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Thursday, April 10, 2008

London Marathon 2008 - Will it be a close finish?

Tight races are part of marathon history

The weather looks to be cooperating for Sunday's racing, and we know from our previous post on London 2008 that the optimal range for fast times is 5-15 C. With the field that Dave Bedford and team have assembled year after year, a close race seems on the cards regardless of the weather, especially because it seems over the last several years that the racing has become extremely close as many of the big-city marathons come down the final sprint. Two or more runners sprinting (and diving, in one case!) for the line after 42.2 km of racing makes for incredible drama, but is this a new phenomena?

The famous duels

Perhaps the most notable and widely known close finish was the 1982 Boston Marathon in which Alberto Salazar beat Dick Beardsley by just two seconds while setting a new course record of 2:08:51. It became known as "The Duel in the Sun". The two American running icons raced stride for stride until the last stretch, and Salazar famously sat on Beardsley's heels until making a late move with 800 m to go. It appeared to be decisive, but Beardsley came charging back, only to to be apparently thwarted by a motorcycle cop down the twisty stretch. It makes for absolutely incredible viewing, enhanced by the music the YouTube poster added! (NB: this is a nine minute video, but well worth watching if you have never seen it).

But what of all the other big races over the years? Normally we think of the marathon as a race of attrition as pace setters do their job and one by one the pack thins until the winner is left to solo home over the last few kilometers. However an examination of just Berlin, Boston, NYC, and Chicago shows that close finishes occur quite frequently. As the archives are limited, we have examined only these races and only back 10 or so years for Chicago and London. Yet out of the approximately 100 races we have analyzed, 25% have been decided by 10 seconds or less, fully one quarter of the finishes!

So the close finishes are not a recent development with better training techniques or even more competitive fields. In fact just one year before the Duel in the Sun in 1982, Beardsley finished in a dead heat with Inge Simonsen at the inaugural London Marathon, and later in 1982 Salazar won New York by beating Rodolfo Gomez by just four seconds.

Let's then take a a look at exactly when and where the close finishes have occurred over the past 25+ years of racing. The races have been sorted according to the difference between first and second, and you can click on the graph for a larger view.

Admittedly, in marathon running 10 seconds is actually not that close, but we needed to set the cut-off somewhere, and figured that a winning (or losing!) margin of 10 s meant that at least the top two finishers were likely together until the final five minutes. Of course when you start talking about five seconds or less then it means that the top two were probably together until the last 400 m or less.

The big "winners" in this situation are actually the fans. This kind of racing cannot be more dramatic, and if you still have not clicked to watch the Salazar/Beardsley finish, if you do so now you will understand. To see two runners battling it out stride for stride after 40+ km of racing really makes for good television.

For those who missed the finish of Chicago last year it was equally as suspenseful as the "Duel in the Sun" between Salazar and Beardsley. In that race, Jaouad Gharib and Patrick Ivuti were together until perhaps one mile to go. Gharib put in what appeared to be a decisive move, but Ivuti refused to roll over. He came charging back, and was level with less than 400 m to go. Again, Gharib surges, and opens a 2-3 m gap on Ivuti. Surely that was the winning move? Watch below in case you did not see it:

The really interesting thing is that a few runners in this analysis have found themselves repeatedly in very tight races. Notable among them is Paul Tergat, who lost to Khannouchi by 11 s in London 2002 and lost to Ben Kimondiu by four seconds in Chicago 2001, and just barely beat his pace setter Sammy Korir in Berlin 2003 and Hendrik Ramaala in New York 2005---the latter a race that officially was decided by less than one second!

London 2008 - Another close finish?

We have said it now many times, but again, it is a legendary field lining up for the marathon on Sunday. Can we expect a photo finish? According to our analysis, London has twice been decided by less than one second (1981, Beardsley vs. Simonsen, and 2003, Abera vs. Baldini) and once by 11 s (Khannouchi vs. Tergat). Also, it should be noted that in the 2003 race Joseph Ngolepus was breathing down Baldini's neck, finishing only one second later, followed by Paul Tergat only two seconds later!

Given so much money on the line, London normally shapes up to be a tactical duel among the big dogs of the sport. In short, it is marathon racing at its best, and given the field for Sunday it should be no different. Here's hoping for a dramatic finish down the stretch.

Join us again tomorrow for the full preview and our predictions for the big day!


Anonymous said...

The Duel in the Sun was an epic race!
If you want to read more check this great write-up by Hal Higdon:
You can also read this book:
Of course as you understand I am slightly nuts about this race.


Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi George, and thanks for your comment.

Yes, that race was indeed epic. It is a must see for any runner/running fan, as the sight of two of US running's icons going toe-to-toe is moving footage.

Thanks for posting the link to the book, anyone else can also find it on the main Science of Sport page in one of the side columns.

Here's to an exciting race on Sunday!

Kind Regards,

Ashish M said...

Interesting blog - is it available as an RSS feed?

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi Ashish

Thanks for your interest. You certainly can subscribe - the link for the RSS feed subscription should appear in the address bar of your browser up top.

Alternatively, you can subscribe and receive an email every time we do an article - if you click on the link on the top left of the page, you'll be able to do this. You just enter your email address, you verify it, and you'll get an email every time we update - no strings attached.

Hope one of these two options works for you.