Welcome to the Science of Sport, where we bring you the second, third, and fourth level of analysis you will not find anywhere else.

Be it doping in sport, hot topics like Caster Semenya or Oscar Pistorius, or the dehydration myth, we try to translate the science behind sports and sports performance.

Consider a donation if you like what you see here!

Did you know?
We published The Runner's Body in May 2009. With an average 4.4/5 stars on Amazon.com, it has been receiving positive reviews from runners and non-runners alike.

Available for the Kindle and also in the traditional paper back. It will make a great gift for the runners you know, and helps support our work here on The Science of Sport.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Limits to human performance: Lessons from men and women

World Record limits?  What the men's and women's records tell us

Yesterday, I did a post discussing some of the physiology of performance limits, looking at whether we are close to reaching a ceiling of human performance?  As mentioned, it has been a recurring theme since we began this site.

For today though, an interesting approach to the issue dawned on me.  The main argument in yesterday's post was that human performance is limited by maximal capacities in one or more physiological systems.  Perhaps the maximal capacity to use oxygen.  Perhaps the maximal capacity to lose heat, or to store energy, to supply ATP, and so forth.  The physiology thus sets the ceiling, and really, the question everyone is asking when they about performance limits boils down to how close you believe we are to the PHYSIOLOGICAL limits set by these various system's capacities.

Statistical methods reveal some interesting possibilities, and certainly add value.  For one such analysis, check out this post, which concludes that the marathon "limit" exists at 2:01:48.  Given my arguments yesterday, over what is required for a runner to break 2 hours, this doesn't seem too far off the mark, but then what's 1 minute in 120?

However, I'm more interested in whether it's possible to predict a physiological limit based on the physiological capacities, like we did for the Tour de France climbing power output earlier this year.

Comparison of men and women, and what it reveals

It occurred to me that an interesting way of looking at this might be to compare the men's and women's world records, for a simple reason - many of the women's records are "unphysiological".  I'll elaborate more below, but many of the current world records for women date back to an era when doping was the norm, and most have not been challenged in well over 20 years!

Take a look at the table below, which illustrates this for 14 selected athletics events (I chose the events partly randomly, but also to exclude new events like women's steeplechase and pole-vault, and events where specifications have cleared the record books, like javelin).

What you are looking at are the women's world records on the left, men's on the right.  For each, the darker shaded column is the percentage difference between the World Record and the Best Performance in the last 3 years, just to illustrate whether the current group are getting close to breaking that record (you may have to click on the table to enlarge, apologies)

Now, what does this tell us?  A few things:

Women's records - out of sight.  Hard luck for women athletes

First, considering that there are performance bonuses for breaking world records, it's not great to be a woman in athletics.  The average age of the 14 women's records I've looked at is 19 years, 5 months, compared to 10 years, 10 months for men's records (which is skewed a little by the field events). 

Of the 14 women's records, only 3 are "younger" than 10 years, and 9 are older than 20 years!  That is, more than half the women's world records have stood for as long as the athletes now trying to break them have lived!

On the men's side, it's a lot more "fluid" - five of the records were set in the last 3 years (indicated by a difference of 0% in the shaded column), and only the field event records are older than 20 years.  If you rely on prize-money and record bonuses to make a living, being a woman athlete will cost you - you have no chance!  (In fact, the IAAF should scrap the women's performances and turn the record books back to zero, but that's another debate...)

In terms of how close the athletes are getting to the records, the pattern is much the same.  In the last 3 years, women have come within 1% of the world record in only 4 events, and this includes the 5,000m, which was set in 2008.  It also includes the women's 800m event, which, as we've seen in the last 12 months, is shrouded in controversy, first with Jelimo and then Semenya.

On the men's side, it's far more "competitive".  As mentioned, five of the records were set since 2008, and with the exception of the field events, all the events have seen performances come within 2% of the world record.  I do realize that the current crop of women marathon runners, for example, is pretty weak, whereas we're in a golden era of sprinting on the men's side, so this "snapshot" is incomplete, but it makes the point.

And that point is that men are much, much closer to their world records than women are.

The doping effect - shifting the "physiological capacity"

Now, the reason for this is obvious to anyone who follows athletics.  The women's records all date back to the 1980s, and if you go down the list, you will see only tainted performances from a tainted era.

Take the 800m event for women, for example.  If you look at the top 20 performances of All-time in this event, you'll see that:
  • 13 of them come from the 1980s
  • 2 were set by women who have since been suspended for doping
  • 3 come from the early 1990s, which is when EPO made its big impact on sport (as seen by the Tour de France)
So that leaves only two performances not tainted by (or suspected of) doping of some kind - Pamela Jelimo and Caster Semenya.  And a lot has been said about those...

A bar set by physiology plus drugs, and a natural performance limit that can't reach it

The point here is that women have not improved in 20 plus years, and the reason is because the bar has been set by a generation of women who had an unfair advantage as a result of doping.

So what does this have to do with the limits to performance?  Well, if the only thing driving constant improvements in times was the "carrot" of a target, then the women of 2010 would be much closer to those of 1980.  Much like Roger Bannister broke the 4-minute barrier and supposedly showed others that the "impossible" was achievable, the theory has been put forward that the "limit" to performance is psychological.

I'm not belittling the role of psychology and belief, I'm sure it's a significant part of it.  But what women's records show us is that if the physiology can be enhanced, through doping in this case, then it sets the bar at a level that is now seemingly unmatchable, despite better training methods, better equipment, better diet, more advanced performance analysis and the passage of 20 years!  Unless you believe that the woman of 2010 is simply an inferior athlete (in most events, not just one), you should recognize that the performance limit of a non-drug using athlete lies BELOW that of the current records.

My conclusion then, is that women's world records will not improve, because the physiological capacity of the undoped female lies BELOW that of the doped athlete.  And therefore, women are very close to their physiological limit!

By the same token, men must also be close to their physiological limit, because there is nothing to suggest that women will have approached it sooner than the men.  The only way the records will "leap" forward now is if a population of new individuals, whose physiology breaks the "capacity barrier" emerges, like the Africans might have done in the 1980s.

Failing this, I do suspect we are getting ever closer, and in case of women's athletics, the performance limit lies somewhere between what is currently produced, and the records set by doped women in the 1980s.


P.S.  I realise that in the last 3 years, a number of those performances I've used in the table could well be drug-assisted as well.  This makes the argument stronger, because if the current generation are doping, and still falling 2% or more short, then that "limit" is well and truly out of reach.  Hence, the natural physiological limit is very close indeed.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

The limit of human performance: How much faster?

Swifter, higher, stronger...up to a point?  Or beyond?  The limit of human performance

Today we revisit a topic that seems to run like carousel, popping up once every few months on the site - how much faster can human beings run?  How close to a "ceiling" in performance are we?

The latest discussion is inspired by a few articles, and a recent round-table discussion between some of the all-time greats of 800m running, and the new world record holder, David Rudisha.  For those who haven't heard, Rudisha was appropriately named the IAAF Male Athlete of the Year for his two world records in 2010.

But preceding that announcement was a panel discussion between Alberto Juantorena, Sebastian Coe, Wilson Kipketer And Rudisha in Monaco.  To watch the discussion and read some commentary on it, check out Letsrun.com here.

One of the topics that came up was how much faster the record would still go.  Rudisha came agonizingly close (1/100th of a second) to dipping under 1:41.00, so it's safe to assume that barrier is in reach.  But how much lower?  Here are three quotes attributed to those legends:

"This record belongs to the future - 1:41.01." and "You never know the limit of a human being." - Alberto Juantorena

"I don't think we're anywhere near them (the limits of the event) ..."Seb Coe

"In 800 it is possible to run under 1:40. It is still coming." - Wilson Kipketer

Then, an interesting piece by the Guardian discussed the same issues around whether we are near the limits, with the conclusion that it will take many years before we know the answer to this question.  I will point out that saying this is not quite the same thing as saying that we are not near the limit, but rather that we just do not know where it is.  There is a ceiling somewhere above us, but we don't know when we will hit our head!  You can read that piece here.

The physiological basis for "limits"

In trying to evaluate these arguments, I think it's important to understand a little bit about the physiological basis for why there may be a limit to performance.  And here, the most important thing to recognize is that we don't fully know what that basis might be.  It certainly varies by event, and is more complex than I want to go into now, but those keen for more might consider reading our series on Fatigue and Performance

For example, in 100m sprinting, some limits are the metabolic changes in the muscle, which affect its force-producing capacity, combined with mechanical factors such as muscle-tendon elasticity, ability to apply force to the ground, the force and torque on joints, and limits to how quickly neural signals can reach the muscle from the brain.

Some really interesting work by a colleague at my university has confirmed that the rate of force production and muscle relaxation drops over time during maximal exercise, even when the electrical signal to activate the muscle doesn't change.  In other words, there is a drop in the force that the muscle can produce, and that's why even events as short as 10 seconds show signs of pacing - if you go too hard early, you fall away at the end.  But, the peripheral factors, like acidosis in the muscle, depletion of ATP, accumulation of calcium and phosphate are only part of the problem, and the Guardian article talks more of the mechanics of sprinting, which affect the force production on the ground.

As you move up in distance, other factors play more of a role.  The rate of energy supply becomes a factor in middle-distance events, oxygen availability is a potential limiter (though whether it is to skeletel muscle or to the brain (more likely) is a debate).  So too, chemical changes such as a drop in pH may be regulated or responsible for a decline in performance.  Then, as you reach marathon distances, fuel availability becomes important (hitting the wall being the obvious sign of not getting this right), and the ability to burn fat to preserve glycogen is part of the elite athlete make-up.  Heat storage is another limiting factor, because fatigue occurs when the body temperature reaches what has been called a critical level of hyperthermia.

The point is that performances are not limited by one thing only, but rather a complex interaction between all the physiological systems, whose weighting depends on the type of event, and the external conditions for the event on the day.

Those interested in a more academic discussion of the topic might consider the following review articles:

Applying this to performance limits

In any event, you may be wondering what this has to with a debate over whether an athlete can run under 1:40 for 800m, sub 9.40s for 100m, or break the 2-hour barrier in the marathon?

Well, in my view, knowing that performance is limited by physiological changes in the muscle, lungs, heart, brain, body temperature, there is an obvious "barrier" that cannot be broken without causing harm to the athlete.  We cannot simply head out and run or cycle ourselves to the limit - our brain controls the degree of muscle activation so that we are protected against, quite literally, exercising ourselves to death.  So the brain will, for example, detect the rate of heat storage early on and then reduce the exercise workrate through adjustments in muscle activation, the result of which is a slowing in pace, but also a drop in heat storage and avoidance of that limiting body temperature.  The same presumably happens with oxygen availability, glucose supply (probably both to the brain), blood flow, cardiac output, osmolality - any number of "homeostats" that have to be defended in order for us to survive

This is the reason, incidentally, that it is possible to predict the maximal sustainable power output by a cyclist during a mountain climb in the Tour de France.  We did this in July during the Tour, to some criticism, but I'm confident in saying that the physiological basis is sound, and so too is the prediction that power outputs of 6.1 W/kg to 6.3 W/kg represent a maximal power output that is possible given human physiology.

In other words, exercise performance is limited by a capacity in oxygen delivery, a capacity in heat storage and body temperature, a capacity in the rate of ATP supply, a capacity in the total energy availability.  Short of finding a human being who exceeds everything we know of physiology, or finding that individual who possesses the maximal combination of every single physiological attribute (this individual doesn't exist except in theory), the records will not "leap" forward, they will inch forward incrementally, and I do believe that we are quite close to the limit, when world records will become more and more infrequent, and eventually no longer be broken, unless we start measuring down to the nearest thousandth of a second.

The sub-2 hour marathon as an example

Let's look at the sub-2 hour marathon as an example.  This came up last week again, when Ed Coyle suggested that he was "confident" it could happen and predicted a 1:58 as the limit.  It won't be in my lifetime, that's for sure, but I'll get onto that shortly.

The 1:58 prediction, incidentally, is based around this paper, which applied much the same process as we did to cycling in the Tour to suggest the 6.2W/kg limit.  It works on the premise that performance in the marathon is limited (I would rather say regulated, but that's debated in our fatigue series) by oxygen delivery, lactate threshold and running economy.  It concludes that 1:57:58 is possible for "a hypothetical subject with a VO2max of 84 ml/kg/min, a lactate threshold of 85% of VO2max, and exceptional running economy".

The word "hypothetical" is important, because performance is not hypothetical.  That study was done in 1991, and knowledge of the limiting factors has evolved a little.  The role of the brain has become recognized, as have the mechanical factors such as energy storage and return in the tendons.  The key for me is that the athlete with a VO2max that high never has an exceptional running economy, so it is much like trying to find a motor vehicle with a 6 liter engine that also gets you 80 miles to the gallon (and those are the kind of unrealistic figures we're talking in combination) 

Another key point is that performance is determined by more than just the VO2 max and lactate threshold.  Athletes regularly "under-perform" given their physiological stats - perhaps it is because they lack racing nous or desire, they don't have the discipline to train, they are too big and thus heat storage becomes a factor for them.  Perhaps they are injury prone and so despite having the highest VO2max and economy in the history of sports science, they can't run 40km a week before breaking down.  The point is that for this "hypothetical athlete" to have a shot at a sub-2 hour marathon, there have to be hundreds of them, because the set of characteristics needed is not limited to three, and is extremely rare.

However, I would be surprised if there was even one such athlete,  let alone hundreds, because he would have been found by now.  An arguable point, certainly, but I believe that kind of physiology to be so rare that this person would stand out instantly and therefore, given the "free-market" that is sport, they would have been seen already. 

The performance spectrum - why one performance doesn't exist in isolation

The other reason the sub-2 hour marathon is, in my opinion, unlikely, is because it has implications for what happens at shorter distances.  I've described this before and would encourage you to read this post if you're interested, but the summary of it is that in order for a marathon to be run in under 2 hours, that athlete must possess a half marathon that lies closer to 57 minutes, and more tellingly, a 10,000m in closer to 25 minutes.  This once again comes back to the issue that all performances in these complementary events are limited by similar physiological "regulators", so that the physiology of a great 10,000m runners is often easily transferred up to the marathon (Haile Gebrselassie, Paul Tergat and Sammy Wanjiru are exhibits A, B and C).

So don't ask whether a sub 2 hour marathon is possible, rather ask whether a 25-xx minute 10km is possible.  Improvements in the 10,000m world record have declined in recent years, to the point that even a sub-26 minute time seems unlikely for a long, long time.  Therefore, even though mathematical predictions for the marathon have suggested that if performance continues to improve at the same rate, we'll see the 2 hour marathon in 2021, it seems unlikely given how improvements in the 10,000m event have dropped off recently.

Also, there are less "scientific" reasons why it will take much longer than predicted, and one is the lack of courses where a 2:03 time is possible, combined with commercial interests.  Right now, only Dubai, Berlin and possibly Chicago have the kind of course and money to drive a world record attempt.  Then it requires perfect conditions - 1 or 2 degrees too hot, a slight headwind, too cold, wet, and the record possibility disappears.  So unlike Ed Coyle, I'm not at all "confident" we'll see a sub-2 hour marathon.  Certainly not in our life-times, if at all.

The sub-4 minute mile response

So the question that comes up many times in response to this kind of opinion is that back in 1953, people suggested that the mile world record was at its limit and that the 4-minute mile would not be broken.  History clearly proves that to have been foolish, as the record is now 17 seconds faster, and many high-school athletes are breaking the barrier.  So therefore, is there not a chance that the same applies to the 2-hour marathon?

Of course there is.  But, there are some fundamental differences between that situation and the current one.  What we know of physiology now says that the 4- minute mile was always going to happen.  So if in 50 years, athletes are running under 2-hours in the marathon, then it will be because we have missed something in our understanding of the physiology today.  What are the chance of that?  Pretty high, of course, it would be arrogant to say that we know everything, we simply cannot.

However, I don't believe there are fundamental physiological principles that have not yet been discovered.  Performance is limited by the physiological regulators, and things like VO2max, running economy, threshhold running pace and thermoregulation are known to be regulators.  So we're either wrong, or we're still waiting for that one-of-a-kind human being who possesses physiological stats never seen before.  That wasn't the case in the 1950s - they were good athletes with exceptional but expected physiology, and it was lack of professionalism and training/diet, along with "vision" of what might be possible that limited them

Today, with money to be made, advancements in training, globalization of the sport (back then, Kenyans may have been running 3:50 for the mile, who knows?  They weren't competing enough), and a shifting of the horizon in terms of limits, we know much more what is possible.  We know what kind of physiological specimens exist, and I believe, we know what doesn't exist.  Genetic engineering may change that, but I really do believe we're approaching those limits.

In the 100m, Bolt came along and blew away the record books, but he hasn't done anything that mathematical models suggested would be impossible - they have the record limit at 9.48s, based on hundreds of years of data.  He just took us closer to it long before anyone thought it might happen.

Similarly, in the 800m, Rudisha has edged us towards 1:40 (only by 1/10th of a second, compared to Kipketer), and it does seem possible that this record will be improved again.  In the marathon, we have to find four minutes, from the same populations we're working with now, with limited opportunities for the record to be broken.  Physiologically, hypothetically, 1:58 is possible, but I don't share the confidence, and I don't believe that the hypothetical athlete exists, and I'd be very surprised if the record dips below 2:03 in the next fifteen years, and perhaps then we'll have a better idea of where the ceiling is, if we haven't hit our heads against it by then!


Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Gebrselassie's retirement: Looking back and forward

Gebrselassie's retirement: Looking back and forward

A full month has passed since my last post – my sincere apologies for the silence.  Given the posting “funk”, it was always going to take a big news story to re-ignite my writing, and that story was provided in New York on Sunday.  Not by the victories of Kiplagat and Gebremariam, but rather by the post-race retirement of perhaps the greatest distance runner we’ve ever seen, Haile Gebrselassie.

Evidence of how significant that announcement was comes from the Times newspaper in the UK, where I’ve been for the last two weeks.  The Times is a top newspaper and comprehensively covers pretty much all the world’s sport.  But on Monday, the actual New York result was reduced to a single paragraph in a piece about Gebrselassie’s retirement, and that was only to mention how his last words before stepping off the course were to encourage his countryman Gebremariam to “catch up with the others”.

A stellar career

Gebrselassie was the sport’s brightest light for close to 20 years.  Usain Bolt is now the name that everyone recognizes, inside and outside the sport, and Gebrselassie probably didn’t achieve such wide appeal (such is the nature of 100m running compared to distance running).  However, within athletics, he was transcendent.

His star first shone in 1991, when he won the 5000m-10000m double at the World Junior championships.  This was followed up by 10,000m gold in Stuttgart, the first of four such titles.  And then in 1994, the world record feast began.  When Gebrselassie “arrived” to the scene, the 5000m world record stood at 12:58.39 (Said Aouita) and the 10,000m record was 26:52.23 (William Sigei).  Systematically (and aided by a few others – Paul Tergat, Salah Hissou, Moses Kiptanui and Daniel Komen), the record books were rewritten in a series of extra-ordinary performances, which left commentators incredulous at the margin by which he improved the marks (11 seconds over 5,000 in Zurich being the most memorable), and athletics followers inspired by the manner in which he did it. 

By the time Gebrselassie’s attention switched to the roads, and he had broken his last world record on the track, the records stood at 12:39.36 and 26:22.75 – improvements of 19 and 30 seconds respectively.  Two Olympic 10,000m titles, plus world records indoors over 3,000 and two miles, world titles at distances ranging from 1,500m (indoors) to 10,000m meant his career was already up with the greats of distance running.

He was no less successful on the roads.  World records at the half marathon suggested the transition could be successful, and it was.  His first attempt at the marathon ended in a record debut, but a somewhat disappointing third place in London in 2002 (disappointing because with that pedigree, much was expected).  It took him some time to figure out the marathon, but once he found the formula, he stuck with it (and faced criticism as a result of selecting paced “time-trials” and staying away from the likes of London and New York), but it saw him produce five of the current ten best times in history.   

The limit for human performance? Gebrselassie has invited the discussion

The peak was his 2:03.59 in Berlin in 2008, the current world record and the catalyst for much debate about the limit for human performance.  His presence in the sport has been followed by such talk, such is his stature and achievement – as our friend David Epstein has written for Sports Illustrated, Gebrselassie “invented the modern distance world record”.  He has also been the catalyst for a generation of new superstars  – Kenenisa Bekele inherited the mantle of track world record holder, Sammy Wanjiru, Tsegay Kebede and a host of other marathon stars (younger than ever) have seen what is possible and are threatening 2:04 in almost every race. 

Gebrselassie is the giant on whose shoulders many have stood, and are standing, and that impact on the sport can never be understated – just as Geb himself was inspired to run by listening to radio coverage of Miruts Yifter’s success in the 1980 Olympic Games, so to his achievements have inspired many, from his successors on the track and road, to the weekend warrior who improves his 10km PB to 49:49 thanks to the inspiration provided by Gebrselassie running through the Brandenburg Gates on route to a 2:03:59.

Gebrselassie the racer – criticism for avoiding marathon competition

Many (ourselves included) have pointed to one disappointment in Gebrselassie’s career – his reluctance to race over the marathon distance in the last five years.  His choice to race in paced record attempts in Dubai and Berlin between 2008 and 2009 produced big pay-days, very fast times and memorable performances, and that is as much a “business” decision as anything else, and Gebrselassie had earned that right through his career.  But of course, this happened in parallel with the emergence of a new breed of marathon runner, including Kebede, Wanjiru and Martin Lel on the streets of London, Chicago and New York. Gebrselassie opted out of the Beijing Olympics, citing pollution, and fans were understandably disappointed at not seeing the showdown between him and Wanjiru.

This is borne purely out of a desire to see the greatest ever taking on challengers on the roads as he did on the track.  Make no mistake, Gebrselassie was an outstanding “racer”, and provided some of the sport’s greatest moments with his pure racing ability.  Most will immediately recall the Sydney Olympic 10,000m gold he won in an epic final straight sprint with Paul Tergat.  But it was four years earlier, in Atlanta, that the biggest race between the two took place – by Sydney, both were struggling with injuries and just slightly below their best.  Not so in 1996.  Tergat had just claimed his fourth World Cross Country title, in South Africa, by producing a 2:31 kilometer at 10km to drop everyone, including Gebrselassie, who had tripped over a log immediately prior to that surge.

By the Olympic Games, Tergat was at the height of his powers, as was Salah Hissou, and Gebrselassie faced them down, responded to a 2:30 kilometer by Tergat at 8km, and claimed his first Olympic Gold.  Gebrselassie’s feet were hurt by that race, and it was, as I recall, the origin of his Achilles tendon problems.  I believe that was his toughest race ever, though for sheer excitement, the defence of his Olympic gold in Sydney eclipsed it. 

The marathon is of course a different animal altogether – the recent Chicago Marathon duel between Kebede and Wanjiru was as close as I can recall seeing a marathon get to track racing strategy.  So understandably, Gebrselassie’s marathon career did not feature those head-to-head duels.  However, it also didn’t feature a win over a top-ranked opponent in a competitive race, and if Geb is really retired, his career will have ended without a win in a major marathon other than Berlin (and those were arguably set up as record attempts, though of course James Kwambai provided surprise company for the world record).  Does this matter?  Probably not, and history won’t recall what Gebrselassie didn’t achieve, especially compared to all that he DID do.  However, for those following the sport over the last five years, there’ll always be that unanswered curiosity at having never seen their great go head to head with the likes of Wanjiru and Kebede.

Is he really done?  Or will he return?

So the question on everyone’s mind is this:  Is he really done?  Will his retirement announcement stick, or were those just the words of a disappointed athlete, speaking from emotion rather than rational thought.

In the build-up to New York, there was nothing to suggest retirement. Over at LetsRun.com, the quote of the day from one of his press conferences was “Why should I say I will retire in three or four years? You retire the very moment you utter those words".  That is not the talk of someone contemplating hanging up the shoes.  Numerous times at the big pre-race press conference, Gebrselassie jokes about being young.  He has spoken for years of his desire to race the marathon at the London Olympic Games in 2012.  And he recently committed to running the Tokyo Marathon in 2011.  The point is that everything leading up to the New York race suggested a plan to race for at least two more years.  Then suddenly, at 16 miles, knee pain during the race, a DNF, and he retires?

Gebrselassie is, as pointed out in this “insider’s piece”, an emotional character, prone to making some sweeping statements.  For example, he has been quick to speculate on whether or not he will break 2 hours for the marathon, only to “moderate” his comments in subsequent statements.  He once withdrew from the 1997 World Championships 10,000m race, saying that the track was too hard (he even requested that they water the track during the race), but was “persuaded” to run by the federation.

He seems to often express his thoughts without “filtering” them, and holding a press conference so soon after such a disappointing result was bound to produce some kind of “over-statement”.  Retirement was extreme, nobody saw that coming, but that makes me believe even more that Gebrselassie may turn around that decision.  Of course, you don’t “moderate” retirement – you’re either racing or you’re retired, but I have a feeling Gebrselassie will race again.  New York is just one disappointment, a relatively isolated “failure” in the larger scheme of the last four years.  Gebrselassie had won his last five marathons since 2008, in incredibly fast times.  Only 2 months ago, he produced his fastest half-marathon time since 2008 when winning the Great North Run.

Then again, Gebrselassie has always lived outside the sport, and his array of businesses in Ethiopia, coupled with his desire to move into politics, may be the pull that is needed to remove him from the sport.  He himself has said that his proudest day is the day he pays his 500 employees in various businesses in Ethiopia.  His legacy is far greater than a collection of medals and records.  Boxers are famous for pushing on for one fight too many, one comeback too many, and it’s always a sad end to a career to see a desperate old man taking a beating.  Gebrselassie is not that person yet, but perhaps he recognizes that an isolated failure at New York is not the worst time to go out, and he’ll be one of the few who retires near the top.

Only time will tell, but if I had to guess right now, I expect we haven’t seen the last of the “Emperor”.  But I also have a feeling we have seen the best of him.  And we should count ourselves as fortunate, because again, whether you’re a 49:59 10km runner, a sub-4 minute miler, or an aspirant 2:03 marathon runner, Haile Gebrselassie has played no small part in your belief and achievement.

And hopefully it won’t be another month before a follow-up post (apologies once again!)


Monday, November 08, 2010

2010 ING New York City Marathon - Results

Two new winners in 2010 edition of NYC marathon

It was another great day of racing in a big city marathon as two "novice" winners were crowned today.  Gebre Gebrmariam (ETH) and Edna Kiplagat (KEN), stormed to victory today.  The conditions were nice, but New York never produces fast times, and true to form Gebrmariam won in 2:08:14 while Kiplagat ran a 2:28:40---the third slowest women's time since 1990.  This is a function of the race course, which rules out the pure speedsters and turns the race into a chess match in sneakers.  This is great because it increases the chance that we see a true race, especially when both the men's and women's fields this year showed depth, on paper at least.

Out with the faves
It was the legend himself, Gebrselassie who was favoured to win today.  And why not?  Even though he has never performed that well in tactical marathons, there was no real reason to think he did not have the speed to ensure a victory.  However as we all know by now, he pulled up short at 29 km with a knee injury and subsequently announced his retirement.  A few others easily could have taken the win today, including Goumri, Kwambai, Gomes dos Santos, Kirui, and Mutai.

The very slow early pace ensured a large group for most of the way, but eventually, through various moves, it was a three-man competition between Kwambai, Mutai, and eventual champ Gebrmariam.  Kwambai stayed strong until before 35 km, at which point he was gapped to Mutai and Gebrmariam.  He then fought hard to try to regain contact, but it was just not enough, and he faded to 5th on the day.  At around 40 km, Gebrmariam was able to break Mutai, and the gap only grew as it went from 8 s at 25 miles, to 50 s at 26 miles, and finally 64 s by the time Mutai crossed the line in second.

Hindsight is always 20/20, and in many ways looking back it is no surprise that Gebrmariam won today.  In 2009 he won the World Cross Country champs, out-sprinting Tadesse, and he spent this year racking up a slew of victories on the road.  As is the case in the marathon, though, it most often comes down to who suffers from fewer mitigating factors on the day, and therefore who simply feels that much better than the others in the bunch.  It is what happened to Meb last year, and as I mentioned up above on paper several men were capable of winning today---it just so happens that Gebrmariam was able to put it all together and execute better than the test.

Flanagan 2nd in impressive debut

On the women's side it was also a very pedestrian start to the race, which did pick up and split as surges were thrown in and the wannabe's were left behind.  After all the sorting out, it was Kiplagat, Flanagan, and Keitany running even with each other.  Flanagan was actually gapped around 24 miles, and it looked like she would finish third as the two Kenyans battled for the win.  But she showed toughness in battling back and overtaking Keitany, although perhaps it was Keitany who did the "work" there by slowing down.  Indeed, Keitany really took her foot off the gas as soon as she was passed by Flanagan, and jogged it in for third place.

Nevertheless, it was an impressive run for the 10000 m bronze medalist in Beijing.  She will not have the pure speed to contend with the Africans on the flatter courses, but in races like NYC and Boston, where slower halfway splits and even slower opening 5 km times prolong the point at which the pack breaks up, runners like Kara Goucher in Boston and now Flanagan in NYC have shown they can be present and accounted for in the last 1-2 miles of these races.

Full analysis
It will be tough to crunch the numbers as both of us are pretty tied up at the moment, but given that the race had timing mats every mile from halfway, it would be fun to see how and when the different runners changed their speeds and dropped off the pace.  And in fact, it is a good opportunity to take advantage of the data hounds among our readers, and collaborate via a spreadsheet "wiki" in which readers can log on and enter the data from the different runners using the race's athlete tracker function to retrieve the raw data.

The spreadsheet can be found here, and we welcome readers go to the sheet and enter data from the men's race accordingly.  We can then transform those times into running speeds and analyze the changes over the latter part of the course when the pack began to splinter.  And of course the data will be available publicly for anyone else who wants to analyze it as they see fit, so this should be a fun exercise in data analysis!

Slow period, plenty to write about

In the interim since the Chicago Marathon there has been much we have missed, including but not limited to Ryan Hall's leaving his coach, Eddy Hellebuyck's admission to using EPO and allegations of rife doping among top runners, developments in the Contador case, and Wilson Kipsang's 2:04:57 in the Frankfurt marathon, just to name a few.  So The Sports Scientists have a bit of a backlog, but work, family, and personal commitments rule the day at the moment and make it hard to spend the time we would like on these topics.  Rest assured that we will cover them in due course!


Sunday, November 07, 2010

2010 ING New York City Marathon - Live Coverage

Live updates as we follow the race

It has been a slow month on the site since Chicago, but the 2010 NYC marathon is starting momentarily.  As usual we will follow the race with some live blogging, and publish our post-race analysis.

Conditions at the start are very cool---about 4 C with around 10 km/h of wind, so probably a bit too cool for optimal running.  However it is sunny and will warm up, so it will be a great day for a run nevertheless.

This year the race is using "wave" starts to alleviate the start and finishing traffic.  The pro women are set to go off a 0910 Eastern Time, with them 30 min later at 0940.

We have been using the marathon site's athlete tracker, which has become a standard feature on most of the big city race sites.  The funny thing about the NYC one, however, is that it let's you track only five athletes at a time, whereas Chicago I could enter as many as I wanted.

Both races are progressing, but the NYC website's athlete tracker seems to be having problems, and I a not able to track the splits.

Women's race

5 km  18:40
10 km  36:01
15 km  53:54
20 km  1:11:53
21.1 km  1:15:48
25 km  1:29:55
30 km  1:47:13
35 km  2:04:39
40 km (25 mi)  2:27:07
42.2 km  2:28:20 (Flanagan 2nd at 2:28:40)

And the women are now off!  On paper several women should be in contention, while several more are debuting today:  Ana Dulce Felix (POR), Shalane Flanagan (USA), Mary Keitany (KEN), and Werknesh Kidane (ETH).

The women have now gone thru 5 km in 18:40.  That is a rather pedestrian 2:37 marathon pace, so expect that to change in time.

10 km has been covered in the women's race, and the pace has not changed much.  The split was 36:01, which is a bit faster for that 5 km interval compared to the first.  They are now on 2:32 marathon pace.

Men's race

Scheduled to start at 0940

5 km  16:26
10 km  32:00
15 km  46:52
20 km  1:02:07
21.1 km  1:05:19
25 km  1:17:33
30 km  1:31:38
35 km  1:46:32 (Kwambai is gapped)
40 km (25 mi)  2:07:12 (Mutai in 2nd at 2:08:02
42.2 km  2:08:14 (Mutai 2nd in 2:09:18)

The men have now completed two miles, with an opening mile split of 5:55---which mind you, is mostly uphill as they cross the bridge.

There is an early move, Abderrahime Bouramdane from Morocco, and the fifth place finisher last year, has put in an early surge and is out in front.  Seems suicidal, and so far it is unclear what his aim is----to actually drop anyone, just to test the pack?

The men's pack is around 16 strong, and went thru the first 5 km in about 16:26.  That pack includes all the "contenders" in the some hangers on, because that pace will only mean a 2:18 finish.  Now it is evident why Bouramdane took the flyer earlier!

At this point both races are going to explode, because both men and women are well below the "typical" NYC winning time.  If it stays this slow well into the race, it will be more exciting as more runners are potentially in the mix when the attacks start.

The men are 16+ miles 1:23 into the race now, and very strung out---so moves are being made.