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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


Anonymous said...

First of all i would like to thank you for all the very interesting posts you put online! Great job!!

For your cristal-ball feature: Think of Viktor Röthlin at the Olympic Marathon...2:07:23 in Tokyo, a very impressive run in the heat and humidity of Osaka. And he (as you expect in contrary to the Kenyans) is well known to be prepared for every single speciality every marathon brings. Not only as a Swiss guy i really think he is one to watch...

Would be interesting to hear your thoughts about some Triathlon-Stuff as well. You often write about the biomechanics of running in africans. What do you think of how to balance the biomechanic demands of a sub 30min run and a 17min Swim?

Greetings from Switzerland!

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi Jan

Thanks for the mail - and for the greetings from Switzerland! Absolutely beautiful country, I've visited a few times, and planning more visits when I can!

Viktor Rothlin's name will definitely come up as we approach that Beijing race. The Olympics always throws up a "surprise" or two, including the winners of two of the last three races (and possibly all three, depending on how you felt about Abera in 2000). Not that Rothlin would be a huge surprise because he's easily fast enough to feature.

The thing about the Olympics is that anyone capable of about a 2:10 or faster can win it. Compare that to London or Boston or Chicago, where if you can't run 2:07 or faster, you'll never stand a chance. Rothlin is fast enough, and has the credentials, and I expect him to feature strongly.

As for triathlon, that's also something we will focus on more in the future. I was actually thinking the just the other day. Our first birthday is coming up (it's on Monday, actually), and I was going to doa post promising to look at more Triathlon, both Olympic distance, and IronMan distances. It's an obvious strategy, considering that we do a lot of running and cycling, but we've never really done it - time is limiting, that's the main reason.

But, we'll do our best to get there!

Thanks for your support!

A Deal Or No Deal said...

What event do you think will be affected most by the pollution? My uneducated guess is the 5,000.

I think Geb has 1-2 more very high quality marathons in him, after which he'll start to come back down to earth. Remember that he ran the fastest non-Geb marathon in January (2:04:53) after running 1:01 for the first half. I think he's still as fast as anyone in the world. You can't predict the end of his career until he falters.

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

HI Adeel

Toss a coin between the 5000m and 10000m events - I suspect you're right, but how you choose between these two beats me. The marathon is too low in intensity, though of course, there's a balance between intensity and duration. However, my feeling is that given that the marathon is run at 80% of maximum ventilation, and the 10000m is at 95%, with the 5000m at 97%, it's clear that if pollution affects PEAK ventilation (which I feel is more likely), then those events will be affected. My guess is that if anyone is struggling (like an asthmatic displaying symptoms), then they're likely to be aflicted at high intensity, but only about 15 minutes in. That's a bit of a guess though.

As for Gebrselassie, I suspect that he has a few more races in him - 4 or 5, perhaps, but who knows? The problem with the marathon is that the margin for an "optimal" race is really small, which means that he might be in the sort of shape to run 2:04:00 for about 2 more years (that's 4 marathons, given his likely schedule), but he might never have everything come together perfectly on the day. A headwind, a fast early pace (like Dubai), some rain, too hot, too cold, and all of a sudden 6 months of work is gone, never to be retrieved.

After he broke that world record last year, people got so carried away - there was even talk of a sub-2 hour marathon, which was completely absurd given that it's taken about 25 years for the time to fall by 4 minutes - all of a sudden, we're talking another 4 minutes 26 seconds in a year or two!

If I had to guess (and I admit it's a dangerous game), I'd say he'll run 4 or 5 more races, all paced-record attempts, and probably you'll find this multide of factors mentioned earlier undermines 2 or 3 of them. That leaves perhaps 2 record opportunities, but then he needs to produce the same remarkable performance twice more, and given his age, I don't see it as likely that this 2:03 performance is going to come. Another record, yes, but to knock another 26 seconds off, that's a very tall ask.


Anonymous said...

"given that the marathon is run at 80% of maximum ventilation, and the 10000m is at 95%, with the 5000m at 97%..."

Yes, but how about the amount of TIME the runners spend on each event?

Surely you cant compare the max ventilations alone without paying attention to the amount of actual breaths being taken by a runner in each event.

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi Bob

Yes, true, but as I pointed out, it's the rate that is more likely, in my opinion, to affect the athletes. Most of physiology works based on rates - there are very few physiological cues, responses or events that are absolute. So my belief is that if an athlete is going to be affected by the pollution, then it's the rate of ventilation that is far more likely to cause breathing difficulties.

I don't believe that the build-up of pollutants is even going to be that bad - if you think about people who are living in polluted areas, it's not as though they gradually get worse and worse. A two hour exposure, as with the marathon, is not going to do anything at all.

So all this talk of a long term health problem associated with being in Beijing is complete nonsense - most of it was put forward by Gebrselassie, and it's simply not true. The worst that would happen is that the athlete will bail after a few kilometers, feeling tight-chested and unable to breathe. Three or four days later, no more problem. But it's the rate of ventilation, if there are irritants in the air, that will negatively affect performance.