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Monday, November 02, 2009

NYC Marathon 2009 race report

A day of upsets!

By now you would have heard the news and probably read much about it---in both races in New York the runners did not play to the script and there were big upsets all around. For some fans change might be hard, but we welcome it as it means there was unpredictable events and it made for exciting viewing in each race!

Lining up it seemed a forgone conclusion that Paula Radcliffe would run most everyone off her heels by halfway and then finish off any hangers on in the last 10 km. On the men's side seasoned vets like Gharib and Cheruiyot were pegged to take the win with Ryan Hall posting another good result after Martin Lel pulled out at the 11th hour. So those were the scripts, as they were, but what we saw was something entirely different.

The women - No one got the memo

It was a "normal" start to the women's race with Paula setting the pace, although it was not particularly fast. The early fireworks were not from hard running but from a fall from Salina Kosgei in the fourth mile. She went down, apparently tripping on her own feet, but the real casualty was Yuri Kano who hit the deck hard. Kosgei fought back and hung on to finish a respectable 5th, while Kano was probably more impressive with her 9th place after what looked like a very hard fall.

For much of the race Paula had a bit of an entourage in Kosgei, Tulu, Ludmila Petrova, and the French woman Christelle Daunay who was fresh of a three-minute PB in the Paris marathon earlier this year. Not surprisingly Kosgei was the first to go, but what was surprising was that Paula Radcliffe was the next. All it took was one surge by the the aging Petrova and Radcliffe was gapped, never to reel in the other three. Daunay was next as Petrova pushed the pace and tried to drop what surely would be a faster finishing Tulu.

Once Radcliffe was gone the writing was on the wall and some predictability returned. It would be Tulu sitting in and waiting for the final stretch before out-kicking Petrova easily and winning by eight seconds in 2:28:52.

The end of an era?

Already the questions are flying about whether or not Radcliffe is now over the hill, in marathon terms that is. It is hard to say based off just this one race, but one has to consider the string of injuries she has faced since 2004 pre-Athens. To be sure, training for and racing marathons places undue amounts of stress on your body, and it is the exception when we see an athlete have real competitive longevity---for example Gebrselassie. Instead the inevitable is that their bodies start to break down in the form of constant injuries that keep them just off their best efforts. They start and they finish, but it looks very much like Paula (and Ramaala) did in New York---they hang with the lead pack, probably cover the early moves, but when things really heat up they are straight out the back, but still finish well in the top ten.

There are reports that she will have another baby next year, and if that is the case it will likely give her sufficient time off from hard racing and training to mend some of the wear and tear. So the jury is still out, but the times of Paula running off the front and obliterating the field might well be past us.

The men - A new cast of US runners

Before his exit in the days before the race, Martin Lel was the hot favorite in the race. We have pegged him as one of the best racers and when healthy he is a lock to win it. In the absence of Lel Boston King Cheriyot was the heir apparent, although he has been plagued with injuries of alte and remained untested, which meant the smart money should maybe have been on Kwambai---don't forget he holds one of the fastest times ever when he and Kibet dueled to a photo-finish Rotterdam earlier this year. So like in the women's race, this was the script, although they also deviated from it wildly!

The early antics were provided by Bouramdane, who attacked and surged numerous times throughout the race. Nothing ever stuck, though, and he was always brought back into the fold. Perhaps it was the relatively slow pace that made him impatient? For the first half they were never below 2:10 pace, which explained the massive group of 18 men that stayed together through halfway.

In New York First Avenue normally signals the start of the fireworks, and for this part they played to script---suddenly the pace went from about 5:00 per mile to 4:42 for mile 17 and 4:39 for mile 18. It was race on as rookie Jackson Kipkoech pushed the pace as the pack of Keflezighi, Cheruiyot, Kipkoech, Gharib, Kwambai, and Bouramdane were all together. Gharib was the first to get popped, although he clawed back to finish third, and by mile 22 it was Meb vs. Cheruiyot.

Summoning strength from his fallen friend Ryan Shay, Meb turned on the jets with just over two miles to go, surging and getting a meaningful gap on the Kenyan. Cheruiyot looked undone at that point and not able to fight back to even with Meb, and so it was that Meb opened up a 41 s margin over those remaining miles, giving him enough of a lead to savour the victory and be the only one in the photo crossing the line in first.

The return of Meb? Or a shot in the dark?

No one would have bet on Meb winning in New York, especially with all the pre-race hype in the USA on the steady and great form Ryan Hall has been showing this year. But by and by Meb was on the road back from a disastrous 2008 in which he failed to finish the US Olympic trials, and let us not forget that he took silver in Athens. Interestingly, NYC was his first marathon win and also his PB, which was way off the course record by the way.

As excited as I was by the racing and also as happy as I am for Meb to win this race, I am not convinced we are going to see him on the podium in the marathon majors next year. The problem is that NYC is unique among the big city marathons---London, Berlin, Chicago, and even Boston are fast courses that tend to be won by the "fastest" runners. By this I mean those with the fastest 10 km times, the fastest 21.1 km times, and the fastest previous marathon times. In other words, the Wanjirus/Tergats/Gebrselassies/Khannouchis of the world. If he stays healthy I fully expect Meb to be with the leaders until 30+ km in any of those races, providing Sammy Wanjiru is not setting a suicidal pace like he did in both London and Chicago this year. But once it heats up he will fade and finish in the top ten somewhere because he does not even have the speed of Ryan Hall in the marathon and shorter distances.

What is special about New York

The funny thing about New York is that the winning time has changed little since 1974 when Norbet Sander (who?) set the then course record of 2:10:09:
It is likely a function of the course---turns and a little less than flat profile with all the bridges, and perhaps partly due to the race's position on the calendar, very late in the season. But it is hard to explain how it is that the world record has fallen substantially over the past 30 years, as has the winning time at all the other city marathons, yet in New York 2:08 seems to be the limit.

Technology does us in

That is our take on the race as I saw it, as unfortunately Ross was not able to access the live feed with any consistency. In addition the race website has an "interesting" choice of splits as they do not capture 5 km splits but mix those with odd strings of mile splits like 14-15 and 19-21. It was hard coming off our very successful reporting of one km splits in Chicago, but even the race coverage did not reliably report mile splits for either race today. So pardon the absence of the normal pacing analysis, but in this case the real story was not how it the race was run but rather that going into the race we all would have selected a certain finishing order, only to be totally wrong on the day!

There is more to say and ask about US distance running, too, as not since 1976 have so many Americans (SIX) finished in the top ten. Is this a resurgence? The fruit of several years of devoted efforts and incentives? A stacked field compared to other races? A lack of Kenyan entrants/finishers (two)?



Joe Garland said...

Excellent (as ever) analysis, esp. comparing NY to the other Marathon Majors.

But note: from 1970-1975, the course was 4+ laps of Central Park. The fastest time on that course was Tom Fleming's 2:19:27 in 1975. Sanders's time was 2:26:30. Bill Rodgers ran 2:10:10 in 1976, the first five-borough year (with Shorter second.

Joe Garland said...

Also note that Pizzolato's first win, in 1984, was an outlier. He stopped numerous times in the final 10K, but no one caught him. I know about that day; I DNFed in scorchingly hot temperatures, easily the worst the five-borough race has had (like Chicago a few years back).

Joe Garland said...

Sorry for forgetting. I think the race uses those late-in-the-race mile splits to deal with potential course-cutters.

cassio598 said...

As Joe said, you really should just look at the times from '76 on because of the change in course. I did that in excel and added a line of best fit, and you can clearly see the times generally getting faster on average. The lower limit may be around 2:08, but the winning times are much more tightly packed around that standard now than they were 20 years ago. I mean, Salazar ran faster in '82 than Meb did yesterday, but 2 years later the winning time was back up over 2:10. It stayed there for 4 years too.

A Deal Or No Deal said...

Six Americans in the top ten is a combination of a couple of things. The elite field had a lot of dropouts (Makau, Kwambai, dos Santos) and only five non-American elite men finished the race. That's not counting Migidio Bourifa of Italy and Jose Telles de Souza from Brazil, who I'd never heard of.

In that situation, you were going to get a bunch of Americans in the top ten anyway. More impressive is two Americans in the top four! There were no dropouts from the second-tier Americans who ran smart races to get spots 7-10, even though Brian Sell faded to 31st in 2:24.

Six runners at 2:13 or better on a course like New York on one day is very impressive.

BridgeportJoe said...

Keep in mind that probably the fastest American marathoner at present (Ritz) didn't run.

Meb aside, I think you're seeing the natural progression of the late 90s/early 00s great crops of high school runners mature and move to the marathon.

In other words, give me a bunch of 18 year-olds running sub-9:00 two miles, and ten years later, I bet you have a good number of them running sub-2:10 (and one or two running 2:06s).

Barrett Brandon said...

I did a training camp this past August at the CNEA in Font Romeu. Paula was there during that time and our groups crossed paths a couple of times at the lake in Les Angles. One day our group did an easy 1:30 run and Paula started right next to us at the same time. We both went opposite ways on the trails and passed each other repeatedly (it is only like a 7k loop). She was flying!! When we finished, she was still going and still hammering....well over 2:00. Very impressive. She still has it, and can still win. She just needs to not get injured (easier said than done!). I honestly thought she would win the Marathon World Champs this year after seeing that workout...

Cheers, and thanks for all the great reads!

Anonymous said...

One other reason for the slow times - there is a fairly strong Northerly wind, and that is in your face for much of the race as the run goes from Staten Island in the South up to the Bronx.
I haven't run this race in previous years so can't comment on previous times, but I did this last NYC Marathon, and the wind was a constant obstacle.