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Friday, April 24, 2009

London Marathon Preview

London 2009 - the greatest race ever, coming up?

Boston has barely left our minds, and we have the prospect of what might be the best marathon race in history to look forward.

London is always an insane collection of fast men. In recent years, they pulled in Gebrselassie for a debut, had him race Tergat and Khannouchi to a world record, brought the top four men in year after year, and last year produced the fastest, deep marathon in history when Martin Lel won in 2:05:15 from Sammy Wanjiru.

Wanjiru went on to great things - the greatest marathon ever run, a 2:06:32 in Beijing, and is back this year. So is Lel (albeit with an injury cloud - see below). So are second and third in Beijing, and a host of other runners.

So picking the winner is a mighty difficult task. For the best pre-race preview on the web, check out LetsRun.com's overview of the men's race - they pull out the seven likely winners, offer you their thoughts and suggestions and pretty much hit it spot on. Their women's analysis is equally good, but for us, the focus is on the men, because it brings the possibility of a world record, in a race (so forgive the lack of insight on the women's race, I have no time! But for a prediction - Mikitenko to win in 2:20:46, relatively unchallenged, one minute to second, which is a fight between Gete Wami and Martha Komu of Kenya)

So here's our preview and prediction for London 2009...

Looking back - 2008 revisited with implications for 2009

Looking back to look forward, last year's London race provided what might be a script for this year. This would be the case any time you get five or six guys capable of running 2:05 on an ideal course. That is, the early pace will be fast, with pacemakers instructed to go out at close to world record pace. Because the field is so strong AND so deep, it's a pretty good bet that five guys (at least) will be together with 7km to go and the pacemakers drop out. Then it's man on man, and that's exactly what happened last year.

In 2008, Martin Lel, Sammy Wanjiru and Abderrahim Goumri were the last three men remaining, though the pace had dropped off between 30 and 35km. That was partly the result of the weather - a bit windy and rainy along the Embankment, and because such a strong field so focused on winning will begin to watch one another and play tactical games. If you refer back to our analysis of last year's race, you'll see the marked drop in pace between 30 and 35km. Up to 30km, they were on world record pace (2:04:27, which was the WR at the time), and then the impetus was lost.

What does that have to do with this year's race? Well, I suspect the same may happen. There has been much talk about the world record, because Sammy Wanjiru, Martin Lel and Tadese are all ear-marked as having the potential to break it. The biggest barrier is the fact that they'll be racing (rather than running a paced time-trial), oddly enough, because I can't see any one of these men sacrificing themselves by pushing the pace at 35km, when so much is at stake for a win. Then again, Sammy Wanjiru pushed the pace in Beijing with a great deal on the line, and so perhaps the era of the "fearless marathon runner" will see the record fall.

To me, the only chance for a world record is that the half-way mark must be reached in 61:45, and then the pace must be maintained to 35km. That would put them in position to break the record even if they slow down. 35km in 1:42:30 means that the next 5km can be covered in a slow 15 minutes (thanks to cagey running and weather) and they'll still be in position to dip under 2:04 with the last few kilometers bound to be quite quick as the racing drives the pace on.

Whether that will happen remains to be seen - much depends on the field and who is left at 35km...

The field

So how strong is the field? The London press pack starts with the following sentence:
"Take this for a lineup: the reigning Olympic champion, the reigning world champion, the first four from last year's London epic, four of the first five from the Olympic Games, a former double world champion, the world bronze medallist, and the fourth, fifth, sixth, 12th, 13th and 14th quickest men of all time."

Incredible. And that doesn't include the debut of Zersenay Tadese of Eritrea, who I believe is a future world-record holder over this distance. Again, LetsRun.com have broken the field down as well as possible, so I won't repeat too much of a detailed analysis, but look at the FIVE men I believe will play out the London drama come Sunday.

1. Martin Lel

Lel is, as we've said before, the best marathon racer in the world. A disappointing Olympics notwithstanding (he came fifth, though reports are that he had malaria during training), he's the man to beat on Sunday. Last year's champion, winner in New York before that, and another two London wins, along with a host of wins over the half-marathon set Lel apart as maybe the most feared road racer in the world.

Last year in London, he blitzed the final 400m in around 60 seconds at the end of a 2:05 marathon, to beat Sammy Wanjiru by an enormous distance. The same had happened in New York, where he beat Goumri. I don't think a marathon runner has ever possessed the kind of kick Lel has at the end of the race, and if he is in contention with 1km to go, the field will be nervous, if not beaten.

The problem for Lel is an injury-scare that has only come out this week. Apparently, he has hurt his hip, and though scans revealed no damage, he is going to be receiving treatment on it right up to the race. That is a big blow for his chances, because any weakness or injury will be exposed over 42 km of racing at 3 min/km. So starting at anything less than 100%, against this field, represents a real risk. Before that news, I'd have said go with Lel in a new world record time. Now, I'm not so sure. I really hope he's healthy, but as anyone who's run the marathon will know, it can fall apart quickly if there is a problem.

2. Sammy Wanjiru

The Kenyan produced a surreal performance to win in Beijing, in what was only his 3rd marathon race. First in Fukuoka, second in London and then Olympic champion in a hot and polluted Beijing, in a record time of 2:06:32 make Wanjiru the new man to beat, now that Lel is carrying an injury into the race (the fact that he's even the second favourite is an indication of just how good Lel is).

However, Wanjiru is talking up his chances, speaking of his desire to break the world record. He didn't perform especially well in the Lisbon half marathon recently, but that may be an indication of a focus on this race, and a sign that he'll be better prepared than before. If that's true, and Wanjiru is in the same condition he was in Beijing, then expect him to be the aggressor, and don't be surprised if he wins it. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that only a fully healthy Martin Lel would have a chance of beating him, and so Lel's injury means Wanjiru is now my pick for Sunday.

3. Zersenay Tadese

Tadese is perhaps the most intriguing runner in the race. His debut marathon promises much, because he's coming from an exceptional background on the track, country and roads. An Olympic medallist over 10,000m, a world cross-country champion (who beat Bekele), and a half marathon road-champion, Tadese is the kind of runner who seems to get stronger as the distance gets longer.

He is one of only four men to have broken 59 minutes for the half-marathon, and with half-marathon performance being such a huge predictor of marathon success, he's definitely one to look out for. As I said, my impression has always been that he gets better and better as the distance goes up, and so the marathon may well be his best event. He'll be a great marathon runner. But for London 2009? I'd be surprised if he wins it (not shocked, just surprised). I think the marathon takes some learning, and experience will help him get faster.

Putting my head on the block, I'd say he'll be in contact up to around 38km, and then drop off. But in future, he may be the man to hold the world record. For now, the fastest ever debut is on the cards, and who knows, maybe the fastest ever marathon? He is, next to the Lel-Wanjiru matchup, the most exciting thing about London 2009.

4. The others: Goumri, Gharib, Kebede and co

I don't want to go into too much discussion of the rest of the runners, partly to save me time and repeating what Letsrun have said. However, there is a host of other guys who have a real shot at winning this race.

The Ethiopian Tsegaye Kebede is likely to be the smallest man in the race, a stocky, punchy runner who ran 2:06 in Paris, and came third in Beijing, and then won Fukuoka in 2:06:10. He is improving every time he races, and is the kind of runner who, on his day, is hard to beat. I'd pick him as a serious dark-horse for Sunday, and say that he'll get himself onto the podium, probably in third, though problems for Lel might see him jump up a step.

Abderrahim Goumri of Morocco was Martin Lel's bridesmaid, first in London 2007, then New York 2007, then London 2008. Three races, three dust-ups in the final few hundred meters. He must love the site of Lel's vest from behind! However, he's a quality racer, having never failed to podium in a major marathon. Perhaps this year will be his breakthrough.

I doubt it, I'd pick him for a top 6, but not a top 3, but that's only because I don't know enough about his preparation, and his last two outings in the heat of Beijing and then New York were both disappointing. In particular, he looked like the man to beat in New York but faltered and dos Santos beat him at the end. Mental block? Over-raced? I don't know, but I'd be surprised if he finds the speed to match the top three in London.

Jaouad Gharib came second to Wanjiru in Beijing, which was something of a surprise, though he is a hot weather runner, having won the World title twice, both in relatively warm conditions. His PB is "only" 2:07:02, and he'll probably need to run AT LEAST 2 MINUTES faster than that to win this race, possibly three. That's a tall ask, though not impossible. I suspect that he'll be one of the first of the big names to drop off at around 35km, but he may surprise again.

Finally, Emmanuel Mutai of Kenya has a 2:06:15 PB and came fourth in London last year. Unless he has found two minutes of improvement, though, he's likely to battle over the final 5km and I'd pick him to go the same way as Gharib and drop off in the latter part of the race.

The predictions - crystal ball time

So here then are the predictions for the men's race:

1. Sammy Wanjiru - 2:04:34
2. Tsegaye Kebede - 2:04:47
3. Zersenay Tadese - 2:04:58
4. Abderrahim Goumri - 2:05:46

Half-way to be reached in 61:54, which is pretty close to exact. However, the pace drops a little too much between 21 and 30km, leaving the men with too much to do at the end. Wanjiru, driven by his desire to break the world record, pushes the pace on, but is cautious about setting it up for the unknown quantity of Tadese. So the final 2km are decisive in the race, when Wanjiru is able to break away and claim the title.

And where is Lel, you might ask? Well, as much as it pains me to predict (he is my favourite runner), his injury proves too incapacitating and he doesn't feature at the cutting edge of the race. If the injury flares up in the first 35km, I predict he drops out for a DNF. If it happens after 35km, he jogs in and finishes 12th some four minutes back.

So there you have it - the result from London 2009. That's a new crystal ball, by the way, I smashed the old one after it let me down horribly in Boston! The only call I made correctly was Ryan Hall for 3rd, everything else couldn't have been more incorrect!

Enjoy London! And don't forget, our usual pacing analysis, with tables, graphs and race breakdown will be up as soon as possible after the race, so check in on Sunday!



Anonymous said...

Well, you were already correct about Martin Lel who won't be starting.