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Sunday, September 30, 2012

Geoffrey Mutai: 2:04:15, misses WR

Geoffrey Mutai runs 2:04:15 - an intriguing, but ultimately unsuccessful WR attempt

An intriguing, but ultimately unsuccessful world record attempt has seen Geoffrey Mutai win the 2012 Berlin Marathon in 2:04:15.  In one of the more amazing (or peculiar) finishes in a marathon, Mutai and Dennis Kimetto passed through the Brandenburg Gate locked together, but a sprint never came.  Either both were too shattered from chasing the world record, or they'd agreed on a finishing order (they are training partners, Mutai the senior man), but the final 2.2km were incredibly slow relative to what went before and the record, which seemed on at 35km, fell away and was ultimately missed by a fairy large margin.

In the aftermath of the race, there's been a good deal of discussion about the finish.  As mentioned, Mutai and Kimetto hit the Brandenburg Gate locked together, Mutai slightly ahead, as they had been for pretty much 42km.  Over the final 200m, that did not change, and there seemed to be no attempt to change that from Kimetto, and no attempt from Mutai to seal the win with any kind of sprint.  A few commentators have remarked at their surprise at the lack of a sprint, and I must confess it was an anti-climactic finish for a head-to-head race, leading me to side with those saying it was "pre-planned".

If that is the case, it would continue a theme started in the London Olympic Games where athletes were getting into trouble as much for NOT wanting to win as for cheating in order to win.  We often talk about doping undermining our chance to watch a "genuine race", and one can argue that this is the same, and a shame for the integrity of the concept of a 'race'.  Then again, these athletes are professionals, and given the "hierarchy" that would see Mutai above Kimetto as training partners, perhaps they are entitled to 'share the pie' as they see fit.  Feel free to voice your thoughts in the discussion below.  Here are some thoughts from our friends at Letsrun.com

Patrick Makau's world record therefore survived it's first really big challenge, and it illustrates once again just how challenging the world record is, because Mutai had it in his sights, and perhaps hindsight will show that a small error in pacing after 30km, when he surged aggressively for a 14:18 five-kilometer split, cost him over the final 5km, where the pace dropped significantly.

The race analysis

The story is best told by the graph below, which is full of detail, but hopefully tells of how Mutai controlled the race from the start, and managed to wind the pace up progressively so that each five kilometer segment was faster than the one before.  Until the final 5km segment, that is, where you can see the "cost" of the surge as the pace dropped.

Up to that point, it was a remarkable illustration of negative pacing, and is the kind of thing you might occasionally see in a tactical track race, let alone a world record lasting over two hours.

Briefly, the graph compares Mutai's 2012 race to that of Patrick Makau, the man who set the record one year ago.  It shows, from top to bottom:

  • The five kilometer segments for both athletes, with Makau's in red and Mutai's in blue
  • The difference between the five-kilometer splits in purple.  Positive means Mutai was slower, negative means he was faster than Makau for the comparable split from 2011
  • Projected marathon time for Mutai in the white blocks
  • The blue line and red line show the race splits for Mutai and Makau respectively.  The text on the graphs shows the cumulative time difference between the two men as Mutai's race unfolded

So, what are the key points?
  • Firstly, the AVERAGE pace needed to run the world record is 2:55.8.  That translates to a 14:39/5km.  Notice how Mutai did not hit that pace until the second half of the race.  In fact, he was actually quite a lot slower than the overall average, with his splits for the first 10km projecting a time outside 2:05.  So the first half was conservative - 62:12.

    Interestingly, I've since received some feedback that the pace car that drives the route with the elite athletes displaying the kilometer splits was responsible for this conservative start, because it "froze" with a kilometer time of 2:50 within the first few kilometers of the race.  Mutai, assuming he was basing his pace on that information, would have consciously held back for fear of maintaining that kind of pace, and the consequence of that is that he went through the half about 35 seconds slower than had been requested.

    Once Mutai realized that the pace was too slow (he needed a 61:25 second half), he pressed on, and the second began in a sensationally aggressive fashion, and was fast, at least until the end.  His second half ended up being 62:05, so on paper, an even race, but of course it's skewed by the very fast surge and the very slow finish

  • Speaking of the finish, at 35km, the world record was definitely on.  Makau's comparable time may have been 14 seconds faster, but Makau finished fairly slowly last year too - 14:59 for the last 5km.  Had Mutai maintained even a 14:40 pace from 35km onwards, the record was his.  However, he slowed significantly.  The final 2.2km were run at 3:09/km.  The result was that a virtual gap of 8 seconds at 40km became 36 seconds by the finish line.  Mutai was absolutely spent over the final 2.2km, and this is probably the outcome of the 14:18 surge.

  • Until the final 7km, the slope of that line is just incredible - yes, the start was conservative, but it was ramped up as the race developed, culminating with Mutai's big surge between 30 and 35km, when the pace-setters dropped out.  There, a 2:43 and a 2:52 kilometer put him right back in the frame for that record.  It's easy to see in hindsight, but that was too fast - a slightly more conservative pace would still have kept that line heading in the right direction, and Mutai MAY have had more in the tank from 35 to 40km, and certainly a sub-2:04 would have been achieved.  These things are never precise, of course, but given how beautifully controlled the pace was, that surge was just too big.  And to emphasize the precision, we're talking 2 to 3 seconds per kilometer here!  Those are the margins.

  • Look at the cumulative time gaps between Mutai and Makau - the conservative start for Mutai meant that from the gun, Makau was "ahead" in their virtual race.  It was 22 seconds after 5km, and the gap got larger and larger, so that by 20km, Makau would have been about 200m ahead, with a margin of 33 seconds.  But Mutai's race, as mentioned above, was based on getting quicker and quicker, and so he began to erode that margin.  21 seconds at 25km, then it got larger again - that's because Makau used the 25-30km segment last year to surge and break Gebsrselassie's challenge.  The virtual gap grew to 34 seconds at 30km, but Mutai had his own surge still to use.  That happened from 30km to 35km, and suddenly, the record was back on because the difference was now down to only 14 seconds.  With 2.2km to go, Mutai had Makau in "his virtual sights".  But then, as pointed out above, Mutai blew and the record fell away.
Ultimately, Mutai's performance today showed just how difficult it will be to get this record.  There is still a margin for "error" in terms of pacing, but it's now tiny.  Today, the start was probably a touch slow, but the big difference came after 35km, when the pace told.   Similarly, for Makau last year, his big surge probably meant that the final time was not quite optimal - there is a margin for error.  But in the heat of a marathon, it's small enough that surges and decisions that are slightly fast are costly.  This is why it's so premature to talk about a sub-2 hour marathon, or even a sub-2:02.  Those performances require perfection - the small margin of error for a 2:03 is almost non-existent for a 2:02.  Weather-wise, it has to be perfect (the sunshine may have added time to Mutai's performance today, for example, just slightly warm by the finish), pace-setting must be perfect, the athlete probably requires some 'company', and of course their condition must be absolutely perfect on the day.

Mutai, and Berlin, were not quite 100% today.  The result is a PB (official course, that is - Mutai has that 2:03:02), and Mutai has now won three major marathons (Boston, New York and Berlin), but the world record waits for another day.


P.S.  Will try to get thoughts on the women's race up later.  I missed the race live because of another commitment (sorry for the lack of live splits - work got in the way!), so have been scrambling to get this short analysis done.  More later, work permitting!