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Saturday, April 12, 2008

London Marathon Preview

Our crystal ball: London Marathon preview: Majestic Martin to make it three out of three

Tomorrow sees the year's biggest marathon in London - well, OK, I'll concede that the Olympic Marathon later this year in Beijing may have more significance this year, but London brings together what is arguably a stronger field - no limits of three athletes per country, for example.

About a week ago, we took a look at the men's field, and it seems that every year, London's organizers outdo themselves by bringing together the very best in the world. Since about 2002, London has brought together the top 10 marathon runners, with only a few exceptions - this year, it's a big name, Haile Gebrselassie, who opted to run in Dubai earlier this year, and will probably race Berlin later this year (which may well be the real reason he's opted out of Beijing, but that's another story altogether!).

But the rest are all there - Martin Lel, the greatest marathoner in the world at the moment in a competitive race, a majestic runner who I believe will win the race on Sunday, despite the problems he's faced in recent months back in Kenya. In fact, the Kenyan violence got so bad that he had to leave his normal training base and travel to Namibia in order to train. Just how this will affect him on Sunday is anyone's guess - my personal take is that Lel has, over the last 3 years, proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that he is the best in the world at getting it right on the day.

This of course, is what sets Lel apart - physiologically, the margins for error in the marathon are so small, and so much can go wrong on the day - any number of factors can derail even the best training. But Lel has put together a string of performances over the last 3 years that no other runner in the world can match.

He won London in 2005, was 2nd in 2006, won it in 2007, and went on to win New York last year as well. His explosive finishing speed - 63 seconds for the final 400m in New York - is unmatched in the field, and he also has the ability to run fast - a 2:06:41 PB, but more significant, a string of 60min half marathons, including last year's Great North Run, where he comfortably dismissed Sammy Wanjiru, who is a 58-something 21km runner!

So Lel has every weapon he needs, on the day, to win this race and make it three big wins in a row - London, New York and London again. Gebrselassie is the best time-trialler in the world, but in a race, I'd back Lel every time. The only lingering doubt is his fitness thanks to the violence in Kenya, and of course, there's the small matter of the rest of the field....!

The competition - names to look out for

Lel certainly will not defend his crown without an effort. Also in the field are (in order of my picks for the race):

Sammy Wanjiru of Kenya, Abderrahim Goumri of Morocco, Felix Limo of Kenya, and Ryan Hall of the USA. And that's not even mentioning any of the "dark horses" in the event, including Luke Kibet (world champion, but only 11th fastest in the field with 2:08:52 - that's how good the field is)and Emmanuel Mutai (2:06:29 marathon last year, 2nd only to Gebrselassie on the rankings).

I believe that Sammy Wanjiru has the best shot at challenging Lel - his 21km credentials stand out, even in this field, and given that the race is likely to be fast, though not WR pace I don't think, he'll be a factor. He also has a 2:06 debut last year in Fukuoka, and will certainly go on to win a Major race in the next 2 years. Whether it will be Sunday, who knows?

Goumri of Morocco must be sick of the sight of the back of Martin Lel. He's run two marathons, and Lel has beaten him twice, first in London, then in New York. In New York, Lel was so spectacular that he put a nine second gap onto Goumri in about 300m, and so Goumri may be the man who has to force the pace from 38km, because he's twice been burned by Lel, and will also be concerned about Limo and particularly Wanjiru. Goumri will therefore be a major player in race strategy - he'll take it up with 5km to go, and he will feature for a podium, but won't quite win it. He'll have to wait another race for that to come around.

Felix Limo of Kenya has a CV that no other runner can quite match, with the exception of Lel. He won Berlin in 2004, then went on to win Chicago and London in 2005, so like Lel, has shown the ability to get it right on the day. He also came third in London last year, and I believe he'll feature in the top 5. What counts against him is the violence in Kenya, which disrupted his preparations as well, and then the fact that he might not quite have the sharpness in the final 5 km, where this race will be won and lost.

Ryan Hall of the USA is an interesting one - the great hope of the "non-African" world, he's on the up - a 2:08 debut in London last year to finish 7th was followed by a mighty impressive win in the US Trials in New York. That day, he ran the second half in 1:03, to finish in 2:09, so he has the ability to sustain high pace on the second half. His coach believes he could win (obviously), and he's certainly going to feature, but I don't think he will quite have the quality in the final 5km to match the racing that is likely to be going on. Expect a top 5, but not a podium. His biggest contribution will be that he takes the pace up from 32km, when the pace-setters drop out. All the tactically-savvy, thoroughbred-racing Kenyans will be watching each other, and Hall and the Moroccans will press on.

How the race will unfold - a bit of fun with the predictions of tactics

Will we see a world record on Sunday? Don't bet on it. The paradox is that as you increase the strength of the field, the chance of a record actually falls. Too many great runners, (and great racers), and a situation will develop where they are all watching one another. Why make a move at 35 km to keep the pace at 2:57/km when all you'll do is pull any one of the seven men behind you to the finish line, where they'll outkick you? That's the logic, and it will mean that the time is more likely to be in the mid-2:05 range. Still incredibly fast, but not world record pace.

We've already seen that the weather should not pose too much of a problem, apart from a chance of some wind. But I think it's safe to say that the first half will be run in 62:40. That's close to what the pace-setters are reportedly being asked to run - 62:30. And in a marathon, it's unlikely they won't hit that pretty accurately - too much opportunity for feedback to regulate it, so don't expect a halfway split too far off that.

Now, once they go through halfway, then the racing still won't begin, until the pace-setters drop out. We've seen in Berlin and also in Paris that the pace-makers made it to 30km, and I expect the same on Sunday. So it's at 30km that the real "race" begins. I'd guess we're looking at a time of about 89:30 at 30km - the pace will slow from 21 km to 30km, because no one will want to push the pacemakers faster, and none of the super-elite will move this early. So this 9km stretch will see a drop in pace, as a big group of perhaps 10 to 15 athletes bunch together, waiting for the racing to start.

The real race - from 30km onwards

That will happen at 30km, but the pace will remain relatively slow - just outside 3min/km, and this period will see the predicted finishing time fall from 2:05:20 (at halfway) to about 2:06.

Then, at 35km, someone with itchy legs will make a move. My guess is that it will be Ryan Hall, because guys like Lel, Limo and Wanjiru have no reason to want to press on - they are thoroughbred racers and have more than enough reason to believe in their finishing ability. So Hall to take the pace from 35km, for about 3km, where the pace may drop below 3min/km again. But then at 38km, I predict Goumri to take it up, and really push hard - expect a 2:51 kilometer at this point.

Goumri, who has a 5km PB of 12:50, has run two marathons and been outsprinted twice - it's the only memory he has of the marathon! So he'll go early, in an attempt to shake off the Lels and Wanjirus. It won't work. He'll succeed in splitting a group of about 8, and it will drop to perhaps 4 (Felix Limo is the other one). However, in the final 2 km, the race will settle again, as everyone realizes we're going to be on for a race down Birdcage walk - see the video of last year's race below, for a taster of what to expect on Sunday!

And then, with 400m to go, Lel hits the front, 63 second 400m credentials come through, and he wins. While I'm having fun predicting the future, I'll call the winning time - 2:05:43. The last 7km have been covered in a shade over 20 minutes (2:52/km), and Martin Lel wins the London Marathon again, confirming that he's the best racer in the world!

Conclusion - the unpredictablity of the marathon

That's my guess for what will happen, but who knows? The beauty of sport is that it invites speculation, and my "educated" (can one ever be this when predicting the marathon?) says this is how the race will unfold - Hall, Goumri and Lel will create the strategy out of necessity and the fact that they'll play to their strengths.

Of course, I might, and probably will be, completely wrong! If so, I'll humbly eat my words and invoke the escape clause - "The marathon is unpredictable!" The big mystery remains the Kenyans and their preparation given the sad violence in their country. Time will tell!

Until then, enjoy the video below, which shows highlights of last year's spectacular finish. Let's hope that we at least get the same! I suspect we will...

And then do join us for the post-race analysis - the split times will go up almost instantly after the finish on Sunday, and more detailed discussion to follow - the why? and how? to the What happened?


P.S. If you can't watch the race on TV, for whatever reason, check out WCSN for a feed! They do a great job of covering this (and other) sports events.


bryan said...

Wow! Absolutely amazing predictions. I have to admit I didn't put much thought into mine, but I was pretty happy with it:

Yours, however, were spot on! Well done!

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi Bryan

Thanks for the comment! I must say, I think the trick in predicting is to be vague enough that no matter what happens, it looks precise and "visionary"! I was quite amazed that I got 1,2,3, and 5 in the right place. And more amazed that my second half prediction was 63:03 - the actual time was 63:03! So that's freakish, but more luck than anything else, I must confess!

Who'd predict the marathon! It was just a bit of a fun post in the end. There was more chance of being completely wrong than being half right! So just a lucky guess or two!

Though when I read your predictions, I see you had Lel, Waniru and Hall all in the race, and your prediction for Hall was 3 seconds off, so that's a fabulous piece of crystal ball work!


bryan said...

See, I know my predictions were luck because I know how much thought I put into it: enough thought to write three lines in my blog.

Now you, on the other hand, are surely omniscient. Or a wizard. An omniscient wizard?

You guys have a great blog. I haven't commented much, but I definitely check it out all the time. Keep up the great work.