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Sunday, October 07, 2007

Chicago Marathon Report: UNBELIEVABLE racing

FIVE HUNDRETHS OF A SECOND! That is the winning margin in the men's 2007 Chicago Marathon! Patrick Ivuti of Kenya pips Jaouad Gharib of Morocco on the line in what must surely be the greatest finish in marathon running! When Paul Tergat and Hendrik Ramaala raced it out in New York two years ago, that was special, but this was an astonishing finish, the two runners racing side by side towards a finish line that clearly didn't bargain on two athletes crossing it together. The poor guy holding the one side of the tape was almost cleaned out by the finishing Ivuti, who was awarded the title by the tiniest of margins.

The winning time, not great, "only" 2:11:11.00 (amazing that we have to refer to the hundreths of seconds, but then Gharib's time was 2:11:11.05)!!!

The splits from the race

The race itself was pretty slow from the outset. It's difficult to find exact splits, because the TV wasn't much help and the official race website was so busy after the race that we were unable to get the splits. But eventually, we managed, and the table below shows the splits of race winner Ivuti at 5km intervals. As with our analysis of Gebrselassie's World Record last week, we've added the final column to show a projected time given the split at each interval.

The pace was slow to begin with, the first 10km covered in 31:32, projecting a finishing time of 2:13:03. Compare this to the world record of Gebrselassie last weekend, where the first 10km were run in 29:24! But as we said, this was all about the race. And the fact that it was the hottest Chicago marathon in history, with temperatures exceeding about 80 Fahrenheit (about 27 degrees Celsius). The high temperatures forced the athletes into a more conservative pacing strategy, reflected in the table above.

The first half of the race was covered in 65:52, the second in 65:19. From the pace table, it's clear that major moves were happening from the 20 km mark onwards - from 20 to the halfway split, the pace was 2:55, easily the fastest of the race. From the halfway mark until about 30km, the pace remained high, in the low 3:00/km range, and the field was trimmed to the top 4 - Ivuti, Gharib, Njenga and Cheruiyot.

How the finish unfolded

At 22 miles (about 35km), there were still four men in the lead group (at halfway, there had been six, including one pace-maker). Soon after, Robert Cheruiyot fell off as it was Patrick Ivuti who threw in a small surge at 22 miles. This surge was responsible for the shift from 3:12/km pace to 3:06/km pace between 35 and 40km, as seen in the table. The only athlete able to follow this move comfortably was Gharib, as Daniel Njenga, also of Kenya, struggled to stay with this pace. The race was then down to two. Cheruiyot, for his part, was apparently struggling with stomach cramps, but considering the last two years he has enjoyed (twice winner of Boston and last year's Chicago winner), winning here today would have been absolutely exceptional. So he fell off with 4 miles to go, leaving Gharib and Ivuti to fight it out to succeed him as champion, with Njenga caught in between.

The next two miles, from 22 to 24 miles, were covered in 9:51, which is 4:55 per mile pace. In kilometer terms, this corresponds to 3:03/km pace, which is still not exceptionally fast, but given the conditions, and the pace up to that point (it had been closer to 5:10/mile or 3:12/km for the previous 10 km), this represented the race-defining surge.

As Gharib and Ivuti moved into the final mile of the race, they were side by side. They hit the final mile in 2:06:32, and then the racing really began. It was Gharib who was the aggressor, throwing in a surge to open up a lead of about 5 to 10m. Ivuti hung on, never letting the gap grow more than about a second, and with about 200m to go, had inched his way back up to Gharib. And then in a finish that had to be seen to be believed, Gharib tried one last move, opened a tiny gap, Ivuti responded, pulled along side and then inched (literally) his way past. The official verdict, delivered a little later because it was too close to call, was that Ivuti of Kenya was the winner by that incredibly small margin. The final mile was covered in 4:39, a fitting finish to an incredible race.

What is in 5 one-hundreths of a second? Well, apart from the $60 000 difference in prize money ($125,000 for first vs $65,000 for second), it means that Gharib, twice world champion in the marathon has still not won a major city marathon! The money will hurt, I'm sure, but the loss by such a small margin must burn even more.

The women's race - how not to win your first big city marathon!

Speaking of regret and burning defeats, spare a thought for Adriana Pirtea of Romania. She is in the USA on a track scholarship, virtually unheard of before this race, and with one mile to go, had the race in the bag. In fact, she had it in the bag enough to be waving to the crowd, giving high fives to supporters in the finishing mile, that she completely forgot to look behind her, where should would have seen defending champion Berhane Adere of Ethiopia making a late challenge!

In what must rank as one of the most remarkable finishes in a big city marathon, Pirtea was caught and then passed by Adere, who she had dropped earlier in the race, and the eventual winning margin of 3 seconds went to Adere. She may not have received the accolades of the crowd in her "victory mile", but she goes home a repeat champion and now jointly ranked number 1 woman marathon runner, until New York, at least.

How the women's race unfolded, and then unravelled for Pirtea

Like the men's race, the women's race was a war of attrition - survival of the coolest, in this case. The pace was slow from the outset, and a lead group of women was progressively trimmed from eight women at the 9mile mark to only three at 15miles - Adere, Pirtea and early aggressor Ivanova.

By 18 miles, Ivanova had fallen off, and would later walk, while Adere and Pirtea pushed on the pace. Just after 21 miles, it was Pirtea who went to the front, reacting to what had been a slowing in the pace by leader Adere. The 21st mile had been covered in 6:02, compared to the early race pace which had been in the mid 5:30's per mile. In fact, the first 14 miles had been covered in 1:20:12, which is an average of 5:44/mile (or 3:34/km). The slowing of the pace allowed Pirtea to move clear and open up a gap.

With only 2.2 km to go, at the 40km, Pirtea had a lead of 30 seconds over Adere! In the final mile, she was waving to the crowd, basking in the adoration, completely oblivious to the danger that was catching her from behind. Berhane Adere had clearly recovered from whatever problems had forced her to slow in the late kilometers, and she closed down on Pirtea with astonishing speed. Of course, had she been a little more alert and been aware of what was happening behind, she would almost certainly have been able to defend at least some of that gap. There are reports that with 400m to go, the gap was still 15 seconds, and to close that, while possible, would have required an extraordinary effort, if Pirtea had only noticed.

The rest, as they say, is history. And history will report that Adere retained her title by 3 seconds with a time of 2:33:49, and that Pirtea was second on her debut marathon. Little does history know that it witnessed perhaps the most astonishing finish in marathon history, perhaps in both the men's and the women's races!



Anonymous said...

Sometimes sport is so incredible!
Had we seen such events depicted in film or printed in a book of fiction everyone would nod their heads in disbelief: "This so preposterous, it really is impossible." Last year it was the fall of Robert Cheruiyot just as he was about to break the tape at the finish line and this year the photo finish in the men's race and the astonishing upset in the women's race. Yet the Marathon (as life in general) is so much greater than any Hollywood screenwriter's imagination. And still people think the Marathon race is dull!


Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi George

Agreed. Had this been on TV or a movie, no doubt there'd be slow motion action and dramatic music in the background and we'd all be thinking "yeah right". Great race, both men and women. It will be tough to top that, though that's what I thought after New York, after London, after Chicago, and so on!


Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unknown said...


I seem to remember you mentioning about how heat favors the shorter runner.

Can you point us to details on why this is? And is running it the heat the only advantage that a short runner is proven to have?

Did size hold true to form in today's hot race? I wonder if anyone has height data on todays competitors.

I seem to remember that Cheruiyot is rather tall. Given that he finished fourth today, I wonder if his size did him in.

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hello Stan

Thanks a lot for the feedback!

Good question, I'm not 100% of the sizes of the guys. You are correct, in a hot race, the smaller guy is favoured - that's something that I'd actually like to do a post or two on, now that you mention it. The reason size counts is that a smaller runner produces less heat relative to heat loss capabilities, because their surface area to body weight ratio is greater.

As for whether Ivuti was smaller, he certainly seemed to be one of the smaller runners, along with Gharib. But the other big factor in a race in the heat is acclimatization. Now, it may be (and this is pure speculation) that Ivuti and Gharib came in from a hot climate, and perhaps someone like Cheruiyot spent the weeks leading up to the race in the USA, where it would be a lot cooler.

And then of course, heat is one of many things that can go wrong. If it's true that Cheruiyot had stomach cramps, they might have been caused by heat, perhaps something he ate, or maybe he altered his drinking pattern becuase he thought he should drink more to protect himself from the heat...Anything's possible, but it would be interesting to plot a graph of finishers height/weight ratio against finish time, and see what it shows!


Anonymous said...

As atrocious as conditions were on that day, I enjoyed the race so very much. Finishing well ahead of what the conditions permitted that day was even a greater satisfaction.

A. Selassie