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Thursday, January 15, 2009

The 10th Standard Chartered Dubai Marathon Preview

Got money? Throw it at something!

Tomorrow sees the 10th running of the Dubai Marathon, and before last year who knew this race had been going on for so long? Of course most of us did not know because until last year the race was firmly in the second-tier of city marathons, which are typically dominated by Kenyans (eight of the top 10 in 2007, six in 2006)) running around 2:10. Other races that currently are in this category are ones like Honolulu and Los Angeles.

But all that changed for Dubai in 2008, when it received a cash injection and was able to lure the Great One, Gebrselassie, with an army of dedicated pace-setters, $250k for first place (all but guaranteed in that year's race), plus the chance of a $1 million payout for breaking the world record. Clearly the middle east has more dollars than sense, or at least more money than they know what to do with, and just like that the Dubai Marathon gets put on the running map. One can argue that this is good for running in general, but as exciting as it is to see Geb challenge his record, somehow we feel cheated not seeing perhaps the greatest runner of all time compete against his top peers in a race like London. In Dubai last year, Geb walked (ok, ran!) away with the $250k, almost too easily and as expected, and was only 27 s away from scooping the bonus money in 2008. Of course he went on to break his own record last year in Berlin, where he shaved an additional 27 s off his 2007 Berlin time.

The basics: what to expect

Clearly it is a flat and fast course, and so the big factor that can affect performances will be the weather. It is winter in Dubai now, but a quick glance at the past four years tells us that the starting temperature might be anywhere between 11-23 C (52-73 F)! Current conditions (at 9:00 PM in Dubai) are about 18 C (64 F), and forecast for Friday is for blue skies and 21-22 C (69-72 F). This is welcome news as apparently they have had four days (and four inches!) of very unseasonal rain and flooding!

In addition to a good weather forecast, apparently the course measurer altered it slightly so that it is flatter and there is more room at the turnaround. These changes were specifically because Geb will be attempting to break the record, and so it appears that things are lining up for Geb in Dubai this year.

The competition. . .or not!

Toeing the line next to Geb will be rather lackluster field who is highly unlikely to challenge his record pace. The fastest and most proven man in the field is the "other Sammy," Kenyan Sammy Korir, who most of you might recall nearly stole the record from Paul Tergat in Berlin in 2003. He paced Tergat in that race and challenged him for the win, finishing only one second behind Tergat and therefore holding the fourth fastest marathon time ever. However in the interim since then Korir has not really reproduced that kind of performance, and so we are not going to be holding our breaths for a major showdown of any kind.

So it will be Geb vs. the clock, which somehow is the way he seems to prefer it. If you think back to his marathon debut in London in 2001, he pushed for record pace all the way and never looked back, until he caved in the last 1-2 km and left Tergat and Khannouchi to dice for the win. Since then he has made no bones about saying up front that he will attempt to break the record, and slowly but surely the organizers began to accommodate his needs by offering up multiple pace-setters. It finally paid off in Berlin in 2007 when he broke Tergat’s four-year old record by 29 s. He tried again in Dubai last year, but came up short, and then passed on the Olympic Marathon in Beijing, dare we say so that he could have the legs to try again in Berlin last year. If that was indeed his reason for his absence on the streets of Beijing, it paid off (literally) as of course last year, hardly one month after Beijing, he became the first man to break 2:04.

The Sports Scientists’ Call

So now he appears primed and ready to have another go, and if he does it he will claim his 27th world record and walk away with $1.25 in prize and bonus money. Pacing is so important, and the prime example of this was last year in Dubai when he ran an insanely fast first half and then paid dearly for it down the stretch. He seems to have learned his lesson from that, getting it right in Berlin and running what must have been so incredibly close to his limit, although there is still room for improvement. Looking ahead to Friday’s race, he has the experience behind him, and good weather conditions as well, but the need for pacers until at least 35 km is critical and cannot be underestimated. No doubt the event has organized a team of guys to help him, but is anyone good enough to go through 35 km in about 1:42? If not, it leaves Geb, as great as he is, with quite a bit of road left before he crosses the tape in sub-2:03:59.

Normally we would say that to run so fast over so many consecutive marathons is not really possible, and therefore we would not expect another record in Dubai. However Geb continues to smash the conventional wisdom when it comes to predicting his performances. He now holds the three fastest times ever, and he achieved these in his last three races, and these only after running numerous other marathons between 2002 and 2007. Again, though, his pacing support will be key, and if his pacers are able to stay with him until late in the race, we can expect him to break his record. Left to fend for himself after 30 km, however, and he might come close but it is unlikely he will do it.

The full analysis

We will have the full analysis of the race, record or not, early on Friday, so be sure to come back here for our normal post-race wrap of both the men’s and the women’s races. Be sure to continue to help us grow the site and share this post with any or all of the links below!



Anonymous said...

Geb will only get $1.25 in prize and bonus money? Hardly seems worth it.

Anonymous said...

Disagree with you on this one.

So what if Dubai offers a big money marathon? All countries have them.

And what exactly is keeping Gebs peers from running there?

Its called professional sports for a reason. Show and see if you are good enough to collect.

Anonymous said...

Why can't he get fresh pacers to run with him every 10k? Do they have to start at the beginning only? Is there a rule against having fresh pacers waiting for him on the course at 10k, 20k, and 30k?

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi everyone

To Bob NY

I hear your point, but I also think that the relatively unregulated spending on sport in the Middle East has some potentially very serious repercussions for the sports industry. I have worked in sports business in SA for the last three years, and the global sports sponsorship market has really been turned on its head by the injection of money from the Middle East.

This is most noticeable in Formula 1, where the sport is making a big move to those markets. The same will soon happen to golf, and the big move has come.

Now, one can say this is simply professional sports, but it's shaken the sport quite badly, because all sponsorships and investments into sport are linked. We'll see the same in soccer soon, where Manchester City have made a bid of 100 million pounds for Kaka. THis kind of astonishing spending is not, I don't believe, good for the sport.

And I guess nothing keeps Geb's peers from running there, other than some kind of "rustic, old-fashioned" interest in the established events, those that have built up a product over many, many years. I think that's what is absent from the picture when the Middle East money starts to flow.

One final example - the recent Abu Dhabi tennis exhibition featured 5 of the Top 6 players in the world in a tournament. The appearance fees payed to these players were astronomical. This has now set the bar at a level that no other organizer can reach. Therefore, no one outside the Middle East can expect to see a similar event.

A few years ago, tennis slowly started to kill off its smaller events because it started to offer appearance money to players. Interestingly enough, the PGA Tour does not do this, and they've managed to defend all their tournaments far more effectively.

Whenever money suddenly flows in, it kills off smaller events at the fringes, and I don't think that's ever good. This is actually a topic worthy of a post - it's something I find especially fascinating, but I've put it off because we've set it up as Science of Sports, and not Sports Business. But I might yet tackle it...

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi Anonymous

There is a rule against this - I'm not sure of the exact wording, but every single pacemaker must start the race.

There have been cases where people have played this rule. THey used to send guys out at a really slow pace during long distance track races, and then when they lapped those runners, they'd speed up and run along at the same pace at the leaders.

But it's disallowed for marathons, which is why no one has ever done it.


Anonymous said...

Does Chip Timing count for the world record? You could have the pacers at 10k start 20 min early, the ones at 20k start 40 min early and the ones at 30k start 60 min early and jog to their respective points and wait for Geb to catch them. Similar to your track race/lappping example.