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Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Build-up to Boston 2009: Men's race preview

Building up to Boston: A look back at last year's men's race

Well, as promised yesterday, we begin with a build-up to Monday's Boston Marathon, which should be a great RACE this year, with Ryan Hall being brought in to spice up what has become a Kenyan parade in Boston in recent years.

I emphasize "Race" because last year, the 112th Boston Marathon, became a solo run for Robert Cheruiyot of Kenya, when he blasted a 25km stretch of the race at faster than 3:00/km. You can read the entire post-race analysis here, but for today, a recap of then, and a look forward to Monday where Cheruiyot will return to face what should amount to much stiffer competition.

The race began slowly enough, but Cheruiyot took off soon after 5km and pretty much drove a solo effort along at sub-2:06 pace. Remember that Boston is not the fastest course in the world and you appreciate the Cheruiyot was awesome during this period, where he averaged 2:57/km (2:04:41 pace).

The table and graph below show Cheruiyot's split times (the table over 5km and the graph per mile) during his win, and pretty much summarize last year's race.

The 2009 race - enter Ryan Hall, a challenge to the Cheruiyot of Fire?

This year promises to be a little different. Last year, Cheruiyot was very much the class of the field. There were good runners, sure, but the tall Kenyan was a previous champion in Boston (the course record holder at 2:07:14 in 2006) and Chicago and very much the favourite going into the race.

The addition of Ryan Hall to the field changes that. The American, who I said yesterday was the lone-standing challenger to the African dominance in the marathon (apologies to other non-Africans I'm forgetting), carries with him enormous Patriot-day hopes of a first American victory in Boston since Greg Meyer in 1983.

Hall is a 2:06 marathon runner, a 59-minute half marathon man, and carried great hopes into Beijing's Olympic marathon last year as well. There, he disappointed despite eventually finishing 10th, falling off the pace very early on. By his own admission, the training had not gone well and he was not 100% going into that race. So far, in the build-up to Monday's race, the noises coming from Hall have been quite different. In this interview with Runners World, he talks about the improvements in his training between Beijing and now, and the numbers indicate that if Cheruiyot does decide to replicate the aggressive race of last year, Hall will certainly be up for the challenge.

Hall is a refreshing presence on the global running scence. Apart from being a new hope for the USA, he also speaks openly and honestly about his training and brings interest from people who might otherwise simply dismiss the sport as lacking spectator interest. Anything that adds to media value is good for the sport, and to be frank, when running (and athletics) is competing against other sports for a share of media exposure, it's good to have people who excite the journalists and offer stories other than the typical "dry" East African dominance of running.

Whether that interest will help or hinder him come Boston is another story. His training has been exceptionally focused - he has raced sparingly, passed up a half-marathon so that he could do more Boston-specific hill training, and he's chosen this race ahead of the big pay-day of London.

Other big names to look out for - it's much more than a two-horse race

But he'll have his hands full, not only with Robert Cheruiyot. In fact, there are at least TWO OTHER Cheruiyots to contend with - Evans Cheruiyot has a PB of 2:06:25, set last year in Chicago, and which is the second fastest in the race (behind Hall's 2:06:17 from London last year). And then another Robert Cheruiyot comes in with a PB of 2:07:21. Evans in particular will be very dangerous - he has won his last two marathons (Milan and Chicago last year), and he has a 59:05 half-marathon PB from 2007. Those are great credentials, and so there is a real chance the race will be won by a Cheruiyot, but not the one everyone is expecting!

Add to this Deriba Merga of Ethiopia and Daniel Rono of Kenya and you have another sub-2:07 men (both in 2008, so recent) to contend with. Then there are a number of other athletes with 2:08 performances. We saw two weeks ago in Rotterdam and Paris that men with 2:08 bests can suddenly produce 2:06 times (or even bigger improvements than this), so they can't be written off either!

All told, the field is strong and deep and it should make for an enthralling race on Monday. I'm going to delay my predictions (and winning time crytal-ball) until my Friday post, when I'll call both the men's and women's races.

Tomorrow, I'll look at the women's race from 2008 and the line-up for this year (including some controversy with Ndereba being denied entry), so join us then!

Until then, get your predictions for the men in!


P.S. Don't forget to join us on Monday, within 30 minutes of the finish of the Boston race, for all the splits and pacing analysis (as for the graph and table above)


Anonymous said...

The men's race is going to be fun. This is the first major since Wanjiru's performance in Beijing and the "day that shook the (marathon) world" a few weeks ago, so it will be a good test to see whether the accepted wisdom really has become that you have to go out as hard as you can and hope that you are the one or two runners (out of maybe a dozen in the lead pack) who can avoid blowing up en route to a 2:05 finish.

If that's the case, they are going to be blazing fast through the first 15 downhill miles. Low 62s at the half isn't out of the question. I wouldn't even be surprised to see someone in the mid 61s if the weather is nice. Then comes the hills, and I'd guess attrition is 75% or so.

The question is what Hall does. He saw what happens in Beijing if you let the lead pack go, and he's made noises about training for the suicide-pace-and-try-not-to-die approach (i.e., tempo runs at altitude starting at 4:20 pace and then slowing to 4:45). Bottom line is that he is younger and faster than the better Cheruiyot, so there is no excuse to not going -- if he does, he's the odds-on favorite to win. (But I don't think he will go with the suicide pack if the first 15 are as fast as I imagine they will be.)

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi Anonymous

What a great post, I couldn't agree more. Last year Cheruiyot was really the pioneer "front runner", and I recall being amazed at how aggressively he pressed the pace. Wanjiru took that to a new level in Beijing, and then you're right, Rotterdam and Paris gave us a taster of how the paradigm has changed.

And so yes, it will be fascinating. Those downhill kilometers play into that completely. I suspect that because of the quality of the field, the early pace (first 5km) will be relatively conservative and then it will kick in, much like last year. A lot depends on the weather, and I'll look at that closer to the race.

But yes, a first half in 62 is on the cards (last year was a shade outside 63, with the first 5km in 15:40. I think it will be at least as aggressive.

And Hall? I think he'll try to ignore it, but that will prove impossible. Maybe he'll drop off to 100m behind and then come through with 10km to go. That's one of many exciting aspects to the race.

But great post - you've stolen much of my Friday-race preview! I may paraphrase or quote from you!


Unknown said...

Great post.

I look for Evans Cheruiyot to be leading the front pack on Monday with Merga throwing in surges on occasion to really take the lead pack to suidicidal pace. Robert Cheruiyot the Elder really pushed the pace last year, but I look for him to be content to sit mid-pack until the Newton Hills at least.
In 2008, Boston was the week after London in which Sammy and Martin Lel were so impressive and it seemed that Cheruiyot thought he needed to make a statement of his own in ensure his place on Kenya's Olympic team. So I think last year, with a lesser field, Cheruiyot knew just winning wouldn't be impressive enough and wanted the course record. He ultimately came up short on that, but his effort was still good enough to make the Bejing roster (until injury anyway). This year, with some faster guys in the lineup, I think Robert will be content to sit back in the pack and let them tire themselves out until the hills come up and he can use his greatest asset - knowledge of the course and what it takes to win there - to take over the lead.
The question is can Evans, Merga and anyone else push the pace faster enough to wear down Robert, but not so fast (or erratic) to kill themselves and allow a more even Robert to mow them down on the uphills.
As for Ryan Hall, I think he'll run with the main lead pack for as long as he can, and even go to the front and push the pace every now and then just to let everyone know he is there (pretty much what he did at his two Londons). What I think he should do is run on the shoulder of the more experienced Cheruiyot, saving energy for the big push up heartbreak and the last 5 miles afterwards. If Hall is to win, I think he's got to have energy left for a prolonged surge somewhere in the mile 22 to 24 neighborhood.


Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi Brian

Good insights, thanks for that! Especially about Cheruiyot's frame of mind last year compared to this year. I must confess that other than knowing their times, I don't know a great deal about the other two Cheruiyots - Evans is a highly pedigreed runner, but I've never actually seen HOW he races. So it will be interesting to see if he pushes it along. He has some searing fast half marathons (a 59:05 and TWO 59:25 times) so he might back his speed and wait? Who knows?

Also, the hilly section in the latter part of the race might scare off a guy with that kind of leg speed, depends if he's in the aggressive mold of athlete. Merga I think will push it hard, it seems to be his way. And Hall, yes, I think he'll sit on Robert K.

It will be fascinating. Usually I go crazy on predictions and freely throw names out, but this one really is too "unsettled" to call.

Will be interesting!