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Monday, March 31, 2008

World Cross Country Recap

Magnificent Bekele again! And Dibaba ensures Ethiopian sweep

Apologies for the late recap of this race - I know it's "only" 24 hours late! For that, thank the crew at Supersport (our sports channel on the satellite TV boquet), who in their wisdom showed the race LIVE to the rest of Africa, but gave us in South Africa a package 26 hours later. Instead of Edinburgh, we got Portuguese soccer or French Rugby club games. But more on that later...

The Men's Race - Brilliant Bekele loses his shoe, but regains his title

One year ago, in the heat of Mombasa, Kenenisa Bekele's reign as undisputed champion of the country was ended. It was to be a brief one-year interruption, as he yesterday confirmed that he is without doubt, the greatest cross country runner of this generation, and arguably, the greatest ever. Paul Tergat and John Ngugi won the title 5 times, Bekele now has a sixth race. But even that is misleading for five of those titles were coupled with a title in the short race, discontinued from last year. So that makes him an eleven time champion!

And while memories are short, and the last performance always seems to be the best, this was most definitely a case of Bekele back to his brilliant best. I cannot recall any of his previous 5 long and 5 short titles being quite as dominant and spectacular as this one. And it was not for lack of effort on the part of his rivals...

Zersenay Tadese, the man who dethroned Bekele a year ago (along with the conditions), ran the only race he could. We wrote on Saturday that he'd have to be aggressive, and push the pace as high as possible. And he did exactly that. I was amazed at how aggressively he was running, surging three or four times each lap (2km long), with noticeable changes in pace every time. But every single surge was tracked, answered with ease by Bekele.

And eventually, with one final 2km lap to go, Bekele eased into the lead, and moved away. The move was decisive, opening up a gap of perhaps 15 m within the first minute of the final loop around Holyrood Park. It remained that large, the jostling between Tadese and two Kenyans going on behind Bekele's untouchable performance.

Bekele stands apart from the rest of the world when running on the country. He does, if this is possible, look different to any of the runners he has beaten in the past seven years - they run ON the mud and hills, he runs OVER them. Late last year, a great deal was made of Zersenay Tadese's running economy, the highest ever, it was reported. I'm not sure that Bekele's is much different, but I would put forward that what Bekele enjoys is an enormous advantage in neuromuscular performance. By that, I refer to the timing of muscle contractions, his co-ordination and ability of his muscle to store and release elastic energy when he moves from the landing to the push off phase of the running stride.

There is a growing body of evidence that a good deal of the East African advantage comes from this neuromuscular advantage, their ability to maximize the energy returns of what is called the stretch-shortening cycle. For example, it's been shown that African runners have a higher level of what is called preactivation than Caucasian runners. What this means is that their muscle is active BEFORE the foot hits the ground, and that this stores energy that can be used on push off. I am sure that this advantage is one of the key reasons they are dominant. And in turn, I believe it is one reason Bekele is so dominant over the country.

It always fascinates me to watch these world-class races because they showcase the very best against the second level, and the difference is clear. What is perhaps most remarkable, is that physiology does not yet know what this difference is! We can guess and speculate, as I'm doing, but no one knows for sure why one athlete finishes in 40th place (for example, Craig Mottram, who was in 31st), and another wins easily! All the laboratory research in the world will not pick up that difference...all the "usual suspects" like VO2max, heart, lungs, economy etc. don't explain a 2 minute performance difference. And so running science has much to learn...until then, it can only admire the difference that makes Bekele so remarkable.

Bekele's shoe - perhaps the only moment of doubt in his race

The only time Bekele ever dropped off the pace, and made this such a remarkable performance, was when he lost his shoe at the 2km point! Up to that point, Bekele had been running comfortably at the front, while the race sorted itself out. Approaching a right hand turn, he was caught on the heel by the runner behing, causing his shoe to slip partially off. He stopped at the bend, pulled it back on, and then resumed the chase. He lost perhaps 15 seconds as a result, but over the course of the next few kilometers, reeled in the lead group, and the race resumed normal order.

Zersenay Tadese was gallant in defeat. In the end, he simply did not have the speed nor the strength to drop Bekele, or the challenge of two Kenyans that few expected would feature. But it was not for a lack of trying and one certainly cannot accuse him of giving up the title easily, or failing to deliver a proud defence. As mentioned, he was aggressive, proactive and set the race up. His surges blew off the main challengers from Uganda, Ethiopi and Kenya, and in the end, it was Bekele and two relatively unheralded Kenyans who matched his pace. Tadese worked so hard that in the end, it's almost a shame he "only" managed bronze, being pipped to the line by Leonard Komon of Kenya. He was proud of his race, however, and has at least seen first hand how hard he'll have to work come Beijing if he's going to claim anything more than this bronze! I still believe his real moment in the limelight will come in the marathon some day.

Leonard Komon had only finished 7th at the Kenyan trials, and was the last person anyone expected to challenge the big two. He now has a World Championship silver medal in his pocket, as in the end, he held onto Tadese's surges, and then eventually, was the man most able to push on when Bekele made his decisive move over the final 2km. His second place, at the age of only 20, will however be scant consolation to the Kenyans, who lost all four races. Similarly, they may have bagged the Men's Team Title (helped by Joseph Ebuya, the other unheralded Kenyan), but they have been made to realise just how much work needs to be done to get back to the top step of the podium.

To sum up, the final podium was:
1. Kenenisa Bekele
2. Leonard Komon, + 0:03
3. Zersenay Tadese, + 0:05
4. Joseph Ebuya, + 0:09

One other notable from the race was Craig Mottram, the Australian who always enters these races with the tag of "Favourite to challenge the East Africans". Which is to say, he's the best European/white athlete around. But he found the African heat in Scotland a little uncomfortable in this race, eventually finishing down in 31st position, a full 2:02 down on the winner. To his credit, he stuck it out and finished, but for him, it's back to the tartan tracks and hopefully a more successful outdoor season.

Women's race - Dibaba ensures a familiar looking podium for Ethiopia

Last year at the Osaka World Championships, and then before that in Athens, the top step of the 10,000m races was occupied by one Kenenisa Bekele in the men's races, and Turinesh Dibaba in the women's races. And in Edinburgh, Dibaba did her part to ensure the same would happen for the World Cross Country title.

It was however, not the same orthodox race that Bekele delivered (barring the loss of the shoe - hardly orthodox). For in this one, Dibaba was never present at the front of the field, always hanging back in about 6th or 7th place, and even dropping off the pace that was set by her country-woman, Gelete Burka. It was Burka and another Ethiopian, Mestawet Tufa, who took the lead about 2km from the finish (as with Bekele - perhaps a pre-meditated plan) and surged very hard. A big group of women was almost instantly stretched out, with three athletes at the front, and Dibaba caught in the middle. The big move came on what was called Haggis hill, a brutal, though short climb towards the end of each loop.

Burka, the short course champion two years ago, attacked on the hill, and only Tufa and Linet Masai, an 18-year old Kenyan, could go with her. She pushed on, opening up about 5 m on Tufa, who in turn had 5 m on Masai. Dibaba responded somewhat sluggishly to the initial move, and was at that stage about 4 or 5 seconds off the leaders, but held this gap for the rest of the lap, until just before the very last ascent of Haggis hill. Leading into this, with about 1km to run, Burka seemed to tire, and the group of three came back together. A few seconds later, Dibaba bridged the gap, and was then in a position to take advantage of her incredible kick.

They climbed the hill for the last time, and Dibaba suddenly appeared to discover the famous Ethiopian finish, and she moved clear of Tufa to take the tape by a clear 5 second margin. Burka, for all her hard work earlier in the lap, dropped back to finish in 6th, clutching her stomach as she crossed the line.

Kenyan running woes - too much "good", not enough "Great"?

Third was taken by Masai, and again, the Kenyans will be encouraged that they managed to get a 18 year old onto the podium. Having said that, I have lost count of how many times a junior from Kenya has done well in the senior race, only to disappear into anonymity within the next year or two. Certainly, a lack of talent is not the problem in Kenya, but the management of their "assets" seems to pose a problem. Perhaps they are spoiled for riches, and don't feel the need to nurture this young talent, but it's uncanny how many times they unearth a teenager (or 20-year old as in the men's race), who is good but just fails to take the next step into the Dibaba/Bekele stratosphere.

So problems for Kenya then, but none for Ethiopia, who picked up the Junior titles as well, and have sights firmly set on taking all four long distance track golds in Beijing as well.

Looking ahead to tomorrow - April Fool's day and a quote from SA commentary

So that's the race summary - apologies again for the delay and late race report, but perhaps some will have missed the results so far. For those in South Africa, I imagine this is likely, given the prestige placed by Supersport on this event. Not only did the rest of Africa get the broadcast a day before we did, but we were then subjected to the commentary of Jean Verster and colleague whose name I did not get.

The two repeatedly gave us world class insight by assuring us that the pace was very fast (at least twice a lap). Quote of the day goes to Jean Verster, who, after Bekele had won the race, informed us all that "if he had not been spiked [after 2km, remember], he would have run away from this field much earlier and won by an even bigger margin". Enough said. Sadly, the quality of the TV coverage is symptomatic of the quality of athletics in South Africa, who managed to get its best athlete into 45th position. Athletics South Africa should be ashamed of themselves for such disgraceful management of the sport. How South Africa cannot produce athletes capable of top-20 finishes is an act of glorius incompetence. Any chance Supersport would be willing to do their bit and try to uplift the quality by providing anything other than second level coverage?

And that is also my contribution to April Fool's day, which is tomorrow! ASA and Supersport commentary, take a bow!

We'll be back with a look at footstrike patterns of elite runners!



Anonymous said...

It went pretty much as you called it, Ross!

This "neuromuscular advantage" and preactivation thing is fascinating. Can it be improved with training? I'm thinking plyometrics.


Anonymous said...

Looking forward to the 'footstrike' edition. It is my belief that the strike and stride perhaps has more to do with the energy return, than the neurological 'preactivation'.

Secondly, you are being way to harsh on ASA and TV coverage. We in Australia have to wait until 20th April to see a highlights package- you lucky buggers. Don't make an association of quality of athletes with that. SA still has a greater number of elite marathoners and our overall numbers pale by comparison. In Aust, the best time last year was 2:10:31, with only another 4 under 2:15 and a further 11 under 2:30.
Australia does have Mottram and Johnson and that's about it. Aust is good at throwing a lot behind a few elite... think Rugby Union etc.

If you forget about the quality on top, the overall running numbers is more of a concern to me... the weekend warriors if you will, which is where I am active at as an RD.
Our biggest marathons attract about 1000-1500 runners and road racing is few and far between.

Be thankful for your small mercies.

Anonymous said...


We (Aust) do not see ANY athletics live on TV... none, zip, zilch, let alone live coverage of epic events like Comrades and Two Oceans which run for hours.

N.N said...

Bekele seems always so much more relaxed and running with a straight trunk ! Tadese in my view,(head for shoulders) hangs a bit it seems ...
"neuromuscular", the much bashed Ph. Owen Anderson (search let's run.com for instance) did write a lot about it. He says sprint, plyometrics and running @ race pace helps a lot!

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi Simon

Good to hear from you again - trust all is well?

Just to respond, yes, there is evidence that plyometric training improves it - a study by Paavolainen showed that perhaps 5 years ago (I can't recall the exact reference right now), where the extent of the preactivation is improved with a short period of plyometric training.

Will have to cover that in a post or two at some stage in the future.


Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi Oliver

Thanks for the mail

Just to respond to your comments re ASA, this post alone doesn't paint the context behind the issues that I'm so harsh on. Certainly, by itself, this event alone doesn't warrant the criticism, but it's the latest in a very long line of issues that has come up through ASA that I find appalling. Just this week Sunday, in our newspapers, we had an expose of ASA that defies belief. I will spare everyone the gory details, but the misadministration and incompetence of the people tasked with improving our athletes is just untrue.

You give the time of 2:10:31 as your fastest marathon runner - we have Hendrick Ramaala, and then the next fastest guys are all running over 2:15. If one guy breaks 2:14 every year, it's a good year in SA, so your situation there is actually better than here. And the difference is, you're on the up, we are not.

Remember, 10 to 15 years ago, we produced the world half marathon junior record holder - a guy running 60 minutes aged 18, we had three marathon runners all under 2:08, and another 3 or 4 running 2:09 or faster. We also had middle distance runners and 10km athletes who could hold their own in global competition. So here in SA, we have a of running that SHOULD be ensuring that we get at least one athlete into major championship finals or, into the top 20 and World XC.

Yet somehow, we haven't had a single Olympic 5000 m finallist since 1992. We don't see our athletes feature in the global track scene, and only Ramaala has done anything of note in the last 5 years in the marathon.

So I'll concede that I was being harsh on Supersport TV for the delayed broadcast, but not on ASA for the mess they've made of our athletics. They are, arguably, the worst run federation here in SA, financial mismanagement, and so many people with expertise have been marginalized by the politics that has corrupted the sport.

And then finally, as for the commentary, that's just a pet hate of mine, because it's so easy to send those guys on a one week long training course to equip them with the basic skills they need to bring the event to life. At the very least, they could do this. But because athletics is a second rate sport, they don't. And so that's a gripe I've had for ages, it came out in the post!

Anyway, thanks for the feedback. I hear you on small mercies, but my frustration is that we're settling for mediocrity here because we know no other way...if we had your admin and support structures, we'd be competing for the team podium at World XC, I have no doubt of that.


adventurelisa said...

A short comment in defense of Supersport... sadly the race was never planned, nor stated, to be broadcast live.
In the big picture the number is athletics viewers is marginal so we are indeed quite fortunate to get any coverage of road and track events at all, which they buy for us - a minority.
There's no need to guess which sports command the greatest viewer audiences, which is why they get priority.
ASA could certainly do their bit in making athletics the in thing; which would mean that more people would be into it, which would mean that SS would prioritise coverage and invest in more suitable commentators. Chicken and egg. - Lisa

Anonymous said...

"Late last year, a great deal was made of Zersenay Tadese's running economy, the lowest ever, it was reported."

I hate to do this, but yes it's old George nitpicking again: Tadese's economy running economy is the highest ever, as reported.
Apart from that, fascinating race and a great commentary from the Science of Sport (as always).


Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hey George

I can't believe I made the same mistake again. You know what it is - I'm obviously trying to convey the concept that his is BETTER than anyone else's, but in my mind, 'm thinking 150 vs. 200 (Tadese vs. the other guys, his actual values) and for some reason, I automatically type "lowest" even though of course, it means the highest! It's like a pseudo-dyslexic thing I obviously do!

Thanks for the correction - I'll eventually get it right!


Anonymous said...

Sorry about the late response to this, but the following from Ross is very much incorrect:

"You give the time of 2:10:31 as your fastest marathon runner - we have Hendrick Ramaala, and then the next fastest guys are all running over 2:15. If one guy breaks 2:14 every year, it's a good year in SA, so your situation there is actually better than here. And the difference is, you're on the up, we are not."

From a very reliable source, the following are the stats for SA/Aus cumulative marathon performers(performances) for 2007;

Sub 2:10 ... 1(1).....[Aus nil]
Sub 2:15.... 5(7).....[Aus 1(1)]
Sub 2:20 ... 24(30)...[Aus 5(6)]
Sub 2:23 ... 50(?)....[Aus 7(8)]

That is as much as I have for SA at present.
In fact this doesn't even add sub 2:20 splits in races such as Two Oceans etc.

So its really chalk and cheese, especially given that the only one in Aust under 2:15 is 'veteran' Lee Troop.

If you then add the depth of performances right through from sub 3hr to total participation, amount of races on calendar etc, then there is absolutely no comparison at all.

So in terms of road running you are being overly harsh on ASA, but at the T&F level there may be some truth, however this may again be due to factors such as the 'attractiveness' to run road rcaes.

Now if you talk about commentary, then I agree wholeheartedly. The tapes I get of Two O and Comrades are in fact embarassing... esp the lady who one can say speaks "Parrot" fashion :)