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Tuesday, August 14, 2007

The IAAF World Championships - a top 4 Preview

The IAAF World Championships take place in Osaka, Japan, starting on August 25th, and that week long event will be a feature of many of our posts over the next few weeks, where we look at the physiology and news coming out of Japan to explain what happens BEHIND the on-track performances.

To begin with, a preview and top 4 list of the four events that are likely to be most interesting, both from a scientific and athletics-enthusiast point of view. So these are the FOUR events we're most looking forward to:

1. Men's 800m - September 2nd

This may well be the most unpredictable track event of the entire Championships. The 800m race is difficult to call at the best of times, but in the last 4 or 5 years, no single athlete has grabbed the event and dominated it in the manner of Kipketer in the late 1990's.

Any one of about 6 men could win this race. Some have unrecognizable names, having been bought by Qatar or Bahrain, having been Kenyans in a former life. South Africans have a special interest in the race, with Mbulaeni Mulaudzi (right) the number 1 ranked 800m runner in the world this year. Any other event, he'd be the favourite, but the 800m is nothing if not unpredictable.

So much of the race is tactical, and the fastest man in the field may well finish last if he positions himself incorrectly with 300m to go. The speed of the race makes it incredibly difficult to check, move around athletes in front and then come past, so tactical errors which go unpunished in any other race are fatal in the 800m.

Physiologically, the 800m race is also one of the most interesting in the sport. We'll feature a detailed description of the physiology closer to the race (2 September), but basically, the race is won over the final 200m by the athlete who slows down the least. This makes it an intriguing contest between strength and speed - speed to finish fast, but strength to maintain speed that might even be less than that of opponents. And Mulaudzi, should he wish to win, will have to move from 300m out, relying on his strength as a 800-1500m runner. In contrast, Olympic Champ Borzakovskiy is a 400m-800m runner, who will be favoured in a slow race.

But again, there are no guarantees, any one could win this race, a possibility borne out by the fact that no runner has won two consecutive 800m races all year! So keep an eye on this one, it will come down to 4, maybe even 5 runners coming off the final bend, and then we'll see whose physiology is most up to the task!

2. Women's 5000m - 1 September

This is an interesting race for two reasons: Meseret Defar and Turinesh Dibaba. These two Ethiopians have dominated the distance for the last 3 years and have featured in some of the most incredible races last season. Women's running has been moved forward by these two, because of their speed over the final lap - never before have women finished a 5000m race with sub-60 second laps, racing one another all the way to the line. But that was a frequent occurence for these two.

This year has been all about Defar - she smashed the 5000m world recrod (admittedly, the old record was suspect) earlier this year and looks in majestic form. But Dibaba hasn't been racing, preferring instead to focus on training back home in Ethiopia. So she may come into the champs with great strength, and who knows what she may be capable of? The 5000m final is likely to be tactical, and in the past, that has usually (but not always) favoured Dibaba's finishing speed, and even then, it's been marginal.

This will be a fascinating race - one potential confounder is that Dibaba is doing the double - 5000 and 10000m, and so it will be interesting to see how she holds up. Fortunately, the races are almost the full week apart, so she should be recoved in time. It will be a great race.

3. Men's 5000m - 2 September

For different reasons, the men's 5000m race is another fascinating contest. Craig Mottram will race the Kenyans, Ethiopians and Qataris in an attempt to become the first non-African to win a major distance title since Dieter Baumann in 1993. It should be a great race, made more interesting by the fact that Bernard Lagat, a 1500m specialist until recently, will be doubling up. Whenever a 1500m runner steps up to the 5000m at a major championships, the rest of the field have a major problem on their hands.

What do they do with a runner who is quite comfortable running 58 seconds a lap over the final 2km? This was the same problem that undid Kenenisa Bekele in the Athens Olympics when he raced El Guerrouj (admittedly, El Guerrouj was a different level of runner compared to Lagat). But that race was incredibly slow for the first 3km, and the final 2km was basically a 1500m strength session - Bekele never stood a chance. So Mottram has the same problem, he must determine how best to shake the man with the ability to race 54 or 55 seconds a lap. That means a fast start, fast middle and fast finish, which will make for an exciting race. Personally, I don't think that Lagat will feature, he's too erratic and not in the greatest form. Also, the 1500m qualifying rounds will take something out of him, whether he recovers remains to be seen.

It's a great shame that Bekele is not running this race, although that would like kill off the race for gold. But if ever he was going to double, this was it. But in his absence, it should be a great battle between Mottram and the Africans.

4. Women's 200m - 31 August

This is another race that is interesting only as a result of the circumstances surrounding it. Under normal circumstances, it would be the usual assortment of American 200m runners taking on the Jamaicans, with the odd Barbadian thrown in. But this year, the 200m race should feature one of the greatest female sprinters in the world, competing at the WRONG distance. Sanya Richards has been all but unbeatable over 400m in the last 3 years - she's won the Golden League jackpot once already, and is on course to do so again this year. ONE race in the last two years went badly, and that was the American qualifying final. She finished fourth and as a result, will NOT compete in the 400m at the World Champs (A great shame for that event)

But plan B was soon initiated, and she qualified for the 200m team instead. Since then, it's clear that she's worked tremendously on her speed. She recently knocked 0.23 seconds off her 100m best time, so it's apparent that she's adjusted the training in preparation for the 200m event. That can only be a good thing for her 400m future, but for World Champs, she should be in the sort of shape to challenge Allyson Felix. Felix, for her part, has also been in great form. In fact, she recently BEAT Richards over 400m, running a PB of her own. Admittedly, it was only two hours after Richards had run the 100m final in Stockholm, but it did demonstrate that Felix is super-strong. So as with the 800m, the 200m will bring together strength vs. speed. The strength of the 400m runner Richards against the speed of Felix, the 100m-200m specialist.

The fascinating thing is that both have been focused on the OTHER attribute in recent times. So we have the strength specialist working on her speed, and the speed specialist working on her strength, and the women's 200m final brings them together in what should be a great clash!

So that's it for our TOP 4 events, but they should all be great to watch. And we'll be sure to bring you the insight and interpretation that you don't get elsewhere, so join us over the next few weeks for IAAF coverage!

R & J


David Barry said...

I'm not a knowledgeable running fan, and I've never understood all the tactical running business. If you're the fastest runner in the field, why don't you run at your own pace and ignore everyone else? It seems to me that this would be especially easy for a race that's only two laps long.

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi David

Thanks for your question - I can guarantee that you're not the only person thinking this!

Two things are basically responsible. The first is that the margins between guys is so small that ignoring other guys doesn't really work - there's maybe 0.5 seconds difference between the top 5 or 6 runnes ON THEIR DAY, and that means that in any race, you have to be very aware of what they are doing. Athletes are never 100% sure that they will be able to run their best race - they have ups and downs, and if a "down" means running 0.5 seconds slower, then it could also mean no medal! So they adopt a conservative approach.

And then crucially, there is a small but significant advantage to be gained from running behind someone in their "wind shadow" or slipstream. So just as cyclists will try to shelter from air resistance, so too runners get a small advantage by doing this.

It's not as large as it is for cycling (or motorsports), but given the very small differences between guys running at their best, it's big enough that it can have an effect on the outcome.

The second reason is psychological. It's so difficult to "measure" a race from the front, particularly in a pressure situation. So let's say you are a good runner, you know your limits and you go out and run your own race - problem is, a slight miscalculation and you ruin it pretty badly, with other guys waiting to benefit! And for the runners in second place, it's easier to use you as a "yardstick", a carrot that they can chase and then come past at the last possible moment.

So the mental cost plus the tiny advantage to be gained from reduced air resistance explain why tactics are so important.

Having said all this, there have been cases of runners who are so strong that they do succeed by charging off in front, and never come back! In 2001, a Swiss 800m runner (Andre Bucher) was so dominant he did just that - but his best was probably a full second or more better than the next best guy, so he could do it. It also takes massive confidence.

But when you watch this 800m final, you will see someone do this, i'm sure. Someone has to lead, and invariably, he makes one of two choices. He either slows the pace right down, and they just about jog until someone else gets impatient and shoots to the front. Or, he charges himself, adopting the attitude that he can put the pressure on from the front.

it is, however, easier to apply pressure from behind - there's nothing quite so nerve-wracking as knowing there are 7 guys lining up behind you, waiting to run past you!

So all these things come into play, which is why the 800m is such a great race. It's too short to get away with mistakes, but long enough that you can make them!


Albert Caruana said...

Another example of front running tactics is John Ngugi in the 1988 Olympic 5000m. He took the lead at the 1km. mark and kept it the rest of the way to win the gold medal.

In this day and age of racing, rabbits are always used to help the runners attempting to break a world record. As Ross stated, the leaders of a race expend more energy than their pursuers. Since rabbits are disallowed in World Championship and Olympic races, the races usually turn tactical with the victor being the runner with the biggest kick.

Out of the four races that you picked, I would say the men's 5000m. will be the most intriguing.

David Barry said...

Many thanks for that!

Φλύαρος said...


My suggestion is to go rent the movie "Without Limits" which talks about the life of Steve Prefontaine or Pre as he is better known. You can learn a lot about race tactics culminating in the 5K race in 1972 Olympics plus entertain yourself with one of the most spirited runners US has produced. A great movie to watch and also get an inspiration!