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Sunday, May 10, 2009

Marathon running: The next generation

Wanjiru vs. Kebede: The future of marathon racing?

The Giro is now underway, with young Mark Cavendish wearing pink for now, but the first serious mountain stage is not until Tuesday, so while the sprinters have their way on the flat stages we thought we would double back on the marathon season and take a closer look at the two stars that have emerged: Sammy Wanjiru (KEN) and Tsegaye Kebede (ETH). It was not so much an emergence as staking a claim on the future, because over the past 18 months these two have asserted themselves as future of marathon racing with serious times and performances. Hopefully we can expect more battles like the one we saw in London this year, so it is interesting to see exactly how they match up head to head so far.

Ethiopia vs. Kenya: Part I

The 1990s was full of epic duels between Gebreselassie and Tergat as those two chased each other through the ranks, besting each others WRs along the way and producing incredible racing when they met head to head (think back to the 10000 m final in Sydney!). We have written previously about the differences between the two countries systems and how currently Ethopia leads Kenya in head to head competions, and it is timely now that as these two legends begin their swansongs two younger runners are waiting in the wings to keep the rivalry alive. But before we look ahead, let's look back for one second at how Gebreselassie and Tergat stack up:

Ethiopia vs. Kenya: Part II

Before we get ahead of ourselves, don't misunderstand us---both Gebreselassie or Tergat, while at the end of their careers, are far from being washed up. In fact Gebreselassie has bucked the commonly held belief that a runner's best marathon performance comes in about the third or fourth attempt, because has has now run about eight or nine and the last one was his fastest! So both will still be competitive for a few more years and due to their experience and pedigree one can never truly count them out, but in Wanjiru and Kebede we have the potential for the next generation of head to head performances. Interestingly, the two youngsters are incredibly similar on paper:

The first big difference between their predecessors and this next generation is that both Kebede and Wanjiru are running marathons at the same age that Tergat and Gebreselassie were still running cross country and/or track. Kebede does not even have a 5000 m time on record, and although he is matching Wanjiru in the marathon now he has a 10000 m PB of "only" 28:10. However this does not demonstrate his full potential over that distance because he is running much faster in the marathon than plenty of runners, for example Meb Keflezighi who has a 10000 m PB of 27:14 but only has 2:09 best marathon. So had he stayed on the track he likely would have run sub-26:30 before moving to the road in his late 20s or early 30s.

The youngsters' progressions

Both Kebede and Wanjiru debuted very close to each other in 2007, with Wanjiru's first marathon in Fukuoka '07 and Kebede running Paris earlier that year. Both have now run four marathons and both have progressed in a similar fashion:

So if we exclude Beijing, which was unusually warm and a bit of a different race anyway, both men have lowered their PB with each marathon attempt. Kebede had more to gain as he debuted at 2:08, but recall that in London '09 he stayed with Wanjiru until after 40 km, and was 2nd only because he conceded 10 s to Wanjiru over that last 2.2 km. So both men appear to be quite evenly matched, although it took a few races to get there, but it now sets the stage for their next showdown.

Wanjiru is slated to run Berlin in September, but Kebede's agent must still be shopping him around or negotiating details with one or more races. Rumor has it that Gebreselassie's contract with Berlin specifically exlcudes certain runners from lining up against him, but we cannot confirm that. He has always been keen to push the limits and has never been afraid of trying to set a new record, so is that why he is not "afraid" of Wanjiru? The young one seems to have the ammunition to challenge the Great One, but who knows how it will play out down the stretch? Could Geb effectively end up pacing Wanjiru to a new record and the second man under 2:04?

Wanjiru is keen, stating earlier this year that he thinks he can eventually lower the time to 2:02, so it will be all eyes on Berlin in September for this head to head time trial. If Berlin looks after Geb with an army of pacers as they have in the past two years, and they do not replicate the poor pacing in London thus year, then the smart money will be on a new WR.

The Giro d'Italia: Mountain-top finish on Tuesday

Meanwhile the Giro promises to heat up as early as Tuesday, when we see the first mountain-top finish. Of course European readers can watch it live on television, but those of us in the USA can catch it live on the internet over at Universal Sports and then tape-delayed (Tivo, anyone?) later in the day on their cable channel. If you need to keep one eye on work don't worry---Cyclingnews.com will be doing live text updates as the race unfolds so you can keep up with the attacks. And even if you miss the action, we will post on the racing and give you the insight and analysis you have to come to expect from us!


PS---let's not forget the smoking hot performances from Doha and Japan this weekend, which we will get to in due course!


VavahF said...

you misplaced the names on the PB times for wanjiru and kebede

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi VavahF,

Indeed I had it wrong, but we have now corrected the table. Thanks for that!

Kind Regards,

Anonymous said...

The record for the Marathon will go below two hours within the next two years. William, CorioVelo Coaching.

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi William

Not sure about that. I think you'll be lucky to see a sub 2:03 in the next four years, to be honest. As for a sub 2-hour time, unless you figure out how to cryogenically freeze yourself and come back in about 2100, I don't think we'll see it!

Seriously though, I think people are getting a little carried away - to take 4 minutes of the world record would be a massive reduction. Remember that in 1988, it was 2:06:36. So despite the brilliant athletes who've run the marathon, the likes of Tergat and Gebrselassie, they've knocked it down by 2:30. Where does the next four minutes come from? Only doping can do that.

The other thing is that if a guy is going to run a sub-2 hour marathon, he needs to have a super fast 10km time. So you look at Gebrselassie - he has a 10km PB of sub-26:30. Then look at Wanjiru. His 10km PB is about the same, and everyone else is slower.

Now, if they want to run the marathon 4 minutes faster, then the 10km must be at least 30 seconds faster. So before you see a 2 hour marathon, you'll have to see a sub 26-min 10km. And that is just not going to happen.

So for the 2-hour marathon, I think we'll leave it to our grand kids. Even then, I'm not convinced!


Anonymous said...

Thank you for this blog. Very exciting - and intructive - to read even after the races.

No love for Merga in the great Ethiopian/Kenyan rivalry?

Anonymous said...

PS: Merga is touted to be going after the 10k road record in Ottawa in 10 days.

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi Anonymous

Thanks for the compliment!

Yes, indeed, Merga should be mentioned. I guess the only reason he wasn't is because he raced on the other side of the pond and the race between Kebede and Wanjiru was the obvious one to talk about!

But Merga is the kind of guy who, in the words of the LetsRun guys, you DO NOT want to have to race, because he makes it so difficult for you to win 'easy'. he's a lot like Wanjiru - fearless and sometimes a bit reckless, so I think most of the elite men would be very nervous when Merga is in the line-up. He has super speed - as you say, a 10km WR attempt coming, plus he holds the 15km WR which was of course run during a 21km race! That kind of tells you:

a) He has speed to match Wanjiru and Kebede, and
b) How he races - brutal and hard and few others would enjoy this kind of race

So yes, absolutely, a lot of love for Merga. It would be wonderful to see him in Berlin against Gebrselassie and Wanjiru. Whether we'll get even two of these three into the race is questionable, but it would very cool. If not there, somewhere else!


Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi Everyone, thanks for the comments.

To the first Anonymous posted about the WR falling below two hours, we see this kind of thing all the time---it happens mostly in the wake of a record, but also when guys turn in outstanding performances there are always rumblings and musings about how the record will continue to tumble.

But we have mentioned it many times here before, Ross's response being the latest, that the fastest runners over the shorter distances will be the fastest over the marathon. I am not sure if we have done a proper post on this, so maybe it is warranted. Wanjiru has more or less matched Gebreselassie on the track, so at least on paper he has the speed to match him or improve a bit on current 2:03:59. One unknown about him, though, is that he did not spend a career racing over 5000 and 10000, so in fact he could be marginally faster. . .but sub-26? Hard to say, but Wanjiru does get the nod as a future WR holder because he has the speed and the ambition, compared to someone like Martin Lel who now has a marathon best of 2:05:18 but seems content to win races and does not seem to be interested in breaking records. . yet?

As for Merga's omission, point taken that he is a threat for the future and a runner to watch! It was just a nice and tidy comparison to put Wanjiru against Kebede as they matched each other so closely in London this year.

Can you imagine if Merga, Wanjiru, Kebede, and Gebreselassie toe the line in Berlin later this year. . .? Note to Berlin organizers if you are reading---that would turn your race from a Geb time trial to a potentially explosive and unique race!

Kind Regards,

BridgeportJoe said...

So for the 2-hour marathon, I think we'll leave it to our grand kids. Even then, I'm not convinced!Don't count me out in Chicago this October.

(We're talking about hitting the 17 mile mark, right?)

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi Bridgeport Joe

Yes, indeed, the 17mile mark. The most neglected record in all of sports - sub 2 hours at 17 miles!

Except if you're going to do it for the benefit of my grand kids, then you'd better pace yourself because you'll have to do it in 2039!


Anonymous said...

Interesting though, in the marathon you can never be *absolutely* sure what's going to happen. At least, I presume that when everyone in London hared after the pacers going at 1:59 pace for the first 5k, they assumed there was a chance Wanjiru (say) *was* going to take chunks off the WR and they weren't going to lightly abandon their chances of coming 2nd to someone with more guts and less sense...

Alan Sleath said...

I thought i would quote from the horses mouth.An interview with Paul Tergat from Running Times Magazine May 12 2009.Quote:I do not see a 2hr marathon a possibility,i dont think this will be possible in the future,because i believe that we area already near to the limit.To run 2hrs02 will be very,very hard.I think a time slighty above 2hrs03 is possible,but this also is getting really tough.If you run the first half faster than 61 and a half minutes you will kill yourself.A man that literally knows what he is talking about.

The Sports Scientists said...

Hi Anonymous,

I agree with you about the unpredictable nature of the marathon. The biggest thing is that over that distance, if one does get everything right, small problems will create enough of a performance deficit to ruin an elite's chances for a win or certainly for a record. And you only get two, maybe three chances a year realistically, which adds to the difficulty!

And then to Alan, I saw that quote from Paul Tergat. There are two points to consider. Indeed, he is a legend and we can conclude that he really knows what he is talking about.

We are getting ever closer to the physiological limits of marathon running, but having said that, if you were to ask Roger Bannister or John Landy if they thought it possible to run a 3:43 mile, they would have likely said something similar to Tergat. After all, they thought it nearly impossible to break four minutes although both of them ran sub-4 on more than one occasion.

Again, we are much closer, probably, to the limits than we were 60+ years ago, but the times continue to come down, albeit very slowly. Will we see a sub-2h marathon? I do not think we are going to see it in our lifetime. 2:02? We might be alive to see that as that record could be "only" 30 more years away!

Thanks for reading!

Kind Regards,

BridgeportJoe said...

2:02? We might be alive to see that as that record could be "only" 30 more years away!In fairness, this depends on whether you mean 2:02:XX or 2:02:00. If it's the latter, I think you are probably close (maybe not 30 years, but we are talking decades and not years).

If it's the former, I'm not so sure you won't see a high 2:02 the first time Wanjiru decides to race for time in optimal weather. Heck, I'll say this: You will see a sub-2:03 the first time pacemakers get Wanjiru and one or more legitimate threats (Geb, Merga, Lel, whomever) through 18 evenly-paced miles close to that speed.

Anonymous said...

Dear interested readers,
I've been closely following the ongoing discussion regarding the human limits in long distance running for years. About six years ago - while training for a very modest marathon myself - I made my own look into the crystal ball... Results were as follows: "There is a chance nobody will ever achieve a sub-2-hr-Marathon. Certainly we will NOT see one before 2039..."
I calculated regarding the progression until Tergat's 2:04:55 and the then known conversion factors, assuming those would not change dramatically in the years to come.
I came to know that such a deed would require a half marathon well below 57 min or a 5,000m time on the track of 12:1x - a utopic view, indeed!

Taking into account nowadays' WR times we yield the following results:

marathon 1:59:59
requires a corresponding
half marathon in [about] 56:40*)
10,000 ... 25:26
5,000 ... 12:13
(3,000 ... 7:06 (!))

*) a "mere" two minutes (+-) from Wanjiru's 58:33 ^^

Nevertheless I am not that pessimistic about a 2:02 (high) in near future, regarding the likes of Wanjiru, Kebede, Lel, Merga, Tadese (???), Bekele (!!!), not to forget about Kibet Kirong od Kwambai (Rotterdam 2009!) - perhaps Micah Kogo and others to come. Gebrselassie should be able to lower his own PB (still a WR ;-)) another 20 to 30 seconds, but not more - having seen him struggle hard the last kilometers in Berlin (2008), one must concede this was near his very limit.

Let's take a short look at world record progression in the 5 and 10k...
Aouita (1985) 13:00.40
Bekele (2004) 12:37.35
N.N. (??) 12:13 [please take into account this would mean 2 seconds per lap faster

Barrios (1989) 27:08
Ondieki (1993) 26:58 (a time then leaving me totally stunned...)
Bekele (2005) 26:17.53
N.N. (2039+??) ~26:26.6 [-51 s against Bekele]

I totally agree we are nearing human limits, and limits in training methods, nutrition, talent selection, too - but seeing the 10,000m being lowered by 50 seconds, about the same amount of reduction STILL needed to achieve the proper ground speed for the holy grail, the sub-2-hr marathon, is giving me some hope (little hope, but: hope!)

And yes, you are right, any [former] record setter will be keen not to diminish his own performance

It might, albeit not probable, but MIGHT be that once there emerges a unique talent - a "Usain Bolt of distance running" (not his size, but who knows?) -, a completely new type of marathon runner...

(still very, very sad about the extreme pacing from the gun in London this April... What would have been possible - we will of course never know, but I assume a 2:03:30.)

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi Anonymous

Thank you for the post. here is an article I wrote last year in October which made the same point and predicated close to the same thing you've raised:



Anonymous said...

Ah, thanks a lot for the link. Didn't notice this one before!

Just another remark:
The "1:59:59" would remain a reduction in time of 3.2 % - doesn't sound like too much?!
Let's see what such a lowering would mean to certain records:

- 100m: 9.38 *
(- 150m [straight] 13.89/ any comment on Bolt's 19.35 run yesterday?)
- 200m: 18.68
- 400m: 41.79
- 800m: 1:38.48
- 1000m: 2:07.70 (from Ngeny's 2:11.96)

*) Bolt: "I'll take record to 9.4 sec."/ just found at letsrun...

I find especially the 200 and 400 metres respective [hypothetic!] world records simply impossible. IMPOSSIBLE.

And one small correction: You wrote on Geb running his fastest marathon in his last race which was Dubai '09 and obviously no WR. But I think you already took it out.

NJB (can only repeat many of my predecessors' voices: please keep on with your fascinating postings!)

P.S.: in my posting above I completely forgot about Makau Musyoki, regarding his great HM times!

Anonymous said...


Bolt's 150m time from yesterday evening should read 14.35, of course.


Anonymous said...

NJB again

"N.N. (2039+??) ~26:26.6 [-51 s against Bekele]" -> was meant as 25:26 (my fingers refused to type a 10,000m time beginning with 25: !! ^^)


Anonymous said...

OK, one last post for today ;-)

The probably required 25:26.6 for 10,000 would mean:

One mile in 4:05.7.
But 6.2 times in a row.
Enough said?