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Saturday, January 17, 2009

Gebrselassie 2:05:29

Gebrselassie narrowly misses out in Dubai

Haile Gebrselassie missed out on his third marathon world record and the $1 million bonus in wet conditions in Dubai on Friday, running 2:05:29.

How it unfolded

It was Geb's second narrow miss in Dubai, after his 2007 performance of 2:04:54 at the same venue. We're still trying hard to get the 5km splits from the race, so that we can compare this performance to the '08 Berlin record of 2:03:59, but the reports are that Gebrselassie was bang on the pace up to the 32km mark.

Halfway was hit in 61:45, which is also exactly what Geb had suggested he'd do in the pre-race buildup. I'm not entirely sure how that 61:45 was put together, though. In 2007, he tore the first 10km at about 2:02 pace and then slowed, which is not at all how the race should be paced.

Nevertheless, he hit the 32km mark 1 second under his world record schedule, and then the weather, and the lack of pacemakers combined to see him lose one and a half minutes over the final 10km.

A cluster of factors required for a world record

Race reports are that the wind that shifted direction during the race so that the athletes were running into a headwind pretty much the whole way. A rain shower in the final 10km wouldn't have helped either. This only serves to highlight just how difficult it is to "guarantee" a marathon world record, and makes people's predictions of a 2:02 within a few years a bit of a mockery.

The reality is that for the world record to fall, even by 1 second, you have to bring together the perfect cluster of factors: A great athlete in phenomenal shape. You need perfect conditions, wind, weather and temperatures, and you have to have the optimal course. Then you need pacemakers to control the pace early on, and to survive for long enough to pull the challenger into the final few kilomters where he can push on.

Dubai seems to have had only two of these ingredients: an athlete in great shape, and a pancake flat course. However, the weather didn't play along, and I also believe the disappearance of the pacemakers at 32 km didn't help. You may recall that in Berlin, Gebrselassie had the somewhat surprising company of James Kwambai until about the last 5km. We'll never know whether his final 10km in Dubai would have matched those in Berlin (they would have had to for the record to fall), but running alone would certainly have been difficult.

For that reason, I'm not convinced that I fully buy the excuse that the weather cost him the record. It's incredibly presumptious and symptomatic of the aura of Gebrselassie that people assume the record was a given had the weather not intervened. I certainly think the weather put an abrupt end to the hopes of a record, but that's different from saying the weather denied him the record.

What next for Gebrselassie?

2:05:29 was still a magnificent performance, and ranks 8th on the all-time list, and also makes Geb the holder of times number 1,2, 3 and 8. Quite astonishing, and proof again that Gebrselassie has no peer when it comes to racing the clock over just about any distance.

Yet again, however, in reading the post-race reports, I'm left with a sense of disappointment, however. Not because the record didn't fall, but because Geb has once again expressed that he will NOT run in the IAAF World Championships this year (as he had earlier said), but will instead race his "organized time-trial" in Berlin on September 20.

Gebrselassie is therefore going to run his 6th consecutive "time-trial", and will again avoid a race against any of the other potential sub-2:05 men.

There are, in my opinion, six men in the world capable of running under 2:05 - Lel, Wanjiru, Zersenay Tadese, Goumri, Cheruiyot and Gebrselassie. Five of them will run London in April, Geb won't. Nor will he take on these same athletes in Berlin, opting instead to puruse times and dollars in races with no competition (second place in Dubai, incidentally, was a 2:07-something. But who cares, right? That's exactly the point).

So is it too much to ask that Geb actually compete in a race, instead of a time-trial? I guess it might be. Not that there's anything inherently wrong with making money off your sport - can't begrudge that to anyone. But it would be great to see the "greatest" taking on Wanjiru, Lel and Tadese. But we won't. In fact, I would go so far as to predict that the world's greatest ever runner is going to retire one day having never won a major competitive marathon (and before I receive abuse from Geb-fans, I don't consider Berlin in the last 3 years to be a competitive marathon, and nor is Dubai.) Gebrselassie, for all his brilliance, has never won a marathon in a race in which top 5 athletes compete, and he won't given their pursuit of races, and his pursuit of competitorless time-trials.

The week ahead

Looking ahead, we're still trying to get the splits for the race, just for comparison with Berlin '07 and '08. Regardless, we'll also resume the discussion of mind vs. matter, so join us in the week!



Anonymous said...

What is stopping those top athletes from completing in Berlin and missing London surely the money is for a marathon world record or is Berlin a closed event where only Haile may participate?

Anonymous said...

I agree with the commenter above. If I were one of the other top-5, and Geb is going for a world record and the bonuses are there for it, why not skip a major and go for the world record?

I wouldn't be surprised to see one or more of the London competitors sign up for Berlin, assuming there's no "non-compete" clause in Geb's agreement to appear.

Anonymous said...

Are you still looking for the splits? "letsrun" has a play-by-play thread with a lot of the splits:



Anonymous said...

Looks like Wanjiru will be joining Geb!


Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi guys

To anonymous and Brian

Fair point. Last year, the major contenders skipped Berlin because they chose Beijing and Olympic success. Geb obviously skipped that, citing the pollution (which was a non-factor, and that, more than anything, discredits him. It was a cheap excuse).

Then, I have a feeling (though can't prove it) that Berlin has previously been "Geb only", and that's because I know that Adidas "own" that event and have positioned it very strongly as his event, for the world record. Their marketing approach to the race has been very clear. There's that, plus the obvious financial implications of getting another guy on board to race. You'd be doubling up on appearance fees, and guys like Geb and Wanjiru would not come cheap.

That's why, as Jonathan mentioned on Friday, the Middle East is going to shift the balance by paying for more athletes to race there. They are perhaps the only ones, especially at the moment, who can afford it. Remember that many sponsors are now pulling out of events, being squeezed by the economy. The appearance fees, to give an idea, might be in the range of $500,000 for men and $500,000 for women. The addition of two more world-class runners might increase this by another $200,000, which is huge.

Finally, the other top marathon runners are "racers" and London is, by a long way, the biggest race. It carries the most prestige, especially for the Kenyans, and so they choose it for that reason. The decision is made not only on the basis of money (I realise that sounds naive, but remember that winning London guarantees future earnings as well, and points in the Marathon Major series, and that has money attached. So the event can't be looked at in isolation.

So to answer the question: You'll find that it's a money issue (on the part of the organizers and sponsors), a choice issue (on the part of the competitors who want to run and win the most prestigious marathon) and a sponsorship issue (in the case of Berlin). Then, we don't know whether Geb says "no other elites if I sign". I suspect it would be true.

I'm pleased to see that this year, Wanjiru will be racing in Berlin. I'll believe it when it happens, however, so won't celebrate just yet. A lot could change between now and September, and only if he starts will I actually believe it. The sports business industry is fickle...