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Sunday, April 26, 2009

London 2009 Race Report

Wanjiru is the man in a fast war of attrition in London

Olympic champion Sammy Wanjiru has won the 2009 London Marathon, in a course record of 2:05:10, beating out the challenge of the two other Beijing medallists, Tsegaye Kebede and Jaouad Gharib. Kebede, third in Beijing, was one better this time, in a time of 2:05:20, with Gharib a further 7 seconds back.

But it was the Sammy Wanjiru show, at least in terms of the final outcome, and the racing over the final 12 km. The other big talking point was the pacing strategy, with the incredibly fast early pace ultimately putting paid to any chances of the world record that had been spoken about before the race.

The pace - how it unfolded

That early pace, which saw the athletes go through 5km in a sick 14:08 and 10km in 28:30 (14:22 for the second 5km) was always going to see a drop at some stage. That drop happened from about 15km up to 30 km, where the pace dropped below 3min/km. The projected time of 2:02 had fallen to 2:05, and the world record seemed safe once again. The graph and table below summarize the pace at 5km intervals (click on them to get enlarged version):

You'll see from this chart and graph that the pace got progressively slower, right from the start, but it was only between 15 and 20km that they dropped below the WR pace, where it remained up to 30km. That period, the inevitable result of the suicidal early pace, would set the race up for surges and survival in the second half.

The half-way mark was reached in 61:36, but even that does not account for how fast the first 10km were. It was always going to be a race of attrition, and even this early on, it was clear that the athlete who ran the LEAST positive split would be the winner. The chase group, which included the USA's hopes Meb Keflezighi and Dathan Ritzenheim were by this stage already minutes behind, and so the winner was coming from this group.

The race - Wanjiru, Kebede, Gharib

The real racing began just before 30km, however, when Hendrik Ramaala (who was running out of his socks) pushed the pace slightly at about 28km. That spurred the big names into action: Wanjiru responded immediately, and then after a moment or two of "calm", he threw in his own surge. It was reminiscent of the Beijing Olympics, when Wanjiru attacked aggressively off a fast pace.

Wanjiru ran the 19th mile in an astonishing 4:25. That split the field, and the only two who were able to respond were Tsegaye Kebede, and Gharib, albeit a little more slowly. This surge in pace is not reflected in the graph above, because the pace leading up to the surge was very slow, which partly explains why Ramaala was the man going to the front.

One of the first names to fold under this pressure was Zersenay Tadese, the debutant who had stimulated much excitement. The world half marathon champ, and a man with a 58:59 seems born to run the marathon, but he found this race too hot to handle. That's perhaps not that surprising, given his inexperience, but it was slightly surprising that he fell off so soon and so quickly. He covered the 5km stretch from 30 to 35km in 16:47, showing that the wheels had well and truly come off for him. In truth, the pattern of the race would not have suited him, especially in a first marathon. Hopefully, he'll be back in the future.

The final kilometers - a brave Kebede hangs, pulls back, and then falls off

The group of three now formed, it was always a question of who had the most left after the brutal early pace. It turned out to be Wanjiru, though quite how he created the decisive gap, I don't know. At the time that Wanjiru was pulling clear, we were being treated to glorious coverage of the sixth to tenth women coming over the line. So everyone missed that.

Once the men's race was covered again, Wanjiru led by about 8 seconds from Kebede, with Gharib another five or six down. Kebede was fighting bravely, however, and he managed to very slowly claw back the gap, and had Wanjiru within his reach at the 40km mark. It seemed as though Kebede might have enough to force Wanjiru to sprint for the title, but it was not to be; Wanjiru looked behind and realizing that Kebede was in contact, he surged again and soon managed to open what was the decisive lead.

A few minutes later and it was Wanjiru turning right in front of Buckingham Palace, with the title and course record in his sights. He duly went on to break that record in 2:05:10. Kebede was ten seconds back, and Gharib finished in 2:05:27. He was the big improver of the day, since his PB coming in was "only" a 2:07.

The number 1: Wanjiru consolidates after Beijing

So that leaves Wanjiru pretty firmly entrenched at the top of the marathon tree. A win in Fukuoka, second in London 2008, then the awesome Beijing performance, and now this win place Wanjiru securely in number one. Question marks had been raised in recent months. The Beijing win was one of the greatest races ever run, and possibly the best marathon performance ever. However, since then, Wanjiru had a couple of DNFs and a relatively poor showing in Lisbon. However, this win puts those races in context, and certainly confirms his status.

Martin Lel, who has won London for the last two years, would be the other contender, but failing to make the start line of London with a hip injury means he now has to prove his racing credentials again if he is to be considerd number one in the future. His absence was a big blow, for I'm almost certain he'd have featured in the race.

The other name is Haile Gebrselassie. The World record holder has seen his record survive another season, challenged by the 2:04:27 times in Rotterdam, and now this race, where poor pacing may have cost the chance of the record. He'll no doubt be back in his time-trial mode in Berlin later this year, trying to lower his record further. What a shame that we'll never know how he would have handled this 28:30 first 10km and Wanjiru's surges. I still rank him the greatest ever, but he's only the third best racer in the marathon.

Comparing races: Wanjiru vs Geb from Berlin

Just to put into context the difference in the London 2009 pacing and Geb's world record in Berlin last year, the graph below shows the 5km intervals from each.

It's pretty clear that Geb's world record was achieved with extra-ordinary pacing, as he started a little quickly, then settled down and then got quicker and quicker. Wanjiru, on the other hand, started far too fast, then slowed down far too much, and then threw in surges to win a race, slowing down again at the end.

It's not the ideal way to race. In fact, it's a pretty poor way to pace the marathon. But perhaps Wanjiru will get himself onto the start line of the Berlin time-trial in October, and then he'll benefit from the same pacing strategy that saw the 2:03:59.

I believe that he'd break that record, on the right day. Then again, so might Kebede, Gharib, Lel, and then Merga and a host of others. All in all, men's marathon running is in awesome shape, and I can hardly wait for the next batch of marathons in October and November.

There is bound to be more to say about this race, so the rest of the week will be devoted to that. Thanks for reading, and join us again soon!



Amby Burfoot said...

Great comparison of Geb WR and Wanjiru London09 splits. Quite strange that London pacemakers went out so fast--presumably on orders from race directors, managers, etc--when all believe that even-pace running a la Geb is the way to go. I'm even speculating that "taking advantage of the downhills" RE Ryan Hall and others at Boston might not be the best strategy. Perhaps there's eccentric muscle damage that comes back to haunt later? Care to comment?

anthony said...

I'm also wondering about the pacemakers...That 28:30 for the first 10k seems to have killed off their chances for the world record.
Why would they do that? Surely those weren't their orders. Those consistently slower splits from 5k through 25k were also dictated by the pacemakers - In face Ramalaa came up and remonstrated with the last pacemaker that he was going too slowly!

Am I reading too much into this - or was this a foul up by the 3 pacemakers?

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi Amby, Anthony

Thanks for the comments.

Amby, 100% agree. I would understand a fast opening mile, maybe even give them two miles. But to sustain that quick a pace for that long surely suggests it was deliberate. Apparently they had a car with the race time on the clock, along with a projected race time. So those pacemakers, along with all the major contenders who were with them could see for themselves what they were doing - they'd have seen that after 5km, the projected time was 1:59.

Yet they chose not to slow down, and I can only surmise that this meant it was deliberate.

So to address your post, Anthony, it can't simply be a foul-up by three pacemakers, it has to have been thought out. That's not to say it was the plan, perhaps they had every intention of going through 10km in 29 minutes, but found themselves a little too quick, and then the signal to settle didn't come. I honestly don't know.

But Amby, returning to your point, I agree. If you try to take on the early downhills, there's either some eccentric loading on the muscles which you pay for later, or the higher intensity simply causes metabolic changes that compromise the second half of the race.

Either way, I've no doubt that a faster start is not the way to go. If the start is slighly downhill, then perhaps even effort is the way to go, which means slightly faster at the start, but not as quick as we saw today (or in Boston). just as an aside, in cycling, the common wisdom borne out by the physics, says that you work 5% harder on uphills and 5% slower on downhills. Obviously, cycling differs from running in many respects, but I believe the principle to be the same - you lose more time on the ups than you'd ever make up on the downs, and when you start that fast, you pay later!


JM said...

The 5% harder up, 5% easier down, in cycling is entirely due to aerodynamic concerns. On the uphill, speed is lower and drag is less of a factor. An extra 5% effort gets you nearly 5% more speed.

On a downhill, where drag is enormous, the only thing slowing you down, an extra 5% effort might only get you half a percent more speed. and 5% LESS effort only loses you half a percent.

Therefore, the quickest times will be to go a *little* harder up, and recover a *little* on the way down. A curve of the % change in power that is ideal can even be computed for the given gradient of the climb.

In running where the aerodynamics in these situations are insignificant, I'm sure the strategy is totally different. In my own running (a very different pace than a pro marathoner), I find that I can either spend energy keeping my pace constant on the downhill, resisting gravity.

Or I can spend energy letting myself fall and turning my legs over faster.

At least in the 2nd scenario I am going faster while my heart rate rises!

But I am no expert at running!

oliver said...

Agreed on the pacing and the ranking of the marathoners at moment.
WR was never on after the 14:08 and 14:22 even with slight downhill. Those two splits are probably the same effort...so 2:01:00 effort...was never going to be sustainable.

Tadesse is probably one for the future.
Love Wanjiru's racing...a time triallist like Geb would most likely have been dropped too.

Impressed by Ramaala's ticker- wish he would put it on at OG , but different story.

As for early downhills affecting outcome, Amby would probably know better than most from Boston- I have my own personal story from New Plymouth (boston like)..definitely knew I had quads after 30km !

However, London probably falls 'only' 45m between 3km and 5.5km (by comparison to Boston), not sure but think the eccentricity effect would be way different...agreed with Ross that it was more likely the actual effort (i.e. 2:01 effort) that did them in.

But btw , how is the best way to address a downhill start? Do you hold back, putting on 'brakes' therefore using quads more or do you just 'freefall' and get more impact related affect?

Or is it even a relevant question for Boston, given that it falls outside 'certifiable criteria' ...despite curiously still being listed in official rankings.

Would love to see Wanjiru (and Tadesse with more experience) against Geb on a even paced attempt.


Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi again

Thanks for the comments.

Lesser Idiot, yes, it's the aerodynamics. And while I agree that it's not as much a factor in running, there is still an effect, so i don't think the strategy is totally different. Not as pronounced, yes, but not different. There's also an issue of carrying weight against gravity versus using it, which you allude to in your post. I believe the most effective strategy for performance is to push harder by 5% on the uphills, but to relax by 5% on the downhills. That's a bald assertion though.

Then to Oliver, yes, wouldn't it be wonderful to see Geb race against these guys (and add Lel to that mix)? I heard a rumour that it was on the cards for Berlin this year, but I really doubt it will happen. As for Tadese, I'm still surprised at how badly he fell off, mostly because it came so early. I thought he'd fade, maybe at 38km, but not blow out like that after 30km. I think the best thing for him is to find a second-tier marathon, maybe Fukuoka, and race there to gain experience and confidence. I'm sure he'll be back.

Ramaala - yes, very brave run. he ran above himself yesterday, because his fastest half marathon in recent years is about 61 minutes, and they hit halfway in 61:36. So he certainly had good form and ran bravely. I was impressed with it.


Anonymous said...

As you have repeatedly written physiology always wins in the end. Even though Tadese is a great runner, he ran too fast and ultimately paid the price. It 's such a pity that the Marathon takes the toll on all of us champions and mere mortals alike, but I am sure he will run much better next time, he now knows!


Ray said...

Looks like this crystal ball works better, but needs just a little calibration and polishing.

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi George

Yes indeed, though I must say I'm very surprised at how early he went off. I'm going to write a bit more on this in my next post later today, so you'll read it there too, but consider that Tadese is a 26:50 10km athlete and a 59min half-marathon runner, and so going through halfway in 61:36 is fast, but he of all people should have tolerated that pace the best.

There were men in that group with half-marathon PBs about a minute slower than him, and in some cases (Ramaala) two minutes slower in recent months.

So for Tadese to blow up that badly, and that early, was a real surprise. I thought he'd probably battle after 38km, but 30km? I really think he showed a mental frailty more than anything, because far "lesser" athletes than he survived better off that pace. So I agree, a combination of inexperience and fast pace that he couldn't handle mentally more than anything.

Then to Ray, yes, well, I got the women's winner, but that was such a boring race you could have written the report the day before. And the men, top two I guess is not bad, but my prediction for HOW it would happen was completely off! A lot of polish, maybe!

Thanks for the visits and comments!