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Monday, September 03, 2007

IAAF World Champs - Day 9 analysis and insights

The final day of the IAAF World Champs brought with it some memorable performances, some bizarre racing tactics and many multiple medal winners. Below is our analysis of the racing action

Men's 5000m - A double for Bernard Lagat on what the field must have thought was his birthday

Bernard Lagat came into these World Championships having never won a world title. Four days ago, he took the 1500m gold medal in an intriguing race (see our analysis of that race here). And tonight, he won a second gold medal by taking out a 5000m race that can be described as somewhat bizarre.

Lagat must have felt that all his birthdays and Christmases had come at once. From now on, he will surely celebrate the 2nd of September as a day for gifts, because the field basically handed him the race. Of course, he may have won regardless of the early pace, as he is a quality runner with a 5000m PB of 12:59. But had you said to him that the pace for the first 4000m would be 11:22, he probably would have asked you if were not perhaps referring to the women's race instead! The winning time was 13:45.87, easily the slowest time in the history of the World Champs!

The starting pace was astonishingly slow - 3:00 through the first kilometer, which is in fact even slower than the women ran their first kilometer in the corresponding event the other day. And this happened with one of the world's fastest 1500m men in the field. In effect, what we saw in this final was a 4200m warmup with an 800m sprint. Considering the fact that a 1500m specialist was in the race, this was a race for second place, with the field apparently deciding that Lagat was welcome to outsprint them in the end and win gold!

Behind these statements lies the fact that when you are racing a man who can run 1500m at close to 56 seconds per lap, running the final 800m in 55 seconds per lap is no big deal, if the initial pace is so slow. And what happened in this race, once the pace was stepped up in the final two laps, was that they ran the final 800m in 1:49 (my timing). Everyone else in the field is running pretty close to flat out at this pace - I doubt very much whether most of these guys could run 1:47 for an 800m if they had to. But Lagat, by virtue of the fact that he is trained to run 1500m, where the pace is regularly close to 1:52/800m for double this distance, is relatively untroubled, even at this pace. Watching the final 2 laps was clear evidence of this. When everyone else seemed to be pumping arms and driving knees, Lagat looked almost lazy, biding his time at the back of the group until he had to come through.

It was a remarkable choice of tactics, not least of all because 3 years ago, Hicham el Guerrouj had been gifted the Olympic 5000m title in the same way. In that race, the final kilometer was run in about 2:21. Tonight, it was 2:23, the race a near mirror image. I wrote the other day that someone, who I thought would be Craig Mottram, would have to take the pace out and keep them at below 13:10 pace. That was, to me, the only way to keep a 1500m runner at bay. But clearly, no one felt the same, or they were incapable of it.

It all added up to the slowest winning time in the history of the championships and a second gold medal for Lagat. Make no mistake, Lagat deserved this victory, he is a great runner and is building up a pedigree for himself that will see him retire as a great runner. But the way the victory was achieved would have surprised even him.

Or perhaps everyone else in Osaka had something in their water before the race that affected their tactical brains...

The men's 800m Final - did they drink the same water? A peculiar race

It seems as though the men in the 800m Final may have drunk from the same water cooler, because this final was also the slowest in Champsionship history. IN fact, you would have to go back to 1956 to find a slower winning time in an 800m final!

The victor was even more unexpected - Alfred Kirwa Yego, of Kenya, won his first race of the season, and made sure it was a big one! In fact, if you look down the names making up the top four, the only name you'd really recognize would be that of Yuriy Borzakovskiy, the Olympic Champion, who finished third. Second was taken by Gary Reed of Canada and fourth by Abraham Chepkirwok of Uganda. All good athletes, but none would be expected to win medals at the biggest and most competitive 800m race of the year.

The race began normally enough, about 25.5 seconds through the first 200m. But then EVERYONE switched off their engines and they went through the bell in 55 seconds. I wrote in a post yesterday that I expected a first lap around 52 to 53 seconds. This was 3 seconds slower and it was quite clear that the second lap would be very quick. 52 seconds was that second lap time, the whole field coming off the final bend bunched up by virtue of the relatively slow pace. The pre-race favourites, Bungei of Kenya and Mulaudzi were in touch, but the expected surge never came. Mulaudzi, in particular, was disappointing, because he was so well placed, having run a good race up there. He was not boxed in, he had a clear track in front and was right on the shoulder of the leaders. But he just went backwards, eventually finishing a very very disappointing 7th.

But, we did say it would be one of the most open races of the Champs, and it certainly lived up to that billing! So Yego is world champion, the smallest man in the race, and another gold for Kenya, who had a fantastic championships, considering their previous disappointments.

Of interest in this race was the time on the second lap - 52 seconds, which is consistent with the second lap time of 800m races, regardless of first lap paces, as described in yesterday's post. It would be faster, given the pedestrian first lap, but interesting to note that most of these runners are probably capable of running a 52second lap at the end of a race run in 1:44. In otherwords, they could probably run about the same time for the second lap, regardless of the pace on the first lap (within reason, of course). And perhaps guys like Bungei and Mulaudzi are conditioned and trained to run a fast second lap despite a fast first lap. The result during a slow race is that they don't have the speed necessary to find that extra half second that is the difference between first and 7th.

One thing for sure, is that come the Zurich Golden League meet on Friday, a guy like Bungei will probably run 1:43 or 1:44, with a second lap of 52.5 seconds, and so will Mulaudzi. So exactly the same on the second lap, but it's the first lap that may have cost them. Interesting physiology behind that one.

That's all for this post - it's a lengthy one already. There was some other action worth commenting on, particularly the 4 x 400m relays, which included one Allyson Felix, who is without doubt THE star of the present and future. Her 400m leg was something to behold, and she has destiny in her own hands. This was her coming of age, and that's from someone who was already a world champion before Osaka!

But that will be covered in tomorrow's post, where I'll wrap up the Championships, give you my "Best of" and "Worst of" moments, the best atheltes and the biggest disappointments.