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Monday, December 24, 2007

2007: Running Year in Review

Highs and lows, world records, meltdowns, and great races from 2007

The Science of Sport was only really born in April this year, and so we missed some of the year's running highlights. But we'll take some liberties and include those in our look-back on the year that was in running.

Highs and lows

When we look back on the sport of running in 2007, a few things stand out, sadly not always as highlights. There were some great moments, absolutely - Gebrselassie finally bagging the marathon world record, Asafa Powell breaking the 100m World record (again), and Tyson Gay imposing himself on Powell and the rest of the world at the World Championships in Osaka. Then there was Zersenay Tadese, who ended a dynasty at the World Cross Country Championships in Kenya, Paula Radcliffe made a comeback from pregnancy to win in New York, and Martin Lel grew his reputation as one of the great marathon racers, first in London, then in New York.

But there were also lowlights - Marion Jones' confession of drug use was the inevitable drug related low of the year - her gold medals, having been returned, are still in doubt because everyone she beat is as much a drug cheat as she was!

But it was two Comrades Marathon runners in South Africa, Chad Schieber, Matthew Hardy and Ryan Shay who cast the biggest pall over running in 2007 - they are all athletes who collapsed and died during marathons this year. This became one of the biggest talking points here at the Science of Sport. It began early this year, with the collapse of Alberto Salazar during training, and ended, perhaps most tragically, with the death of elite marathon runner, Ryan Shay, aged only 28. It was not limited to road running either, with soccer players falling victim to cardiac problems as well, most tragically Antonio Puerta of Seville, who died during a Spanish Premier league match.

We tried to cover the spectre of sudden death during exercise as much as possible, explaining the causes, the risks, and ultimately, what this means for all of us, who may have the perception that we are protected as a result of our fitness. And while we certainly are afforded some protection, we are not immune, as 2007 has reminded us. So as we look back on the highs and lows, we remember these athletes, and their loved ones.

Performance of the year

OK, so we're biased towards the longer distance events here at The Science of Sport, but our vote for performance of the year goes to Haile Gebrselassie. A man who's hardly in need of any more awards or accolades, but he can now add to his collection the Science of Sport award for Best Running Performance of 2007! His remarkably paced and controlled World Record of 2:04:26 was a magnificent performance, one which we analysed in some detail - first as it happened, and then with the pacing splits and analysis the day after.

You'll see from Geb's splits how the record was really under control the whole way - he began needing to run 2:57.6/km to beat Tergat's time, and this never spiralled out of control - he churned out kilometer after kilometer of even paced running and at 35km, he was exactly on pace. A fast final 5 km, and the record was his! All that remains for Geb now is the Olympic Gold in the Marathon, and we wait with baited breath for Beijing...

Athlete of the year - sprint events

OK, so now we'll try to redeem ourselves for our distance bias, by giving this out as an award in two categories (OK, so we're still showing our bias!). First, for Sprint/Short distance athlete of the year, our nod goes to Tyson Gay, who completely dominated the World Athletics Championships in Osaka, Japan. In particular, it was the ease with which he dealt with the World's fastest man, Asafa Powell, that earns him this 'presigious award' (along with all the other 'lesser' awards he's won! Just kidding, IAAF and USTAF!)

The build-up to the Men's 100m final was the most hyped of the IAAF Championships, but in the end, it was Gay who handled the pressure and dominated the race. He went onto dominate the Men's 200m final as well, and played his part in the USA's victorius 4 x 100m relay team. The 100m-200m double has become something of a tradition at the World Champs (Maurice Greene, and most recently, Justin Gatlin also achieved it). But Gay came in and defeated a World Record holder, and did so with ease. It capped off a magnificent year for Gay, one in which he also ran the second fastest 200m time in history (19.62s), and won the double at the USA Championships in Indianapolis. His racing ability makes him the man to beat in Beijing, despite the fact that Powell went on to break the 100m world record a few weeks later.

An honourable mention here goes to Allyson Felix, a 21-year old who won her second World 200m title in Osaka, beating a stellar field (on paper, anyway) by 0.53 secs, the largest margin in the history of the Championships. Her winning time of 21.81s was a huge PB, and the arrival of a true world star. She races so infrequently that the world was denied the chance of seeing her run more often in Europe, but as she matures, that will surely change. What is more, she gave notice this year of her frightening ability over 400m, beating Sanya Richards in Europe. I do believe that in time, she will dominate the 400m event, and given her established dominance over 200m, we may be seeing the women's equivalent to Michael Johnson - unbeatable over two distances, for a long time. Perec won the double in Atlanta, but Felix could rule over these events for a long time to come.

Athlete of the year - distance events

You thought Gebrselassie, right? Well, you'd be wrong! Again, this is my personal bias, but I choose instead to give this award to Martin Lel, who in 2007 was the best marathon racer in the world. Gebrselassie is a great athlete, no doubt, but the one question mark that remains against him is his ability to win a competitive marathon, as opposed to the time-trials he was won against the clock. No such questions against Lel, who this year won the London and New York Marathons. In London, he led 5 athletes into the final 400m and then dismissed them with a remarkable finishing kick. In New York, he did the same to Abderrahim Goumri, who once again had no answer to Lel's finishing speed. An analysis of this race can be found here.

Just how good is that kick? Well, we timed the final 400 yards in 57 seconds - that's a 63 second last 400m on the track, at the end of a marathon race! Remarkable! But apart from just the sheer speed he possesses, Lel is a high pedigree athlete. We featured him in a post leading up to the New York race, where we picked him as the winner, based on his 60:10 winning performance from the Great North Run a few weeks earlier. Lel has the potential to run the world record close, and he most definitely has the ability to win the Olympic title, if he chooses to run in Beijing.

Unfortunately, his status as leader of the Marathon Series means he's likely to choose London and probably New York again, and give Beijing a miss, which is a shame. In London, the competitive field means he probably won't go for a world record (tactical race is more likely), and so we may have to wait on that all-out race against the clock. But he ends 2007 as our Athlete of the Year.

An honorable mention here goes to Zersenay Tadese, of Eritrea, who has been the subject of some recent posts relating to his incredibly good running economy - The Most Economical Runner in history, they are reporting! But earlier this year, Tadese ended the Bekele dynasty at the World Cross Country Championships in Kenya, and followed this up with a World Title over 21 km in Italy. Regular readers will know that I'm a huge fan of Tadese's, I think he's a wonderful runner. I pick him to be the next world record holder in the marathon, and with a little bit of luck, and good preparation, the 10 000m title in Beijing is not out of his ability! Bekele will need to be in great shape to beat him, better than he was this year. Otherwise, Eritrea will be celebrating its first Olympic Gold medal.

Other honorable mentions go to Paula Radcliffe, who made a stirring comeback after pregnancy and the birth of her daughter to win in New York. Radcliffe will bid for the elusive Olympic title next year, but will have to get through the heat, the humidity and possibly our other honorable mentions, Lornah Kiplagat and Catherine Ndereba. Kiplagat did "the Tadese" in 2007, winning both the World Cross Country and 21 km titles. Ndereba won the World Marathon title in oppressive heat in Osaka, which is a good sign since it shows her ability to handle those conditions - Beijing will throw up more of the same and so Ndereba will line up as a big contender.

The Choke collar award for choker of the year

The winner of this dubious award is Asafa Powell. Before you cry out in disbelief that the man who broke the world 100m record could win this title, let me clarify - Powell is a great athlete, the fastest man in the world. But how he managed to not even win the silver medal in the IAAF World Champs in Osaka is testament to the fact that he simply doesn't know how to handle the big occasion. Instead, he chooses a relatively obscure second tier meeting in Italy to blast out a time that he should have run 3 weeks earlier. His form in Osaka had been excellent, he was running dominant races looking comfortable and relaxed as he oozed power and class. But suddenly Gay was on his shoulder and he froze. Then Atkins came up on the other side, and he gave up. And so for giving up, the Let-down of the year award. He's still a great athlete, let's hope he brings that to the 100m final in Beijing!

The undo a lifetime of achievement award

This award goes to Marion Jones, who, after years of denial, defiance and deception, eventually confessed to having used performance enhancing drugs. We can only assume the prospects of criminal charges drove her to what was ultimately, in my opinion, a half-baked confession - she did what every 4-year old figures out when they're caught with their hand in the cookie jar - she confessed to some charges, but still maintained her "innocence" in other areas. She maintains that she was tricked into using, that she thought it was "flaxseed oil" and not actually a banned substance. Anything to keep the wolves at bay, I guess...

The end result is that Jones' record achievements from Sydney have been wiped off the books, and she has returned all her medals. Her image, once that of women's athletics, is now associated with shame and guilt and all that is wrong with the sport. A long way to fall, and a career of achievements built on lies and deception is undone. The worst thing of all was that despite the fact that she knew her guilt after being confronted by prosecutors (she was "innocent" - it was flaxseed oil, remember?), she went so far as to initiate an aggressive, proactive campaign to clear her name, hiring PR consultants to fight the good fight on her behalf. Keeping your guilt quiet is one thing, taking the fight to your accusers when you know you'r guilty, that's another thing altogether. Congratulations, Ms Jones...

The "Losing sleep over the future award"

This unique award goes to Liu Xiang, of China, who next year, will take to the start blocks in Beijing knowing that unless he wins the Olympic Gold medal, he will be seen as a failure by about a billion people! In 2007, every move Liu has made has been scrutinized, because he was unfortunate enough to be picked to be the Face of the Beijing Olympics. His bad luck was that he was so good four years out from the Games, and he became a symbol for China's aspirations to dominate the Olympics and the commercial world - Chinese consumers have associated Liu Xiang as an endorser of 19 different brands! So far, he's stood up to the challenge, but come Beijing, he's going to feel the crush of expectation unlike any athlete has probably had to deal with, ever! What makes it worse is that his event, the 110m Hurdles, relies on absolute precision, and any tightness or nervousness is not simply seen as a bit of tension in the shoulders - it could be disastrous. And even worse, 2007 has seen the emergence of Dayron Robles of Cuba, an exciting new talent who is getting better and better all the time. Good luck, Liu...


So it's been a wonderful year for running and for the analysis of running (which is what we try to do, after all). Unfortunately, some sad analysis of death during running, but a great deal of fantastic performances, great athletes and wonderful races to analyse.

Let's hope that 2008 brings more of the same!


Can Paula Radcliffe win the elusive Olympic Gold Medal in Beijing? And will Haile Gebrselassie add marathon gold to his collection? Read our PREVIEW OF 2008 here!


Anonymous said...

I just found your blog today; Great Stuff!! I'm a runner myself and love to learn the science behind it all, so I'll be back.

After reading your previous post about the possible causes (written after the death of Ryan Shay), I have a question.

I coach high school track and cross country runners, and each year every athlete is required to get a physical before they can participate in any activity. I'd estimate that once each year, a young athlete in our state dies from an undiagnosed heart problem. What type of test would they need to add to a physical in order diagnose the two problems you focused on in your earlier article?

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hey Bearunner

Welcome "aboard" and thank you for the compliments and kind words!

Good question on the testing, by the way. As you may have seen in the post we wrote on Monday November 5th, the testing for cardiac risks and abnormalities is very specialised indeed. This is in fact the reason why the authorities in professional sports have not yet enforced mandatory testing. There have even been studies that have shown that testing of ALL athletes is not cost-effective. However, the cost, combined with the relatively low "fidelity" of the testing have dissauded many sports bodies from committing to testing. Just two weeks ago, for example, a soccer player in Scotland died after collapsing on the field and now the Scotish authorities are calling for testing. The same thing happened in Spain in September - so calls to action are common, yet, action is not. And the reason is that the testing is often not cost-effective.

now that probably sounds callous, since one cannot assign cost to human life, but the reality is that the tests are:
1) Expensive,
2) Not guaranteed to find anything conclusive, and
3) Not necessarily going to increase risk of death by any signficant amount.

So the point we tried to make in that post on Nov 5th is that if you do have your athletes tested, you suddenly have information based upon which you have a very tricky ethical decision to make...if your athlete has a condition that increases his risk by 1%, do you prevent him from running? Because the very latest research (published last month) shows that driving in a car increases the risk of death as much as running!

Having said this, I did read that the Italian soccer body had introduced mandatory testing and the incidence of death has gone down there, so that would be an interesting one to look at.

Anyway, to answer your question,the most common test is a stress ECG, which is a standardized test done by any cardiologist. You could of course encourage your athletes to do this.

However, my personal advice is that you focus on education - don't prevent them from being tested, by all means, and if you have concerned parents, then help them find the cardiologist who can test them. But to me, it is the education of the athlete that is so vital.

Again, I refer to that post on November 5th, but in it, we make the point that in about 1 in 3 cases, symptoms such as fainting, shortness of breath, chest pains, dizziness, were reported retrospectively by family and friends. So being aware of these symptoms, and making sure you respond appropriately to them are the best weapons.

Now as the coach, you're in the position to see the athlete and you'll know whether shortness of breath is typical or not. You may be the first person to observe dizziness, chest pains etc. And I don't say this to scare you, but to make the point that rather than spending money that may create a false sense of comfort, you can empower yourself and your athletes by knowing what to look out for. And then if you are suspicious, then you call for the additional medical examinations.

Hope that helps! Good luck with the running and the coaching - keep up the good work!