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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.



Anonymous said...

With so many of these races coming down to the wire like this as highlighted in previous posts, that "track finishing ability" is becoming more key to a final result. I just can't wait until a certain Mr. Kenenisa Bekele turns his crosshairs to the 42.2.

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi jeanvw14, and thanks for the comment.

You have good insight, as indeed it is the faster runners over the shorter distances who perform best in the marathon. If a runner is not at the top of his game over 10km, it is unlikely that they will be at the top of the heap when they move to the marathon.

Developing (or possessing) speed over the shorter distances appears is a bit of a prerequisite for success over the longer distances.

Thanks again for commenting!

Kind Regards,

A Deal Or No Deal said...

I don't know who they're sending to Beijing, but Ethiopia has had three great performances in the marathon so far this year, and usually they don't have this sort of depth.

Geb 2:04:53
Merga 2:06:38
Kebede 2:06:40

Japan also has three guys at 2:08, who you have to believe will race very well at Beijing. Even Ukraine has had 5 guys run 2:11 or faster, not counting Baranovskyy and his 2:07. This could be quite a race.

Anonymous said...

The Debate continues Martin Lel greatest marathon racer?What about
Bill Rodgers,Alberto Salazar,Cosmos
Ndeti have RACED and won many marathons and big city marathons.In fact if you talk about racing marathons to win there
could be many candidates,Why Lel?because he beat his opposition.

adventurelisa said...

Great running reviews. Thanks for the posts. I missed the race on telly on Sunday ;(

As for the Speedo thing; I'm disappointed. This whole saga shouldn't have been allowed in the first place. There are many technological advancements that are good (physiology testing, training in wind tunnels for cycling, in flow pools for swimming) because they cultivate what is there already. This record-smashing suit is an additive; it contaminates the water.

Anonymous said...

I missed the marathon unfortunatly, reading your comment and seeing the splits I would have you spot on as to the reasons for the lost world record/slowing of the pace at at a crucial time...

Now what I would love to see is London Marathon HG V Lel, I suspect Ross is right and that were HG & Lel at the finish together no one could stop Lel, but I'd like to see him try!!


Anonymous said...

No-one seems to have mentioned swimming caps. They're smooth silicone (is that similar to polyurethane), not fabric and they alter hydrodynamics don't they.

Ryan said...

Would be fun to see a wealthy race promoter set up a race specifically for breaking the 2 hour barrier. Invite all elites to participate. Award 1 million USD to the winner, and a flat ($50k USD) stipend to all other participants. Setup a flat sea level course in a cool location specifically for the race. Have pacesetters run in front of the pack at an exact 28:24/10k. Switch pacesetters every 10k, up until 40k. Let the racers duke it out for the 2 hour mark and the world record over the last 2.2k.

Why not?

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi Ryan

Interesting concept - I'd go along with it if you said sub 2:04, because a sub 2 hour time is a physiological impossibility at this stage. It requires that the athletes run 14:10 for every single 5km interval, and that just won't happen.

Consider also that in the last 20 years, the world record has only come down by just over 2 minutes. To take 4 minutes off it in one go is impossible, so a sub 2:04 is about the limit for the current generation.

It may yet get down to sub-2:03 within the next 20 years, but it won't be Gebrselassie or Lel or any of the current generation of runners. Perhaps Tadese, when he steps up to the marathon will have that ability, but I suspect we're getting pretty close to the limit, the point where times will be set by seconds, and then even milliseconds.


Unknown said...

It's not just swimsuits. The local newspaper had an article on suits for lots of different sports yesterday.

"Fitted with something called thermoplastic urethane powerbands, the competition uniforms allow the wearer to run 1.1% faster, produce 5.3% more power, use 0.8% less oxygen"

Alas no mention of just where these estimates come from. They seem suspiciously precise to me.

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi Martin

Thanks for that link - I saw another similar article about the Adidas gear.

Interestingly enough, I actually have one or two of those PowerWeb garments myself - I do some consultancy work for Adidas (coaching and training of their athletes), and so I get some of the equipment.

What I can tell you is that wearing those Powerweb garments has a huge effect on your perceptions as the wearer - they fight very tightly and the bands provide extra compression which does definitely alter your perceptual response.

Whether this translates into performance improvements, however, is another question. The research they mention in that article is interesting - I've actually seen that mentioned by Adidas in some material they gave me. The 5.3% increase in power was measured as the result of a vertical jump test - the guy stands and jumps up as high as possible. Turns out that the adidas gear produced a 5.3% increase in that height. Is that relevant to a 400m sprinter, or a high jumper? I'm not sure - a single, once-off jump is quite different from a repeated running trial.

But the thing about these suits is that they may not NEED to have a physiological basis for working - it might be that the FEELING you have when wearing them creates a psychological effect that translates into improved performance.

Those studies doing the vertical jumps, for example, suffer from a lack of a control - in otherwords, the person wearing the suit will know they are wearing it, and if they believe it works, it might well be that what we're measuring is the effect of their belief!

I'll certainly do a post on this at some stage in the very near future.


Ryan said...

A sub 4min mile was impossible too. =)

I'm just saying, if you set the stage just right and eliminated all possible factors that would slow them down, having the pacemakers breaking the wind and set a completely even pace, and made it be competitive for runners to stay in as long as they can in what amounts to a race of attrition, what might happen?
When H.G. set the World record in Berlin, it was him against the clock. What if it were him and 10 other runners against the clock?

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi Ryan

Agreed, people made the mistake about the 4 minute mile. The only difference then was that people were running 4:02 to 4:03, and so it required only 2 seconds improvement in order to break that barrier. This was not all that difficult to do, although with the benefit of hindsight, that's easy to say.

But to knock 2 seconds off an event lasting 240 seconds is far easier than knocking 4 and a half minutes off an event lasting 125 minutes - work out the percentages. And we're on the "flat part of the curve" where performance improvements become more and more difficult.

So, if you threw in all the best guys, on the best day, and had the best pacemakers in your ideal scenario, my prediction would be that they might run 2:03:50. That would represent a 36 second improvement, which is absolutely enormous at this level. To knock another 3 minutes 50 off that will take 4 generations of athlete. So I'm not saying it's impossible, just that we won't live to see it, if it is possible. I know Gebrselassie is talking about the sub-2:03 in his career, but he's way off the mark, he won't break that particular barrier. 2:04 maybe, not 2:03.

Still I'd like to see your race, and see how Martin Lel runs away from everyone to win a race in 2:04:00 with a final 400m of 61 seconds. After London, I'd say he can do it, and no one would stop him.


Unknown said...

Thanks for the extra information on the suits. Vertical jump is rather a special case because it doesn't really matter how much extra effort the wind-up requires due to the suit stiffness. Perhaps shot put is similar but certainly not running. Presumably this is why they report a 5% increase in power but only 1% in speed (+/- what?).

I agree that the psychological effect could also be a confounding factor. It's easy to believe that I'd try just that bit harder if I thought I was wearing a magic suit.

I've also just recalled an article I ran across a couple of years ago on the strange world of benchpress shirts. These certainly seem to make a huge difference, with getting the shirt on and lowering the weight against its resistance almost as much of a battle as the subsequent lift. See http://www.slate.com/id/2104915/

Anonymous said...

No-one seems to have mentioned swimming caps. They're smooth silicone (is that similar to polyurethane), not fabric and they alter hydrodynamics don't they.