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Friday, September 18, 2009

Showdown in Berlin: Marathon WR to fall?

Gebrselassie vs Kibet, with the marathon world record on the line

Bring on Berlin and the start of the fall marathon season! Here at The Science of Sport, our "flagship" posts are our marathon analyses (that is, they're the most fun to do!), and so we love this part of the year!

Only weeks after bringing down the curtain on one of the greatest IAAF World Championships ever, Berlin is bracing itself for a great race (and time) in its annual marathon.

Mr Berlin, Haile Gebrselassie, has used this event to set a world record two years in a row. Last year, he strode to the world's first sub-2:04 clocking, courtesy a great finishing 10km. The graph below, taken from our analysis of the 2008 race, shows Gebrselassie's 5km splits and it's clear that he got faster and faster from 30km onwards. The dashed red line shows the pace required when he started the race, and it was those last 2 intervals that brought him home in under 2:04. You'll see from the red block that at 30km, he was on course, with a projected time of 2:04:21, followed by a phenomenal split from 35 to 40km, where he averaged 2:53/km.

This year - a race against Kibet

This year should produce a race over and above a fast time. Haile Gebrselassie has been criticized in the past for avoiding races, including a rumor that he has an agreement with the Berlin organizers that gives him a 'veto' right against who else may be signed up to race. Sammy Wanjiru is alleged to have fallen prey to this veto - Berlin's loss was Chicago's gain, since the number 1 marathon RACER will line up in the American city on October 11.

However, Berlin 2009 is not simply a paced time-trial for Gebrselassie. Enter Duncan Kibet, a man who one year ago possessed a PB of 'only' 2:08.33, when he placed second in the Vienna Marathon.

In October 2008, he ran 2:07.53 to win in Milan, and he followed that up with an astonishing race in Rotterdam this year, where he pipped James Kwambai to run the third fastest marathon in history.

His time of 2:04:27 makes him the second fastest man in history, only Gebrselassie has run faster (twice, of course, both in Berlin).

Duncan Kibet - an intriguing character

So the presence of Duncan Kibet in the race makes it intriguing. Kibet is himself an intriguing character. You can read a really great piece on him here, courtesy Pat Butcher. He's a character, much needed in the sport (ala Bolt). He gives great interviews, tells great stories and brings something extra to the procession of super-fast distance runners from Kenya, which really benefits everyone. Speaking of characters, Gebrselassie is the original crowd-favourite, and so Berlin has much more than a fast course and good time going for it.

Kibet has declared himself to be in great shape, and looking for a PB. The great thing, as our friends at LetsRun.com have pointed out, is that when your old PB is 2:04:27, then a new PB brings you into reach of a world record.

Add to this the great course, the great competition, and what has historically been great pacemaking, and reports of ideal weather (at this stage) and the record is certainly on.

Gebrselassie - does he have a 'hat-trick' in him?

As for Geb, does he have a third consecutive world record on the streets of Berlin in him? He has alternated successful attempts with unsuccessful attempts in Dubai. However, Berlin has been his stage for two years and there is every chance he'll have another record in him.

The manner with which he finished last year, as shown in the above graph, suggests he may have a bit more in him. I felt last year that he started a little quickly, lost time in the middle and then sped up at the end. Not that his pacing was poor - it was magnificent, but we are talking 10 second-improvements over 2 hours, and there is certainly reason to suggest that Gebrselassie might have it in him with slightly improved pacing and a good race to push him for 42.2km, rather than the 38km he got last year, courtesy James Kwambai.

A prediction - the crystal ball is out

So here's my first prediction of the 2009 Fall season. This is tongue-in-cheek, a wild shot in the dark, and it's likely to be wrong, but that's never stopped me before!

1. Duncan Kibet 2:03:52
2. Haile Gebrselassie 2:04:24

So I'm picking Kibet to win this race, his younger legs and progressive improvement over the last year the difference on the day. Halfway to be reached in 61:50, slightly faster than last year (62:03), and Gebrselassie and Kibet to race together up to about 40km, when Kibet starts to pull away gradually. Gebrselassie then switches off somewhat, not wanting to push Kibet even faster and help him break the world record (as he did in 1996 in Zurich with Daniel Komen), producing a bigger time gap than would normally have been the case.

Then again, I could be completely wrong, in which case, just swap the names "Gebrselassie" with "Kibet" in the paragraph above, and go for the greatest distance runner ever to claim a third consecutive world record!

Whatever happens, we'll bring you the splits, the projected times, the analysis, during and after the race! So join us on Sunday!



Altus said...

Wonderful discussion!!

Thanks for taking us deeper into the workings of the event. Between you, Arnaud and Caster, people may just start to pay attention to athletics again.

Giovanni Ciriani said...

Rather than shooting one guess, I encourage (or challenge you) to give a confidence interval, i.e. a range and your estimated probability. For example you may say: "his time will be between 2:03:40 and 2:05:00 with a 50% percent confidence". Or you may say: "his time will be between 2:03:00 and 2:06:00 with a 90% percent confidence". We could even have a prediction market in your blog, with people voting different predictions.

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi Giovanni

Problem is, my confidence intervals would be as arbitrary as my actual guesses....

So while I hear you, just bear in mind it's all speculation, just a bit of fun at the end of a week that has seen some pretty serious discussion! How confident am I in my prediction? 50%? 80%? Depends when you ask.

I think it would be fun to have predictions, so go ahead and shoot for them. But don't hold your breath on working out variance and confidence!


Marcos said...

My guess:

WR: 02:03:58

Unbelievables 1/42 sec/km faster than last year.

James Loaring said...

I would be interested in seeing a pacing analysis that takes into account the athlete's 'normalized graded pace' instead of simply comparing mile (or 5k) splits. Normalized Graded Pace (NGP) might better reflect the physiological cost of running, which may be more useful when considering one’s pacing strategy. It would be interesting to see a chart that shows actual mile splits and ‘normalized’ mile splits, for both Geb and Kibet.

Although the Berlin Marathon might not contain the surges of other major marathons (since it is designed to be more of a time trial race), NGP (versus actual pace) would still provide a more accurate measure of one's overall pacing strategy. And although Berlin is fairly flat, the elevation profile still suggests that one mile might be slightly 'harder', or ‘easier’, than another mile.

As an example, when looking at the gps data of a few of my age-group athletes that competed at the Boston Marathon over the past 3 years, I found that comparing NGP/mile provided more value than comparing their mile splits. Of course, the net decline and hills of Boston make this obvious.

In the world of elite marathoning, tactics come into play, and rapid surges in the late stages of the race would make NGP data particularly interesting.

Therefore, my wish is:
It would be wonderful to obtain gps data on Geb and Kibet, and then, after estimating their running FTP, analyze this gps data using software such as Training Peaks WKO+.

Unlike a power meter, NGP analysis can't (at this point in time) reflect footing, or wind--but I still feel it has more merit than simply comparing 5k splits.

PS I just finished reading your book "The Runner's Body" and highly recommend this book to all passionate endurance athletes and coaches.

Vava said...

This is great! I so look forward to this race. Is there anywhere online to watch it? Please help!

Frans Rutten said...

www.universalsports.com will certainly broadcast live from the US. But most likely also stream website www.channelsurfing.com, which relays (most likely) universalsports.

Official website:www.scc-events.com

Gretchen said...

Thanks for the analysis. Exciting stuff!

And Frans, thanks for the tips on where to watch!