Jackson, defending champion, seemed to have a great deal in reserve at the end. He and Kerron Clement both ran rather odd races, leaving themselves with a lot to do in the final 80m, but both came through. It's difficult to know what sort of condition they are really in, but Jackson in particular is a great big-race runner and all three have bags of talent. The odd Jamaican, and Sanchez thrown in, and this could be a great race.

As for tomorrow's action, what everyone is waiting for is the 100m final for men, which we discussed above. The 400m Hurdles semi-finals also feature, but it's that 100m race that should produce all the heat.

Join us for insight into those races tomorrow!

R & J

Friday, August 24, 2007

The Marathon preview: The weather factor

The World Athletics Championships kicks off tomorrow, and the first event, as has become tradition, is the marathon, this time for men.

The Osaka Weather

Another tradition, for it seems to be topical every time there is a Championship marathon, is the weather. The Five-day forecast for Osaka will no doubt have been giving some of the athletes sleepless nights - peak temperatures hitting 35 degrees Celsius (that is 95 Fahrenheit!). This is even hotter than in Athens, where the temperature was a real factor in the outcome of the women's race in particular. As has become customary, the race will be run in the early morning (7am) start in Osaka (which makes it difficult for anyone on a European timezone!), giving the athletes some reprieve. But not that much - the night-time temperatures in Osaka over the next five days averages 26 degrees celsius (79 Fahrenheit), which is still substantially warmer than most of the big-city marathons will ever be run at. The temperature during this year's London Marathon, for example, was hotter than ever before, causing many athletes to struggle and even suggest that the race be cancelled. The temperature there? 25 degrees, at peak. In fact, this excerpt from a news article on the race illustrates just how severe Osaka will be compared to the 'difficult' London Marathon:

The thermometer climbed from 14.1° (with 55% humidity) at the start of the
women’s race to 16.3° (49% humidity) after an hour, 18.6° (43%) after two hours
… and 20.5° after three hours, when the later-starting men’s race was reaching
its testing phases.

So there is clearly no comparison between what the elite athletes face in Osaka and what they might have faced in London. But what can we expect from the physiology of the runners in these races, beginning with tomorrow's women's race?

When size does matter...

The first thing (and this is a dramatically summarized version) is that the winner has to be small in size. All things being equal (which we concede they never are!), the smaller athlete will win a race in the heat. Many studies have shown this, and the equations that we use to model performances in the heat suggest the same. Basically, it boils down to a balance between height production and heat loss. Heat production is dependent on body size and running speed, while heat loss is a function of body surface area, and the environment. Obviously, the environment is the same for everyone, but body size is not. The smaller the athlete, the less heat they produce, but their heat loss is not reduced by as much and the end result is that the smaller athlete will store less heat running at a certain speed than the bigger athlete. Ultimately, this means that a smaller athlete can afford to run slightly faster before their body temperature rises. Big advantage! This is of course a oversimplification, but it does illustrate the point that when the mercury starts climbing, the advantage lies with a smaller runner.

Doing time in the heat - acclimatization is vital

The next important factor is acclimatization. Numerous studies have shown just how much performance improves after a period of adaptation to the heat. The guru of exercise in the heat, Bodil Nielsen of Denmark, has done many of these studies, and has shown how exercise tolerance improves almost two-fold after a period of hot weather adaptation. That is, athletes can go twice as far in the heat on the 7th day compared to their first day in the heat. This means that a winning athlete is one who is well adapted to running in the heat. The advantage here lies with the locals (Japanese and Chinese, and perhaps the Africans), though all the major contenders will almost certainly have spent a period of acclimatization before this race. The exact physiology behind the process is quite complex, but it involves increases in plasma volume, which enables more heat loss, increased recruitment of sweat glands, and in a race situation, the perception/sensation of heat is without doubt key as well.

The role of the brain in all this

Then finally, exercise is ultimately regulated by the brain. Whether one makes an athlete exercise in the heat until they are exhausted, or whether it is a race/self-paced situation, exercise in the heat is ultimately limited or regulated by the brain. So for example, if one runs at the SAME SPEED until exhaustion in the heat, the final body temperature is around 40 degrees. It is as if there is an 'off-switch', a point where the brain simply says enough is enough, and stops activating the muscle. And the afore-mentioned Nielsen, with Lars Nybo, have found this in studies. Once the body temperature hits this limit, the activation of muscle by the brain is reduced.

But of course, the Marathon in Osaka will not be a straight out 'run at a certain speed until you stop' affair. There are tactics and the athletes can choose to slow down or speed up depending on the race situation and their own condition and how they feel. So this 'model' of making athletes run or cycle until they simply can't anymore is a little unrealistic. Instead, one must allow exercise to be 'self-paced'. If this is done, then the really interesting thing is that the athlete slows down well before the body temperature can climb. In otherwords, the brain seems to 'anticipate' that there is a chance of overheating, and it causes the athelte to slow down by activating less muscle. The reason this is interesting is because there is no 'textbook' explanation for how it happens, and it is actually disputed. But there is some evidence, both from animals and humans, that it happens. This is certainly something that Jonathan and I (Ross) will cover in the future - we're both into the heat question.

But the point is that the athletes running the marathon will have a constant battle to run faster in the face of physiology that is telling them to slow down. Failing to slow down would cause body temperature to rise, leading to complete exhaustion, as the temperature gets closer and closer to a limit. Listening to the physiology will cause the athlete to slow down, but defend what is called thermal homeostasis. So when you are watching the athletes racing between 32 and 42 km, you're witnessing a real battle of physiology as well as between athletes. And of course, the body size and acclimatization issue are both physiology, which give an advantage to the athlete who has them both.

So enjoy the marathon, it should be a great race, tactical and relatively slow (because of the heat), but real racing.

R & J

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

The IAAF World Championships - a top 4 Preview

The IAAF World Championships take place in Osaka, Japan, starting on August 25th, and that week long event will be a feature of many of our posts over the next few weeks, where we look at the physiology and news coming out of Japan to explain what happens BEHIND the on-track performances.

To begin with, a preview and top 4 list of the four events that are likely to be most interesting, both from a scientific and athletics-enthusiast point of view. So these are the FOUR events we're most looking forward to:

1. Men's 800m - September 2nd

This may well be the most unpredictable track event of the entire Championships. The 800m race is difficult to call at the best of times, but in the last 4 or 5 years, no single athlete has grabbed the event and dominated it in the manner of Kipketer in the late 1990's.

Any one of about 6 men could win this race. Some have unrecognizable names, having been bought by Qatar or Bahrain, having been Kenyans in a former life. South Africans have a special interest in the race, with Mbulaeni Mulaudzi (right) the number 1 ranked 800m runner in the world this year. Any other event, he'd be the favourite, but the 800m is nothing if not unpredictable.

So much of the race is tactical, and the fastest man in the field may well finish last if he positions himself incorrectly with 300m to go. The speed of the race makes it incredibly difficult to check, move around athletes in front and then come past, so tactical errors which go unpunished in any other race are fatal in the 800m.

Physiologically, the 800m race is also one of the most interesting in the sport. We'll feature a detailed description of the physiology closer to the race (2 September), but basically, the race is won over the final 200m by the athlete who slows down the least. This makes it an intriguing contest between strength and speed - speed to finish fast, but strength to maintain speed that might even be less than that of opponents. And Mulaudzi, should he wish to win, will have to move from 300m out, relying on his strength as a 800-1500m runner. In contrast, Olympic Champ Borzakovskiy is a 400m-800m runner, who will be favoured in a slow race.

But again, there are no guarantees, any one could win this race, a possibility borne out by the fact that no runner has won two consecutive 800m races all year! So keep an eye on this one, it will come down to 4, maybe even 5 runners coming off the final bend, and then we'll see whose physiology is most up to the task!

2. Women's 5000m - 1 September

This is an interesting race for two reasons: Meseret Defar and Turinesh Dibaba. These two Ethiopians have dominated the distance for the last 3 years and have featured in some of the most incredible races last season. Women's running has been moved forward by these two, because of their speed over the final lap - never before have women finished a 5000m race with sub-60 second laps, racing one another all the way to the line. But that was a frequent occurence for these two.

This year has been all about Defar - she smashed the 5000m world recrod (admittedly, the old record was suspect) earlier this year and looks in majestic form. But Dibaba hasn't been racing, preferring instead to focus on training back home in Ethiopia. So she may come into the champs with great strength, and who knows what she may be capable of? The 5000m final is likely to be tactical, and in the past, that has usually (but not always) favoured Dibaba's finishing speed, and even then, it's been marginal.

This will be a fascinating race - one potential confounder is that Dibaba is doing the double - 5000 and 10000m, and so it will be interesting to see how she holds up. Fortunately, the races are almost the full week apart, so she should be recoved in time. It will be a great race.

3. Men's 5000m - 2 September

For different reasons, the men's 5000m race is another fascinating contest. Craig Mottram will race the Kenyans, Ethiopians and Qataris in an attempt to become the first non-African to win a major distance title since Dieter Baumann in 1993. It should be a great race, made more interesting by the fact that Bernard Lagat, a 1500m specialist until recently, will be doubling up. Whenever a 1500m runner steps up to the 5000m at a major championships, the rest of the field have a major problem on their hands.

What do they do with a runner who is quite comfortable running 58 seconds a lap over the final 2km? This was the same problem that undid Kenenisa Bekele in the Athens Olympics when he raced El Guerrouj (admittedly, El Guerrouj was a different level of runner compared to Lagat). But that race was incredibly slow for the first 3km, and the final 2km was basically a 1500m strength session - Bekele never stood a chance. So Mottram has the same problem, he must determine how best to shake the man with the ability to race 54 or 55 seconds a lap. That means a fast start, fast middle and fast finish, which will make for an exciting race. Personally, I don't think that Lagat will feature, he's too erratic and not in the greatest form. Also, the 1500m qualifying rounds will take something out of him, whether he recovers remains to be seen.

It's a great shame that Bekele is not running this race, although that would like kill off the race for gold. But if ever he was going to double, this was it. But in his absence, it should be a great battle between Mottram and the Africans.

4. Women's 200m - 31 August

This is another race that is interesting only as a result of the circumstances surrounding it. Under normal circumstances, it would be the usual assortment of American 200m runners taking on the Jamaicans, with the odd Barbadian thrown in. But this year, the 200m race should feature one of the greatest female sprinters in the world, competing at the WRONG distance. Sanya Richards has been all but unbeatable over 400m in the last 3 years - she's won the Golden League jackpot once already, and is on course to do so again this year. ONE race in the last two years went badly, and that was the American qualifying final. She finished fourth and as a result, will NOT compete in the 400m at the World Champs (A great shame for that event)

But plan B was soon initiated, and she qualified for the 200m team instead. Since then, it's clear that she's worked tremendously on her speed. She recently knocked 0.23 seconds off her 100m best time, so it's apparent that she's adjusted the training in preparation for the 200m event. That can only be a good thing for her 400m future, but for World Champs, she should be in the sort of shape to challenge Allyson Felix. Felix, for her part, has also been in great form. In fact, she recently BEAT Richards over 400m, running a PB of her own. Admittedly, it was only two hours after Richards had run the 100m final in Stockholm, but it did demonstrate that Felix is super-strong. So as with the 800m, the 200m will bring together strength vs. speed. The strength of the 400m runner Richards against the speed of Felix, the 100m-200m specialist.

The fascinating thing is that both have been focused on the OTHER attribute in recent times. So we have the strength specialist working on her speed, and the speed specialist working on her strength, and the women's 200m final brings them together in what should be a great clash!

So that's it for our TOP 4 events, but they should all be great to watch. And we'll be sure to bring you the insight and interpretation that you don't get elsewhere, so join us over the next few weeks for IAAF coverage!

R & J

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Beijing 2008 - One year countdown begins - will the AIR be ready?

In a little under a year, the world of sport will descend on Beijing for the 2008 Olympic Games. The Chinese have promised the greatest Games ever, pouring billions of dollars preparing for the Beijing Olympic Games – they’ve built the stadiums, the roads, the venues (often at the expense of the local residents – see this story), well in advance of the Games. But it appears they’re losing the battle on one front – the air.

Last week saw a celebration to mark the start of the one-year countdown to the 2008 Olympic Games and IOC President Jacques Rogge put a dampener on things when he suggested that air pollution could lead to some events at the 2008 Beijing Games being postponed. That’s right, postponed. You can read about this here, here and here:

So having spent all their money on the ground, turns out it’s the air that might undo the plans for the best Olympics ever. Apparently billions have been spent so far (the total budget for cleaning the air is reported at $15 billion): factories have been shut down or relocated, and plans are in place to take one million cars off the road to reduce his problem. They’re even considering banning cars with even and odd-numbered licence plates on alternate days! According to Rogge (and other exercise experts), the endurance events are the ones under scrutiny, including cycling, running, swimming, rowing – anything where the ventilation rate is increased for prolonged periods.

The picture to the right shows a "blue-sky" day (they call it this when the sun is visible - any where else, you'd see blue skies!) on a late morning in Beijing. Not exactly inspiring...

So it will be interesting to see how performances are affected. At the recent IAAF World Junior Championships, held in Beijing in August 2006, there were reports from athletes that the air hurt their performances. But what is the evidence of impaired performance with pollution? Well, firstly, the Beijing concern is not a new one – Los Angeles, Seoul and Athens all had similar concerns, but through campaigns to reduce cars on the road, they were able to overcome any problems, the result being that we’ve never seen the world record holder gasping for air on the side of the track in the 10 000m event! The fear is that China’s massive economic growth will prevent this from happening. The Beijing Committee have however vowed that three pollutants (sulphur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide and carbon monoxide) will be brought to within acceptable limits set by UN World Health Organisation (WHO) guidelines. The density of particulate matter "will reach the level of major cities in developed countries" is their pledge.

There has been some research and scientific discussion of this issue, including reviews around the Athens Games. This review reported that of the main pollutants (ozone, nitrogen dioxide, particulate pollution (called PM10) and carbon monoxide), it was elevated ozone and carbon monoxide concentrations that would be most detrimental.

Symptoms of ozone exposure include cough, chest pain, difficulty in breathing, headache, eye irritation and a decrease in forced expiratory volume in one second. All of these effects are likely to impact upon performance, and several studies of cyclists suggest this to be the case. There appears to be quite a varied response between individuals though, and the other confounding factor is that your Olympic athlete is quite a different physiological ‘machine’ compared to the “normal” athletes who are tested in research trials. So it’s impossible to know with certainty what the effect on performance might be. One argument is that the level of training and physiology makes the Olympians less susceptible to problems, another suggests that they’d be more affected. No one really knows. Athletes with asthma will certainly be holding their breaths though (bad joke alert!)

The problem for competing athletes is that unlike heat and altitude, acclimitization is not really possible to pollution - this is similar to expecting that breathing in poisonous gases will eventually get better if you do it for long enough! The only solution is to limit exposure - you're far better off breathing less of the affected air. Speaking from personal experience, one of the first problems on arriving in a polluted city is that the airways dry up, and the pollutants cause major irritation, and potentially sinus problem. This can interfere with something seemingly trivial - sleep. Only trivial until you can't get any! Also, possible medication must be considered, and we haven't even begun exercise yet! So for athletes in polluted areas, the challenge begins before exercise starts, and then there may be other problems, not yet fully understood.

In response to this threat, Australia and Britain have already changed their approach leading up to the Games. Britian’s swimmers, for example, will only arrive three days (rather than the customary ten) before competition, doing their final preparations in Osaka, Japan.

Australia, for their part, sent their head coaches and some athletes to Beijing to ‘get a taste for the air’, and in response, have appointed an asthma specialist onto their 50-person medical team. They have also announced that most of their 500 athletes will be encouraged to arrive in Beijing a few days before competition, to limit exposure to the polluted air! There is also talk of living in areas with filtered air – obviously a massive expense, within reach of only the wealthier participating nations. Australian Olympic Chief John Coates expressed a lack of confidence that the problem would be rectified by the Games, saying “You won't be seeing too many of our athletes until four or five days before their competition”

Let’s hope this doesn’t detract from the Games and the atmosphere (the good kind!), and most of all, the performances! But we’ll keep you posted and informed of any research, figures and science as it emerges!

R & J

Friday, August 10, 2007

SA athletics on trial: The verdict is...

In response to our last two athletics posts on Sipho Ngomane and Alistair Cragg, we’ve received some quite good questions and comments from people who, like us, share the frustration at the state of the sport in South Africa. So this post is a response and comment, which we thought would be good as a stand-alone article.

Are the Ultras to Blame?

The first comment that we received is that the Ultra-marathon culture in SA (focus heavily on Two Oceans 56km and Comrades 90km) is to blame. And that politics and bad admin are also culprits. Agreed on all three, but one must be cautious to criticize the ultra-culture, because ultimately, it’s still a running culture, and that will bring young athletes into the sport. The key is managing those athletes and the ultra-situation better.

I think that Comrades and Oceans are the unfortunate "vehicle" for the greedy agents and coaches to exploit athletes. They are not directly to blame – in fact, as mentioned above, I’m quite sure that many young (under 12) runners take up the sport because they see elders doing these events. So they do help. But managing the people around them is what is missing. In my view, the biggest blame must be placed on the coaches and administrators. An example of this, I think that the structures around the Harmony running club, with Nick Bester on management, is doing huge damage to SA’s running future. I don’t wish to single one group out, but it’s quite clear that in the last 3 years, they’ve found a niche and been riding a wave of success at the expense of the athlete’s best interests (physiologically speaking). That is not to say they are unique, there are others, but it is an important illustration of the problem. Bester is the head guy at Harmony and he basically hunts down the likes of Ngomane and turns them into Ultra runners. I don't even need to mention the fact that the Harmony club had one of the highest positive drug test rates in the world about two years ago - how do dirt-poor African runners, who could not even afford shoes, suddenly begin to afford expensive steroids? One possible answer is that they are given to them by managers and agents who are perhaps making 15 to 20% of the athlete's earnings.

I would love to know how the money flows once it is in the athlete's hands after a big race with a fat payout. A classic model says that the agent takes 10 to 20%, so conservatively, go at about 10%. So at a race like Comrades, where the top 10 are probably sharing in prize money of about R500 000, the agent is probably making R50 000 off the men and women, each. Do that at three or four events per year, and you’ve got a pretty good financial reason to take a 10km runner into the ultra distances. This creates a perverse incentive to exploit talent, and ultimately drives the situation we see today, and which was described in that post on Sipho Ngomane.

The biggest contributor off all then, is that the coaches and clubs don’t look after the interests of the athlete as they should. The only reason this can happen (which makes it doubly shameful) is that South Africa has so much distance running talent, that when at athlete is burned out and stale aged 26, he’s easily replaced by the next one! So the wealth of talent facilitates its wastage!

Administrator neglect

So that's the first problem. The second is incompetence and neglect on the part of administrators and coaches, which you've touched on. Given that situation, the sports administrators could still step in and stop it from happening, by beating the vultures to the punch and getting those talented athletes first. But they don't, for whatever reason - ignorance, laziness, who knows? I think they are not incentivized correctly. I recall that recently, our SA junior team of about 50 athletes went to world junior championships and returned with one single medal and only about 4 finallists. And the CEO of Athletics South Africa said it was a successful trip! In my opinion, people should have faced investigations and salary penalties, it was so poor. But the end result for the poor athlete on the ground is that he has little alternative than to race marathons, because that is where the administrators are putting the sponsor’s money. And the socio-economic situation in SA drives them to compete as a means for survival.

Now the problem is that the calendar for racing in SA is year-round. This means that a decent athlete can basically run every weekend, or every second week. What this prevents is a period of dedicated training, where the athlete and coach can systematically build up and work at specific aspects of running. One of the key advantages that Alistair Cragg had by leaving was that he entered into a competition structure that facilitates proper training – periods of base, periods of high quality, periods of taper and periods of racing. In South Africa, none of this happens, because there’s no formalized structure for racing. The administrators could fix this, by creating a 5km and 10km season that is NOT year round, but spread over perhaps 2 or 3 months only.

What about the sponsors?

When talking about sponsors, you have to make a distinction. There are event sponsors, and there are club sponsors. Event sponsors put up the money for Comrades, Two Oceans and so on. I don't really blame these sponsors, because SA is a market that is so heavily dominated by ultras. And the sponsor's main interest is in awareness and exposure, so naturally, they will go for the comrades, the Oceans and the marathons. The 5km and 10km races are far less attractive - the cost of putting on a 5km or 10km race is also disproportionately more than a marathon, because you still have certain 'fixed costs' that can't be scaled down for the shorter event (advertising, salaries, venue hire etc.). So the shorter event, lasting maybe 2 hours, might still cost 70% of an event lasting 12 hours. And then added to this, the revenue you make off a 10km event is much lower – smaller fields, smaller entry fees, less time on TV etc. So it's disproportionately expensive as a result. And of course, the "value" of the competitors is so much higher in Two Oceans and Comrades - 10km races, which cost maybe R10 to R20 to enter, will attract a different population who aren't as "lucrative" as the guys who spend maybe R3000 on Comrades (travel, entry, equipment, accommodation etc.). So from a business point of view, I can understand the desire to put the money into marathons and longer.

The club sponsors, that’s another story. Here, a sponsor, or group, will fund a specific club, with funding directly linked to performance (sometimes the sponsor even CREATES the club). In other words, there is immediate pressure on the club to produce top ten results, preferably victories. Now you have this situation where money is attracting athletes, and then driving them to perform. That’s not necessarily bad, but as we’ve seen above, can lead to problems. And in South Africa, whether it’s wilful or ignorant, your typical sponsor does NOT say “this runner is an investment for us and you are running him dry. . .". In fact, they encourage this, because it provides them with returns. Short term, yes, but they only see the return. So the club sponsors are certainly culpable in this process, they provide the financial muscle to actually entice the athletes and then hold them to ransom.

The solution

It would be great if someone took the situation by the horns and created some sort of structure where athletes could live without racing. And block the Harmony Golds of the world from getting guys to race when they should not. This would take administrators with a vision, sponsors with some courage and foresight, not to mention patience, and then professionals to run the system. That would be fantastic, and perhaps some day it will happen. Until then, the solution is to educate everyone on the ground. If all the clubs had a few guys who knew this kind of thing and knew where to get the right advice and help, then those talented athletes would stand a better chance of getting good advice. It's not the answer, I'll admit that, but imagine just 50 more educated fellow runners, giving the right guidance to those who have the talent they might not have! That's possibly 250 more athletes per year who'd receive some good advice, and who knows what could come of it? But ultimately, funding has to step in and pull these guys away from the Ultras, at least until later. If anyone with a couple million to spend reads this, email us!!!! Seriously, though, it needs vision and foresight and money and I’m quite sure we’d return to competitive athletics very easily.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

South Africa's long distance failure - what should be done?

In two previous posts, we have looked at how the marathon distance has been redefined by the cross-over of a group of speed merchants from the track, and then be the increased emphasis on the speed that is fundamental to success, even over the marathon distance.

And I was bemoaning the fact that South African men, with the exception of Hendrik Ramala, appear to be slipping gradually off the face of the world road-running map. So this is a somewhat "patriotic" post, dealing with a South African problem, but I'm very sure it's not exclusive to SA, and that where ever in the world you are reading this, you will be able to relate in some form.

So here's the problem - in the last three or four years, South Africa's best male marathon runners are slower than the best women in the world. And I do not mean this in a chauvanistic manner at all, but I use this fact to illustrate that a once proud marathon nation (Olympic Champion in Josia Thugwane, three or four marathon runners in the top 10 every year, New York Champion, one of the most consistent marathon runners in history in Gert Thys), have fallen badly off the bus. Most South Africa men are now only suitable to run as pacemakers in second string races overseas, and there is only really one remaining ambassador for our marathon heritage - Hendrik Ramala.

On the track, the situation is not much better. How bad? Well, our national 5000 m record is SLOWER than the world record pace for the 10000m - 13:14 for the SA record, Bekele's average split in his 10km WR is 13:09 (and you know the second half is faster!). I realise this might be the case in many countries, but South Africa could (and should) be producing competitive runners - we've shown the capabilities to race against the East Africans, and we really should still be up there. It's not for a lack of talent, as I'll illustrate later.

And sadly, the case among the women is not much better. A women's time of 34 minutes over 10km is hailed as a breakthrough in SA, and would win almost all the local races. We have become a nation that celebrates mediocrity.

The problem is, as referred to in a previous post, we almost encourage mediocrity. As soon as a talented female runs 34 minutes (usually they are about 16 years old and have been running for 6 months, such is the level of talent we have), she is encouraged to move up to 21km, and not long after, the marathon. As a result, she runs a mediocre marathon, perhaps 2h45, and wins some prize money there. Next year, as soon as the next 16 year old arrives on the scence, she's replaced and fades into obscurity. The lucky ones remain mediocre, running 34 minutes for the rest of their careers.

The case of Sipho Ngomane: How talent is killed in SA

Take the case of Sipho Ngomane (shown left), for example. Here is a guy who at the age of 21, ran a 63 minute half marathon. He was 'identified' as talented by Harmony Running Club (a big club in SA) and in the year he was 23 (2005), he had the following racing schedule:

Feb - SA Marathon Champs 42 km, finished 2nd
March - Mpumulanga Marathon Champs, finished 1st
March - Two Oceans Ultra-Marathon 56km, finished 2nd
June - Comrades Ultra-Marathon 90km, finished 1st
July - South African Half Marathon champs, position unknown

So between Feb and July, in the space of six months, a 23 year old with speed to run 63 minutes or faster ended up racing 2 marathons, 2 ultra marathons and a half marathon! What a waste of talent! And the sad thing is that people still claim he is a force on the SA road running scence. This is an athlete who, aged 25 (currently), should be racing in New York against Haile G and co., running 61 minutes or faster for the 21km distance. By about 2010, when he is 28, shift him up to the marathon, where he would run sub-2:08 quite comfortably with the right guidance, and perhaps by about 2016, when he is 34 years old, he's the guy to win the Comrades in a record time.

Instead, he spent 2006 injured (no wonder, considering what he did in 2005) and then in 2007, has been running mediocre (around 2:18 to 2:20) marathons, but came top 10 in both Two Oceans and Comrades and so everyone celebrates. And a certain Harmony Gold manager claims a nice bonus as commission on prize money!

The administrative problem

I hope this frustrates you - it certainly bothers me to see a guy who clearly has immense talent being relegated to racing for scraps over ultra-marathons, while SA sits and watches its history erode. And the solution is simple - prevent these guys from racing ultras like this. Stop the greedy agents from exploiting talent (the only reason they can exploit this talent, by the way, is that there is so much around - the reason no one cares about Sipho Ngomane is because there is another athlete just like him to take his place in 2007, and there will be another in 2008) and start getting qualified coaches and managers to guide these guys to better times.

If this seems obvious to you, then consider with disbelief what Athletics South Africa did (they are the governing federation for running in SA). They signed a sponsorship worth R85 million over 6 years to create a marathon and 20km racing league across South Africa. So instead of preventing over-racing, they encourage it, by putting even more money at the top end. The money drives the agents and it entices the athletes to abandon track and cross country, neglect their speed foundation and race over 90km instead.

And of course, there are factors at play here other than simple science and common sense - I know the business of sport - but that money, even R2 million of it - could have been used to identify the best athletes over 5km and 10km, and then instead of ploughing it into letting them race over shorter distances, set up a structure where they are paid NOT to race, except at strategic times decided on by a coach. This would ensure that young talent is given every opportunity to succeed, and in the long term, the prospects of $50 000 prize money at a Half-marathon in New York would make the return on this investment well worth it for the athlete.

But administrators, agents and "coaches" are bleeding the life out of talented SA runners, and until this stops, I'm afraid Hendrik Ramala is destined to be the last great SA runner...

The interesting thing to finish off is that a similar thing is happening in Kenya, where agents and scouts descend like vultures and pick up the talent. Kenya, more than any other nation, seems to have an inexhaustible supply of running talent. But unfortunately, it's heading the way of SA, and that's something we'll look at in a future post, with the World Champs coming up.

See you soon!
R & J