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Monday, April 20, 2009

Boston Marathon 2009: Post-race analysis

Boston dissected: More detailed insights

The 113th Boston Marathon produced an Ethiopian and a Kenyan champion, with Deriba Merga claiming the men's title in 2:08:42, and Salina Kosgei winning a slow women's race in 2:32:16. The initial analysis is in the post below this one (you can scroll down either on the page or your email to see it), but I'm going to repeat the same tables here, for a complete "one-stop" overview of the race. That's followed by some discussing points from the race.

Overall summary: Men

The men's race promised much, and it has to be said, delivered something quite different. It was no less intriguing, particularly for how it developed, with Ryan Hall of the USA, the big local favourite, taking on the early pace with an aggressive front-running effort. That was a surprise, as was the way the race unfolded after halfway was reached in 63:39. That time by itself is not bad, but the race was getting slower and slower (see the graph below) and was ripe for the surges and small attacks that began soon after.

In the buildup to the race, it was Hall against Robert Cheruiyot, a three-time winner going for four in a row. Throw in another Cheruiyot, Evans, and Deriba Merga, the aggressive front-runner from Ethiopia, and you had a great men's race. In the end, only two of the big favourites featured much beyond the 30km mark.

It was at 28km that Merga made the decisive move, and broke away. At first, Hall was one of the slowest to respond, and he looked well out of it. But he clawed his way back, as Evans and Robert Cheruiyot began to fade. Earlier, surges and counter-surges had become the race strategy, as various men took the lead for short periods. But Merga at 28km was the decisive move, and he and Daniel Rono broke clear.

Merga pressed on to crest Heartbreak Hill with a fairly sizable lead, while Hall fought his way back through the field to have Daniel Rono in his sights. In the end though, they would finish in that order, Merga running out a surprisingly comfortable winner over Rono (50 seconds) with Hall 8 seconds further back.

It was the size of the victory, and the manner with which it was achieved, that was so surprising. In a race that many felt was too close to call beforehand, to have such a decisive move so far out was certainly unexpected, at least by me.

As for Hall, third is not failure, but he will be disappointed (as would anyone who'd spent months focusing on a win). He will no doubt attract some attention for his race tactics, where he went straight to the front, from the first moment, and drove the early pace (more on this later). It will be interesting to hear how he himself assesses the race, given that he beat many of the great Kenyans like the Cheruiyots, but lost out to a hard-running Merga and also Rono, who felt the heat from behind as Hall was surging to the line behind him.

More on that in a moment, but here are the splits from the race, this time in graphic form. The table (and comments from in the race) are shown below that. Note the pretty large positive split - 63:39 to halfway, and the second half was covered in 65:03 (by Merga, others were 66 minutes or slower). The wind certainly played its part in that, but overall, a lot slower than I certainly thought it would be.


Women's race: Overall summary

The women's race was, well, pretty peculiar. The early pace was slow - 10km in 37:06, which projected a 2:36 marathon time. The pace in the middle was slow - halfway was reached in 1:18:12, still projecting 2:36. Then at 35km, it was still slow - projected time of 2:35:15.

Finally, with about 7km to go, the pace opened up, and the 5km interval between 35 and 40km was covered in 16:22. That was largely thanks to Kara Goucher, who took a big group and managed to whittle it down to only four women. That large group had previously been led by Colleen de Reuck, formerly of SA, now living in Boulder, at the age of 45.

Goucher's front-running efforts shed everyone except Dire Tune, Salina Kosgei and Bezenesh Bekele. Eventually, with about 2km to go, Bekele was gone as well, and the other big American hope for a home-town win was left fighting it out with Kosgei and Tune. For Tune, it was familiar territory - a year ago, on the same Boston streets, she'd raced for the line against Alevtina Biktimirova, winning by two seconds.

By the time the final bend had been completed, Goucher's race was run, as she'd dropped off by 5m, despite working so hard to stay in touch. Tune and Kosgei then raced neck and neck down the final few hundred meters in a race that was similar to the duels of Tergat and Ramaala in New York, or Ivuti and Gharib in Chicago.

It was Ethiopia, then Kenya, then Ethiopia, and then finally Kenya as Salina Kosgei who found what was required to take the title in 2:32:16, by only one second from Tune. Tune collapsed over the line, and was eventually wheeled off in a stretcher, though she did recover afterwards - defeat plus exhaustion can do that to you, I guess. In any case it was an intense finish after a pretty slow race, and you can catch the last five minutes plus some post-race coverage below followed by the men's finish:



Kosgei claimed her first major city triumph, after many years of consistent finishes and top 10 placings. Goucher, meanwhile, fought bravely, but maybe just pushed a little too hard for too long over the final few kilometers. Easy to say of course, but given that her hard work (and she was really working hard - I've not seen someone so obviously driving the pace before) was NOT actually doing damage to Tune or Kosgei, perhaps the prudent approach would have been to settle in and chase. Having done the initial damage, it really did appear that the race had been set up between the three women (with Bekele hanging off the back), and perhaps leading it all the way into the final kilometer was an error. Not a criticism, just musing, because hindsight is 20/20 and in the heat of a marathon finish like that, it must be very difficult to make decisions.

However, respect for the way she fought it out, it was a gutsy run, and I still believe she has the makings of one of the best marathon runners around. But today was Kosgei's day. The splits, and graph, are shown below. The second half was run in 74:04, still not very quick after the slow start. In the end, the slowest women's race since 1980.


Finally, some talking points:

Did Ryan Hall make a tactical mistake with the early pace?

This is bound to be a point of discussion, so I figured I'd put my view forward before I even read anyone else's and the post-event interviews (which I'll comment on later this week).

Hall was aggressive from the start - 5km in 14:33, even on the downhill part of the course is very quick, and the 10km time, while not suicidal (like Gebrselassie in Dubai in 2008) was still very fast. Up to that point, Hall had done all the front-running, which many balk at as being an absolute "no-no".

Given that Hall was running Boston for the first time, and that all the experts had warned about how the course can really punish novices in the second half, it was certainly surprising to see such an assertive move by Hall.

However, that does not make it an error. At first, watching the race, I felt he may pay for it. Now that I've had an hour or two to digest, I'm not sure he did err. The early pace was fast, yes, but not suicidal, as I mentioned. 29:29 on the downhill first 10km is not ridiculously fast, and marathons have often been started faster than this. The pace settled pretty soon after, and so I don't think I'd go with the theory (if it exists) that Hall's early pace cost him this race.

What I think might be relevant is that having led quite a brisk start, the pace was then allowed to drift from 10km onwards, and the graph above reveals that it got slower and slower, eventually ending up at 15:47 for the 5km split between 20 and 25km. That kind of race is set up perfectly for strong surges, which is exactly what happened, and this is what caught out all the top men (Hall, Cheruiyot x 2). So I think having set the race up, maintaining the pace in the middle part might have been a wise move. Again, easier said that done, and I don't know what the wind was doing, but I suspect it played a big role in the tactics.

The other thing about Hall's move is that he probably surprised many of the other runners. They'd have been expecting something a little less aggressive from him, and any time you can surprise others without completely shooting yourself in the foot, it's worth doing. As I've said, I don't believe the pace was too difficult for Hall, so he wouldn't have compromised his own race, but might have sent a few shockwaves through the other runners. Robert Cheruiyot, for one, was constantly looking around and did seem unsettled (whether it was Hall or just a bad day, I don't know).

Looking ahead - more discussion

I am positive that there will be a great deal more discussion on this Boston Marathon. For now, I'll call it a night, and look forward to reading the interviews, the reports and hearing the stories of battle from the athletes. And then look forward to another post or two looking back.

London is next up, but Boston has much to say, I suspect, so join us over the next few days for more discussion!

Until then!
Ross

13 Comments:

Anonymous said...

I haven't watched the video yet, but it sounds to me like Hall actually ran a tactically sound race. Or I should say... as a complete amateur like myself, he ran about like I would have ran it if I was thrust into his shoes.

The wind was a headwind the entire race, and was pretty light (around 4mph) at the start but around mile 11 or 13 or so, it really picked up. I believe it ended up being around 20mph for most of the second half of the race. The weather websites predicted this very accurately as of the last few days, so all of the elites should have expected it.

Most folks I know who ran 2:50 through 4:00, ended up running about 6-8 minutes slower than we'd planned. I think part of this was due to a tough winter to train in Boston (lots of snowfall and ice making a lot of runs challenging at best and useless at worst), but mostly due to the wind. So if Hall wanted to be a frontrunner, the first half was the only time at which that would make sense. Back in the race where I was, there were tons of people around to help break the wind... but if you got more than 5 feet of open space in front of you, it was real tough.

The temperature and (lack of) precipitation were fabulous, but the wind was - in my eyes - an enormous factor in the race.

Jen Gatz said...

I look forward to hearing Hall's race report. I wonder if his experience in Beijing, with the hard push off the front, affected his tactics for todays race.

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Thanks Anonymous and Jen for the comments!

Anonymous, point taken on the wind. A 20 mph head wind is no joke, and definitely will sap the energy from you in a race. But well done on your race, we hope it went well!

To Jen, it will indeed be interesting to hear his own analysis. His last two marathons kind of have a similar theme in that he started pretty ok, lost touch with the leaders eventually, but really hung on until the finish and in doing so passed more than a few runners to finish with a respectable result.

It just goes to show you that having good speed and road credentials only gets you so far, and at the top of sport one still has to learn how to race and how to win. It took Hendrik Ramaala some years before he finally cracked it and won NYC and had some very good finishes at London. Until then Ramaala was a solid top 10 guy with serious half-marathon speed but could never quite get it right on marathon day.

So maybe it is for Ryan Hall, too? I know many running fans in America certainly hope that is the case!

Kind Regards,
Jonathan

Anonymous said...

I'm waiting for Hall's explanations on how he ran that race, because even if he might possibly have run tactically soundly, it seems to me that he lacked some ressources to keep with the leaders in the end.

I'm not convinced that he never wasted some energy in the beginning.

Of course I could be wrong. Merga on the other hand must be very happy. A big victory over himself!

i2runner said...

I think the graph can be misleading. The first half, is fast because they're mostly downhills. The second half is slower because of the hilly terrain. So it can't reflect the real effort of the runners.

i2runner said...

Jen Gatz,

I think he heard god tell him to run in front :-) I think it worked somehow, he must have managed to tire the old champion. But I think he took a big risk, and it took a big hit on him as well.

You need to know (or be cocky as Steve Prefontaine) that you're a lot faster than the rest of the field to take advantage of front running.

Tony R. said...

Excellent analysis! I throughly enjoyed watching the race and am looking forward to more great things from Kara and Ryan.

One slight error in the men's table, on the comment for the 35k split, you mistakenly say Ryan is in second when he was still third behind Rono...

Vava said...

The men's race was so interesting, right from the start, thanks for Ryan Hall. That, if nothing else, made it a wise move in my mind. The contrast to the women's race is stunning. All told both races were exciting for their own reasons, and it was a memorable 113th Boston Marathon to be sure. Great analysis!

BridgeportJoe said...

I'm curious. Is there any indication that taller runners do better on flatter courses (or probably more accurately, that runners with shorter strides but quicker turnover do better). Intuitively that seems to be the case -- I would suspect that it takes much less effort to modify your turnover to account for hills with shorter legs vs. longer.

If that's the case, it would explain why Hall has been a world class marathoner at London, but merely very good at Boston and New York. It would also point to him running Chicago (so am I!) or Berlin in the fall.

BridgeportJoe said...

Should read: "(or probably more accurately, that runners with shorter strides but quicker turnover do better ON A MORE HILLY COURSE)."

Anonymous said...

bridgeport joe, I suspect it has a lot more to do with body mass than anything to do with turnover.

taller runners weigh more, all else being equal. Going uphill that hurts you a lot more than going flat.

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi everyone

Thanks for the comments and feedback and questions. Can't answer them all, so just a few quick responses:

To i2runner, yes, you're quite right that the graph can be misleading. But that's why, if you read the post, we emphasize very clearly how the course profile impacts on the pacing. That is why we don't think that Hall's early pace is suicidal (it's written in the post), and why Merga's surge was so impressive. So yes, you're right, but we've accounted for that. Can't fit everything on the graph though, but that is why there is a post and detailed explanation.

As for Hall's tactics, I don't agree that front-running is only for the strongest guy. You don't have to be faster than the rest of the field. You don't choose your race tactic based on other runners, but on what will be best for your race in relation to theirs. Merga felt his best chance was an attack on the hills at 28km. Hall felt his was to lead early. However, note that the early pace was not actually that fast, given the downhill course. He's run faster in London, when in the pack, so I don't believe it cost him anything. He was going to be beaten by that surge, regardless. But that's where the debate can start!

To Tony R:

Yup, you're right. Sorry about that. The TV commentators were talking about Hall catching up and since the table was being done in real time, I filled that in and didn't go back to change it. Well spotted!

To Bridgeport Joe

I agree with the last anonymous poster - it's likely a size thing. There are exceptions though, Robert Cheruiyot is the tallest guy in the race, and he'd won three in a row. Tergat was tall (and skinny), and he certainly didn't have an advantage over someone like Geb, much shorter.

Next week in London, we'll see Wanjiru, who is short and quite stocky, against Kebede, who is super-short, against a taller Martin Lel, and Gharib, who is very tall. So there is quite a range.

Ross

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Thanks Anonymous and Jen for the comments!

Anonymous, point taken on the wind. A 20 mph head wind is no joke, and definitely will sap the energy from you in a race. But well done on your race, we hope it went well!

To Jen, it will indeed be interesting to hear his own analysis. His last two marathons kind of have a similar theme in that he started pretty ok, lost touch with the leaders eventually, but really hung on until the finish and in doing so passed more than a few runners to finish with a respectable result.

It just goes to show you that having good speed and road credentials only gets you so far, and at the top of sport one still has to learn how to race and how to win. It took Hendrik Ramaala some years before he finally cracked it and won NYC and had some very good finishes at London. Until then Ramaala was a solid top 10 guy with serious half-marathon speed but could never quite get it right on marathon day.

So maybe it is for Ryan Hall, too? I know many running fans in America certainly hope that is the case!

Kind Regards,
Jonathan