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Saturday, August 23, 2008

Bejing 2008: Doubles and Marathon preview

A "double-double" on track and a brief preview of the marathon

Well, the Beijing Olympic Games are drawing to a close. Only one big race to go, and that is the Men's Marathon, which will bring the curtain down on a spectacular Games. We've tried hard to keep up with the action (and failed!), but these Games have produced some of the great Olympic moments.

Hopefully, there is one to go, when the best Olympic Marathon field ever assembled take on the Beijing course tomorrow. Below is a short preview of the race, but first, a quick recap of two magnificent doubles on the Beijing track.

Tirunesh Dibaba: The Royalty of track running

Tirunesh Dibaba last week won her first Olympic Gold medal over 10,000m when she held off a spirited challenge by Turkey's Elvan Abeylegesse. Her final lap of just outside 60 seconds was majestic, as is just about everything else about Dibaba. She is the most elegant, beautiful runner to watch - no female athlete in history has looked so comfortable and "royal" running at 60 seconds/lap speed.

On Saturday night in Beijing, she produced another performance worthy of track royalty when she won the 5000m race, defeating Abeylegesse and her compatriot Meseret Defar in a great race. It was a tactical, intriguing affair, one of the few long distance track races in Beijing where the "script" was not followed.

The early pace was astonishingly slow - the first kilometer was covered in 3:39! There were some subtle shifts over the course of the next few laps, but the real action began with three laps to go. That's when the pace was suddenly increased, thanks to Dibaba pressing Galkina at the front. Abeylegesse took over with two laps to go, and then it was the Dibaba show on the final lap.

The final 1200m were covered in 3:10. Just for comparison, the final 1200m of the women's 1500m final were covered in 3:09, and so the 5,000m women finished their race with an Olympic 1500m equivalent! It was remarkable, and it was Dibaba who initiated the pace. It was clever running, she knew that her biggest chance would come with a fast finish off a fast pace, and she ran it perfectly.

Perhaps the biggest surprise was that Meseret Defar didn't challenge Dibaba over the final 200m. Instead, it was Abeylegesse who took silver, a deserved medal for a super courageous and gutsy runner, who set up the 10,000m race with her front running as well. Defar took third, and seemed to be limping during the victory lap, perhaps as a result of being spiked during the middle part of the race, when they were running 17:00 pace!

But Dibaba becomes the first woman to double (admittedly, the 5000m event is only 4 olympics old), and she is now surely the greatest long distance female we've seen, all at the age of only 24! She's a world record holder, world track and cross country champion and an Olympic champion.

Kenenisa Bekele - the king of the track

Not to be outdone, Kenenisa Bekele, also of Ethiopia, ensured a clean sweep of the track titles when he brutally dominated the field in the men's 5,000m final. Bekele, already a two-time Olympic champ over 10,000m, clearly learned his lesson from the Athens 5,000m final, where the pace was incredibly slow until the final kilometer, playing perfectly into the hands of Hicham el Guerrouj, who used his 1,500m speed perfectly to claim gold.

Tonight, Bekele was again up against a 1,500m champion in Bernard Lagat, and so he decided to take the pace on early and run the sting out of Lagat's legs. It was the kind of race Bekele should have run in Athens, where he instead allowed the pace to fall horribly in the middle of the race, and el Guerrouj must have been sitting there wondering why Christmas had arrived early. Athens was a 3,500m warm-up jog followed by a 1,500m race. Tonight in Beijing, Bekele made sure it was a 5,000m race!

Bekele was simply magnificent. A slow opening 600m (72 seconds for the second lap) saw Bekele go to the front and put in a 62 second lap (2:45 for the first kilometer). He held that pace pretty much for the rest of the race. He did receive some help from his Ethiopian team-mates, but the truth is that they did perhaps three laps of pace-setting between them, and for all the talk by the commentators of a "team effort", this was effectively a one-man show.

Bekele was in front from the start, and took the lead for good with just over 5 laps to go, and was never passed again.

The pace was progressively ramped up, and Bekele ran his last five laps in 59.96 - 61.36 - 60.84 - 60.94 - 53.87.

That searing pace did the job - Lagat dropped off with three laps to go, hampered by a loss of training caused by a calf-injury earlier in the year. The only three able to survive at Bekele's tempo were Eliud Kipchoge and Edwin Soi of Kenya, with Moses Kipsiro of Uganda hanging on at the back of the lead group of four. However, when they hit the bell, Bekele shifted up yet again. Everyone else had no more gears, already running pretty close to maximum. Bekele poured it on with 300m to go, and within 100m, the lead was 10m. It grew even more over the final 200m, and Bekele even had time to gesture to the crowd with 100m to go!

A smile was on his face from about 120m to go, and Bekele ripped the final lap in sub-54 to emulate Miruts Yifter, the last man to win the 5,000m-10,000m double.

Bekele is truly extra-ordinary, like Dibaba on the women's side. After his 10,000m race, we bemoaned the lack of competition, which allowed that race to become something of a procession. This 5,000 m final was a little different - the Kenyans were certainly game, and Kipchoge looked quite good in taking silver, as did Soi for the bronze.

But this was Bekele's coronation, and he delivered the perfect race, both tactically and physiologically. No one stood a chance.

Men's Marathon preview

This is going to be a short preview, because the race is so wide-open that if we tried to be detailed, it would degenerate into a rambling commentary on about 20 competitors!

So instead, I thought I'd just throw out a couple of thoughts ahead of what is surely the most competitive Olympic marathon ever. It contains the London and New York champ (Martin Lel), the world record holder over the half marathon (Sammy Wanjiru, also second in London), Goumri of Morocco, a host of Ethiopians including the Paris champion Kebede, as well as Ryan Hall, the US champ who featured strongly in the London race earlier this year. Only Haile Gebrselassie is missing, having chosen to miss this race because it's close to the Berlin marathon (or was it the pollution...? No, that was just the party-line excuse, this was all about the Berlin pay-day)

The big talk leading up to Beijing was the heat and humidity. It had no effect in the women's race, because it actually rained and was relatively cool, though the humidity was high and uncomfortable. For the men, the weather might be more of a factor, since it's predicted to be a fine day in Beijing. However, because of the early morning start, I suspect that it won't be quite as bad as was initially thought. Certainly, these men are quite comfortable running in the mid-20's, and that is likely what will be encountered.

More to the point, this race will not be about world records, so fast running is not relevant to the discussion. I suspect that the early pace will be slow - perhaps even a 66-something to halfway. Kenya lost Robert Cheruiyot in the week before the race (injury) and so their team is greatly weakened and this may have forced a change to their race plan, because Cheruiyot loves running off the front, as he showed to win Boston this year. His replacement, Luke Kibet, is the world champ from Osaka and likely good in the heat, but he doesn't quite have the credentials of Lel and Wanjiru, the big favourites.

Given that the stakes are so high, and the teams so small, I can't see anyone sending men out to set a pace that will cost them their own medal until much later in the race. Therefore, the early pace is likely to be slower. However, as with the women, the surges should start coming before halfway, particularly if it is slow.

Unlike the women, however, I don't think that anyone significant will be allowed to get away from the group early, and so a repeat of Constantina Dita's final 21km solo run is unlikely. I'd think that given the conditions and the depth of "racers" in the field, this group will stay together at least to 30km.

Once there, I suppose anything can happen. The Ethiopians have a strong team, with Tsegay Kebede (Paris Champ) and Deriba Merga (2:06:38 man) the big names. They'll likely be buried in the group for as long as possible, but might emerge then.

The race comes alive in the final 10km

We've made something of a habit of abandoning "conservative" previews for these marathons, and going a little over-the-top on our predictions (including trying to guess the winning time...all in the name of enjoyment). So why break with tradition? Here's our guess for the Olympic Marathon.

I'll go out on a limb and predict that with about 10km to go, there'll be a reasonably big group of 8 to 10 runners out in front, and then Ryan Hall of the USA will initiate the race's decisive break. Hall seems an aggressive runner - he blasted a superb second half to win the US trials last year in New York, and he was the man who pushed on in London when the pace threatened to drop just after halfway. So I expect he'll set this one up as well with a surge at around 32km.

The problem is, he's surrounded by some extra-ordinary racers. Martin Lel is the best marathon racer in the world - he's a 60-min half marathon man, a world champ, a Major Marathon winner, and has finishing speed that the world has never seen in a Marathon. Most important of all, he's shown the ability to get it right on the day - three wins in three races (London - New York - London), as well as victory in the Great North Run. That means he's my favourite to win, as he is for many.

There's also the small matter of a 61 second 400m that he did at the end of the London Marathon to destroy Wanjiru, and in New York to beat Goumri. Nobody can match him in a sprint, and so someone is going to have to go from a long way out to win. But, then Lel is also a 2:05:15 man, the fastest in the race. What do you do against that? The answer, if Lel is having a normal day, is nothing. And that's why I'd pick Lel to win.

So once that break comes at 32km, the group is likely to be split and then it's a war of attrition. The drinks tables will again provide much of the drama, and will be the scene for many tiny surges when athletes pass up on water to press the pace. Teams with two guys in the lead group will be heavily favoured by this, and so expect Kenya and Ethiopia to have this advantage. So look for sharing of bottles, but planned surges, just to test the legs out. Unfortunately a lot of that doesn't come across on TV or even in the split times per kilometer, but it might add up to be decisive on the day.

Given the likely tactics and the heat, the Olympic record of 2:09:21 is going to be touch and go. If it's a slightly cooler day, then it's certainly a possibility. However, if the temperatures are in the mid-20's, then I'd say a 2:10:30 is more likely. But a lot depends on the first half - I would guess that the second half will be run in 63 minutes something, so a 66 for the first will see Lopes' record fall.

So the race prediction is Lel to win a hard sprint over the final 400m, finishing in 2:09:05, beating off Wanjiru in a repeat of the London result. The race's dark horse, Kebede of Ethiopia, will claim bronze, and the unlucky fourth will go to a Korean athlete (whose name I wouldn't commit to!).

Of course, this is more likely than not incorrect, but is a bit of fun before the race. One thing we can guarantee is that we'll get the split times and race analysis as the race happens and get it up first thing tomorrow. So join us then! And enjoy the race!



Stan Silvert said...

I think you are wrong about Ryan Hall. From interviews I've read, he considers his London surge to have been a mistake. He badly wants to medal and surely realizes that his best chance is to stay with the pack and try to gut it out at the end.

I guess we'll see who's right in a few hours. Golly this is fun!!!


Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

HI Stan

Interesting, I hadn't read his regret over London. If that's true, you may well turn out to be right. I still think he might go, but perhaps a little later. He must realise that he needs to go early to have any chance against Lel, Wanjiru and Goumri - they're all sub 13-min 5km guys, and Lel's speed is obviously well known. Even Kebede is a 27-min 10km guy if I remember correctly. It's going to be fascinating to see how the "slower" guys try to combat that. Is Hall one of them? Who knows? Like you say, we'll know in a few hours!


Anonymous said...

OK here is my wildest guess:
Stefano Baldini manages to stay with the leaders, who after a battle of attrition fade and he manages to win gold again.

P.S. If I was a betting man I would say the odds are about 50 to 1 :-)

Seb said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Seb said...

If we play pronostics, I'd say that the last 5km will see a huge fight for the podium, run in around 14 minutes, and gold will be for the one completing the total distance in 2h08'35".

Anonymous said...

I've also heard that he regrets making his surge in London. However, I don't let that take away from his aggressiveness in that race. If anything, his regrets show that he's learning from each race.


Anonymous said...

Man to say this olympics is a shocker is no understatement. Many favourties failing but I didn't expect Lel to be one of them. Man but to run a 2:06:32 in those conditions, u gotta hand it to Wansiru.

Anonymous said...

Forget about 66min halfway 62min37sec.This lad is telling the world that the World record is going to be his very soon sorry Haile.No respect whatsoever."The pace was insane"quoted Ryan Hall.Looks like all the speculation about the heat,pollution etc etc cannot be scientifically explained,yet phenomal times ie Mr Sammy Wanjuri,the list is endless