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Monday, March 23, 2009

2009 Lisbon Half Marathon

The stars come out to play on record-setting new course

Well it has been another forced hiatus for us here at The Science of Sport as Ross's duties to the Rugby Sevens team and my teaching load take center stage in our professional lives. Apologies for the gap, but with the Spring marathons approaching rapidly we will definitely be back in action to break down the racing as you have been accustomed to.

In the mean time there is plenty of news in the swimming world Re swimsuit rules, a new "tell all" book by Dwain Chambers, and the start of the classics in cycling (which Mark Cavendish kicked off by winning Milan-San Remo in his first attempt). And let's not forget about running, as today was the Lisbon Half Marathon. It comes five weeks before London and the other Spring marathons, so it is a bit of a proving ground for the runners to check where they are and how effective their training thus far has been.

Fast, fast, and fast

That is how one can describe this race. Previous years have seen no fewer than 23 sub-60 times, although until 2008 the course had a net elevation loss and was not sanctioned for records. That all changed last year when the organizers altered the elite runners' course so that it started and ended at sea level, this qualifying it for legal world records. So far the new course has not produced any records, though, as last year Haile Gebrselassie clocked a 59:15 even though he ran away from the field and was already 35 s clear of everyone else at 15 km.

This year I am sure the race officials were hoping for fireworks as they brought in Sammy Wanjiru, he of Olympic Marathon fame and also the (ahem) half-marathon world record holder, clocking 58:33 two years ago in Holland. They pitted the record-holder against arguably the best road racer around in Martin Lel, multi-marathon champ Robert Cheruiyot, and perennial favorite Jaouab Gharib, not to mention several other relatively unknown 60-min runner to round out the pack fodder.

In the end Lel proved once again why he is the best road racer on the planet. He simply stuck around until about 500 m to go with Cheruiyot, Gharib, and another Kenyan before unleashing his trademark finishing sprint and dropping Gharib over the last 150 m to take vicotry in 59:56. It was a well off record pace as the top four all finished within 10 s of each other, but that is typical of Lel, who likely has the pure speed to break both the half-marathon and marathon records but seems quite content to "only" win---and take home hugh paychecks each time, at that---but who can blame him?

Kara Goucher: Eyes bigger than her legs?

On the women's side both Kara Goucher and her coach Alberto Salazar were talking about a possible world record, and she was close until 17.5 km but in the end clearly ran beyond her training. At 17.5 km she was pretty much on WR pace (<3:09/km, style="font-weight: bold;">about 9:40 to run the next 2.5 km, which is a pedestrian 3:52/km.

Admittedly her PB is just 32 s off Kipligat's WR, but Goucher ran that on a course with a net elevation loss, so I can see why she and Salazar thought she might be good for it. In any case she gets full marks for attempting the record. It was definitely a "win-win" for her as she was 30 s clear of 2nd with less than three km to go, and so she walked away with a pretty prestigious victory, a payday, and also tons of feedback about how her training is going for her Boston debut next month.

The absence of Wanjiru: beware the ides of April!

The other big news from the race today was how record holder Wanjiru tanked and was off the pace by the time the real racing started. Does this mean the Olympic phenom is now washed up? After all he has failed to break 61 min in both half marathons he has finished in 2009, and for a sub-59 runner a 61-min half is pretty relaxed. So what gives? There are two plausible explanations.

Wanjiru had a massive year in 2008, and it is possible that we are seeing the cumulative fatigue that comes with the kind of racing schedule he kept last year. However we must put his 2009 performances in context. He is entered for London, which is five weeks from now, and dare I say it but he is probably training for a win there. He was second last year, right on the heels of a 2:06:39 debut in Fukuoka. He is an ambitious athlete, telling reporters in February “in five years’ time I feel capable of clocking a sub 2 hours time for the Marathon.”

So you can be certain Wanjiru is leaving no stone unturned in his training for London, and for elite runners this normally means insane amounts of volume. . .which in turn cripples their performances over shorter distances. However seeing as how London is still five weeks away, we would not expect Wanjiru to be at a peak level right now. I suspect that he is right in the middle or end of a massive training period in which he has probably clocked numerous 100+ mile weeks. The timing is right for this kind of training in the lead up to a big race.

For now we have to wait and see what happens in five weeks. Wanjiru will either turn in another historic performance or get dropped as the racing heats up in the last 3-5 km. After all, he has proven that he has the speed, and that he can run guys off his heels even in the heat of Beijing. So this is just more reason to anticipate an incredible race in London!



Anonymous said...

Welcome back.

I ran a small local half-marathon yesterday (flat-course, ideal temperature, but some wind), and Kara Goucher's 68 minute effort would have beat the winner by 5 minutes!

N.N said...

Hmm This is a post olympic year, I don't think we will see any WR's from 10k to marathon. On Wanjiru and the sub 2h . I'm a bit skeptic, How much I like his guts I'm sticking with what Noakes and history learns " Most runners run their fastest marathons early in their careers". I'm not saying he's all ready spend but five years is a very long time to be a the top at the frequency he's racing. Greets !