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Be it doping in sport, hot topics like Caster Semenya or Oscar Pistorius, or the dehydration myth, we try to translate the science behind sports and sports performance.

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Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Fatigue Series: Introduction

Introducing a new series: The mystery of fatigue and the limits to performance

Here's one of the million dollar questions in sports sciences today: How is it possible for a 10km runner to SPEED UP in the final 400m of his race? And if he had that "reserve capacity" all along, why did he not speed up 800m before the end? Or 2km? The whole way?

As you read that, you're probably thinking "Big deal, what a ridiculous question. It's obvious that you can't speed up, because....um, well, you see, it's the....why was that again?"

And now, physiologically speaking, you are stuck. Because the reality is that there is no single physiological theory that can properly explain why athletes pace themselves the way they do, why fatigue happens and what limits performance. There is no book, no proof, no all-knowing scientist who can tell you the answer to this, the most seemingly basic question in the field! As you read this, there's a good chance you're simply dismissing the question as obvious - "It's experience and training, a conscious decision". And I agree with you, but we still haven't explained the physiology of how this decision was made.

It's become something of a mantra here, but the truth is that if anyone tells you they KNOW the answer, they're lying, or ignorant, or both. Because years of research has failed to answer that question definitively. There are theories, yes, and some do explain fatigue under very specific conditions quite well. But to this day, no one really knows the answer to the simple question posed above.

And before you get your hopes up, we're not going to tell you the answer either! Because we don't know it! But we do know is what it's NOT, and we'll discuss that. And as mentioned, there are theories, some new, some old, which do partly explain performance limits, and we can discuss those. And we can introduce the great unknowns, and hopefully make sense of some of the myths and fallacies that are thrown around concerning fatigue, performance and human exercise limits.

And so with that, we introduce a brand new series here on the Science of Sport. We'll call it Fatigue, pacing strategies and the limits to performance.

It will look at the following:

  • Theories for fatigue - what causes fatigue and limits exercise performance?
  • Pacing strategies - a basic observation with a complex cause
  • Exercise at the "extremes" - exercise in the heat, and at altitude
  • Deceiving yourself - how false information about time and distance influences performance
  • What happens during sprint events? And how is pacing different from endurance events?
  • The anticipatory regulation of exercise: A proposed model for performance using the Perception of Effort
We are ultimately heading for that last installment of the series - a new model for how exercise performance is regulated. That model was actually produced as the concluding section of my (Ross's) PhD thesis, so this series is a personal one for me, and basically a summary of my PhD. I hope it will be as interesting to read as I know it will be rewarding to write. (Incidentally, the model and review is also in review for publication in a scientific journal as you read this, so hopefully in a short while, it'll be out as an academic text as well, for those who are interested.)

The theories - it must be anaerobic lactate production: your muscles are fatigued

There are those who'll try to answer our "simple question" from above. Textbooks will tell you that you slow down because you run out of oxygen, you become anaerobic, lactate forms and "poisons" the muscles, or you get too hot and your brain says "stop!" The books explain how muscle becomes fatigued as a result of these chemicals that build up, caused by a lack of oxygen delivery as you get closer to the VO2max, where you can't use any more oxygen.

And maybe this is true. . .but hang on, that doesn't explain how you SPEED UP in the last 400m. Remember, in a 10km race, you're running quite a lot faster than your "anaerobic threshhold", which is always defined as the speed/intensity above which you start to accumulate lactate. So one thing we do know, is that in a 10km race, with 1km to go, there's a lot of lactate in the system! Similarly, you can be pretty much guaranteed that with 1km to run, the calcium channels are at their most leaky, the phosphate and H+ ions are at their peak, and the body temperature is at its highest.

Now think about it for a moment - if your muscles are becoming weaker and weaker because of chemicals like lactate, or a lack of oxygen, then how is it possible to get FASTER at the end of the race? The end of the race? That's when the lactate levels are the highest! Oxygen levels are the lowest, because for 40 minutes, you've been running yourself into what those textbooks call "oxygen debt," right? Well, if that's true, then the only thing that would happen is that you would get slower and slower and slower.

Instead, you speed up at the end. Added to this, there's a growing body of evidence that lactate is not the "bad guy" it was once made out to be, maybe it's even the "good guy." We'll look at that as well in the coming weeks.

But this, in a nutshell, is one of the theories for fatigue. It's been called the "Peripheral fatigue model", the "Cardiovascular/anaerobic model", and the "Catastrophe model" (all by Prof Tim Noakes - more on that lower down), but what it is basically saying is the following:
  • Fatigue is the result of failure - something in the physiology fails, causing the athlete to stop or to slow down
  • That failure can be anywhere in the system - it might be failure to supply enough oxygen to the muscles, failure to keep lactate, phosphate or hydrogen ion levels down, a depletion of glycogen, or failure to lose heat, causing the body temperature to rise too high
  • Once this "failure point" is reached, exercise must slow down, or stop altogether. The fatigue is the result of the failure - it's a "catastrophe"
  • The key point is that fatigue is a "limit," and it lies in the muscles or the complete inability of the brain to activate muscle
The other extreme - there's no muscle fatigue, it's all in the brain

On the other end of the spectrum lies the so-called "Central Governor" theory. This theory was developed by Prof Tim Noakes, under whose supervision both Jonathan and I both did our PhDs. In fact, my PhD was titled "Anticipatory regulation of performance" and it examined the very question I asked at the beginning of this post.

Essentially, this theory, which I'll rather called "Anticipatory Regulation" for reasons that will become clear further down, holds that:
  • During exercise, the brain regulates performance to balance all the body's physiological systems
  • Fatigue (or the slowing down in pace) is the result of this regulation, which happens BEFORE any physiological "failure" can occur
  • Therefore, rather than slowing down AS A RESULT of lack of oxygen, high body temperatures, high lactate levels etc., you slow down IN ORDER TO PREVENT THEM.
Notice that key difference - performance and fatigue are regulated to prevent the potentially harmful limits from being reached. These "limits" to exercise are real. If your body temperature is above 41 degrees, you'd stop and be in serious trouble. If you did accumulate too much hydrogen, it would be bad news. But when exercise takes place, they don't happen because the brain is in control, and it regulates the body specifically to protect against that damage. At the same time, it's trying to balance protection with your own desire to perform as well as you can, and that produces a constant balance between two potentially conflicting goals.

In this theory, then, you get what is called a "pacing strategy," which is the output by the muscles, as part of this regulation. Performance is regulated, not determined, by the physiology.

It's all in the timing - when do you slow down?

If you want tangible proof of this, think of the following hypothetical situation:

Let's say you run a 10km race at sea-level, and in cool temperatures. Your time is 40 minutes, giving you a speed of 4min/km.

Now, let's say I transport you instantaneously to the following two places:
  1. Halfway up Mount Everest, an altitude of about 4000 m
  2. The middle of Beijing in the summer time, where it's 35 degrees, and humidity is 60%.
Now, I make you run that same 10km race. What is going to happen? I'm sure that all of you are in agreement that your time of 40 minutes is under threat! You might be lucky to crack 42 minutes in these "extreme" conditions. But here's the million dollar question (another one!):

When do you first slow down?

Do you:
a) Start off at 4 min/km, running the first 5km in 20 minutes, before you suddenly find that you're forced to slow down, because you're suddenly gasping for air at altitude, or because you're incredibly hot and feel close to collapsing?; or...

b) Start off much slower than normal, because you KNOW that if you don't, you'll be in trouble after 5km? Within the first 30 seconds of your run, you have already "decided" to slow down. Perhaps you start off at 4:20 min/km, and manage to hold that pace for a while, then you get slower and slower, until the final kilometer, when you can speed up again?

I'm sure that everyone who has ever run in the heat or at altitude can relate to the fact that the answer is b) - you start slowly. In fact, it takes probably less than 20 seconds for your body to "decide" to run more slowly than usual. Now, you have to ask yourself:

"How do I know to adopt a different pacing strategy in these conditions?"

Remember, it happens so early that nothing is different, except for your sensation that it's either hotter or that the air is thinner - that sensation then, seems to be key. But it can't be that you are already overheating within the first 30 seconds, or even two minutes of your run. You can't already be in oxygen debt at altitude? So how, then, do you "decide" to slow down? Once again, some will dismiss this as obvious, but I'd challenge you to find the answer to this question in a physiology textbook - you can't because it doesn't exist. The book is going to tell you that you slow down because of anaerobiosis, oxygen debt, lactate accumulation. But there's no evidence for it.

A controversial model - but this is not a series aimed at glorifying any model

Now, the Central Governor model is highly controversial, both within the academic world, and among the public who've heard of it, in some form. It's one of the most divisive theories around, because it lies so far to the extreme opposite end of the spectrum compared to the other, "textbook" model(s) for fatigue. The Model has, over the years, been twisted, mis-interpreted, bashed, criticised, hyped, glorified and dismissed in equal measure - for example, it's the subject of a 40-page discussion thread on LetsRun.com, which would take all year to summarize! Part of the problem has been that people read Tim Noakes' work from the late 1990's and 2000, and don't look at the more recent work, and the evidence that has been gathered since.

But perhaps the biggest problem is that the "governor" has been wrongly portrayed (sometimes deliberately by the people who created it, to its detriment, I might add) as a little "black box", that 'magically' controls our physiology and performance. In this concept, the term "Governor" conjures up images of a school headmaster or a little green Martian enforcing control over your exercise, and represents a misunderstanding of the theory.

People have tried to personify the concept, and pinpoint its location in the brain, when in fact it's the concept that counts, and it doesn't need to exist as a specific location. For that reason, we'll steer clear of the term "Governor", and go instead with "Anticipatory Regulation". Also, as knowledge is evolving, the term needs to be more all-encompassing. Hopefully, we can translate some of this evidence in this series...

But let me reassure all the sceptics out there - I'm not going to write this series as a one-dimensional glorification of the Central Governor theory, so don't sharpen your knives (just yet!). For while I studied the regulation of exercise by the brain and am fully behind the concept that exercise is regulated (not limited) in anticipation of a limit, there are physiological and performance findings that the theory cannot explain. It is not, therefore, the single answer we are looking for. It needs critical and thorough analysis, and ultimately, the trick will be to balance the two extremes.

And let me say this now, with the hope of never repeating it: Fatigue is not all in the mind! This misconception, which has unfortunately been propagated by academics and media and the public, is best forgotten at this early stage. Fatigue and the limits to performance are NOT simply mental barriers, and "mind over matter" is a massive oversimplification of the truth! Having said that, mental strength and willpower are key factors, part of the answer, but they never beat physiology. We'll look at the role of willpower, self-belief and mental strength in this series, but I repeat "It's not all in the mind!" The analogy is that "you cannot commit suicide by holding your breath," and the same goes for exercise: physiology wins the day, every day!

The real answer, then, is likely to lie somewhere between these two extremes - a combination of the "Anticipatory Regulation" model and the "Peripheral Fatigue Model".

We'll work towards that answer over the next few weeks. It is an enormously complex and detailed area to tackle, but we'll jazz it up and try to make it entertaining as much as possible! It may take up to a month to get through it all, and we will carry on with our normal news stories and other features between installments.

As usual, comments and feedback are welcome! But bear in mind, we're working towards the answer, so if you feel we've left something out of each post, it might be coming in the future!

Join us again soon!

Monday, April 28, 2008

Birthday wishes from The Science of Sport

One year and counting - Thank you everyone

It was a year ago, to the day, that The Science of Sport was born. Our very first post was a preview and analysis of the Cricket World Cup Final. That post was read by perhaps 10 people - Jonathan and I, his family, mine, and some friends! 256 posts later, and we've reached the ripe old age of one!

In our early days, our regular readership consisted of the two of us, and Jonathan's wife, Lara! We're relieved, flattered and enormously grateful to be able to say that this post will definitely be read by more than 10 people! And so we'd like to express a huge, heartfelt thank you to all of your for your support, comments, questions, criticisms and compliments over the last 365 days. Every single email we receive, whether it be a comment, question or argument, vindicates our vision and mission for this site, and while the journey is young (our first milestone today!), we've been enormously priviledged to have benefitted from your partnership!

Going back just over a year, the two of us were sitting in our offices on opposite ends of the earth (Jonathan in Chicago, Ross in Cape), pondering our futures, opportunities and ambitions. Many of those thoughts are still unanswered, but we were certain that we had a passion for sports and science, and for disseminating that information to a wider audience. On top of this, we both recognized a lack of "real" sports science in the news. So we set out to create a site that:

  • Translated and applied sports science in a real, tangible way
  • Provided a second, third and fourth level of insight into sports news and events. Our vision was always to provide the WHY? HOW? WHEN? answers to people's questions on sports topics
Since then it has morphed and grown into what you see today. Our aim from the start was always to focus on "newsy" sports stories, and to use those stories as a platform to explain the science behind them. The long term aim is to become the #1 resource on the web for sports science, and in this first year you have helped us work towards that goal.

A birthday wish list - Science of Sport style!

Now, since we won't be receiving any gifts on our first birthday, (and being the cynics we are), we thought that we would take a somewhat light-hearted look back on the first year of our "lives", while at the same time coming up with a wish list for the world of sports for the future. So on behalf of The Science of Sport, here's a look back, and a look forward, at what we'd like to give the sports world for our birthday!:

1) For Caucasians everywhere: A gold medal in Beijing for a non-African middle or long-distance runner

Africa's dominance in the middle- and long-distance events is well-known. We've done a great deal of analysis on Marathon and World Championship performances, and invariably, we end up talking about Africans. If it's not Kenyans, it's Ethiopians, and Eritreans, and Ugandans, and perhaps the odd Moroccan!

But hope is on the horizon - Ryan Hall of the USA broke 2:07 in London, finished 4th, and has the speed credentials over the half-marathon to challenge the Africans. Then there is Australia's Craig Mottram, the great hope on the track. Will they win medals in Beijing? Stranger things have happened...but our money says that every gold medal from 800m up is taken by Africans, with perhaps one medal going to an athlete from the Far East. Maybe next year's birthday wish list will provide more joy for the non-Africans!

2) For Haile Gebrselassie: A gas mask and nebulizer so he can run the Olympic marathon

Gebrselassie made headlines earlier this year when he announced that he would NOT run the Olympic Marathon out of fears for his health and the effects of Beijing's much vaunted pollution. We covered that as it broke, and were sceptical of his reasons. Turns out there was more to it - Geb has visions of a world record attempt in Berlin in October, too soon after the Olympics to run both.

So we realise that our gas mask and nebulizer gift may well find its way into Gebrselassie's trash can, but it's worth a shot, just for the hope of seeing Gebrselassie racing against Lel, Cheruiyot and Wanjiru for Olympic Gold! It is our birthday, after all...we can but dream!

3) For all Major League Baseball players: "One-free Failed Steroid Test" from commissioner Bug Selig

US-sports have not received too much attention from us in the past year (we hope to change this in the future!). We did cover the Patriots failed attempts to claim the perfect season in winning the NFL title, but for the most part, our focus on US-sports was limited to the inevitable drug problems that so affect all sports.

2007 was the year that saw Barry Bonds break the all-time home run record - Bonds is the poster boy for US baseball's drug problems. Currenly under investigation for perjury during Grand Jury appearances in connection with the BALCO affair, his record stands as a beacon to the problems affecting the sport. If this was not enough, it was followed up by the Mitchell report, which implicated Roger Clemens, an all-time great pitcher, and many other big names.

So for 2008, and our second year, we'll donate amnesty from testing to baseball players...What's that? They already get off after positive tests? Oh, that explains it then!

4) For LeBron James: An NBA title

LeBron Who? is probably the question you're asking if you're anywhere outside the USA. LeBron James, that's who. This is a rather self-indulgent birthday wish, because we must admit being partial to James, who is one of the brightest stars in the US-professional basketball league, the NBA.

The NBA is home to some absolutely incredible athletes - Bryant, Garnett, Iverson. But LeBron James stands out as a giant among giants. To put into perspective for our non-USA readers: LeBron James is 2.03m tall (6-8), weighs 113kg (250 lbs), and he moves like a ballerina combined with an artistic gymnast. If you follow rugby, think Martin Johnson, Bakkies Botha, or Jerry Collins, leaping meters of the ground, spinning in mid air, meeting a pass with one hand and slamming over another athlete, also 2m tall. Then doing it over and over for 40 minutes a game. James is spectacular, and while I freely admit to being a fan, I also marvel that the physiology that allows a man so big to move so freely and easily - coming from a country where big men play rugby, to see this athleticism is remarkable. For that pleasure, here's to an NBA title, however unlikely!

5) For the Olympic Torch: A safe and peaceful journey for the remainder of its journey to Beijing

The Olympic torch has always been a symbol of peace, unity and togetherness, uniting the world ahead of the great showpiece. However, Beijing 2008's torch has been more of a flame to attract controversy. Protests, protests and more protests have forced changes to the route, talk of cancelling certain visits, and dire predictions for what will eventually happen once the world reaches Beijing in August. It's a volatile situation, with the potential to blow up. We really hope that it doesn't affect the competition and the spectacle of the Games.

6) For Oscar Pistorius: A set of prosthetic limbs that do not provide a 30% advantage over able-bodied runners

If there is one story that epitomizes our vision and mission, it's the story of Oscar Pistorius. This story, about the SA amputee's desire to run in the able-bodied Olympics, began almost exactly a year ago, co-inciding with our own "birth". And from the outset, it was clear that it was a story about sports science vs. human emotion and interest. The news reports were so far off track, so inaccurate and incomplete, that it was a story begging to be analysed in more detail. Every paper, website, TV show, and news article was portraying the story as a case of discrimination against Pistorius, and not one was objectively discussing the scientific facts and implications of why he actually has a large advantage.

We saw it differently, and put forward all the reasons why Pistorius has an enormous advantage. The IAAF, after a few false starts and weak arguments, eventually pulled in a world-leading expert and found massive advantages - 30% in some cases. Based on that result, Pistorius was banned. But he was not done there - he promptly produced his own testing, which is, in his words "very different" from that done by the IAAF. Quite how he managed to overturn a 30% advantage is beyond us. We wait with baited breath for the ruling from the CAS, which is due in the next few weeks. Hopefully justice will prevail and the ban will stand, on sports science grounds.

In the meantime, how about a birthday wish of a pair of carbon-fibre blades especially designed not to give that 30% mechanical advantage. That's what many people were calling for after the IAAF testing. The only problem with that is that given a pair of legs that does not provide an advantage, Pistorius suddenly goes from being a 46 second 400m runner to a 54 second runner (take your pick of how many seconds he slows down - maybe 50, maybe more). And suddenly the problem doesn't exist any more!

7) For Arena: A voucher for some NASA testing on its swimsuit

The last four weeks have seen the "swimsuit wars" played out in the media. 35 world records broken wearing one type of swimsuit - the Speedo LZR Racer! Only 2 records this year have NOT been set in the space-age suit, which was designed in collaboration with scientists in the UK, Australia, New Zealand, and NASA. NASA, for their part, tested the fabrics used in the suit, and helped developed a material that was completely drag-free. Arena, Speedo's main rival in the Olympic pool this year, was the big loser, first citing "illegal" technology and then scrambling to bring out their own version of the LZR. Meanwhile, swimmers who are NOT sponsored by Speedo are either talking up a a big game about how the suit doesn't help that much, after all. Or, they're desperately finding out how they too are going to be squeezing into the Speedo come the Olympic Games.

So for Arena, we wish for a voucher to have some NASA testing of their own, in the hope that at least we get to see a fair competition in the pool in Beijing!

8) For the world of cycling: the truth about Lance Armstrong

Yeah, right! There'a about as much chance of this happening as there is of Dick Pound offering an apology to Armstrong for his pursuit of him in the last 3 or 4 years! During Pound's now finished tenure as head of WADA, he became the self-appointed Sheriff at large, doing his best to prove that Armstrong was using drugs. In truth, he had a lot of help - journalists, authors, fellow team-mates, former mechanics, former massage therapist, all queued up to build up a mass of "evidence" against Armstrong. Pound is now gone, Armstrong remains defiant, and everyone still wonders - greatest comeback of all time, or greatest con-job of all time? That last question paraphrases one Greg LeMond, who may soon be embroiled in legal proceedings against Trek, which will involve Armstrong. This story is unlikely to be going anywhere - maybe by our second birthday, there'll be more to it.

9) A drug-free Tour de France

If you thought wish number 8 was far-fetched, try this one for size! The Tour de France rolls around every year, with renewed hope of a clean race, and every year, the problem seems to get worse and worse. Last year, the race leader, Michael Rasmussen, was booted out of the race by his team for failing to declare his whereabouts during the period leading up to the race. Another big name, Alexander Vinokourov, was also expelled from the race after a positive test, and the world of cycling shook again. 2008 promises much, but realistically, it's unlikely to escape without controversy. Cycling has a doping culture, and it'll take more than a few threats and tests to eradicate the doping scourge. Perhaps, with the burden now being taken up by the sponsors, who are pulling their money out at an alarming rate, the sport will be dragged, kicking and screaming, into a new era. We're sceptical, but time will tell.

10) For Abderrahim Goumri: A world without Martin Lel!

Goumri may well be the best marathon runner in the world today...except for Martin Lel. Goumri made his debut in London in 2007, and was outkicked in the final 300m by Lel, claiming a great second in his first race. Jump ahead to November, and Lel and Goumri hit the final 400m of the New York Marathon deadlocked, again. Yet again, however, Lel destroys Goumri, this time putting 9 seconds between him and the Moroccan in the final 400m, thanks to a 61 second final 400m.

2008 - a new year, different luck for Goumri? Not quite, because this year, back on the streets of London, Goumri finds himself once again locked with Martin Lel going into the final kilometer of a major marathon. This time, however, there's also Sammy Wanjiru, and both beat Goumri, with Lel confirming his incredible form and fast finish to win his third marathon in three starts. Goumri has three podiums, with no wins, and must be hating the site of Martin Lel's back! Here's to a race without Lel, and first win for the Moroccan!

Looking ahead- year two

So that's our list, tongue firmly in cheek. Apologies for the rather "self-indulgent" post, by the way, but hey, you only turn 1 once! There is some truth in our list, though - we really do hope for a drug free Tour, a non-controversial Olympic Games, and yes, we'd love to know the truth from Lance Armstrong!

In all seriousness, we really do want to thank all of our supporters who have logged on, visited or subscribed during our first year. It has been such a pleasure writing the blog. And as mentioned, every single criticism, comment and debate we receive is the reason we write to begin with. The one consquence of growth is that we cannot respond to every single comment. So we will apologize upfront for our failure to always respond - sometimes we just cannot.

Looking ahead to year number 2, we plan more of the same. There's certainly no shortage of stories, and to think, we haven't even covered triathlon yet! But we'll also aim to bring more series, and scientific reviews, including discussions on fatigue and the brain.

And then, before we know it the 2008 Olympic games will be upon us, and you can expect a full set of previews as they approach. This will include event previews as well as posts on how the environmental conditions will affect the performances. You can expect a series on heat acclimatization and environmental physiology, and plenty of performance analysis and predictions.

Thanks again, and we hope you keep coming back for more in our second year!

Ross and Jonathan

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Olympic Marathon News

The Kenyan Team is announced. And Gebrselassie's Real reason for not running the Beijing Olympic Marathon?

Just time for two very brief news items today from the world of marathon running:

Kenya's Olympic Marathon team - as expected...

The first is that the Kenyan team for the Olympic Marathon has been announced, and not surprisingly, it consists of the big three "winners" from the recent series of Spring marathons.

That is, the team consists of:

  • Martin Lel - London winner, and fastest in the world this year at 2:05:16
  • Sammy Wanjiru - Second in London behind Lel, and perhaps the best half marathon runner in history
  • Robert Cheruiyot - the impressive, front-running winner in Boston, where he destroyed an admittedly weak field with a sustained period of pressure
It's an unbelievable team, three men who arguably can't be challenged in terms of pedigree, particularly with Gebrselassie not running (more on that later). It's made even more clear just how incredible this squad is when you consider that the "alternate" (reserve) is William Kipsang, who won in Rotterdam recently in another sub-2:06 clocking, with 2 other sub 2:07 performances in his CV! But perhaps even more amazing is the fact that Emmanuel Mutai, last year's second best runner and fourth in London this year in the most competitive marathon field ever doesn't even crack a reserve spot!

And then perhaps most sadly, it means no place for Paul Tergat, the great Kenyan, who has won two Olympic silver medals at 10,000m, and is someone we would love to see win Olympic Gold. That will now not happen, though in truth, Tergat would really struggle against this new generation of marathon racers who have followed in his lofty footsteps.

Another word on the heat issue

In yesterday's post, we discussed whether these three Kenyans would feature as strongly in Beijing, as a result of their preference for remaining in Kenya during the preparation phase. Problem is, Kenya in June and July is relatively cool and has very little humidity, and so the problem with the Beijing heat may pose a bigger challenge than people think. The default is to assume that Africans enjoy the heat, but the combination of timing, seasonal environmental changes and training habits make Beijing's Olympic race an intriguing one.

One of our readers, Stan, mailed and suggested that perhaps simply running in warm clothes in a moderate environment would suffice, and certainly, this is the very least they might wish to do, as part of the preparation. I'm not 100% convinced that the effect is the same, because the sensation of the heat and humidity can never be 100% replicated through clothing. However, one would hope they're doing that. If so, and if they carry the same kind of form into August as we saw from these three in Kenya, perhaps we'll see an all Kenyan podium? I doubt it - the Olympic Marathon produces some surprises, and the conditions will be a great leveller, but it's a formidable team, for sure!

Gebrselassie announces his "Real" reason for missing Beijing - a Berlin WR

About two months ago, Haile Gebrselassie, marathon world record holder, announced that he would not take part in the Olympic marathon, citing "fears for his health" as a result of the much vaunted pollution in Bejing.

When we covered that story, we were highly sceptical of his reasons. There were two main concerns:

First, the pollution was at best a speculative excuse - everyone is worried about it, and talk of gas masks and late arrivals has been abundant, but ultimately, to bypass the Olympic race (an ambition he's stated for a long time, recall) on the basis of a "maybe" seems a little reckless.

But more important, from a scientific point of view, there was no reason at all to believe that Beijing's pollution was so bad that the three days in Beijing plus 2 hours of marathon running would pose a long term health risk. We wrote at the time that the worst that would happen is that he'd be forced to withdraw at say 10km with difficulty breathing. But a week after that, no problem. And of course, this would be a justified reason for not competing, but the talk of "long term health risks" was bizarre. And then finally, he said that instead of the marathon, he'd run the 10,000m event instead. In my opinion, the 10,000 m is EVEN MORE likely to be affected by pollution than the marathon, simply because the rates of ventilation are so high. It's a race done at 95% of VO2max, the marathon is only at 80%, and that high rate means if pollution is going to be a problem, it will affect the shorter distance races more.

In any event, this speculation all led to the conculsion that in fact, Gebrselassie had another race plan in mind.

Turns out that this "other race" may have been the incentive all along, because Gebrselassie announced yesterday that his ambition is to return to the Real Berlin Marathon where he set his world record last year. That race takes place in October, and so comes too soon after the Olympic Games to run both races. So rather than risk an Olympic race that was bound to be tactical (bear in mind that Gebrselassie has never won a tactical, competitive marathon race, his victories have all been solo finishes), it would seem that he has opted for the world record incentive.

Of course, there is the alternative explanation, put forward in some articles about this latest news, which is that he’s come under pressure to retract his earlier explanation, because of the embarrassment it has caused the Chinese organizers (who are more than a touch self-conscious about the pollution risks). That may be a valid explanation – certainly, it would seem that this form of subtle “censorship” will be a feature of China in the build-up to the Games. However, being somewhat cynical, I still suspect that the more likely explanation is that the intention was to run in Berlin all along, and the pollution provided a convenient excuse to do so. And only then did any pressure come to bear and cause him to express the Berlin goal.

Regardless, it’s a real shame for the Games, because it denies us the chance of seeing the three magnificent Kenyans in a race against the world record holder. And I suspect we’ll never see that race – Gebrselassie will run in Berlin, and then he’ll probably line up Dubai as another paced record attempt next year. And from then on, he’ll run those two big races a year, aiming to crack that 2:04-barrier he’s spoken about. The Kenyans, for their part, will continue to race each other in the Majors, and the race we all want to see won’t happen.

And the biggest irony at the end of all this – I doubt we’ll see another world record. And we almost certainly won’t see a sub-2:04 clocking. The event is too unpredictable, requires too much to fall into place on the day, and Gebrselassie is, unfortunately, nearing the end of his lifespan as a 2:04-runner – he’s done perhaps 8 high class marathons, and needs another two huge performances to bring that time into the mid-2:03's. Not going to happen...But that’s just my feeling, time will tell! Ross

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Spring Marathon season

Wrapping up the spring marathon season - a Kenyan season, but will the Olympic Games be the same?

Yesterday's Boston Marathon brought the curtain down on the 2008 Spring Marathon season, and all eyes now turn towards the August Beijing Olympic Marathon. That will be followed by the Autumn racing season, consisting of Berlin, Chicago and New York, where hopefully, we'll see more world-class racing performances.

Because of the proximity of the Olympic Games, the Autumn races in October are more likely to feature the "could have beens", an opportunity for the fourth, fifth and sixth best runners to show what their federations might have missed, particularly in the case of Kenya. The Berlin race will almost certainly also feature Haile Gebrselassie, who looks set, I believe, to attempt the world record there, unless he changes his mind about Beijing Marathon participation.

A Kenyan Spring: The world's roads belong to Kenyan men

However, looking back over the last month's races, without a shadow of a doubt, the month of April, and the world's roads, have belonged to Kenya. Of the four marathons we covered (Paris, London, Rotterdam and Boston), Kenyan men claimed three titles, missing out only on the Paris race, which was won by Tsegaye Kebedi in impressive fashion. You can read our analysis of the World Marathon Major races by clicking on the "Marathon analysis" tab on the top of our page (you'd have to visit the site, in case you're getting this as an email).

But it was the manner of the Kenyan dominance that stood out. On Sunday 13 April, THREE Kenyan men broke 2:06, two in London, one in Rotterdam. They also placed fourth in London, took out seven of the top 10 places in Rotterdam, and then Robert Cheruiyot won Boston with a dominant, front running performance yesterday. Martin Lel, Sammy Wanjiru and Robert Cheruiyot are a ferocius trio, and surely, will be selected for Beijing. The heat may pose a problem (discussed below), but on form, they are very, very difficult to beat, given what we've seen over the last ten days.

So all is good in the world of Kenyan marathon running. This comes three weeks after their officials were ready to hit the panic button after a very disappointing showing at the World Cross Country Championships, where they failed to win a single title, being completely overshadowed by the Ethiopians. However, that is another story, one which I'll look at in the coming weeks, with an eye on the track events in Beijing. For now, however, world marathon running is very much a Kenyan affair.

Will the Olympics deliver the same results for Kenya? The potential of a "meltdown" in the Beijing heat

So quite rightly, Kenyan officials and fans will be expecting gold come Beijing. On paper, and on form, they have three out of the top four marathon runners in the world, men who have shown the ability to get the training and performance right on the day, along with ability to produce astonishing finishing kicks (Martin Lel - 60 second final 400m ability) and aggressive front-running displays (Robert Cheruiyot, solo running over Boston's hills). So, no apparent weakness then?

Well, not quite. There is the small matter of the heat and humidity in Beijing. And the reason this is all relevant is because no one really knows how these athletes will be affected.

A false perception that heat favours Africans?

There is a perception, certainly among the non-African media, that a hot race favours the Africans. And ordinarily, this would be so - they do train in Equatorial climates, after all, where summer temperatures are regularly in the 30's, with high humidity! However, it becomes very interesting to consider what happens in Kenya during the month of July, which is when the major training phase will take place in Kenya.

There is an important assumption to be made first, however. This assumption is based on my own personal interaction with scientists and coaches who have worked with the top Kenyan athletes, so I believe that it is reliable, though admittedly second-hand:

That is, most of the Kenyan athletes will not be leaving their normal training base to do any heat adaptation training in the lead up to Beijing. The reason, according to scientists at the Kenyatta University in Nairobi who we in Cape Town have done some work with, is that the athletes prefer the familiar environments and the single-minded focus these bases provide them with. So rather than adopt the approach of a Paula Radcliffe, and the US Olympic team, who are planning training camps in the hotter European climates, many of Kenya's best will remain in their high-altitude camps right until the Games.

This has major implications for their ability to adapt to the heat. Because contrary to popular belief, Kenya is nowhere near hot enough to acclimatize during the winter months of June and July! Cold is of course a relative term, but if you take a look at the historic weather data for Kenya in July, you'll see that in Eldoret (perhaps the most famous training base), the average peak temperature is ONLY 20 degrees celsius (69F), and the typical morning temperature is 10 to 11 degrees Celsius (52 F). Remember that Eldoret is at altitude (2,100m), and so it's neither hot nor humid there in the winter months.

This means, of course, that a Kenyan training in Eldoret during June and July has zero exposure to temperatures likely to be encountered in Beijing. For the record, the average daily temperature in Beijing in August is expected to range between 20 and 30 degrees, with a humidity in excess of 70%. Those are seriously challenging conditions, and if an athlete heads into that situation unprepared from a heat-physiology perspective, the effects will be severe.

The Ethiopian approach to Osaka, and Kenya's options

What is interesting to consider is the difference in approach taken by Ethiopian athletes in the build-up to the IAAF World Athletics Championships in Osaka last year. Osaka, incidentally, is very similar to Beijing - hot and humid. I know that the Ethiopians, who are the same as the Kenyans in that they choose to stay in the country to prepare for the major races, actually brought in expertise that included providing access to a heat chamber before they went to Osaka.

So, given that Osaka was going to be hot and humid, the Ethiopians made use of a chamber which effectively brought the heat to them. They did training sessions which simulated Osaka conditions, and it's likely they'll be using the same in preparation for Beijing. This was a highly efficient technique since as little as 60-90 min per day in the heat chamber will stimulate the physiological adaptations that will enhance thermoregulatory function in the heat. These runners are likely already running twice a day, so once in the chamber should not have impacted their high-quality efforts.

Whether the Kenyans will adopt a similar approach remains to be seen. From a physiological point of view, it is absolutely crucial that any athlete who wants to be competitive in Beijing be adapted to the heat.

It doesn't matter how good you are, how dominant a marathon runner, if you are unfamiliar with the expected heat in Beijing, physiological function will be compromised when you are first exposed to the heat, and it takes a minimum of five days of exposure to start to see any adaptations.

The scientific evidence on this is very clear - it takes between 5 and 8 exposures to hot and humid conditions before the body has made most of the adaptations and is able to keep its temperature down. The problem for the Kenyan runners, then, is that unless they figure out a way to expose their physiology to the Beijing heat and humidity, they will be entering the race "cold". This has happened before, and there's a chance it will happen again.

If it does, then don't be surprised if a relatively unknown athlete comes in and wins a surprise Gold medal. It is for the reasons explained above that I believe that Sammy Wanjiru, thanks to his familiarity with the Far East, and possibly the fact that he'll be based in the East during his build-up, is the bigger favourite, despite the fact that I believe that Martin Lel is the world's greatest marathoner today. Lel, all things being equal, wins any marathon he runs in. Unfortunately, things are rarely equal, and the heat is the great leveler. Kenya, for all its dominance over the roads of London, Boston and Rotterdam, may yet find itself neutralized by a failure to prepare for the heat in Beijing.

As the Olympics draws nearer, this issue of heat will become much more relevant. We will certainly bring you all the insights and explanations, including a full series on heat physiology and acclimatization, and also hopefully some inside information on what the Kenyans and Ethiopians are doing!


Monday, April 21, 2008

Boston Marathon Result and splits

Cheruiyot of Fire: Robert Cheruiyot wins his 4th Boston title in dominant style

Robert Cheruiyot fulfilled most people's predictions today, by winning the 112th Boston Marathon. But it was not so much the fact that he won as the manner in which he did it that was remarkable. He absolutely destroyed the field through his own front-running efforts, taking up the pace very early on in the race, keeping the tempo way below course record (2:07:14) schedule, and then attacking the field off that fast pace on the famed Newton Hills.

At one stage, the predicted finish time was on for sub-2:06, which is absolutely unheard of in Boston, and would have smashed the old record by over a minute! It was not to be, as Cheruiyot himself paid the price for his incredible front-running, and he ended the race running nearly as slowly as the women - he covered the final 2.2 km in 7:03, which is only 4 seconds faster than the women, who were involved in a great race for the line (see below)! Ultimately, Cheruiyot came home in 2:07:46, 32 seconds outside record pace.

However, by then, the damage had been done, and he had created gaps of minutes over his nearest rivals. The table below, followed by the graph, show the splits and a summary of how the race unfolded.

The graph below shows the time PER MILE over the course of the men's race (click on the figure to enlarge and read the text - apologies for the small size!):

Incredible front running in the middle of the race

It's clear that after a slow early pace (very slow for the first three miles), Cheruiyot decided to lift things - he said in the post-race interview that this was his tactic. Just how much he lifted the pace was remarkable - between 5km and 30km, the pace never dropped slower than 3:00/km.

In fact, this 25km stretch, which includes a few hilly sections, was covered in 1:13:52, which equates to an average pace of 2:57/km. That equates to a marathon time of 2:04:40. Given the course profile, which is hardly a Chicago, Berlin or London course, this is incredible running. To have run this from the front, without pacemakers, is even more remarkable, and testimony to the kind of form that Cheruiyot carried into Boston.

The gaps that eventually gave Cheruiyot the victory were created soon after the start of the Newton Hills at 17 miles. At this stage, four men were together, but between 17 and 18 miles, Cheruiyot moved to the front, ran a 4:52 mile on one of the Newton Hills, and the race was over. It was the decisive move, though Cheruiyot continued to grow his advantage, opening up a lead that would end at 1:18 over Morocco's Bouramdane.

The final 10km were a real struggle for Cheruiyot (and everyone else!), thanks to the searing pace that broke the race up. He built a lead, but his earlier efforts saw the pace drop to slower than 5min/mile (3:06/km), and eventually, he missed his own course record, finishing in 2:07:46 instead.

Nevertheless, a dominant performance, against an admittedly weaker field than he might encounter in Beijing (should he be picked, which seems likely), and evidence yet again that Kenya has some serious marathon talent at its disposal - if you think back to a week ago, on ONE DAY, THREE KENYANS BROKE 2:06, and now Cheruiyot has confirmed that he, despite his slower time, is right up there in the talent stakes and must be a sure pick for the Beijing race. Their Olympic Marathon team will be a remarkable one!

Women's Race: Fantastic sprint down the straight as Tune wins closest ever finish!

The women's race was no less spectacular, though the characters might have been somewhat unexpected. All attention before the race was on Jelena Prokopcuka, twice second in Boston, and this year's pick for the title. However, a rather topsy-turvy and erratic women's pace saw Prokopcuka first take on the pace soon after halfway, and then get dropped when the pace was stepped up at about 25km!

It was left to somewhat unheralded runners in the form of Dire Tune, and Alevtina Biktimirova, to create a fantastic final sprint down the finish straight. The two of them were alone for the final 10km, and the pace they set was searing. In the end, it was Tune of Ethiopia who prevailed in the final 300m, winning the race by the narrowest margin in history - 2 seconds, in a time of 2:25:25. The table below shows how the winner's race was put together.

A race of two halves and fantastic finishing

The women's race was really a race of two halves - the halfway mark was reached in 1:14:45, on course for a pedestrian 2:29:30. It was soon after this that Prokopcuka went to the front, and pace was picked up very slightly. However, at 25km, things really started to happen, as Biktimirova and Tune moved clear, with Jeptoo of Kenya. This 5km split would be run in 16:47, a pace of 3:21/km (a 2:20 marathon).

From then on, it just got faster and faster, despite the hilly profile of the second half! The subsequent 5km splits were all covered in faster that 3:20/km, and ultimately, the second half would be run in 70:40, which is absolutely remarkable given the Newton Hills that fall in this period!

Coming into the final 2km, the two women were side by side and attacking each other! No one made a decisive move, and then with about 700m to go, Tune moved clear with a big surge! She opened about 5m over Biktimirova, but it too was not decisive. Biktimirova bridged that gap, then went clear herself, opening a 5m gap of her own! This too was closed down, and with 300m to go, despite three changes of lead, two gaps of 5m, no one had yet shaken the other!

Finally, with the finish in sight, Tune found something extra, moved clear, held that gap, and then with 100m to run, Biktimirova was broken and it was Tune who went on to win what was the closest finish in history! Her margin of 2 seconds beat the previous gap of 10 seconds (Jeptoo beating Prokopcuka). The eventual winning time was 2:25:25, which is incredible given how slowly the halfway point was reached.

The final 2km, as mentioned, were covered in about the same time as Robert Cheruiyot covered his final 2km, testimony to how fast the women were running, and how much the great Kenyan had done earlier in his race!


There's more to come from Boston - we'll bring you discussion of the race, insights, analysis, some quotes and more detailed reports tomorrow. A great race, and (yet another) Kenyan major marathon triumph - you have to go back an awful long time to find the last non-Kenyan to win a Major Marathon. In fact, here's a bit of trivia - if you take London, New York, Chicago and Boston (I'm excluding Berlin because it's not really much of a race these days, more a record attempt time-trial), who is the last non-Kenyan to win the race? That's for discussion tomorrow, join us then!


Saturday, April 19, 2008

Boston Marathon Preview

Preview of Boston - the last of the big Spring Marathons: Cheruiyot to claim number four

Monday sees the 112th running of the famous Boston Marathon, which has brought us some epic duels and historical races, like the Duel in the Sun of 1982. Coming a week after the great London Marathon, this race promises to make history for Robert Cheruiyot of Kenya, who, if he wins, will join Bill Rodgers, Gerard Cote and the great Clarence de Mar as the only men to win the title four times (he has a long way to go to catch de Mar, who won seven times. Amazingly, his second win came 11 years after his first, and then he reeled off five more in the next eight years!)

Cheruiyot was the world's first Marathon Major champion, and has a valid claim to a position as one of the great marathon racers in the world. He is the defending champion, the current course record holder (in 2006, a time of 2:07:14), and won the Chicago Marathon (2006) in addition to some other high finishes in Chicago and New York. So he has, like Martin Lel from last week's preview, shown the ability to get it right on the day. Whether he is quite in the condition that Lel has been in for the last 30 months is debatable, but his name certainly stands out on the entry lists for the Boston Race.

That is particularly the case now that Patrick Ivuti is not starting on Monday. The Chicago champion in last year's magnificent finish, where he pipped Jaouad Gharib by a shoulder, has pulled out due to a bout of malaria. Not surprisingly, that damages his chances of getting into Beijing, though he did say that he is optimistic and expects to race once or twice in May. I'd be very surprised if he can do anything spectacular in those races, and given what we saw in London last week from Lel and Wanjiru, the Kenyan team is pretty much sown up, with the addition, perhaps, of the Boston winner, who I fully expect to be Cheruiyot.

How the race will unfold - some fun with predictions

Last week, my London predictions miraculously turned out to be pretty accurate, and so I figured I'd play around with Boston in the same way, and call the race strategy and outcomes. Of course, calling the marathon is a hazardous exercise, so I expect to be well off the mark, but it's worth looking at for the possible insight it might provide on race day.

So first question: Will we see a world record? Without a doubt, NO, because Boston is simply too unconducive a course, and the field is not strong enough. Even the great field that was assembled in London last week would not threaten the 2:04:26 mark on this course, which is famous for the the series of four hills that begin soon after the 16-mile mark (about 26km), and culminate in the famous "Heartbreak Hill" at about 20 miles (32km). Ironically, the overall course profile is downhill, which means the course is not valid for record purposes, but it's a moot point, because a sub-2:06 time is, for the moment, well out of reach.

Newton Hills & Heartbreak Hill - not definitive, but certainly crucial

The Newton hills provide all the drama, then, and in particular, Heartbreak hill, an 800m climb that actually rises only 30 or so vertical meters, would not ordinarily pose much of a challenge to runners, but it's enough to slow the elite down enough that a world record is never on the cards. The course record at Boston, a relatively pedestrian 2:07:14 by today's standards, testifies that Boston is not about sub 3:00/km for 2 hours, it's about the race.

And of course, the Newton Hills dictate the terms of the race. They come slightly too early to really be the decisive point in the race, because Heartbreak Hill is completed with still 9km left to run, and so don't expect this relatively short hill to be the one that blows the race open. Instead, it's the "groundwork", the point where the athletes will test one another, and the very weak will fall away, while those who are particularly strong will set their race up for the final 5km - the jabs before the attempted knockout punch, so to speak!

Last week in London, we saw a searing, almost suicidal pace from the start, and then some tactical racing over a very flat last 10km where the top four looked at each other, threw in tiny surges and generally tested each other out before a serious final kilometer race.

Don't expect the same in Boston. Of course, the pace will be variable, thanks to the hills, and we'll do our best to bring you the splits from the race within the 30 minutes of the race finish. But in Boston, the race will be more attritional - men will simply drop off a steady tempo, rather than a race for the line with the cut and thrust from London.

And Cheruiyot will be the last man standing. I expect the halfway mark to be reached in about 63:40, with a large group of perhaps 12 men together. But the pacemakers will drop soon after the Newton Hills begin at 26km, and then the lead group will be trimmed to about five.

That group will include Cheruiyot, James Kwambai (a training partner), and two or three other Kenyans - I'm not even goint to try to guess which of the dozen will be there! I'm sure that Ethiopia will also have a strong presence, as they have some very strong sub-2:10 men in the race - look out for Yirefu Birhanu to feature, he has a 2:09:01, and a slower pace will mean that he, and a number of other 2:10 runners are in the frame.

However, with 4 km to go, Cheruiyot and probably Kwambai will show their quality, as they are the standout athletes in the race, and the subtle increase in pace will see them move clear of the rest. Then it will be Cheruiyot who will have too much, moving away with 1km to race, and will win by perhaps 15 seconds. Winning time? While I'm calling it, I'll guess at a winning time of 2:07:53, and Kwambai in second 15 seconds back.

I'll stop there, because the rest of the race is really too open to call!

Women's race: Prokupcuka stands head and shoulders above the rest

On the women's side, two names stands out, those of Jelena Prokopcuka, of Latvia, and Lidiya Grigoryeva of Russia. Grigoryeva is the defending champion, winning last year's race by 40 seconds over Prokopcuka. However, I expect the tables to be turned this year, and the Latvian will come out on top. She is certainly the class of the field in terms of times and overall racing history and credentials, though Grigoryeva has the Boston 2007 title in her collection.

But on Monday, expect Prokopcuka to end her run of second place finishes in Boston. In 2006, she was edged by 10 seconds by Rita Jeptoo of Kenya in the closest finish in history of the women's race. Then last year, the weather and Grigoryeva proved too much. But this year, expect her to race smarter and win. Her tactics are usually not too difficult to figure out - she goes to the front, runs a 2:25-tempo and anyone who can, stays with her for as long as possible. I expect the same on Monday, and I don't see too much of a challenge coming.

Rita Jeptoo, the 2006 champ in that tight finish, is in the field again, and may pose a challenge, but if the pace is in the mid 2:20's, then the relatively weak women's field should be thinned out early, and it will become a race between perhaps two or three athletes. Again, it will be a case of last woman standing, and barring a bad day on the roads for Prokopcuka, I expect that to be her!

Winning time? Difficult to call, because the way she races is not really conducive to consistent performances, because a bad day can become a disaster day if the slightest weakness starts showing - at least in a closer, tactical race, one can hide and be somewhat "carried" to consistency. But I'm going to go out on a limb and say that after a few podium finishes without a win (including 2nd in Boston twice and 3rd in New York last year), Prokopcuka gets it right and wins in 2:25:48.


That's it for a bit of a tongue-in-cheek preview, let's hope the weather does play along on Monday - it's supposed to be a coolish day, with peak temperatures rising to about 12 Celsius (50F), with a slight chance of rain, and so provided the wind stays down, that's ideal for the elites. So let's hope for some great racing at fast paces.

Join us on Monday, soon after the race finish for the wrap-up and split time analysis, as for London last week!


P.S. For those of you not in Boston and without the Versus Network in America, you can log on to the web and watch the race live on the World Championship Sports Network at WCSN.com. It is an excellent and very affordable way to watch the action live since it is being broadcast on television only in Boston.

Friday, April 18, 2008

London Marathon 2008: Lel wants the WR

Two-time champion Martin Lel confident he can break the record

In the aftermath of a truly legendary men's race in London, Lel made public his confidence that he can break Haile Gebrselassie's record of 2:04:26 set in Berlin last year. At which race he attempts the record will be up to his manager, “but this victory has given me confidence that I can break the world record," said Lel the day after the race.

If Lel were to go on to break the record, it would mark the peak of a relatively long climb to the top of the marathon world. He debuted in 2002 at the Venice Marathon, where he placed second in a (now unimpressive) 2:10:02 while losing to David Makori (KEN). In fact Lel was apparently drubbed by Makori, finishing a distant 1:33 behind him. Seems his incredible finishing power is something he has developed over the past six years, then. Let's take a quick look back on Lel's earlier performances.

The road to the world record - so far. . .

Lel went on to place third in Boston 2003, again quite far off the pace as he cruised in with a 2:11:11 and was one minute behind winner Robert Cheruiyot. In his next race, however, Lel clinched his first big city marathon victory when he won in New York 2003 with a time of 2:10:30. In that race he turned the tables and finished 41 s clear of Rogers Rop. From there Lel apparently never looked back, going on to become a noteworthy racer, not necessarily known for super fast times but for winning time and again in big races:

  • 2003 IAAF Half-marathon champion (60:49)
  • 4th in Boston 2004 (2:13:38)
  • 2004 Atlanta Peachtree 10 km champion (28:02)
  • 2005 London champion (2:07:26)
  • 2006 Peachtree champion (27:24)
  • 2nd in London 2006 (2:06:41)
  • 2007 Great North Run champion (60:10) (NB: Sammy Wanjiru was 2nd)
  • 2007 London champion (2:07:41)
  • 2007 NYC champion (2:09:04)
Having completed his ninth marathon last weekend, and setting a 90 s PB by while at it, Lel says he now has the confidence to claim the record back for Kenya. Should he do it, it would be remarkable not just because he would break 2:04:26 for 42.2 km, but because surely it will come in his 11th marathon, assuming he competes in Beijing this summer. Paul Tergat ran five marathons before breaking Khalid Khannouchi's record while Gebrselassie broke Tergat's record in his seventh marathon.

If Lel continues to show the remarkable form he has in the past 12 months, we do not doubt he can break the record. It seems he has gone from strength to strength over the past 5.5 years, and the confidence boost from the racing this past weekend might be just the stimulus he needs to push on to the next level. He turns 30 later this year, and so in spite of having raced nine marathons already apparently still has the legs to make it happen.

Beijing 2008 - Will Lel race?

Athletics Kenya will announce their choices for their marathon team next month, although apparently Lel has been given the by officials. Lel is keen, stating after this race he is "confident now that I have a chance in Beijing" of finishing in the medals. Perhaps next year, then will we see Lel challenge for the record in London or Berlin? You can be sure that we will be around to find out!

Boston is next on the racing calendar, where Chicago 2007 champion Patrick Ivuti takes on defending champion and seasoned veteran Robert Cheruiyot. Join us for the full preview and then for all the results and analyis!

Monday, April 14, 2008

London Marathon and Speedo LZR news

London Marathon review. And in the pool, Arena's Revenge against the Speedo LZR Racer!

Now that the dust has settled on yesterday's magnificent London Marathon, I thought I'd follow up with some more analysis of the race, and why it developed the way it did. And then of course, there is the latest installment in what is rapidly becoming an epic saga of swimsuits, technology and controversy.

London Marathon - Magnificent Martin Lel

Martin Lel, as we noted yesterday, must now surely be recognized as the pre-eminent marathon racer in the world. There are those who will argue that Haile Gebrselassie is number 1, and certainly, when it comes to racing the clock, no one has matched him. He's also the greatest runner of the range of distances ever, no question. That title is not in doubt. But right now, Lel is the greatest marathon runner, and his list of titles gives him a huge claim for greatest ever marathoner - 3 x London (and 2nd once), 2 x New York, and two 3rd places at Boston in the last five years represents a CV no one can match. There's also a world half-marathon title, plus two victories in the PeachTree race, and the Great North Run title.

And then Gebrselassie has never won a marathon RACE - his wins have all come with a group of five pace-makers to 30km and the nearest competition two minutes behind. Martin Lel, for the last 12 months, seems unable to LOSE races - three major Marathons, plus the Great North Run - a remarkable sequence of world class performance.

There are those who felt that had Gebrselassie been in yesterday's race, he would have won it and broken the record. Who knows? I doubt it - the record most definitely would not happen, as the tactics cost the athletes at least 30 seconds. But based on the evidence from previous races where he has been somewhat exposed in the final 5km when the racing is on, I'd be hard pressed to see him matching Lel and Wanjiru. Yesterday, Martin Lel showed the world how to race a marathon.

He ended up running the 4th fastest time in history, despite losing time to the tactical games being played from 30km. If you look at the race splits, you'll see that the elite men slowed quite substantially between 30 and 40km. That happened just after the pace-makers dropped out, and the elite men began gearing up for the finish, looking at each other, getting cagey, as so often happens in this kind of race. There was also the rain, which lashed the course during this time, and may have contributed to a slowing in pace. It's difficult to know how much time was lost - 30 seconds, perhaps? Maybe more?

Extra-ordinary finishing ability - Lel finishes like a track runner

In any event, I went back to the race and tried to pull some splits from the final kilometer. Admittedly, there's a second or two of error in these times, but this is what I measured:

  • Final 600m covered in 1:36 (64 seconds/400m pace)
  • Final 385 yards covered in 52 seconds (60 seconds/400m pace)
  • Final 200m run in 28 seconds (56 seconds/400m pace)
Absolutely astonishing speed, and at the end of a race run in 2:05:16. Given also that Lel was completely in control of all this, I really do believe that given the right race (that is, 5 pacemakers and no competition from 30km onwards), Lel has the world record in him. Because when you can control the best runners in the world, slow down and lose time due to tactics, run a poorly paced race thanks to a suicidal pace in the first 5km, then you have capacity to run at least a minute faster with the right race. That point is arguable, but I believe time will bear it out. That is, if Lel ever has his shot - I get the impression that Lel is a pure-racer - he won't stay away from London and other big races to pursue times, and that will ultimately count against him.

The other runners - a post-mortem of the top three

As for the rest, no one can be unhappy with their performances. Sammy Wanjiru, only 21, and in only his second marathon, should be pleased, and should now get on with the business of running shorter distances. His very early jump up to the marathon is not, from a physiological point of view, the most advisable one. I know his coach is also reluctant to have him race too many marathons, and with good reason. I fear that he will over-race and by the age of 24, might be stuck in the 2:07 range, with no chance of improvement. He's certainly a great talent, and could well go on to break Martin Lel's world record (I'm using creative licence here, by the way!).

But before that, Wanjiru will line up in Beijing as a joint favourite with Lel. It is difficult too see Lel being beaten, but Beijing is Wanjiru's best shot. The reason? He is based in the Far East for much of the year, and so the humidity and temperatures will be familiar for Wanjiru. Not so much for Lel, though he has said the heat doesn't worry him. What is interesting to note about the East Africans is that many of them don't enjoy the heat and humidity - remember that they train at altitude, where it's generally cooler and less humid. Also, unlike the Europeans and Americans, they don't go to special training camps for the heat, because they like to be based at home, working a formula that has always brought them success. So Beijing may really be more of a challenge for the Kenyans than we think. So Lel might have his work cut out. Wanjiru, however, is a name to look out for.

In third yesterday was Goumri, who ran a massive PB by over 2 minutes. It was his third marathon, and so he's on the up. He'll be disappointed that he couldn't challenge in the final 400m, but still, 2 minutes PB is not a bad day out. The problem for Goumri is that he is in danger of becoming Lel's bridesmaid. He's run 3 marathons, and three times, he's been starting at the back of Lel with 1km to go. Three times, he's been absolutely buried by Lel's kick. So his only experience of the marathon is a 41km race with a 1km mismatch at the end! He'll have to figure out how to overcome that. Yesterday, he simply wasn't strong enough - he tried, with about 2km to go, to push on, but the two Kenyans were clearly in great shape and they answered his very short surge, and then put him into difficulty. Goumri will be back, and he'll be hoping Lel is not in the same race!

One other honourable mention goes to Ryan Hall. He also set a PB by two minutes, and was one of the main drivers of the race strategy, according to this great interview with Martin Lel. Hall, the great hope of non-East Africans, is a really promising athlete. Having exploded into the global scene by breaking 60minutes for a half marathon last year, he then did a 2:08 on debut in London last year, won the US Olympic Trials in great style and now has done himself proud in this race.

The problem for Hall, as it is for anyone else, is where to now? Three Kenyans finished ahead of him in London, and one of them (Emmanuel Mutai) probably won't even make the Olympic Games. At the same time, another Kenyan ran sub 2:06 in Rotterdam, and then there is a host lining up in Boston next Monday to stake their claim. And that doesn't even mention the Ethiopians, who have always produced great finishers. The final 2%, as it is in most sports, is often the most difficult to achieve, and so what Hall needs to aspire to is that last little bit to complete the package - he's 98% there, and can certainly go all the way, but more often than not, this is where the barrier exists.

Time will tell whether Hall has what it takes - it's certainly great to see a fresh face to add some variety to the usual phalanx of remarkable Africans, so hopefully he features for a while. He's also seems incredibly level headed and grounded, which will help, from what I have seen and read about him. Just a word of caution, however, is that the temptation will exist to race often, and for success, which often comes at the expense of quality. So Hall, who is still young, needs to be cautious about his own development, and then time will tell whether that last 2% is achievable for him.

Wrap up of London

I'm sure we'll return to London in some form over the next couple of days - you don't put that kind of race out of the memory so quickly! But for now, to sum London up, it was Lel's coronation as the King of the Marathon, and London retained its own crown as the greatest of marathons. To produce 6 times under 2:07, and three under 2:06, makes this the greatest marathon ever, and it was won by perhaps the greatest marathoner ever - bring on the world record.

Speedo LZR Racer vs. Arena's Revenge

Now, for a change in medium, we move from land to water, and the latest installment in a drama that is taking on epic proportions!

FINA approves the Speedo LZR Racer swimsuit - and opens the can of worms

The world short-course swimming championships in Manchester have drawn to a close, and saw 18 world records broken in the five days of competition! That is added to the 19 long course world records already broken this year!

However, the championships may well be more significant for the fact that FINA, swimming's governing body, has announced that the Speedo LZR Racer Swimsuit, the center of the controversy about technology and performance, is legal and meets all FINA's stipulated specifications for swimsuits.

In case you've missed it, Speedo brought out its latest suit, the LZR Racer, earlier this year, and it's been an absolute sensation in the pools. Of the 19 long course and 18 short course world records set in the pool this year, 18 and 17 were set in the LZR Racer, respectively! That's 35 out of 37, the only other manufacturer getting a look in is Arena, which has been worn in the other 2 records.

For the record, someone has analysed swimming records in Olympic years and found that in every Olympic year since 1988, the average number of world records broken before the Olympic Games is....FIVE. 2008 has delivered 37 in total! It is clearly an anomaly, leading to names for the LZR of "drugs on a hanger"!

So that introduces something of a conflict for the swimmers, and a difficult decision. Do you wear the Speedo LZR and go for gold, or do you remain loyal to your sponsors if you happen to be unlucky enough to be sponsored by anyone other than Speedo?

Gerhard Zandberg of South Africa has made his mind up. According to this report, he will wear the LZR Racer even though he faces a fine of $3000 if he does. His words: "I'm going to wear the Speedo at the Olympics. I'm not going to sacrifice performance. I'll be fined $5000, but what's $5000?"

Other "non-Speedo" swimmers are equally disgruntled. Fillipo Magnini, world long course champ, feels at a disadvantage when racing against Speedo swimmers, and has expressed his displeasure. All in all, not a very pleasant situation for swimmers or manufacturers (other than Speedo, that is)

Help may be at hand - FINA legalizes the suit and so Arena responds

But, help may be at hand. Because at a summit held to discuss the suits at the Manchester championships, FINA cleared up what had apparently been some confusion around the design of the suits. According to reports from the meeting, the confusion, particularly on the part of Arena (who had asked FINA to review ALL suits and then ban those that were illegal), involved the specifications of what materials could be used in the suits.

That is, according to FINA rules, swimsuits should be made of "regular flat fabrics" and "no outside applications shall be added" (art. 3.1 b).

Arena interpreted this to mean that the panels of polyurethane, drag-free material that Speedo had incorporated into its LZR Racer at hydronamically beneficial locations were illegal. Not so, according to FINA officials and the meeting held in Manchester this weekend. FINA have instead clarified that the rules do not limit the fabrics, and that other materials could be used.

This has opened the door (or a can of worms, if you wish) for other manufacturers to step in. And first through that door, unsurprisingly, are Arena. According to the Arena CEO, Cristiano Portas, Arena are ready with their ultra-new swimsuit. You'll recall from our previous posts that Arena first introduced the Powerskin R-Evolution. Well, they are now talking about the Powerskin R-Evolution Mark II, which is basically a prototype very similar to Speedo's LZR Racer - it has polyurethane panels to reduce drag, and compress the muscles, to apparently create a sensation of buoyancy.

Portas' own words: "Now we know the interpretation of the material is free, we have something ready," Portas told reporters. "It's the very first prototype, but the feeling of the suit is special."

Where does this leave swimming?

Also unsurprisingly, all the other manufacturers, TYR, Diana, Nike, Adidas and Mizuno are now free to do the same thing, and they presumably will. So expect more records to fall before the Olympics (the USA National trials are on the horizon, and I shudder to think how many records will fall there), and then of course, at the Games, the combination of swimsuits and peaking means records will be obliterated.

I would in fact not be surprised if the number of world records broken in
2008 reaches the 100 mark.
If Speedo would like a slogan for their LZR Racer, they might consider "Speedo - wiping out 20 years of swimming history with one splash", or something similar, because while technology is great, this unprecedented spike in performance is effectively pushing the "Reset" button for swimming, and in five years time, we'll look at world records, and classify them as either PRE or POST "Material changes".

Is that good for swimming? Difficult to say. Personally, I'd love to see swimmers racing on an equal playing field (or pool), where the winner is the guy who has produced the higher force and the more efficient swim. The idea of a medal lost thanks to a suit seems to detract from performance a little to me. Having said that, in a perverse way, this latest development might at least ensure that we have some competition in the Olympics, because at least now, swimmers wearing anything but Speedo might have their own 2% performance advantages. So from a competitive point of view, this is a good thing. But for the sport, I'm not so sure. FINA have a problem on their hands.


Rotterdam Marathon 2008 Results

Kenyans dominate the "other" marathon this weekend

The 2008 Flora London Marathon has come and gone, with Martin Lel tightening his grip on the title of best marathoner ever. Lel seems untouchable at the moment as he has won won three major marathons in a row (London 2007, NYC 2007, and London 2008)---all that after a near miss in London 2006 where he was second. The race was hot, hot hot, as the top three all broke 2:06 and the top six all broke 2:07. You can read our full report here, but the top ten men looked like this:

  1. Martin Lel (KEN) - 2:05:15
  2. Sammy Wanjiru (KEN) - 2:05:24
  3. Abderrahim Goumri (MAR) - 2:05:30
  4. Emmanuel Mutai (KEN) - 2:06:15
  5. Ryan Hall (USA) - 2:06:17
  6. Deriba Merga (ETH) - 2:06:38
  7. Yonas Kifle (ERI) - 2:08:51
  8. Felix Limo (KEN) - 2:10:35
  9. Aleksey Sokolov (RUS) - 2:11:41
  10. Hendrik Ramaala (RSA) - 2:11:44
Rotterdam - The forgotten race!

While Lel was dominating the London field and staking a claim for greatness, just 300 miles west across the English Channel another race was unfolding. It was the Rotterdam Marathon, and its organizers promised the best field ever assembled in that race's history. The top five men had PB's under 2:07 going into the race, and the organizers were hoping for one of them to break Felix Limo's course record of 2:06:14. They got their wish, as William Kipsang cruised to victory in 2:05:49, beating Daniel Rono (2:06:58) by over one minute as he soloed home over the last eight kilometers. Unfortunately, the race was not broadcast in either the US or SA, so detailed analysis would be guesswork! (our advice is to plan the calendar so as to avoid being held on the same day as London in future!)

The conditions seemed ideal with a temperature of about 12 C (~54 F) and light winds. This falls right in the range of temperatures in which the fastest marathons by men have been run, and so it was not surprising that Kipsang broke 2:06. What was surpising, however, was that he did it nearly uncontested in what appeared to be a tight field---on paper, at least.

Kipsang earns his win

The pace setters did their job and kept the pace fast from the start (14:57 five km split), and at halfway seven men were together at 1:02:54. Kipsang attacked around 30 km, and by 35 km he had a seven second gap. The chasers faded as Kipsang confidently pulled away, increasing his lead to 40 seconds at the 40 km mark. He cruised over the line far ahead of Rono and the others, and the top three all set PB's:

1. William Kipsang (KEN) 2:05:49 PB
2. Daniel Rono (KEN) 2:06:58 PB
3. Charles Kamathi (KEN) 2:07:33 PB
4. Richard Limo (KEN) 2:08:43
5. Paul Kirui (KEN) 2:09:46
6. Tom van Hooste (BEL) 2:10:38
7. Daniel Yego (KEN) 2:10:41
8. Benjamin Maiyo (KEN) 2:10:44
9. Janne Holmen (FIN) 2:10:46
10. Driss el Himer (FRA) 2:12:08

Morgunova takes the win in the women's race

It was a brave run by Lyubov Morunova (RUS) coupled with a melt down by Zekeros Adanech (ETH) on the women's side. Adanech trailed by 19 s at 25 km, but came charging back to make it even with Adanech at 30 km. The Ethiopian could not answer the Russian's pace, though, and faded badly over the next five km so that at 40 km Morgunova was clear by two full minutes. In spite of such a "slow" finish, Adanech still set PB (2:27:32):

1. Lyubov (Morgunova (RUS) 2:25:12 PB
2. Zekeros Adanech (ETH) 2:27:32 PB
3. Alessandra Aguilar (ESP) 2:29:03 PB
4. Alice Chelagat (KEN) 2:30:18 PB
5. Ines Monteiro (POR) 2:30:36 PB
6. Yesenia Centeno (ESP) 2:33:01 PB
7. Viktorya Trushenko (RUS) 2:33:50
8. Shiru Deriba (ETH) 2:37:11

Big day out for Kenyan men

Back in January we wrote about the post-election violence in Kenya, and how it was affecting some of the Kenyan runners. At the World Cross Country Championships three weeks ago, Kenya's poor showing was attributed to that violence, and the speculation was beginning about Kenya's "fall" from their lofty position. For the marathons season, the big question was whether top runners like Lel and Limo (and many, many others) would be in top form come London, Rotterdam, and Boston. If the results from this weekend are any indication, the answer is an emphatic "YES." Rotterdam alone was dominated by the Kenyan men as they took eight of the top ten places, and in London, Kenyan men took four of the top ten.

What is perhaps more remarkable is that on one single day, THREE Kenyan runners broke 2:06! And another two went sub-2:07. Quite remarkable quality AND depth, and so Kenyan Marathon running is alive and well.

Admittedly, it is possible that all of these runners were based elsewhere during the violence. But we are relieved that in spite of the tragic turn of events and senseless violence in Kenya back in January, the Kenyans were well represented in these two big races and are still as competitive as ever as a running nation.

Join us this week for more post-London analysis, as well as our full Boston Marathon previews!