Welcome to the Science of Sport, where we bring you the second, third, and fourth level of analysis you will not find anywhere else.

Be it doping in sport, hot topics like Caster Semenya or Oscar Pistorius, or the dehydration myth, we try to translate the science behind sports and sports performance.

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We published The Runner's Body in May 2009. With an average 4.4/5 stars on Amazon.com, it has been receiving positive reviews from runners and non-runners alike.

Available for the Kindle and also in the traditional paper back. It will make a great gift for the runners you know, and helps support our work here on The Science of Sport.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

The Beauty of Human Movement

What can't the body learn to do?

As exercise physiologists we are trained to understand and explain the physiology of human movement. Together with that, how the body can adapt to training stress and improve performance is of great interest to us, and in most cases "performance" means running or cycling or some other endurance sport (save our annual forays into tennis, soccer and rugby).

But it never ceases to amaze us how the body can adapt and learn. Again, mostly we look at how it "learns" to run faster or pace better by making adaptations to the muscular, neuro-muscular system and other physiological systems. The result is beautiful because it is an outstanding performance or a world record or just an amazing race (see the London men's race for all of the above!).

However part of understanding exercise physiology and how the body responds to endurance training is also understanding how the brain controls movement in the first place, because after all exercise is just a complex series controlled movements that produce running or cycling or swimming or anythign else, for example how it can activate the muscles in my hands and fingers in such a manner that I can type this post you are now reading. So any way you slice it, human movement and the adaptations the body makes are amazing on many levels.

I came across an amazing video that illustrates just how amazing the body can be. It is of "trials rider" Danny MacAskill and has been doing the rounds on several blogs and probably forums. The sport consists of riders jumping/leaping/riding in all sorts of manners on and over all kinds of obstacles----really, anything is game. I suspect that anyone who watches, regardless of their background, can appreciate the level of fine and gross control it takes to pull off these kinds of movements.

Call it part of our (belated) birthday celebrations, or call it a positive view of cycling, but from time to time we try to depart from the doom and gloom of doping (especially now in light of the recent CERA postives from Beijing), or the current sporting news cycle, or the performance analyses that you have come to know, and take a lighter look at exercise physiology.

So enjoy the video and hopefully you are inspired by what we can do!


Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Happy 2nd birthday to us

The Science of Sport turns 2...and Rashid Ramzi tests positive for CERA in the Olympic Games

OK, so we forgot our birthday...turns out it was yesterday, two years ago to the day that we did our first ever post.

Since then, 435 more articles have been written, read, and occasionally commented on, by you.

So once again, thank you very much for your support and continued reading of our "hobby". When we began the site, the intention was to document our insights and opinions for no reason other than we enjoyed it, and it's grown to the point where it is genuinely the most enjoyable thing we do. It is hard to document how much time in a day we spend thinking about and researching content for the site---don't tell our bosses!

Obviously, as the site has grown, it's taken more and more of our time, and that's often been time we can't give (have to pay the bills somehow - Jonathan has "overheads", Ross is saving up for his one day!). March this year was our leanest month ever, thanks to work commitments, but we've bounced back in April courtesy Boston and London, and hopefully, we'll keep the momentum going through the summer months of cycling and track and field.

Obviously, we'd love for this site to become fully financially sustainable to allow us to retire from the "rat race" and do the site even better. Perhaps that opportunity will present itself some day. We've considered the option of creating a subscription service where we'd charge a nominal fee to subscribe or to read "premium content", but that model, while used fairly widely on-line, doesn't grab us, it seems too exclusive and goes against our core value of making information available (perhaps this is the difference between scientists and businessmen!), so we're putting it off for as long as possible. Variations on that model are possible, so we'll see how it goes.

But what we have done, based also on what seems to be a trend in the online "industry", is to create a DONATION function, where you can support our efforts and time by donating to The Science of Sport. You can see that link on the top right of the homepage, and it's a pretty simple matter of clicking on "Donate" and then following the instructions. From time to time, we'll also include a small paragraph at the bottom of our posts to encourage donations, for those of you who don't actually visit the site but receive the articles in your inbox.

Obviously, no obligation, but rather just an attempt to earn something for the time and effort. We'll continue as long as possible regardless, because we enjoy it enough! At least til we're three years old!

In other news - Rashid Ramzi tests positive

A potentially big story today is that six Olympic athletes, including 1500m gold medalist Rashid Ramzi, have tested positive for CERA, the latest generation EPO hormone, which was made famous by Tour de France cyclists (Ricardo Ricco primary among them) last year.

When Ricco was caught, we did a post explaining CERA, and speculating that maybe some Olympic athletes would be jumping for cover now that a test had been developed through collaboration between anti-doping agencies and the pharmaceutical company that produced the drug for medical use.

According to reports, the IOC went back and retested samples from Beijing, and found that two medalists were using CERA. According to this article:

"The person, speaking on condition of anonymity because the names haven't been released by the IOC, said a male track and field athlete who won only one gold medal was one of the athletes. The other medalist was in cycling."

As you can imagine, great debate today about who they were. The cycling positive is rumoured to be Davide Rebellin, who won silver in the men's road race. The Italian news media are reporting this, though the Italian Anti-doping Agency (now there's an oxymoron if ever there was one) is not naming the athlete, stating that first the "B" sample must be tested before they will confirm the identity.

Who is the male track and field athlete? Speculation time!

As for the track and field athlete, the very latest news, which just came out about two minutes ago, is that it's Rashid Ramzi of Bahrain!

Earlier today, it was still unknown, and so Ross played around with some possible names. However, now that the news has apparently been confirmed by the Bahrain Olympic Committee, speculation no longer seems required, so I edited the post. For the record, though, I thought it more likely to be one of the race-walkers, particularly the Italian Alex Schwarzer, since most of the athletes tested positive for CERA so far are Italian, and this would be consistent with the idea that the doping practice can be traced back to a common source.

However, turns out I was wrong (apologies to the race-walkers! But it was our birthday, I took liberties!), and that the positive test belongs to Rashid Ramzi, the winner of the men's 1500m title. He also won the 800m-1500m double in 2005, and then promptly disappeared from the scene for the next few years. A few very weak showings, interspersed with what was a completely dominant performance in 2005 aroused a great deal of suspicion, because it is consistent with doping. The fact that he has now been caught will give great satisfaction to many people who have "known" or suspected it all along.

In fact, all of today, there has been a poll on LetsRun.com, where you can vote for your likely "doper" - they didn't have the race-walkers in, so they were a step ahead of me, but Ramzi is winning by a clear majority - 54% of the vote last time I checked.

Also, there's an entertaining read on their world famous Message boards, to add some humour and opinion to the piece.

OK, but seriously, I'm joking around (it's our birthday after all, we're allowed) about a serious topic. Ramzi becomes one of the first high-profile positives in track for a long, long time. Justin Gatlin was maybe the last (I stand corrected) gold medalist caught, and in distance running, there has been no one on the men's side for a while. I'm interested to see what the fall-out is. Will he do what most athletes seem to, and simply deny it? "It must be a mistake", or "the lab is out to get me". Or will he confess and take whatever punishment is dealt. That will be interesting, because currently in cycling more and more dopers who get caught admit it hoping that the UCI will go easy on them and reduce their two-year ban by some amount. But in athletics there is no precedent for this kind of "strategy."

A final thought - given that athletes knew that a test had been developed for CERA in July (thanks to Ricco's bust in the Tour), to continued taking it through to the Olympics in August suggests that athletes are either:

a) incredibly stupid, knowing it's detectable, or
b) relying on other methods of avoiding detection, and not 'tester blindness'

That is, it suggests to me that they may have tried tricks to avoid the testing process, perhaps involving substitution or collusion to get away with having a banned substance in the sample. Surely they wouldn't be so stupid as to go blindly into providing samples knowing they're testable - plan B must exist. And it seems to have failed in this case!

That's it for today. Again, thanks to everyone for your support over our two years of existence (or the two weeks you've been reading), and let's hope the third year is as successful!

Ross & Jonathan

Monday, April 27, 2009

London 2009 revisited

London 2009, on closer inspection

Yesterday's London Marathon closed off the big marathons for the next few months, and we now get to look forward to the Fall season, with Berlin (times two, with the IAAF World champs there as well), Chicago and New York the highlights to come. But now might be a good time to look back over the last month or so of marathon racing, which has been enthralling and high quality.

First came the "weekend that changed marathon running forever", when Rotterdam saw two men race to 2:04:27 times. That a man can lose a marathon running that time says something about where we are in the sport today. This was followed by the Paris Marathon, where the course record was broken (2:05:47) and another five men broke 2:07. All in all, 13 Kenyan men broke 2:09 on one day, and people spoke of the new dawn for the marathon.

It was perhaps inevitable, when you look at the half-marathon, where sub-60 minute times are now commonplace. Eventually, this kind of speed would impact on the marathon, and we're seeing a different pattern of racing emerging - competitive races are now being run aggressively, with favourites hitting the front earlier and harder than I can recall. There was a time when a record attempt was a record attempt - Gebrselassie in Berlin keeps this tradition alive - and a race was bound to be slow and tactical. But Beijing last year, Wanjiru in London, even Hall in Boston, have shown that competitive racing is now aggressive racing, and that has changed the face of the marathon.

Boston and London were actually quite similar in this regard. In Boston, the fast early pace (albeit on a downhill part of the course) was created by Ryan Hall, and then when it began to slow, Deriba Merga threw in surges over the Newton Hills to break the field open at about 30km. Yesterday in London, the pace was set, ridiculously fast, by the pacemakers, before Sammy Wanjiru blew the race open with a 4:25 mile, at roughly the corresponding distance to where Merga made his move.

The pacing strategy - great for a race, not for a time

One thing I can say with pretty high certainty is that this kind of racing strategy is not conducive to optimal performance. I know that is picking holes, given that Wanjiru broke the course record, but the way the race was run is certainly not how anyone should aspire to run for a fast time.

Yesterday, I compared Wanjiru's winning run in London to Gebrselassie's world record, and it was quite clear how the better pacing of Gebrselassie told in the second half of the race.

To look at this a little more in detail, I have put together the following diagram. It shows the gap between Gebrselassie (in green) and Wanjiru (in red), at 5km intervals during the marathon. Obviously, we're comparing London to Berlin here, so it's not a direct comparison, but it illustrates the point quite clearly.

It's pretty obvious that Wanjiru went out way too fast, and built up a lead of 51 seconds over Gebrselassie at the 15km point. From then on, though, it got progressively smaller and smaller, until eventually Geb "took over the lead" just before 30km. If it were possible to super-impose the races, it would have made for great TV as Geb would have come up onto Wanjiru's shoulder at about 29km and then begun to move steadily away!

But what is interesting is that the biggest gap of all comes between 35km and 40km. That's where Gebrselassie, you'll recall from Berlin last year, put the hammer down and really created the sub-2:04 time (which up to that point had been an outside shot). He ran that interval in 14:29, whereas Wanjiru, despite having Kebede right behind him, ran a 15:14 interval. That was where the real effect of those first 10km told, because all through the race, gaps were opening up big time in this section. In the end, like in Beijing, Wanjiru got the closest to an "even-split": his first half was 61:36, and his second 63:34. That's a positive split of close to 2 minutes. Gebrselassie ran a "negative split" by 7 seconds!

A super-fast start, combined with the surges at 28 to 30km all add up, and that's why if you want a world record, you really have to have the right day, at the right pace, in the right race situation. Whether Wanjiru will ever get that, time will tell!

The pace - some questions

Speaking of super-fast pace, I'm still confused as to what was going on in the men's race yesterday. The first mile was run in 4:38, which already projects a sub-2:02 time. Now, I'm led to believe that the clock on the car right in front of the runners was showing them the time, and was giving a PROJECTED time. This means that within the first 5 minutes of the race, the elite men MUST have known that they were going at 2-hour pace. By 5km, in 14:08, they'd have seen that they were on for a 1:59 marathon.

Now, why someone did not signal for a slowing down is beyond me. We know this didn't happen, because the second 5km interval was run in 14:22, which is still too fast - the target time per 5km interval would have been 14:42. So they have "ignored" the signs at 1 mile, 2 miles, 5km and all the way through to 10km, and so it is amazing to have heard Wanjiru say that he hopes for "better pace-making" next time. I find it absolutely extra-ordinary that not a single person, not a pace-maker, not an elite athlete, not an agent, not the race director, would have at some point in the first 5 minutes sent a signal to ease off.

Therefore, I'm left to make the same conclusion that Amby Burfoot made in his comment to our post yesterday, that this was a deliberate, stated instruction. Perhaps these races are sending the pace-makers out too fast, trying to capitalize on slight downhill sections, and hoping that athletes hang on long enough to keep the advantage.

Unfortunately, this flies in the face of everything we know about optimal pacing. That is, if you want to run the best time, you must aim for even pace. That's been pretty well shown in lab studies and by Gebrselassie in his two world records. So someone is missing a trick if the instruction is to go out too fast. Hopefully, lessons will be learned for the future. It did make for a super-exciting second half of the race though, because a progressively slowing pace sets it up perfectly for aggressive surges.

Sammy Wanjiru - fearless and fearsome

And aggressive surges are the name of the game for Sammy Wanjiru. Last year in Beijing, he set the race up by hitting the first 10km at sub 3min/km pace, despite the heat and smog and humidity. Then he threw in surges in the second half, at that pace in those conditions! It was the greatest marathon performance ever. London yesterday saw Wanjiru race the same way - surging off the front off a fast pace, from a long way out.

I am loathe to describe Wanjiru as "gutsy" because I've always felt that "gutsy" implies that the person lacks some talent, but makes up for it with courage and heart. Wanjiru, by that definition, is not gutsy, because he has extra-ordinary talent. But he's absolutely fearless, so aggressive and courageous with the attacks. It really is a wonderful sight. When Kebede seemed to be reeling him back at 40km, he found another surge and the gap was created for good. It's brilliant racing, and one wonders whether anyone in the world could match it? Lel, perhaps - big disappointment that he couldn't race. Merga is a guy who seems to race the Wanjiru way, that would be a fabulous race! Gebrselassie? Can't say I'd back him against what we saw yesterday.

Zersenay Tadese - back to the drawing board

Finally, a word on Tadese, the debutant who carried much hope into the race. He eventually bailed at 35km, after running the interval from 30km to 35km in 16:47. It was a forgettable first marathon for the half-marathon world champion. I'm not sure whether he might have had a problem, but I was really surprised that he folded as early as he did.

Once could blame the fast early pace, and the distance, but the fact remains - he didn't make 30km with the other 6 guys, most of whom he is at least equal to over 21km. That's not the marathon distance that undid him, it's 28km, which shouldn't happen.

Now, I'd fully expected that he's struggle in the final 3 or 4km, that is where the distance will tell on the novice. But at 30km, he should have been able to hang for a little longer. Consider that his 10km best is more recent and just as fast as anyone else's, his 21km performances are at least as good as everyone with the expection of Wanjiru, and yet he was blown right off at 28km. Perhaps something went wrong in the training?

Hopefully he'll be back. What he needs now is to find a second-tier marathon, and get a 2:06 time under his belt, learn the race a little, and then hopefully return to a major in the future with a little more nous and experience, and maybe he'll turn his 21km performances into marathon greatness. Bad marathons happen, perhaps he just got his worst one out the way early!

Looking ahead

That's a wrap of London. Looking ahead, the track season starts soon, and so do the Grand Tours of cycling, which should provide some debate. We've also got our analysis of the Michael Ashenden interview to do, and I'm sure more will come up!

But bring on the Fall season!


Sunday, April 26, 2009

London 2009 Race Report

Wanjiru is the man in a fast war of attrition in London

Olympic champion Sammy Wanjiru has won the 2009 London Marathon, in a course record of 2:05:10, beating out the challenge of the two other Beijing medallists, Tsegaye Kebede and Jaouad Gharib. Kebede, third in Beijing, was one better this time, in a time of 2:05:20, with Gharib a further 7 seconds back.

But it was the Sammy Wanjiru show, at least in terms of the final outcome, and the racing over the final 12 km. The other big talking point was the pacing strategy, with the incredibly fast early pace ultimately putting paid to any chances of the world record that had been spoken about before the race.

The pace - how it unfolded

That early pace, which saw the athletes go through 5km in a sick 14:08 and 10km in 28:30 (14:22 for the second 5km) was always going to see a drop at some stage. That drop happened from about 15km up to 30 km, where the pace dropped below 3min/km. The projected time of 2:02 had fallen to 2:05, and the world record seemed safe once again. The graph and table below summarize the pace at 5km intervals (click on them to get enlarged version):

You'll see from this chart and graph that the pace got progressively slower, right from the start, but it was only between 15 and 20km that they dropped below the WR pace, where it remained up to 30km. That period, the inevitable result of the suicidal early pace, would set the race up for surges and survival in the second half.

The half-way mark was reached in 61:36, but even that does not account for how fast the first 10km were. It was always going to be a race of attrition, and even this early on, it was clear that the athlete who ran the LEAST positive split would be the winner. The chase group, which included the USA's hopes Meb Keflezighi and Dathan Ritzenheim were by this stage already minutes behind, and so the winner was coming from this group.

The race - Wanjiru, Kebede, Gharib

The real racing began just before 30km, however, when Hendrik Ramaala (who was running out of his socks) pushed the pace slightly at about 28km. That spurred the big names into action: Wanjiru responded immediately, and then after a moment or two of "calm", he threw in his own surge. It was reminiscent of the Beijing Olympics, when Wanjiru attacked aggressively off a fast pace.

Wanjiru ran the 19th mile in an astonishing 4:25. That split the field, and the only two who were able to respond were Tsegaye Kebede, and Gharib, albeit a little more slowly. This surge in pace is not reflected in the graph above, because the pace leading up to the surge was very slow, which partly explains why Ramaala was the man going to the front.

One of the first names to fold under this pressure was Zersenay Tadese, the debutant who had stimulated much excitement. The world half marathon champ, and a man with a 58:59 seems born to run the marathon, but he found this race too hot to handle. That's perhaps not that surprising, given his inexperience, but it was slightly surprising that he fell off so soon and so quickly. He covered the 5km stretch from 30 to 35km in 16:47, showing that the wheels had well and truly come off for him. In truth, the pattern of the race would not have suited him, especially in a first marathon. Hopefully, he'll be back in the future.

The final kilometers - a brave Kebede hangs, pulls back, and then falls off

The group of three now formed, it was always a question of who had the most left after the brutal early pace. It turned out to be Wanjiru, though quite how he created the decisive gap, I don't know. At the time that Wanjiru was pulling clear, we were being treated to glorious coverage of the sixth to tenth women coming over the line. So everyone missed that.

Once the men's race was covered again, Wanjiru led by about 8 seconds from Kebede, with Gharib another five or six down. Kebede was fighting bravely, however, and he managed to very slowly claw back the gap, and had Wanjiru within his reach at the 40km mark. It seemed as though Kebede might have enough to force Wanjiru to sprint for the title, but it was not to be; Wanjiru looked behind and realizing that Kebede was in contact, he surged again and soon managed to open what was the decisive lead.

A few minutes later and it was Wanjiru turning right in front of Buckingham Palace, with the title and course record in his sights. He duly went on to break that record in 2:05:10. Kebede was ten seconds back, and Gharib finished in 2:05:27. He was the big improver of the day, since his PB coming in was "only" a 2:07.

The number 1: Wanjiru consolidates after Beijing

So that leaves Wanjiru pretty firmly entrenched at the top of the marathon tree. A win in Fukuoka, second in London 2008, then the awesome Beijing performance, and now this win place Wanjiru securely in number one. Question marks had been raised in recent months. The Beijing win was one of the greatest races ever run, and possibly the best marathon performance ever. However, since then, Wanjiru had a couple of DNFs and a relatively poor showing in Lisbon. However, this win puts those races in context, and certainly confirms his status.

Martin Lel, who has won London for the last two years, would be the other contender, but failing to make the start line of London with a hip injury means he now has to prove his racing credentials again if he is to be considerd number one in the future. His absence was a big blow, for I'm almost certain he'd have featured in the race.

The other name is Haile Gebrselassie. The World record holder has seen his record survive another season, challenged by the 2:04:27 times in Rotterdam, and now this race, where poor pacing may have cost the chance of the record. He'll no doubt be back in his time-trial mode in Berlin later this year, trying to lower his record further. What a shame that we'll never know how he would have handled this 28:30 first 10km and Wanjiru's surges. I still rank him the greatest ever, but he's only the third best racer in the marathon.

Comparing races: Wanjiru vs Geb from Berlin

Just to put into context the difference in the London 2009 pacing and Geb's world record in Berlin last year, the graph below shows the 5km intervals from each.

It's pretty clear that Geb's world record was achieved with extra-ordinary pacing, as he started a little quickly, then settled down and then got quicker and quicker. Wanjiru, on the other hand, started far too fast, then slowed down far too much, and then threw in surges to win a race, slowing down again at the end.

It's not the ideal way to race. In fact, it's a pretty poor way to pace the marathon. But perhaps Wanjiru will get himself onto the start line of the Berlin time-trial in October, and then he'll benefit from the same pacing strategy that saw the 2:03:59.

I believe that he'd break that record, on the right day. Then again, so might Kebede, Gharib, Lel, and then Merga and a host of others. All in all, men's marathon running is in awesome shape, and I can hardly wait for the next batch of marathons in October and November.

There is bound to be more to say about this race, so the rest of the week will be devoted to that. Thanks for reading, and join us again soon!


London 2009 splits and pacing

London 2009 - splits, pacing and live results

Check out the post race report, and a comparison between Wanjiru's London win and Gebrselassie's 2:03:59 at our Race Report Post HERE

Below are the splits and a graph of the pacing used in the 2009 London Marathon, which was won by Sammy Wanjiru in a new course record of 2:05:10. Second went to Tsegaye Kebede in 2:05:20, third to Jaouad Gharib a further seven seconds back.

Join us later for a full recap of the race, and how it actually unfolded. I just need a couple hours to recover, and watch the last part of the race. But it's on the way!



Don't forget to join us for the post-race analysis and a more detailed breakdown from the race. I just need an hour or two to recover, watch the last part of the race again, but check in later!


Last word

I just have to get a word in about the commentators and coverage - they couldn't pronounce names (invented letters in names - it wasn't "Yamauchi", but Yamamuchi, and "Tadese" became "Tadusu". Wanjiru, Kebede, he got them ALL wrong). That is embarrassing and unforgivable. You know as a commentator that you'll have to say these names, so learn them before the coverage starts.

Also, they didn't know the athletes, didn't appreciate the pace or the nuances of the marathon race. In particular, the male 'anchor' was very poor - he didn't know what he was looking at 90% of the time, he was clearly guessing at distances and times, and failed to add value to the pictures. Very disappointing. Where were Brendan Foster, Steve Cram and the experts?

As for the picture, we got to see prolonged coverage of the women's race, where, quite frankly, little happened for long periods. It was, to be blunt, a boring race, with the exception of the brief challenge by Yamauchi. The broadcaster obviously is obliged to dedicate a certain part of the day to each race, but it was very frustrating to watch this mediocre race when the men were racing at 2:02 pace for the first half and then surviving in the second.

So apologies to those who love to watch women time-trialling the last 10km of a race, but when Wanjiru, Kebede and Gharib are racing head to head and we get to see such dull images of the top 15 women coming in...well, is it any wonder that athletics and road-running lags behind other sports for popularity?

So congratulations to the broadcaster, you've successfully cheapened your own product. I notice that the theme song to the show "Biggest Loser" was playing at the finish line as the women's top 15 came in (and you showed all of them). How appropriate for everyone, who lost out on a quality broadcast.

Friday, April 24, 2009

London Marathon Preview

London 2009 - the greatest race ever, coming up?

Boston has barely left our minds, and we have the prospect of what might be the best marathon race in history to look forward.

London is always an insane collection of fast men. In recent years, they pulled in Gebrselassie for a debut, had him race Tergat and Khannouchi to a world record, brought the top four men in year after year, and last year produced the fastest, deep marathon in history when Martin Lel won in 2:05:15 from Sammy Wanjiru.

Wanjiru went on to great things - the greatest marathon ever run, a 2:06:32 in Beijing, and is back this year. So is Lel (albeit with an injury cloud - see below). So are second and third in Beijing, and a host of other runners.

So picking the winner is a mighty difficult task. For the best pre-race preview on the web, check out LetsRun.com's overview of the men's race - they pull out the seven likely winners, offer you their thoughts and suggestions and pretty much hit it spot on. Their women's analysis is equally good, but for us, the focus is on the men, because it brings the possibility of a world record, in a race (so forgive the lack of insight on the women's race, I have no time! But for a prediction - Mikitenko to win in 2:20:46, relatively unchallenged, one minute to second, which is a fight between Gete Wami and Martha Komu of Kenya)

So here's our preview and prediction for London 2009...

Looking back - 2008 revisited with implications for 2009

Looking back to look forward, last year's London race provided what might be a script for this year. This would be the case any time you get five or six guys capable of running 2:05 on an ideal course. That is, the early pace will be fast, with pacemakers instructed to go out at close to world record pace. Because the field is so strong AND so deep, it's a pretty good bet that five guys (at least) will be together with 7km to go and the pacemakers drop out. Then it's man on man, and that's exactly what happened last year.

In 2008, Martin Lel, Sammy Wanjiru and Abderrahim Goumri were the last three men remaining, though the pace had dropped off between 30 and 35km. That was partly the result of the weather - a bit windy and rainy along the Embankment, and because such a strong field so focused on winning will begin to watch one another and play tactical games. If you refer back to our analysis of last year's race, you'll see the marked drop in pace between 30 and 35km. Up to 30km, they were on world record pace (2:04:27, which was the WR at the time), and then the impetus was lost.

What does that have to do with this year's race? Well, I suspect the same may happen. There has been much talk about the world record, because Sammy Wanjiru, Martin Lel and Tadese are all ear-marked as having the potential to break it. The biggest barrier is the fact that they'll be racing (rather than running a paced time-trial), oddly enough, because I can't see any one of these men sacrificing themselves by pushing the pace at 35km, when so much is at stake for a win. Then again, Sammy Wanjiru pushed the pace in Beijing with a great deal on the line, and so perhaps the era of the "fearless marathon runner" will see the record fall.

To me, the only chance for a world record is that the half-way mark must be reached in 61:45, and then the pace must be maintained to 35km. That would put them in position to break the record even if they slow down. 35km in 1:42:30 means that the next 5km can be covered in a slow 15 minutes (thanks to cagey running and weather) and they'll still be in position to dip under 2:04 with the last few kilometers bound to be quite quick as the racing drives the pace on.

Whether that will happen remains to be seen - much depends on the field and who is left at 35km...

The field

So how strong is the field? The London press pack starts with the following sentence:
"Take this for a lineup: the reigning Olympic champion, the reigning world champion, the first four from last year's London epic, four of the first five from the Olympic Games, a former double world champion, the world bronze medallist, and the fourth, fifth, sixth, 12th, 13th and 14th quickest men of all time."

Incredible. And that doesn't include the debut of Zersenay Tadese of Eritrea, who I believe is a future world-record holder over this distance. Again, LetsRun.com have broken the field down as well as possible, so I won't repeat too much of a detailed analysis, but look at the FIVE men I believe will play out the London drama come Sunday.

1. Martin Lel

Lel is, as we've said before, the best marathon racer in the world. A disappointing Olympics notwithstanding (he came fifth, though reports are that he had malaria during training), he's the man to beat on Sunday. Last year's champion, winner in New York before that, and another two London wins, along with a host of wins over the half-marathon set Lel apart as maybe the most feared road racer in the world.

Last year in London, he blitzed the final 400m in around 60 seconds at the end of a 2:05 marathon, to beat Sammy Wanjiru by an enormous distance. The same had happened in New York, where he beat Goumri. I don't think a marathon runner has ever possessed the kind of kick Lel has at the end of the race, and if he is in contention with 1km to go, the field will be nervous, if not beaten.

The problem for Lel is an injury-scare that has only come out this week. Apparently, he has hurt his hip, and though scans revealed no damage, he is going to be receiving treatment on it right up to the race. That is a big blow for his chances, because any weakness or injury will be exposed over 42 km of racing at 3 min/km. So starting at anything less than 100%, against this field, represents a real risk. Before that news, I'd have said go with Lel in a new world record time. Now, I'm not so sure. I really hope he's healthy, but as anyone who's run the marathon will know, it can fall apart quickly if there is a problem.

2. Sammy Wanjiru

The Kenyan produced a surreal performance to win in Beijing, in what was only his 3rd marathon race. First in Fukuoka, second in London and then Olympic champion in a hot and polluted Beijing, in a record time of 2:06:32 make Wanjiru the new man to beat, now that Lel is carrying an injury into the race (the fact that he's even the second favourite is an indication of just how good Lel is).

However, Wanjiru is talking up his chances, speaking of his desire to break the world record. He didn't perform especially well in the Lisbon half marathon recently, but that may be an indication of a focus on this race, and a sign that he'll be better prepared than before. If that's true, and Wanjiru is in the same condition he was in Beijing, then expect him to be the aggressor, and don't be surprised if he wins it. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that only a fully healthy Martin Lel would have a chance of beating him, and so Lel's injury means Wanjiru is now my pick for Sunday.

3. Zersenay Tadese

Tadese is perhaps the most intriguing runner in the race. His debut marathon promises much, because he's coming from an exceptional background on the track, country and roads. An Olympic medallist over 10,000m, a world cross-country champion (who beat Bekele), and a half marathon road-champion, Tadese is the kind of runner who seems to get stronger as the distance gets longer.

He is one of only four men to have broken 59 minutes for the half-marathon, and with half-marathon performance being such a huge predictor of marathon success, he's definitely one to look out for. As I said, my impression has always been that he gets better and better as the distance goes up, and so the marathon may well be his best event. He'll be a great marathon runner. But for London 2009? I'd be surprised if he wins it (not shocked, just surprised). I think the marathon takes some learning, and experience will help him get faster.

Putting my head on the block, I'd say he'll be in contact up to around 38km, and then drop off. But in future, he may be the man to hold the world record. For now, the fastest ever debut is on the cards, and who knows, maybe the fastest ever marathon? He is, next to the Lel-Wanjiru matchup, the most exciting thing about London 2009.

4. The others: Goumri, Gharib, Kebede and co

I don't want to go into too much discussion of the rest of the runners, partly to save me time and repeating what Letsrun have said. However, there is a host of other guys who have a real shot at winning this race.

The Ethiopian Tsegaye Kebede is likely to be the smallest man in the race, a stocky, punchy runner who ran 2:06 in Paris, and came third in Beijing, and then won Fukuoka in 2:06:10. He is improving every time he races, and is the kind of runner who, on his day, is hard to beat. I'd pick him as a serious dark-horse for Sunday, and say that he'll get himself onto the podium, probably in third, though problems for Lel might see him jump up a step.

Abderrahim Goumri of Morocco was Martin Lel's bridesmaid, first in London 2007, then New York 2007, then London 2008. Three races, three dust-ups in the final few hundred meters. He must love the site of Lel's vest from behind! However, he's a quality racer, having never failed to podium in a major marathon. Perhaps this year will be his breakthrough.

I doubt it, I'd pick him for a top 6, but not a top 3, but that's only because I don't know enough about his preparation, and his last two outings in the heat of Beijing and then New York were both disappointing. In particular, he looked like the man to beat in New York but faltered and dos Santos beat him at the end. Mental block? Over-raced? I don't know, but I'd be surprised if he finds the speed to match the top three in London.

Jaouad Gharib came second to Wanjiru in Beijing, which was something of a surprise, though he is a hot weather runner, having won the World title twice, both in relatively warm conditions. His PB is "only" 2:07:02, and he'll probably need to run AT LEAST 2 MINUTES faster than that to win this race, possibly three. That's a tall ask, though not impossible. I suspect that he'll be one of the first of the big names to drop off at around 35km, but he may surprise again.

Finally, Emmanuel Mutai of Kenya has a 2:06:15 PB and came fourth in London last year. Unless he has found two minutes of improvement, though, he's likely to battle over the final 5km and I'd pick him to go the same way as Gharib and drop off in the latter part of the race.

The predictions - crystal ball time

So here then are the predictions for the men's race:

1. Sammy Wanjiru - 2:04:34
2. Tsegaye Kebede - 2:04:47
3. Zersenay Tadese - 2:04:58
4. Abderrahim Goumri - 2:05:46

Half-way to be reached in 61:54, which is pretty close to exact. However, the pace drops a little too much between 21 and 30km, leaving the men with too much to do at the end. Wanjiru, driven by his desire to break the world record, pushes the pace on, but is cautious about setting it up for the unknown quantity of Tadese. So the final 2km are decisive in the race, when Wanjiru is able to break away and claim the title.

And where is Lel, you might ask? Well, as much as it pains me to predict (he is my favourite runner), his injury proves too incapacitating and he doesn't feature at the cutting edge of the race. If the injury flares up in the first 35km, I predict he drops out for a DNF. If it happens after 35km, he jogs in and finishes 12th some four minutes back.

So there you have it - the result from London 2009. That's a new crystal ball, by the way, I smashed the old one after it let me down horribly in Boston! The only call I made correctly was Ryan Hall for 3rd, everything else couldn't have been more incorrect!

Enjoy London! And don't forget, our usual pacing analysis, with tables, graphs and race breakdown will be up as soon as possible after the race, so check in on Sunday!


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!

Boston 2009 Live splits and race coverage

Boston result - it's Salina Kosgei and Deriba Merga (with Ryan Hall and Kara Goucher bagging a pair of 3rd places)

Men's race

The 113th Boston marathon has just finished. And it produced two VERY different races - for the men, a super fast start and race of attrition at the end, with Deriba Merga of Ethiopia claiming the title in a time of 2:08:42. Daniel Rono of Kenya came second, and Ryan Hall third for the USA. It was Hall who did much of the work in the very fast first half of the race (first 10km in 29:29, which, despite the downhill profile, projected a fast time, especially compared with previous years), but he was dropped by a fairly vicious attack by Merga at 28km. He fought back bravely, and finished a credible third, giving the USA its second 3rd place of the day, only minutes after Kara Goucher had done the same in the women's race (see below).

Women's race

On the women's side, it was Salina Kosgei of Kenya who won, in a surprising result, as she beat out defending champion Dire Tune in an epic sprint to the line.

Kara Goucher, the US hope, finished third
, giving the USA two third place finishes. The race was, to be direct, bizarre. The pace was never on for anything even remotely fast, with the halfway point reached in 1:18:12, and only in the final 10km did the intensity rise. In the end, the race was won in 2:32:16, which was the slowest time since 1980.

Pacing and how it unfolded

Below are the pacing tables from the race, you can get a quick overview of how things unfolded. I have to take a break (live race coverage was exhausting!), but I'll be back later this evening with my full race report and insights. So check in later, and enjoy the aftermath of a great day's racing (so near, yet so far for American hopes for the race)


Friday, April 17, 2009

Boston Marathon crystal ball

And the winners will be...

Right, so last night I rummaged through my cupboard and in amongst the unused bicycle parts, running shoes and tennis rackets, I discovered my long-lost crystal ball and Nostradamus outfit, which I decided to put to good use. To save myself the time of having to do this post on Monday AFTER the race, I figured I would do my post-race recap and report NOW, two days earlier.

So, courtesy a look into the future, below is the report from the 113th Boston Marathon, with splits, winners and main race coverage...

Men's race

The men's race was always going to be a battle between the three Cheruiyots, one American hope in Ryan Hall, and the Ethiopian Deriba Merga. Last year, Cheruiyot threw down the gauntlet and blasted the 25 km stretch from 5km to 30km at 2:57/km pace and went unchallenged over the hilly section in the second half of the race.

However, as one of our readers (Brian) pointed out the other day, last year's Boston race was effectively a Kenyan trial for the Olympic Marathon, along with the London Marathon, which was the week before. There, Martin Lel and Sammy Wanjiru had all but assured their spots in Beijing, and other Kenyans had run sub-2:07 a few weeks before that. So the onus was squarely on Cheruiyot to send a message to the selectors, which he duly did.

This year, Boston comes before London and there's no Olympic Games anyway, so Cheruiyot's early race tactics differ substantially. Rather than take up the lead, he sits in the main group and allows the pace to drift somewhat over the first 10km. Bearing in mind that there are some downhill sections, the pace up to 15km is brisk, but not spectacular. 15km is reached in 45:01, which is marginally faster than last year's race, but without the aggressive front-running.

At this stage, it was the OTHER Robert Cheruiyot doing most of the work out front, with Evans Cheruiyot, Deriba Merga and Ryan Hall featuring at the front for short periods.

Halfway is reached in 63:10, with a group of seven men still together. Deriba Merga begins to feature more prominently, taking the lead at all the water stops in his usual front-running style. Robert Cheruiyot (the defending champ this time) is also beginning to show, with Ryan Hall having picked him as the man to mark, positioning himself on the shoulder.

The period between 25 and 35 km is decisive in Boston as the series of rolling hills (Newton Hills) sifts out the weak from the strong. And the 2009 race is no different. Here, it's Evans Cheruiyot, Ryan Hall, Deriba Merga and Robert Cheruiyot who survive longest, and early pace-setter Robert Cheruiyot (the other) is gone shortly after 30 km.

The pace has remained high, just below 3:00/km, which is searingly fast given the hilly course they're running on, and the Boston record of 2:07:14 is well and truly under threat, from all four men.

Between 35 and 40km, the pace slows, partly thanks to the brutal efforts before, but also because the main protagonists are watching each other closely now, throwing in short surges but nothing decisive. Deriba Merga looks to be struggling the most, possibly paying for his earlier moves that split the group shortly after halfway. 40km is reached in 2:00:05, still on course for a comfortable record time.

With 2km to go, Robert Cheruiyot makes his decisive move, and it's enough to gap both Merga and Hall, though only slightly. With 1km remaining, it's Cheruiyot with Evans Cheruiyot on the shoulder, and Hall and Merga involved in their own race 5 seconds further back. Robert Cheruiyot's strength however tells and he slowly, painstakingly opens a gap on Evans Cheruiyot coming up the finishing straight. He crosses the line in 2:06:32, a new Boston record, with Evans Cheruiyot four seconds behind in 2:06:36.

Hall meanwhile, spurred by the local support, holds out Merga for third, also breaking the old record comfortable - 2:06:48, while Merga is five seconds back.

So Robert K. Cheruiyot claims title number 5, in the most competitively deep and easily fastest Boston Marathon ever.

Women's race

The women's race is no less intriguing, though lacking the out-and-out quality of the men's event. With the field wide open, no clear favourite, everyone fancies their chances, and as a result, the early pace is very slow. 10 km is reached in 34:31, on course for a 2:25:39.

Predictably, all the main contenders are still there. Russia's Lidiya Grigoryeva, an experienced campaigner, is first to lose patience, perhaps deciding that a slow race doesn't suit her racing against a handful of 20-something year old Ethiopians and an American Kara Goucher with a sub-67 minute half marathon. She takes the lead shortly after 10km and the pace is lifted.

It's hardly decisive though, and the halfway mark is reached in 72:32. The slight increase in pace has done little to the main field, however, which still comprises six other athletes, including all the pre-race favourites. As in the men's race, the sifting process begins shortly after 25km, where it's Bezenesh Bekele of Ethiopia who pushes on. She has a 2:23:09 PB and is the fastest in the field on that basis, and decides that the hilly section is where she'll win the race.

Dire Tune is first to respond, inspired by the rivalry these two women possess and memories of the gun-pulling incident last year. The two Ethiopians seem, for a moment, to have made the decisive move. However, Kara Goucher and later Selinah Kosgei eventually cover the move and a group of four forms soon after the 30km mark, on a downhill section of the course. The race has become remarkably similar to the men's race. Goucher and Kosgei perhaps playing smart in the face of a very aggressive attack and equally aggressive response by the Ethiopians.

Heartbreak Hill, which is run with 9km still to go, rises only about 30m over a 700m run, so it's not that steep, but certainly does the damage in the women's race. Here, it's Tune and Goucher who move clear. The fastest half-marathons in the field, at least in recent years, are now racing over the final 5km, with Bekele and Kosgei off the pace.

40km is reached in 2:16:12, with only Goucher and Tune still at the front. Tune has the more recent marathon in her legs, a win in Dubai in January in 2:24, and that may count against her, compared to Goucher's more sparing race schedule.

With 1km to go, Goucher starts to see a small gap open up, as Tune begins to falter and drop off the pace. It's not so much a decisive move as it is a slowing of the pace by Tune, but it's enough to see Goucher grow a lead of two strides. The massive support for the local runner, cheering on their first winner (men or women) since 1985, inspires Goucher and once that gap is created, she pushes on and grows the lead.

Eventually, it is Goucher who crosses the line for the win in a new PB for her of 2:23:34, with Tune six seconds adrift. Goucher becomes the first woman victor since 1985 and is now well positioned as one of the eminent marathon runners. She may lack the fast 2:21 time that sets the super-elite apart, but her two marathons over two relatively tough courses in NYC and Boston have proven her racing capacity.

So America gets its champion, albeit in the less expected division, but both athletes have produced great performances, and Boston is back on the map after a couple of years of relatively "lesser" races compared to those of London!

And since I've posted the race report today, I can enjoy Monday's Boston Marathon without having to post. Also, if these predictions prove to be correct, then you'll be able to find me in Las Vegas next week, before my luck runs out!

Just kidding, the proper post is on the way, I'll get the splits up as soon as the race is over. The usual tables and graphs should summarize the events, so wherever in the world you are, do join us on Monday, shortly after 12pm (Boston time, or 6pm South Africa time) for the full splits, results, and the "proper" analysis!

Enjoy the race, have a great weekend. Til monday!


Thursday, April 16, 2009

Build-up to Boston 2009: Women's race preview

Tune returns to face a cluster of challengers in Boston's women's race

Yesterday saw our preview of the men's race, or at least, a run through of last year's race and a quick glimpse at who will race this year's 113th Boston Marathon. The real preview, along with some (precise) predictions will come tomorrow!

But first, a look at the women's race, taking the same approach as for yesterday - a look back and then a look forward.

Last year the women's race produced what the men's did not - a super-exciting race. That's not to say that Cheruiyot's win was not exciting, nor impressive, for it was both. But the women produced a sprint finish reminiscent of Tergat vs. Ramaala in NYC back in 2005.

It was Dire Tune vs Alevtina Biktimirova in a sprint finish, with Tune prevailing by the narrowest margin in the history of the race - 2 seconds. Tune of Ethiopia is back this year, though Biktimirova is not.

Last year's race was a race of two halves, - slow to start, super fast to finish. The second half was covered in 70:40, which is an incredible performance on the back of 21 km and over the Newton Hills. The table below summarizes the pacing profile of the race.

Looking at this year's field

This year's field is a little stronger than last year's, but has been something of a talking point. Apparently, Catherine Ndereba of Kenya was denied entry, because (in her words), "I talked with Boston, I wanted to run there, but they said they didn't have space for me."

Whether or not that is true, I don't know, perhaps something lost in translation. In any event, she won't line up in a field that is pretty strong anyway. LetsRun.com have, as always, done a great overview of the main contenders - to the point and accurate. They compare the London field to that of Boston, and it does reveal the gulf between the two races: London has 8 women with PBs at 2:21:34 or better, including three sub-2:20 runners. Boston has only three women with PBs under 2:25.

And admittedly, they're young runners whose times might be confounded a little by the fact that they've run "tougher" marathons, but there's still a big difference.

Another American hope

The women's race attracts more than its usual share of interest because, like the men's race, it features another hope for USA distance running in Kara Goucher. It was 1983 that the last American man won in Boston. For the women, the wait has not been quite as long - 1985 was the last American winner. Many are hoping for Goucher to do the job on Monday.

She is a bronze medallist over 10,000m at World Champs in 2007, and a couple of quick half marathons, and a second place in her debut marathon in NYC last year. Her time there was 2:25:53, which ranks her only eighth in a list of PBs going into Boston. However, as pointed out by Letsrun, that time in NYC equates to something a little faster over an easier marathon, and Goucher did beat out many women in NYC with better credentials (on paper, anyway) than her.

So she'll almost certainly feature. Whether she is quite at the level to win is another matter. Her half marathon speed is right up there, though Tune has the Ethiopian record from earlier this year to her credit at 67:18. That's faster than Goucher's recent half marathon, though that was a much debated race since she faltered at the end, while holding a large lead. Perhaps a little risky to read too much into that comparison. Goucher's best half marathon came last year, in her debut, when she ran 66:57. That suggests an exceptional marathon future, and so Goucher may be an as yet unrealized superstar over 42km.

Another potential champion is Bezenesh Bekele, who is the fastest in the field with a 2:23:03. She won Dubai this year in a shade outside 2:24, and so comes in with good credentials. A relatively disappointing race in Chicago last year (7th in 2:24) may be a once-off down-turn, it may be a sign that she's not up to the race situations she'll encounter in Boston. She's a little bit of an unknown quantity.

Draw your weapon: Ethiopian marathon rivalries add some spice

Adding some flavour to the rivalry is the story emerging from Beijing that Bekele's husband last year pulled a gun on Deriba Merga, who was Tune's training partner . This came after Tune and Bekele got into a fight on an Ethiopian team bus, after Bekele accused Tune of being undeserving of her place on the Ethiopian Olympic team. It was Bekele who missed out on Beijing when the Ethiopian selectors chose Tune to run in the Games. The confrontration, a night in prison for Bekele's husband, and a very tense period followed, which Tune describes as "really bad".

There can hardly be much in the way of "friendly" rivalry when you've been in fights and had guns pulled during arguments, so the race has a little more spice than your typical marathon!

Added to these three is Selinah Kosgei, a 2:23 runner (2006) and a consistent marathon runner. She's probably a good bet to run a mid 2:20s time. She has been fourth in London twice, second in Berlin, and fourth in New York. Consistent, but lacking the big victory. Perhaps Boston will be her day?

The only prediction I'll make today is that I suspect it will be Goucher vs the two Ethiopians, and I don't see any of the other women challenging. It's a bald assertion, but I suspect it's more likely that a 2:08 man surprises everyone by running 2:06 than it is a 2:26 woman suddenly runs a 2:23. So I think the podium will be fought out by those three, with Kosgei a dark horse, but probably fourth a minute or so down.

Quite how it will develop, well, I'll sleep on it and dig out the crystal ball tomorrow!

Join us then!

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Build-up to Boston 2009: Men's race preview

Building up to Boston: A look back at last year's men's race

Well, as promised yesterday, we begin with a build-up to Monday's Boston Marathon, which should be a great RACE this year, with Ryan Hall being brought in to spice up what has become a Kenyan parade in Boston in recent years.

I emphasize "Race" because last year, the 112th Boston Marathon, became a solo run for Robert Cheruiyot of Kenya, when he blasted a 25km stretch of the race at faster than 3:00/km. You can read the entire post-race analysis here, but for today, a recap of then, and a look forward to Monday where Cheruiyot will return to face what should amount to much stiffer competition.

The race began slowly enough, but Cheruiyot took off soon after 5km and pretty much drove a solo effort along at sub-2:06 pace. Remember that Boston is not the fastest course in the world and you appreciate the Cheruiyot was awesome during this period, where he averaged 2:57/km (2:04:41 pace).

The table and graph below show Cheruiyot's split times (the table over 5km and the graph per mile) during his win, and pretty much summarize last year's race.

The 2009 race - enter Ryan Hall, a challenge to the Cheruiyot of Fire?

This year promises to be a little different. Last year, Cheruiyot was very much the class of the field. There were good runners, sure, but the tall Kenyan was a previous champion in Boston (the course record holder at 2:07:14 in 2006) and Chicago and very much the favourite going into the race.

The addition of Ryan Hall to the field changes that. The American, who I said yesterday was the lone-standing challenger to the African dominance in the marathon (apologies to other non-Africans I'm forgetting), carries with him enormous Patriot-day hopes of a first American victory in Boston since Greg Meyer in 1983.

Hall is a 2:06 marathon runner, a 59-minute half marathon man, and carried great hopes into Beijing's Olympic marathon last year as well. There, he disappointed despite eventually finishing 10th, falling off the pace very early on. By his own admission, the training had not gone well and he was not 100% going into that race. So far, in the build-up to Monday's race, the noises coming from Hall have been quite different. In this interview with Runners World, he talks about the improvements in his training between Beijing and now, and the numbers indicate that if Cheruiyot does decide to replicate the aggressive race of last year, Hall will certainly be up for the challenge.

Hall is a refreshing presence on the global running scence. Apart from being a new hope for the USA, he also speaks openly and honestly about his training and brings interest from people who might otherwise simply dismiss the sport as lacking spectator interest. Anything that adds to media value is good for the sport, and to be frank, when running (and athletics) is competing against other sports for a share of media exposure, it's good to have people who excite the journalists and offer stories other than the typical "dry" East African dominance of running.

Whether that interest will help or hinder him come Boston is another story. His training has been exceptionally focused - he has raced sparingly, passed up a half-marathon so that he could do more Boston-specific hill training, and he's chosen this race ahead of the big pay-day of London.

Other big names to look out for - it's much more than a two-horse race

But he'll have his hands full, not only with Robert Cheruiyot. In fact, there are at least TWO OTHER Cheruiyots to contend with - Evans Cheruiyot has a PB of 2:06:25, set last year in Chicago, and which is the second fastest in the race (behind Hall's 2:06:17 from London last year). And then another Robert Cheruiyot comes in with a PB of 2:07:21. Evans in particular will be very dangerous - he has won his last two marathons (Milan and Chicago last year), and he has a 59:05 half-marathon PB from 2007. Those are great credentials, and so there is a real chance the race will be won by a Cheruiyot, but not the one everyone is expecting!

Add to this Deriba Merga of Ethiopia and Daniel Rono of Kenya and you have another sub-2:07 men (both in 2008, so recent) to contend with. Then there are a number of other athletes with 2:08 performances. We saw two weeks ago in Rotterdam and Paris that men with 2:08 bests can suddenly produce 2:06 times (or even bigger improvements than this), so they can't be written off either!

All told, the field is strong and deep and it should make for an enthralling race on Monday. I'm going to delay my predictions (and winning time crytal-ball) until my Friday post, when I'll call both the men's and women's races.

Tomorrow, I'll look at the women's race from 2008 and the line-up for this year (including some controversy with Ndereba being denied entry), so join us then!

Until then, get your predictions for the men in!


P.S. Don't forget to join us on Monday, within 30 minutes of the finish of the Boston race, for all the splits and pacing analysis (as for the graph and table above)

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Upcoming attractions

Sports' purple patch - a preview of forthcoming attractions

The period between Easter and July is always the best part of the sporting year - it starts with Two Oceans (for me, anyway!), then the autumn marathons kick into gear with London and Boston, and that's followed by the start of the track and field season, the Grand Tours of Italy and the Tour de France, and the peak of the tennis season, with the French Open and Wimbledon on the horizon (unless of course, you're Roger Federer and have two months of red clay to deal with)

It's a fantastic time to follow sport, and for us at The Science of Sport, a fantastic time to analyse, discuss and debate the "behind-the-scenes" aspects of those sports. So this is something of a housekeeping post, just to inform you of what we'll be doing over the next month or so, with the added appeal to keep reading, keep promoting and spreading the word to others who might enjoy our analysis. Also, don't forget our Facebook site, which you can now join to be part of the Science of Sport community!

The Marathons

The purple patch starts off with the Boston Marathon, which is next Monday. That's followed just under a week later by the London Marathon. Depending on your inclination, London is still the premiere race, with its field of World and Olympic champions, and the World Series champion from last year. Heading the bill is Sammy Wanjiru vs Martin Lel, a clash of giants that many predict will see a world record. I'm not so certain about that, but it will be a great race. Plus it sees the debut of Zersenay Tadese, and with his half marathon credentials, he should be fearsome over the full distance.

Then again, Boston brings us Robert Cheruiyot vs Ryan Hall, perhaps the only man who can challenge the African dominance over the distance right now (with regards to both time and racing credentials). So both Boston and London should produce fireworks. As has become our tradition, we'll preview both (I'll probably put my head squarely on the block and predict the tactics, the times and the winners), and then ON RACE DAY, WE'LL DO OUR USUAL REAL TIME SPLIT ANAYLSIS.

Those two races will take up much of the next few weeks. If small stories (or a big one) pop up, we'll be sure to cover those two.

A fascinating interview - worth a read and a series of discussion posts

But one story that we definitely have in our cross-hairs is our commentary on this interview:

NY Velocity speaks openly with Dr Michael Ashenden

This is an interview that was done by a reader, Andy, who kindly sent us the link. Dr Michael Ashenden is an Australian scientist who has been involved with the development of the tests for both EPO and homologous blood doping.

In this interview, he speaks openly and honestly about Ed Coyle, Lance Armstrong, doping in cycling and in particular, Lance Armstrong's samples that tested positive for EPO in 1999.

The interview is long, and because of that, what we will do after the Marathons are done (in May, that is), is break the interview down and run excerpts of it, with our comments and thoughts on the content. That way, hopefully it serves to stimulate more thought and debate, because quite frankly, it's too good an interview with too many important aspects that MUST be read, listened to and understood. Failing to do that would be a shame.

It is a fantastic interview because one does not often get an "undiluted" opinion of truth from someone with insight, education and experience. This interview offers all three. Our regular readers will appreciate that we relate to the idea of openness, and that we're not shy of stating facts and opinions based on those facts (as with Oscar Pistorius, Ed Coyle and doping in sport). That is what Mike Ashenden is all about.

You'll also recall that we covered the whole Ed Coyle-Lance Armstrong controversy a while back (a topic for which some people were scathing - we were criticized for lacking "scientific validity" on this website when Coyle had committed the equivalent of scientific fraud in a scientific journal!).

This interview will re-ignite some of that debate, and then some.

So I'd really encourage you to read it if you have the chance. If not, don't despair, because as I said, we'll break it down and cover parts of it. But only after the Boston and London Marathons, which are next on the horizon!

So join us for Boston this week, London next!


Monday, April 13, 2009

Two Oceans Marathon

Two Oceans Marathon Recap: Paying the price for poor pacing

As promised, a brief recap of the Two Oceans Marathon is the topic of today's post. Many of you may have run the race (or the 21km), and are hopefully enjoying a well deserved day off work and off your feet today.

There are few more beautiful races in the world, as I'm sure anyone who ran will testify. The Cape Town weather played along this year, providing a cloudless sky and ideal conditions for running, although those who are coming out of a winter (northern hemisphere visitors, that is) would have found it warmer than they'd hoped. You can read the race report here - my post is more of a commentary on the tactics and the standard of running, as highlighted by the results.

The elite races produced two very different stories. In the men's race, the pre-race favourite was Marko Mambo of Zimbabwe, the defending champion and a winner of the race back in 2004 and 2005 as well. He was heavily favoured to win this year, mostly because the local runners are now so poor over the marathon that they would have to run a miracle to feature.

What Mambo didn't bargain on was a Kenyan - John Wachira. Kenyans have never really turned their attention to our races here in SA, and I don't expect Wachira's performance to start a trend (more on that later). But Wachira, a security guard who is now based in Johannesburg, seized upon a racing error by Mambo and took the title in a time of 3:10:06.

How it unfolded

The race went pretty much according to script for the first 54km (at least for Mambo, that is). The men's pack started pretty conservatively, and at times resembled a cycling peloton with small attacks coming off the front, with the main contenders sitting in and waiting. Those attacks were all by runners who lacked any credentials, so the main pack was content to let the jousting continue. For example, at one stage, two local athletes with marathon bests of 2:24 and 2:26 went off the front.

Consider that at the pace they were running, the marathon mark would be reached in about 2:21, and you realise that when a 2:26 man heads off the front, you'd be a fool to chase him. He'd have to run a PB by 5 minutes and then continue for another 14km. Little wonder that the South African men struggle to compete, given that a 2:20 marathon is now seen as "fast" by many in this country. Sadly, it's fast enough to win prize money in many races, and therein lies our problem.

The jousting continued up to the bottom of Chapmans Peak, at around 28km. The halfway mark was reached in 1:33, relatively slow. It was at this stage that some of the main contenders started to appear at the front. A small pack of about 10 athletes formed, including all the main protagonists. The surging continued, but this time, with a difference - the big names were now tracking those attacks.

It was a remarkable period of racing, considering that the finish line was still 27 km away. Imagine the elite field of London throwing in surges after 15km of the marathon and you get the idea. Moses Njodzi, himself a former Zimbabwean winner, was one of the first big names to throw in a surge, and he was immediately tracked by Mambo. Mambo then went straight by, and drove the pace on over the top of Chapmans Peak. That little surge-countersurge exchange reduced the size of the lead group to two - Mambo and Njodzi. Amazingly, the elite field had been trimmed with more than a half marathon to go. I'm told that the pace coming over Chapman's Peak was around 2:50 per kilometer, which partly explains why this would happen.

At the time, I remember being surprised at how early this was happening and how easily the race had been trimmed. Sitting in the commentary booth, I was assured that Mambo was in superb shape and was not making an error in judgement. And given that he'd won three times, it certainly seemed to be the decisive break.

However, as anyone will tell you, the Two Oceans race only really starts on the climb of Constantia Nek, a steep and winding climb just after the marathon mark. Perhaps it's the combination of the timing with the steepness, but this is a brutal climb, and it was here that the first signs of weakness appeared for Mambo. He looked laboured, but was by this stage well clear of second place. Just how far clear is impossible to say, because no time splits were being provided.

He crested the climb and began the long descent towards the finish line looking tired but with a large lead. The second man on the road by this stage was John Wachira, a 2:11 marathon runner who was looking far stronger. However, in the absence of time gaps, it was difficult to anticipate how secure Mambo was.

As it would transpire, very insecure. With 5km to go, we received our first time split of 1:21, which meant Mambo had 15 seconds per kilometer in the bank. With 3km to go, it was reported as 55 seconds, and it seemed as though Mambo had done enough to claim his fourth title.

However, as it turned out, that split was incorrect, much to everyone's surprise, including the TV commentators at the time, who declared that Mambo had a secure lead only seconds before he was caught by a fast finishing Wachira! With just under 2km to go, the lead changed hands and Mambo was gone. So dominant was Wachira's finish that he built a lead of 46 seconds in those final 2km.

Mambo therefore paid the price for his earlier efforts, over-commiting to the race over Chapmans Peak when he might have been a little more prudent. Wachira becomes the first Kenyan to win the race, only a day after I wrote that I didn't think that the best Kenyans would run here. I stand by that, by the way, because to me, a Kenyan with a 2:11 marathon is not the "best" Kenyan (given that most of their top men are running 2:07 these days). Wachira is a Johannesburg-based security guard who probably lacks the pure speed to feature in global marathons, but his 2:11 marathon makes him the class of the field in South Africa. Sadly, the size of our pond is shrinking and the bigger fish from elsewhere are moving in...

Women's race - a procession as normal for the Nurgalieva twins

Speaking of small ponds, South African women's running is in dire straits. Twenty five years ago, Helen Lucre, who was commentating with me, ran 3:52 to win the race. In those 25 years, the women's record in the marathon has plummeted by 10 minutes, training methods have improved, and yet South African women are now SLOWER than they were then. In the late 1980s, we had Frith van der Merwe, who ran a 2:27 marathon and a Two Oceans record of 3:30.

On Saturday, the best South African woman finished fourth, in a time of 3:59. Little wonder then that the Russian Nurgalieva twins, Elana and Olesya, have come to South Africa to bank their cheques for the last five or six years. Between Comrades and Two Oceans, the Nurgalieva twins have reduced local athletes to extras in their timed training runs. On Saturday, so dominant were they that they held hands over the finish line with a lead of 16 minutes, and effectively dead-heated the race. Rules don't allow dead heats, and so Elana was given the win ahead of Olesya, but it really was academic.

Third went to a Zimbabwean, Samukeliso Moyo, fully 16 minutes back, with South Africa's first finisher, Farwa Mentoor, a further minute down in fourth.

The sad dilemma for the race and the future of SA running

Sadly, this dominance by international runners does little for the appeal of the elite race to locals, as does the dominance of the men's race by non South Africans. In the absence of local interest, media interest dwindles and neutrals will never be attracted to the race. Most South African running people know who the Nurgalieva twins are, but very few care. So low was the media interest this year that the press truck that carries journalists on the route was cancelled.

Against this backdrop, the governing body for the sport in this country have remain unchanged and continue oversee a dramatic decline in our standards. They are quick to remind us that athletics provided South Africa's only medal in Beijing, as though this justifies their existence (and salaries). No change, no implementation of grand ideas, and meanwhile our races continue to support the GDP of our African neighbours. If that seems harsh, bear in mind that in the 1980s and 1990s, we had about half a dozen men running the Half Marathon in 61 minutes, and have produced winners in New York, the Olympics, Fukuoka, as well as three or four men ranked top 10 in the world lists.

What then should be done? Well, talk is cheap, to begin with, and much has been said by those in charge about their grand plans. Usually, they say the right things. Those involved in the sport will tell you that nothing is being done though. The biggest problem we face is that we have supported and rewarded mediocrity among our runners. When a man wins a marathon in 2:18, he is NOT fast. He is in fact very poor compared to global standards. Yet he's now fast enough to win locally, and so given the incentive to make money off running, we have succeeded in incentivizing mediocrity.

Our athletes race almost every weekend, and there is no long-term development strategy. This should commence with juniors, and a ten-year plan should be put in place to manage the athletes better. This begins in schools, but should be focused on what is, in South Africa, a very well developed club running scene. Unfortunately, given the abysmal quality of our coaches, we have reaped what we have sown, and expecting it to change with the same people involved is a day-dream. So for now, I am resigned to saying the same things for another generation at least.

Until the governing body, the clubs and the athlete's coaches recognize that we must benchmark against global standards, and then realize that changing the incentives is the only way to change behaviour, races like Two Oceans will continue to be money-machines for international athletes.

Apologies for the doom-and-gloom review of the race, but it's impossible, as a South African (especially one who coaches and is involved in the problem) to discuss local running without pointing out the problem. The saddest part of all is that every year, we produce hundreds of men who run 2:20 for the marathon, and can't turn a single one into a world class marathon runner. Only fifteen years ago, we had some of the best in the world. Much like the stocks of GM, Chrysler and Ford, SA athletics is in freefall, and now worth very little. Unlike those companies, we will have the same leadership for years...

My own Two Oceans from the commentary box

In the interests of finishing off positively, I had a good Two Oceans from behind a microphone making my commentary "debut". I'm sure there is room for improvement, but I did get to explain some of the research that was being done at the race, and hopefully dispel a few myths about dehydration, heatstroke and muscle cramps during my stints. I would have liked to do more race-specific commentary, but perhaps in the future, that will happen. My role instead was to comment on related aspects of physiology, like the heat, cramping athletes, physiology of running etc.

And like every other commentator, I was fooled by the provision of the split times in the elite men's race, and had pretty much given the race to Mambo, only to be proved incorrect!

But that not withstanding, it was a good experience and hopefully added some value to the broadcast and the race! Like this post, I hope!