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Friday, October 30, 2009

New York Marathon Preview and predictions

New York, New York: The final swing on the 2009 Marathon calendar

Sunday sees the final marathon of the Fall season in the World Marathon Majors in New York, and it's one of the most exciting fields of the year (only London matches the men's field for competitive depth). So I'm interrupting the series on coaching and science to pull out the crystal ball and look ahead to the race, where a course record, at least on the men's side, seems a real possibility.

New York is arguably the toughest course of the Majors. At least, it's record times suggest this, with a men's record only just inside 2:08. Back in 1989, Juma Ikangaa ran 2:08:01, and that would last for 12 years before Tesfaye Jefar nudged it down to 2:07:43, which stands are the current record.

Given that London, Berlin, Paris, Rotterdam, Amsterdam, Dubai and Chicago all have course records under 2:06, that 2:07:43 stands out. The twisting roads, short hills on bridges and around Central Park make NY a tough race. And a tough race can throw up surprise winners, as it has in the past.

Last year, Marilson Gomes dos Santos managed to claw back "Mr Second place", Abderrahim Goumri, in what was an exciting finish. Goumri looked to have the race won, but dos Santos hung on and then shot past him, eventually winning by a large distance. It was dos Santos' second win, his first came two years earlier, in a race where it seemed the big guns decided to let him go, and couldn't catch up. That was a surprise. 2008 was a surprise (of sorts).

Don't expect another surprise on Sunday
- dos Santos may be suited to NY, perhaps the tough course plays into his strengths, but I have a feeling that a top 5 is the best the defending champion can aim for. The way the marathon has leaped forward this year, I don't see a slow pace with surges, and I'm not sure that dos Santos is one to handle 2:05-intensity (even if the course turns this into a 2:07-pace).

The big 5

So then who to look out for? Well, three Kenyans, one Moroccan, and an American stand out as ones to watch.

The Kenyans are James Kwambai, Robert Cheruiyot and Patrick Makau. Neither Kwambai nor Makau have ever won a marathon. But Kwambai has twice broken 2:06 - once he accompanied Gebrselassie to 35km in Berlin (arguably contributing to a sub 2:04 time), and once he accompanied Duncan Kibet to the finish line in Amsterdam. On that occasion, he ran 2:04:27, the third fastest in history.

The problem for Kwambai, apart from not having winning momentum, is that he has a super fast half marathon very recently - as Lets Run.com have pointed out in their preview, a very fast half weeks before a marathon is often a sign that the athlete was on the edge for too long, and hits the marathon just slightly over-done. Wanjiru, they point out, ran a 61:08 in the same race as Kwambai ran 59:08, about six weeks ago. As you know, Wanjiru went on to run 2:05 in Chicago. So either Kwambai is going to rip New York apart, or he'll struggle after 30km. Not that it's unheard of to run great marathons soon after great half marathons, mind you. Martin Lel has won the Great North Run only a month before winning New York, his time in the GNR always under 60 minutes. So it can be done. But that's Lel, not Kwambai, and the final 5km may tell on Kwambai if he's is over optimal shape.

Robert Cheruiyot is an interesting case - 18 months ago, he was a dominant force in the marathon. He won Boston by attacking at about 21km, and destroyed the whole field. He was a Major series champion, a four-time Boston winner, and without doubt one of the top 2 in the world (Martin Lel was the other). But age, injury and illness seem to have slowed him, and he has struggled. He was a late addition to the field, after the withdrawal of Paul Tergat, at the tenth hour, and the question is whether his form is good enough to compete. I have a feeling he'll struggle, and his time at the top may be at an end. However, he warrants a mention, because as I say, it was only 18 months ago that he was near invincible. It shows how rapidly things can change in marathon running.

Patrick Makau is also an unknown quantity of sorts. His half-marathon credentials are excellent, with a 58:52 performance earlier this year. And he did debut in 2:06:14 earlier this year. That's a frighteningly fast first outing, and even a slight improvement makes him a big threat. I pick him to come second - inexperience will still count against him - remember that Gebrselassie took a few attempts to sort out the marathon race, and so Makau may yet evolve into a great champion, but New York will be a step, not a leap, in that direction

Jaouad Gharib is the man to watch, however. The Olympic Games silver medallist had always been a championship type runner, but earlier this year, he made a step up and in London, mixed it with Wanjiru and Kebede to finish third in a new best time of 2:05:27. That time suggests that Gharib is on the way up, not down, despite his relatively long career (he was world champion back in 2003 and 2005). He followed Beijing up with a great London performance, and he comes into NY as the favourite, in my opinion, now that Martin Lel has withdrawn. The one problem for Gharib, in my opinion, is whether he is assertive enough to make the running. In Beijing and London, he tracked moves until he couldn't, but ended up outlasting everyone but Wanjiru (and Kebede). Will he be assertive enough to throw it down in the Park? Time will tell...

Finally, we have Ryan Hall, the great American hope. Hall has been training well in Mammoth Lakes, I believe - I was at a symposium in Colorado Springs recently where his coach Terrence Mahon was a speaker, and it was revealed that Hall was regularly completing 18 mile training runs at about 5:00/mile pace at 7,500 feet (2,300m). That puts his NY preparation ahead of what he was doing for Boston earlier this year, so his condition is apparently good (as far as training reports can be relied upon, of course). He has some good half marathons in him, and is full of confidence, according to a RW interview with him recently.

So can Hall do it? The simple answer is yes, of course, because he's up at the level required of a champion marathon runner with a 2:06:17, which is the 4th best in the field. In New York, the difference between a 2:05 PB and a 2:06 PB is not as large is it is in say, London or Berlin, and Hall knows and enjoys the Central Park section of the race. But, as Letsrun have pointed out, his best is only 25th in history, such is the explosion in sub-2:06 times recently, but Hall is certainly a contender. Third in Boston earlier this year, behind an incredible run by Deriba Merga, suggest that Hall will at least be involved until the final few kilometers. So he can win, but I suspect it may be just too challenging in those final kilometers, and he'll finish third again.

So what does the podium look like, to sum up?

1. Jaouad Gharib - 2:07:22. Yes, the course record will fall, because 2009 has thrown marathon running into the new era, and NY will be pulled along with it. Expect a first half of around 1:03:10, with surges causing a slight slowing in the last half. Hendrik Ramaala of South Africa will feature in the early surges after halfway, but after 32km, he'll drop steadily off the pace.

2. Patrick Makau - he'll be with Gharib until the 40km, and will then slip back, finishing around 20 seconds down.

3. Ryan Hall - expect Hall to make the move that splits the race, at around 32km. A large group will be whittled down to four or five, and Hall will last enough to claim third, in a strong run, just outside 2:08.

Women's race: Paula all the way

The women's race is much easier to call. A spate of withdrawals has weakened the field considerably, and only Selinah Kosgei, this year's Boston champion, stands as a reasonable threat to the dominant runner over the last decade.

Paula Radcliffe's races are also pretty easy to anticipate - she runs hard, setting a tempo that is simply too quick to hold onto, and the field is cut one-by-one, until she's either all alone (as is normally the case), or one or two hang one, as was the case in a memorable race against Gete Wami back in 2007, where she won her second title.

This year should follow the former pattern, with Radcliffe pulling away to win relatively comfortably. The next question is whether she can get the course record, the 2:22:31 of Margaret Okayo. Radcliffe is a three-time winner in NY, with a best time of 2:23:09, back in 2007 during the Wami race. She's just recovered from a bout of tonsillitis, and with Radcliffe, you never know what injury hassles may have affected her training. She's been close to marathon shape for a long time, almost running the World Championships marathon in August, but deciding to withdraw late on because her form wasn't quite where she wanted it.

Then she withdrew from her home World Half-Marathon championships thanks to tonsillitis, so she's clearly been hovering on the brink of racing shape, but for a few problems. They won't affect her victory, but they might just prevent the record.

So I'll predict Paula to win, but just outside the record - 2:22:49.

Selinah Kosgei in second, somewhere in the mid 2:24 range.

Coverage of the race

And that, as always, was my crystal ball prediction! Tongue-in-cheek, of course!

For race coverage, as has been the case for the Majors, join us on Sunday, for live splits - not the 1km splits like for Chicago, unfortunately, but five kilometer times, if possible!



N.N said...

brr , this shows how hard marathon prediction just is ! I tuned in late on the race and I just could not believe my eyes : Paula struggling against Petrova & Tulu, and Meb surging for the win !