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Saturday, March 29, 2008

World X-Country champs

Bekele vs. Tadese: A world championship rematch from Edinburgh - bet on Bekele...

The famous Holyrood Palace in Edinburgh is the backdrop for a great rematch over the country tomorrow - Bekele vs. Tadese. For IAAF previews of the racing action, click the links below. My prediction follows that in the text...

Men's Race
Women's Race

In 2007, in oppressive heat and humidity in Mombasa, Bekele, the greatest X-country runner in history (according to titles), was dethroned amidst a cauldron of thousands of Kenyans who reserved the biggest cheer of the day for when they heard the news that Bekele, so often the conqueror of their athletes, had dropped out of the race.

His DNF left the way open for Zersenay Tadese of Eritrea to claim the title - it was the first time since 2002 that anyone other than Bekele had stood atop the victory podium at a World X-country race.

Recent form and matchups

Since then, the two have raced each other, so it's probably not entirely accurate to call this the long awaited rematch. First, Bekele defended his 10,000m title in Osaka, though he was pushed all the way by his team-mate, Sileshi Sihine. Tadese was disappointing in that race, finishing only 4th. And then about 2 months ago, Bekele and Tadese met over the country. That race was also in Ediburgh, over the same terrain as tomorrow's race will be.

And it is this race that gives the strongest indication of the likely result come Sunday afternoon. For on that day, it was Bekele who triumphed, by a slender margin of 1 second, though it did appear that he had something in reserve.

Tadese, for his part, has been a little up and down since Mombasa last year. There was the disappointing performance in Osaka, but that was followed up by a dominant performance in the World Half Marathon championships. Tadese is one of my favourite runners - he got a lot of coverage here last year when results were released suggesting that he might be the most economical runner ever tested. His use of oxygen was a remarkable 150ml/kg/km, compared to the "usual" value which is closer to 200ml/kg/km. The race in Beijing later this year, where heat and humidity are likely to factor in, may be a great race if he arrives on form.

This year, he was beaten by Bekele in Ediburgh, and then just over a week later, beaten by a young Ugandan, who is also a name to look out for tomorrow - Moses Kipsiro. In recent years, Uganda has finally begun to dip into the talent pool it clearly has. If you look on a map of East Africa, you'll see that Uganda, Kenya and Ethiopia all converge in a tiny triangle where many of the great athletes of the past have emerged from. If genes play a role (which I think most will acknowledge they surely do), then Uganda could well produce many more athletes like Kipsiro, and his comptratiot Boniface Kiprop, in future years.

But back to Tadese, he's clearly got the credentials to push Bekele, but whether that is enough to win what is one of the most competitive races in the world, remains to be seen. A lot will depend on Tadese's tactics, and also how the Kenyans and Ugandans get involved in the skirmish at the front.

How will the race unfold? Race tactics

While all the attention is on Bekele vs Tadese, the outcome and pattern of the race may well be decided by Kenyan tactics. I think one can safely assume the weather won't affect the race like it did last year - snow storms and cold fronts have reduced temperatures in Edinburgh to the low single digits. That will certainly favour Bekele...

As for tactics, in last year's 10,000m final, it was Martin Mathati of Kenya who set the race up by attacking Bekele and Sihine with three laps remaining. That move actually created gaps between himself, Sihine and Bekele. Bekele was, for a brief moment, hanging on. At one point, Mathati gestured to Sihine to come past and help with the pace setting. Sihine did not respond, and Bekele was able to hang on in third, until the final lap. The bell came soon enough, and a 55-second final lap gave him a victory that appeared more comfortable than it really was. And had Mathati or Sihine been able to lift the pace even slightly more, those gaps may have become too large to claw back, even with Bekele's huge kick ability.

So on Sunday in Edinburgh, if I were the coach of the Kenyan team I would be sending "domestiques" (to borrow a cycling term) out to the front from the start to keep the pace high. It's difficult to know what kind of shape Bekele has - he's done an 8km cross-country race, and an indoor 2-mile race where he broke the world record - again, the speed is no problem. If there is any chance that he is "thin" on distance work and endurance, then the only way to exploit it is to force him to run fast for long. Of course, the problem is, the high pace is just as likely to favour Bekele - he is after all the world record holder, so no one can run faster for longer than him! However, this tactic is really all the Kenyans have - they surely cannot hope to survive at the back of the race when Bekele kicks.

All the while, Tadese will enjoy the fast pace. His asset is without doubt endurance and strength - the 21km runner coming down in distance. Bekele, on the other hand, while a great distance runner, has seemed to focus much more on speed in recent times. He had something of a bizarre year in 2007 - after his loss in Mombasa, he spoke of having "lost all his strength". He then returned to the track and raced ONLY 3000m, setting new PBs and winning easily. After the 10,000m in Osaka, he tried and failed for a 10,000m record, where he really did seem to be below par. And then he promptly ran more PBs at 1500 and 3000m, pointing again to an emphasis on shorter, faster training.

So his strategy seems to have been to go shorter. I'm not sure whether that is in response to his failure in Mombasa, or whether it was done for variety. The result of this, however, is that none of the other athletes in Sunday's race can afford to let the pace drift at all, for if they are together with less than 1km to go, and the pace has been anything but high, Bekele will win comfortably.

The best race for the likes of Tadese is if the Kenyans take up the pace, keep it high, and then he can attack off that fast pace, with perhaps 2km to go. I still think he'll end up second best to Bekele, but this is really his only chance of defending.


So, my prediction for the race on Sunday:

  1. Bekele
  2. Tadese (about 2 seconds behind, after fighting gallantly, taking the lead with 2km to go, but being dropped about 300m from the finish)
  3. Moses Kipsiro, a good 15 seconds behind. Dropped when Tadese lifted the pace at 10km
  4. Gideon Ngatuny, Kenya's biggest hope. He'll finish with Kipsiro.
  5. Sileshi Sihine, who hasn't raced a great deal this year, and may well be more focused on the Olympic Games and his efforts to add a gold to his amazing collection of silvers.
And then one last prediction - Craig Mottram, of Australia, will be racing on Sunday, and much hype is made whenever he runs, because he's probably the only non-African (excluding the legion of "Qataris") who is a challenger in this big races. His best World X-Country finish is 13th, and the reality is that he is likely to fighting out for about that position again. Maybe, on a great day, he'll slip into the top 10. But if the race is attritional and aggressive from the start, he'll be just outside.

So those are my picks - come Monday, we'll see how many are correct!

Enjoy the racing!


P.S. Another big event this weekend is the Oxford-Cambridge Boat race, where the Oxford (dark) blues take on the Cambridge (light) blues for the 154th time! The first ever race was held in 1829, and with a few interruptions due to Wars, has become on the big events on the annual calendar.

Cambridge are the defending champions, and this year, are favoured to win again, despite having a lighter crew.

One interesting aside is that the bookmakers are giving pretty good odds for a boat to sink, courtesy the weather! Hopefully that does not happen, and the race is more like the 2003 event, where Oxford edged it by one foot, in the closest winning margin ever. There was once a dead heat, but that was in 1877, when photo-finishes didn't exist! You can read more about the fascinating history of the race at the Official race site.

Rowing is not a sport we've covered much here, primarily because it's under-researched, particularly here in South Africa. However, this being an Olympic year, rowing will certainly merit a few posts!

Enjoy the action!


Anonymous said...

It's Holyrood Palace in Holyrood Park

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

You're quite right - apologies. I don't even know where I got the "brook" part of the name from!

Change made!


Anonymous said...

Not a problem. I live right next to the park. Unfortunately, I'm on the west coast of Canada at the moment so wont even get to see the races :(

MarkyV said...

One more to add to the fray...

TYR Rise

Touched it. Felt it. Marveled at it.