Welcome to the Science of Sport, where we bring you the second, third, and fourth level of analysis you will not find anywhere else.

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.

Consider a donation if you like what you see here!

Did you know?
We published The Runner's Body in May 2009. With an average 4.4/5 stars on Amazon.com, it has been receiving positive reviews from runners and non-runners alike.

Available for the Kindle and also in the traditional paper back. It will make a great gift for the runners you know, and helps support our work here on The Science of Sport.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Beijing 2008: Men Marathon report

Brutal running in Beijing as Sammy Wanjiru claims marathon gold

The Men's Marathon in Beijing was, to be blunt, brutal. In temperatures at least 10 degrees higher than we typically see in the Major Marathon Series, the Kenyans and Ethiopians decided that they were going to run it like a paced race anyway. In an incredible display of front running, the Africans shattered the Olympic record (2:09:21 from 1984) by almost 3 minutes, with Sammy Wanjiru, the world half marathon record holder, claiming gold in 2:06:32.

How it unfolded
: Race times and analysis

The table and graph below summarize the splits and pacing during the race.

The set off at WORLD RECORD pace for the first 10km, running through 10km in 29:25, which is not supposed to happen in a championship marathon, especially when the conditions are supposedly not conducive to fast racing.

The field was shell-shocked when the Kenyans, led by pre-race favourites Martin Lel and Sammy Wanjiru, took the lead and reeled off kilometer after kilometer of sub 3:00 kilometers. The group was blown apart, and by 10km, there were only about 10 men at the front of the field. Ryan Hall, one of the pre-race favourites from the USA was not one of them - in fact, he was dropped off before 5km, perhaps a deliberate pacing strategy, as he went on to finish in 10th place.

Not surprisingly, it was the Africans who did the running, and the last European challenger was Martinez of Spain, who was gone at about 15km. From 10km to 15km, the pace visibly slowed, which allowed a number of athletes to rejoin the lead group after being dropped by the spectacular early pace.

However, the Kenyans clearly decided that this would not do, and Wanjiru threw in an aggressive attack at 16km, which split the lead group for good. It left the Africans to sort out the medals over the second half of the race. Given the searing early pace, second half surges were not dramatic - it was more a case of slight, subtle changes in pace doing a great deal of damage, because the race became so attritional. So rather than attacks, it was a "survive until you die" second half.

From 25km onwards, the pace dropped somewhat, but by then the damage had been done. Deriba Merga of Ethiopia took the reigns as the most aggressive runner between about 25km and 30km. He attacked on repeated occasions, helped by Yonas Kifle of Eritrea, and their moves seemed to be putting Jouaid Gharib of Morocco into trouble, while Wanjiru and Martin Lel were able to track every attack.

Surprisingly, however, Lel was dropped by a Merga move at about the 29km mark. Many people's favourite for the race, Lel was perhaps a victim of his own aggressive front running, because he was gapped by over a minute in no time at all, falling back to fifth place. He would go on to finish in fifth, after consolidating and settling down to a more consistent, slower pace, but it was something of a surprise that he lost contact so early.

The decisive move at 35km

The Merga attacks left three in the front - Merga, Wanjiru and Gharib, who was yo-yoing on and off the group every time there was a slight surge. At this stage, surges were very subtle - no one was blasting 2:50 per kilometer pace - it was more attritional than this.

Wanjiru looked easily the most relaxed in the group. At about 37km, he made what was the race's decisive move. He went to the front, threw in a fierce kick that lasted perhaps 100m, but it was enough to end Merga's challenge.

Gharib was able to pass Merga for second, but Wanjiru grew his lead consistently. He opened up 18 seconds between 37km and 40km, and was never going to be challenged. Merga, meanwhile, blew spectacularly - having been in contact at 37km, he was 2:00 down at 40km, losing 40 seconds per kilometer at 3:00/km pace. Unfortunately for him, that blowout meant that he was going to be reeled in by Tsegay Kebede, his fast-finishing Ethiopian countryman, for the bronze.

But Wanjiru was the man of the day - a 21 year old, running in only his 3rd marathon, took the Olympic field and simply ran them off his heels. It was insane running, he set off at a pace that everyone must have thought was completely suicidal. And of course, he did slow down, as the graph shows, but his "slow" was still 2:07 pace, and he was just remarkable.

Kenyan tactics deliver gold

And so with that, Wanjiru becomes the first Kenyan to win Olympic gold at the marathon, which is amazing, considering their dominance of the big city marathons. Perhaps this was the motivation behind the aggressive tactics they adopted. Ryan Hall described the pace as "insane", which it was. But it was not suicidal, it was a statement of intent right from the start, and no one was able to match Wanjiru.

The heat and humidity - remarkable physiology overcomes the pre-race speculation

Wanjiru's performance and overall time made a complete mockery of the pre-race speculation about pollution, heat and humidity. The pollution has done nothing to the athletes in Beijing, though they have been lucky with some rain and weather that has reduced its levels, apparently. As for the heat, the women got lucky with a rainy day, and for the men, it was apparently not as humid as was predicted. However, apart from Wanjiru, the conditions defined the race, and I dare say that Martin Lel came unstuck thanks to the heat and the tactic of fast running early. Then again, so did everyone else, as we'll show shortly.

First, it's amazing to consider how these elite runners defy the normal physiological "logic". People so often freak out over the risk of heat-stroke and dehydration, and then the world's elite come out and run sub-3:00 per kilometers in conditions that the 'expert' scientists tell us is dangerous. If anything, it should be a lesson on how remarkable the human body is, and a telling statement that when everyone warns you that your life is in danger when it's warm, they're reacting to marketing, not science.

Last year, the Chicago Marathon was run on a warm day (similar to Beijing, I'd guess) and the sports doctors were telling the world how dangerous it was after many athletes failed to tolerate the heat. We wrote an article at the time that heat-stroke was almost a physiological impossibility, and the only impact on athletes is that they feel much worse running their normal pace, and therefore slow down. Today, the elite athletes showed just how remarkable physiology really is. They were slowed by the heat, and maybe 2 minutes' improvement can be expected on an ideal day.

The impact of the heat on the Beijing race?

To appreciate just how the heat impacted the race pacing, consider that only ONE athlete in the race was able to run a negative split. That was Ruggero Pertile of Italy, who did a 67:17 - 66:36 split to finish 15th. Of the men in the top 10 (who chose to run the incredible early pace and covered the first half in 65 min or faster), it was Wanjiru who came closest - he did a 62:34 followed by a 63:58 (a + 1:24 difference).

The rest of the top 10 had an average first half of 63:16 and an average second half of 67:19. The average difference was therefore + 4:03, which is a huge positive split across for 2nd to 10th. Considering that most of the top 10 are sub 2:07 runners (and thus "comfortable" at 63:12 pace), you can see how the heat impacted the performance. That was ultimately the difference - Wanjiru's relative ability to sustain the pace in the heat (it's also worth nothing that 1st, 3rd and 4th where three of the smallest men in the field - the smaller you are, the cooler you stay).

A final statistic is that 21 men ran through halfway in 65 minutes or faster. Only 2 managed to break 2:10 - Wanjiru and Gharib. That's what the heat did - it forced the pace to drop, but no one died and there was no heatstroke, a lesson for sports physiologists everywhere...

As for the tactics, I honestly thought that the loss of Robert Cheruiyot to injury would change Kenya's tactics, and that we'd see a slower first half and brutal second. But that's just how good Wanjiru was - he decided he'd run sub-2:07 and that no one would match him.

Turns out he was right. Any bets on the world record next? Either Wanjiru or Lel. It seems risky to bet against it...



Anonymous said...

Wow the Bolt section sure stirred up a hornets nest.Fortunately the mens marathon doesnt get that kind of response but who knows when someone does crack 2hours.This should be a debate on its own as its been deemed physiologically impossible.Interesting times ahead with Mr Sammy Wanjuri as he is only 21yrs old.These Olympics have shown that in adverse conditions records can be set.A pity such negativity and personal attacks concerning Bolt.Science plays a huge role in sports today and helps athletes a lot.Morality is the issue but that debate is best to stay away from.Man will always push the boundaries no matter what we say or do to be the best.Keep up the good work on your informative site.I would love to see some info in the future about expectional Master Athletes that have defied the age barrier.

Anonymous said...

Jonathan and Ross,

Do you think Gebre would have been a chance if he ran this marathon, or was the pace just too fast for him, given the weather conditions ?

I must say I am a bit dubitative about Wanjuri's incredible time, as it doesn't look like a championship time !

Anonymous said...

Well, I seem to have gotten the attrition race bit right. Stefano Baldini did not win, but he did manage to run in a more sensible pace finishing 12th. Nevertheless a great race and Kenya finally got the gold medal in the Marathon.


Anonymous said...

I'm glad I stayed up here in SA to watch the race at 01h30 this morning. What a treat. I was epspecially looking forward to this due to my extensive reading on what different experts, no least Ross et al, had to say about predictions.

Wonderfull run, superb racing and superb temperament from the champion.

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

HI All

Thanks for the feedback!

Alan, thanks for the comments on the Bolt issue. The 2 hour marathon issue is interesting - I think I'm quite conservative if I say that it will be another generation before we see a sub-2 hour marathon. The time that needs to be cut off (4 min 26 secs) is just huge, and it will take a long, long time before that barrier is ever threatened. Maybe 100 years, if at all...

As for the Masters athletes, absolutely. So much to write, so little time! But Masters athletes is on the agenda, and perhaps now that the Olympics are out the way, we'll get to it!


Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi Tom

Difficult to say. This was more Geb's type of race, because it was more like a "paced race" than a typical tactical one. But I have my doubts. Wanjiru was just incredible, and I can't think that anyone would have stayed on him today. In fact, the form he showed here, combined with London, suggest that he may not be a long shot for the world record in the not too distant future. I think that given his age, Gebrselassie better run Berlin like a man possessed, because his current world record has a limited lifespan!

It's days are numbered, and either Lel or Wanjiru will break it soon!


Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi George

indeed, Baldini was one of the few who came through - interesting that the only negative split of the race was the other Italian - they obviously worked out the way to handle the early pace was to sit back and cash in when everyone was wilting!

And good for Kenya - incredible that they dominate the city marathons and never won Olympic Gold. Ethiopia has at least 4 that I can think of, amazing.


Oh, and last thing, to Tom, the time is amazing, but that's what Wanjiru is capable of. I'm sure it's legit, given his half-marathon times (of course, that assumes they're legit too!). But I believe the Kenyans are clean...

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi Anonymous

I don't know what the other "experts" were saying, but this one got it horribly wrong!

The only two things I predicted were a Kenyan win (though I got the wrong guy), and that Wanjiru would be in the top 3! I guess I'll also claim Kebede as the dark horse!

Other than that, the Kenyan tactics left me about as shell shocked as the rest of the race! No Las Vegas career in sports betting for me!

But yes, superb racing, incredible front running ability. If Wanjiru looks after himself, he'll be quite something by 24!

Thanks for the visit!


david said...

Thank you Ross for all the time and effort for not only writing, but analyzing and commenting (not to mention you had to watch all the events as well).
Just a few points, way back Arthur Lydiard stated that the marathon could only drop to 2:04 and I guess he may well be right for some more years to come. Sammy Wanjiru certainly was my favorite going into the race. Not only has he run blistering 21km races but for most of last year he was laid low with a liver complaint (malaria I think). He is now healthy and spends most of his time training in Japan. He will give most a run for their money in the major marathons next year.
I must agree with Alan Sleath that we should rather look at the positive side (excuse the pun) of Bolt's performances. He is a great athlete and a fine humanitarian, yesterday he donated $50,000 to the children who were victims of the earthquake in China.
The other athletes that really inspired me where Dibaba and Bekele; great doubles in tough programme.
I am now more than ever inspired to coach my athletes, not only at senior level but also the coaches at grassroots within the JAGRunners programme.
Thanks once again Ross


Anonymous said...

This is by far the best analysis of the Beijing Men's Marathon. Ross, your comments about heat stroke are right on target and shatter yet another myth about endurance running.

david said...

Straight Dope Remains Elusive

Lack of Positive Tests Seen as Both a Sign Of Progress, Failure By Amy Shipley Washington Post Staff Writer Sunday, August 24, 2008; D01

BEIJING, Aug. 23 -- During the final days of the Summer Games, countries tally gold medals and total medals and proclaim success or failure. But there is one number that defies easy interpretation: as of Saturday, there had been only six announced positive tests for performance-enhancing drugs, far fewer than the 30 to 40 that International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge predicted before the Games from among the 10,500 athletes here.

Some testing officials say the relatively few positive tests -- given the significant advances in drug-testing technology and approaches in recent years -- suggest drug use is being deterred.

Critics argue the exact opposite, that the numbers intimate more cheaters are skirting through loopholes in the testing system.

Drug tests are supposed to have a dual purpose: to sweep performance-enhancing drug users off the playing field and prove that those who pass the tests are drug free. But even 40 years after drug testing became an integral component of Olympic competition and in an era of heightened vigilance and sophistication in drug-testing operations, it remains impossible to say whether either goal has been met during these 16-day Games -- a fact that provides endless frustration for athletes and officials.

"The big issue with results is: Are we seeing less positives because doping is cleaned up, or because athletes have gotten smarter and moved on to other drugs?'" said Don Catlin, chief executive of the U.S. Anti-Doping Research Institute and member of the IOC's medical commission. "We have no way of knowing that. Depending on which side of the fence you sit, you can spin that to your own purpose."

Catlin and other anti-doping officials say they have made steady progress in bringing competence and confidence to drug-testing efforts over the last five years, pointing to enhanced testing methods, more targeted testing and increasing cooperation with law enforcement agencies willing to share hard evidence of drug use among athletes. The IOC has also vowed to save urine and blood samples for eight years to provide an opportunity to reexamine them as better tests are discovered.

Even so, officials acknowledge their bottom-line problem: They can completely miss a cheater. That fact was underscored last fall when American track star Marion Jones, now serving a six-month jail sentence for lying to federal authorities about her drug use, admitted she took steroids during the 2000 Summer Games in Sydney.
She won five medals there, but never flunked a drug test.

"When you see athletes doing extraordinary things, you always sit back and say, 'Gee whiz, that guy or girl must be doped,' " Catlin said. "But we don't know. You go all the way back to Sydney, and that was Marion Jones.

"There's no doubt that the good guys are moving forward. The question is, are the bad guys matching the forward move? I don't know how to assess that at this point."

By the end of the Beijing Olympics, the IOC will have conducted about 4,500 tests. That's about 25 percent more than were performed in Athens in 2004, which resulted in 26 positive tests. Besides running the standard battery of tests for steroids and erythropoietin (EPO), officials say, athletes also have been subjected to human growth hormone tests (about 500 to 1,000 will have been performed by the end of the Games). But to date, the HGH test, which was also used at the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy, and Athens four years ago, has not produced a single positive.

That fact brings about the usual conundrum for anti-doping
officials: Either no athletes are using HGH around the time of Olympic competition, or the test isn't very good.

The inability to guarantee that cheaters are expelled from the Games and winners are clean inevitably leaves a handful of outstanding performers swamped by suspicion and lacking the means to defeat it.
There is no greater example at these Olympics than Jamaican star Usain Bolt, who became the first athlete in history to set world records in the 100 and 200 meters during one Olympics. Bolt, who added a third world record and gold medal in Friday's 4x100 relay, has never flunked a drug test, yet his performances have been so otherworldly, Jamaican officials have been hounded with questions about the possibility of performance-enhancing drug use.

"I couldn't care less about the rumors anymore," said Herb Elliott, the Jamaican team doctor. "We have been tested and tested and tested and tested. We know in Jamaica, they have no means of getting at these things. We have very stringent laws in Jamaica."

Hours before Bolt broke his second world record Wednesday, a spokesman for track's international governing body (IAAF) carried a notebook of drug-testing statistics on Bolt to a news conference in which Bolt wasn't even a participant, prepared to publicize Bolt's drug-testing history in the hope of staving off the inevitable doubts.

"Some of our athletes perform extremely well and their performance is put into question," said Juan Manuel Alonso, the chairman of the IAAF's medical and anti-doping commission. "Other sports get more privileges, even though the IAAF has done more to test than other federations."

Some officials complain that Bolt's domination of his sport's glamour events has been met with more cynicism than levied on U.S.
swimmer Michael Phelps, whose showing during these Summer Games was at least as incredible. Phelps set seven world records and won eight gold medals last week.

But unlike in swimming, which hasn't seen a major international doping scandal in more than a decade, track and field has seen Olympic medals and world records stripped from a handful of prominent athletes because of doping violations over the last five years. More than a dozen athletes have been suspended since 2004 and two of the four previous 100-meter world record holders lost their marks because of drug suspensions.

"I am ashamed, quite frankly, of my generation and what we did,"
said Ato Boldon, a four-time Olympic medal winner in 1996 and 2000.
"We left the sport kind of tattered. The queen of swimming has never gone down. The king of swimming has never gone down."

Not only has testing failed to catch some of the sport's most notorious cheaters, but there are also widely differing ranges of anti-doping vigilance in different parts of the world. Countries such as the United States, Germany, Australia and New Zealand have their own national anti-doping agencies. But other powerhouse sports nations, such as Kenya and Jamaica, have less stringent steroid laws or lack national anti-doping agencies altogether.

"The fact that an athlete has passed a drug test at the Olympic Games is almost meaningless," Victor Conte, who was jailed for masterminding the drug scheme that led to Jones's incarceration, said in an e-mail. "It makes far more sense to spend a good portion of the available funds for drug testing during the offseason when the athletes are actually using drugs. There are not many athletes dumb enough to show up at the Olympic Games with drugs in their system."

The IAAF has been trying to address that problem, IAAF President Lamine Diack said, spending between $2 million and $3 million annually on its own drug testing and focusing on nations that don't have their own national anti-doping agencies. There are 22 elite Jamaican athletes, including Bolt, who have been "targeted" for regular testing, IAAF spokesman Nick Davies said. All have undergone urine testing, blood testing and blood profiling -- an accumulation of testing information designed to signal irregularities even when tests are not actually positive.

About a week before the Games, the IAAF announced it had banned seven Russian athletes after a year-long investigation showed they were providing urine samples that weren't their own to testers. The IOC, meantime, has broadened its pre-Olympic testing, tracking down athletes for urine and blood tests much earlier than in the past in an attempt to catch them off guard. One casualty of that extra testing, Catlin said, was Greek hurdler Fani Halkia, the gold medal winner at the Athens Olympics. She was caught using methyltrienolone and banned before she competed.

"We're using much more intelligent testing and targeted testing,"
said Arne Ljungqvist, the chairman of the IOC's medical commission.
"I feel the sport is becoming more clean and people probably understand that doping is not the way to go."

Ljungqvist's point might be arguable, but there is one issue about which there is no debate.

"Doping will never be something entirely of the past," Diack said.
"We will always have people who cheat."



Unknown said...

Thanks so much Ross for your expert comments and analysis; its the best I've seen anywhere, by far. BTW, the "expert" commentary of both the women's and the men's marathon on NBC was horrible. Commentators had no understanding of exercise physiology but that didnt stop them. And the comments about the weather being "absolutely ideal" were just laughable. I wanted to hit the mute button and just watch the video.

Anonymous said...

I believe there are some mixed feelings for the portuguese people regarding this new marathon olympic record. I say this because the previous olympic record belonged to portuguese marathon runner Carlos Lopes (1947-), winner of the 1984' olympic marathon in Los Angeles. He was 37 years old at that time and his olympic record lasted for 24 years, until the Beijing olympic marathon. He brought home Portugal's first ever Olympic gold medal (and we only won 3 more gold medals since that) along with a new astonishing olympic record, 2:09.21. The year after that, in the last major competitive race of his career, the 1985 Rotterdam marathon, Lopes took 53 seconds off the world's best marathon time, setting a new standard of 2:07.12, and becoming the first man to run 42.195 km in less than 2:08.00. On the other hand, we love long distance running and certainly everyone loved to see Sammy Wanjiru do such a beautiful race. I've recorded the race in my video and will see it again many times, I'm sure.

Anonymous said...

Some notes I looked up:

-Gharib ran 2:ll:ll in his dead heat with Patrick Ivuti at the 2007 Chicago Marathon.

-At the start, they had conditions in Beijing at around 70F degrees and 70 percent humidity. Chicago 2007 was 72F degrees "in the shade", according to a U.S. Runner's World article (so maybe 75F out in the open?), with humidity at 83 percent.

-The temperature was said to be anywhere between 84-88F degrees after two hours, with humidity "dropping" to the mid-70 percent range,depending on the source.

Wanjiru might have run, what, 2:07, in Chicago? Amazing! It was disappointing to see Ryan Hall have to drop off so early, but it was almost worth it to see Wanjiru just crush the field and the conditions.

Anonymous said...

You think Ramaala's excuse that a drugs test before the marathon had something to do with his performance? Also the fact that our runners only pitched up 3 days before the marathon surely did have a influence on their performances - not enough time to acclimatise?

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi All

Thanks for the links and comments. Apologies if I can't respond to all of them right away (if at all), but I do read them and enjoy the links you send.

Couple of things:

First, to John. The commentary here was very bland. It wasn't offensively bad, but just very ordinary. I got the impression the commentators were not really athletics people, they missed many of the nuances of the race, and didn't really appreciate the details of the sport. They were reasonably well-spoken, so not as bad as some of the junk I get exposed to in South Africa when our local guys can barely string together grammatically correct sentences, but it did lack that edge.

I've always been amazed at how the lack the attention to detail when they put the TV package together - the spend millions on fancy, super slow motion cameras and high definition images, but very little seems to go into the audio part of the commentary...anyway, it's a gripe I always have with the commentators, you'd think it's not that difficult to find decent expertise.

But thank you for the compliments about the site, much appreciated!

Then to John-Lee, yes, Gharib slipped beneath the radar a little. He is clearly a good hot weather runner - Chicago suggests that,a nd also, a guy who has won 2 world championships, which are always held in August, obviously knows how to race in hotter temperatures. They may not be as hot as Beijing, but an August marathon is a far cry from the ideal conditions in many of the autumn or spring marathons. So perhpas we should have seen him coming a little sooner.

As for what they might have run without the heat, a first half of 62:34 would have been maintained quite comfortably, I'd have thought, which means that a 2:05 was on the cards. Plus, take away the tactics and the stakes of the race, and a world record seems possible for Wanjiru on a cooler day.

I would not discount Martin Lel, either. I see reports are that he battled malaria recently, and I suspect he'll be back. After London, I wrote that he'll break Gebrselassie's record soon, and I still believe that. I think that Lel is the number 1 guy, though Wanjiru will take that mantle from him in the next 3 years. I'm still a Lel-fan though.

As for the world record, I really think Gebrselassie had better knock it down in Berlin, because if he doesn't, it's days are numbered...

Finally, to Wimpie:

Ramaala lost because he's not fast enough, pure and simple. The excuse he came up with is a joke, and it's a sign of the guy's "failures" as an athlete because he simply fails to address the real issue. He is, quite frankly, delusional about his own ability right at the moment.

Don't get me wrong, he's a great athlete, one of our best ever, and his success four or five years ago was fantastic, but he's no longer the same athlete, yet in his mind, he clearly views himself as comparable with the best Kenyans and Ethiopians. He's a "legacy athlete", getting by on the success of the past.

The truth is that Ramaala's best HALF MARATHON these days is not even as fast as the likes of Lel and Wanjiru run for a FULL marathon. So he has no chance - he hits the 10km mark in 29:25, and his best 10km in the last year is probably only 28:15.

Compare that to Lel or Wanjiru, who are 27 minute 10km runners. Who is going to win that race over the final 30km? To me, it's a no-brainer, he's just not fast enough, yet he continues to believe that he knows it all, trains perfectly and has this ability that will allow him to mix it with the fastest guys. They've moved on now, and he's just not quick enough. Hard truth, but that's the truth...


Anonymous said...

nice analysis!
If the lead pass the 10km point at 29:25, the projected time should be about 2:04:05 or so, not 2:02:47. I wonder what basis you calculated such past time on.

Chris said...

You guys should find out how Ed Eyestone secures his spot as the default road running play-by-play / commentator in the US. Your insight would displace any lack of TV experience you have :)

Anonymous said...

Well, I seem to have gotten the attrition race bit right. Stefano Baldini did not win, but he did manage to run in a more sensible pace finishing 12th. Nevertheless a great race and Kenya finally got the gold medal in the Marathon.