Stranger things have happened


2011 - Stranger things have happened 

End of Year Reviews - Road: Running/Race Walking

The numbers say it all! 2:03:38 World record by Patrick Makau in Berlin (Getty Images)
The numbers say it all! 2:03:38 World record by Patrick Makau in Berlin (Getty Images)


    • Olga Kaniskina celebrates winning her third consecutive World Championships gold medal (Getty Images)
    • Valeriy Borchin on Russia on his way to the men's 20km Race Walk World title (Getty Images)
    • All smiles - Liliya Shobukhova takes her third straight Chicago Marathon title (Getty Images)
    • Sergey Bakulin of Russia crosses the finishing line to win gold l in the Men's 50 Kilometres Race Walk Final (Getty Images)
    26 December 2011 - Monte Carlo – Statisticians A. Lennart Julin (SWE) and Mirko Jalava (FIN) continue their ‘End of Season’ review with their fifth installment, which looks back at the year’s action on the Roads: Running and Race Walking.

    - MEN -

    Road Running

    When the history of modern Marathon running is written sometime in the future the year 2011 will almost certainly be considered as very special indeed. Strangely enough not mainly because of the new World record set in Berlin by Patrick Makau when he lowered Haile Gebrselassie’s 2:03:59 from 2008 by 21 seconds. Of course a new World record is always something very special and Makau executed his race in brilliant fashion.

    But still the real “greatest ever” magic wasn’t quite there as it didn’t feel at all like a perfect record race. Makau himself was in fact mainly focused on winning the race and “wasted” valuable energy on tactical maneuvers aimed at shaking off former record holder Gebrselassie. And just a few weeks later the feeling was confirmed when Wilson Kipsang in Frankfurt almost snatched the record from Makau missing it by just four seconds.

    No, what really made 2011 a year that will be considered of historical significance in the sport of marathon running was that it changed our perception of what is really possible. The best illustration is probably the fact that there were new course records set in all the five races making up the “World Marathon Majors”.

    On 17 April in London Emmanuel Mutai won handsomely by over a minute (ahead of Martin Lel and Makau) in 2:04:40 taking half a minute off Samuel Wanjiru’s two-year-old course record of 2:05:10.

    The next day in Boston Geoffrey Mutai and Moses Mosop waged a breathtaking two-man battle culminating in a sprint finish won by Mutai in 2:03:02, four seconds ahead of Mosop. The previous top time at this, the most classic (born 1897!) of all yearly marathons, was close to three minutes slower: 2:05:52 by Robert Kiprono Cheruiyot just one year earlier. The 2:03:02 was also by almost a minute the fastest Marathon ever on a full-distance course, although the net drop from start to finish invalidated it for record purposes.

    On 25 September in Berlin Makau as said lowered the official World record – set in Berlin three years eariler by Gebreselassie – by 21 seconds to 2:03:38. Makau won the race by well over four minutes.

    On 9 October in Chicago Moses Mosop – claiming to be quite far from top fitness after injury problems during the summer – still with his 2:05:37 took four seconds off Samuel Wanjiru’s course record set in 2009. Mosop won the race by 38 seconds.

    On 6 November in New York the ten-year-old course record (Tesfaye Jifar 2:07:43) was completely demolished as Geoffrey Mutai took away over two and half minutes in a race without pacesetters! With his 2:05:06 he not only had a 1:22 time cushion over his nearest opponent (London-winner Emmanuel Mutai) but also suddenly moved the supposedly un-fast New York course from “nowhere” up into sixth place on the all-time course record list (seventh if Boston is included).

    But even more intriguing than the course records themselves were the “race profiles” where all but Berlin had negative splits (and Makau lost just 10 seconds) and where all but Chicago had the winner running sub-1:02 in the second half. The most impressive negative splitting came in New York where Geoffrey Mutai passed halfway in 1:03:18 and then added 1:01:47.

    What has happened to that much talked-about “wall” you are supposed to hit after running “out of gas” at 30K or thereabouts?  A question that gets even more pertinent if one looks at some of the 10Ks recorded on-route: In Berlin and Chicago Makau and Mosop respectively were clocked in 28:58 and 29:01 between 25K and 35K. And in London and New York we saw 28:44 and 28:54 between 30K and 40K for winners Emmanuel and Geoffrey Mutai! Not to mention Boston where G Mutai and Mosop pushed each other to 28:24 at 30-40K!

    The exact same pattern was also displayed in the World Championships race in Daegu where winner Abel Kirui broke away by running the 10K between 25K and 35K in 28:58! His halves were 1:05:07/1:02:31.

    Obviously that infamous wall has crumbled – or the top runners have found some kind of “hole” in the wall to sneak through that enables them to run sub-29 10Ks even in the second half and even after opening at supposed breakneck paces of 1:01-1:02. This observation has inevitably fueled speculations and discussions concerning whether the first sub-2:00 performance will happen within a not so distant future.

    “Common sense” and experience says it is impossible – but maybe we have been fooled by history? There now definitely is a new breed of Marathon runners that approaches the event – both in training and in competition – with a different attitude and maybe also a new level of specific talent? Rather than being something that “old” track runners do when winding down their long careers the Marathon now is something you focus on right from the start.

    People like the Mutais, Makau, Kipsang and Mosop have of course competed on the track but they quite early decided not to have track running as a main priority. Only Mosop has run in international championships on the track (World 10,000m bronze in 2005) but already at age 22 (in 2007) he left the track to focus 100% on road running, mainly half and full marathons. People like Gebrselassie and Tergat, following traditional wisdom, didn’t make their switches until they were into their 30s.

    With so many young runners - especially in Kenya – now having aspirations on successful international careers there is not room for all of them on the track. There are simply not enough races on the professional circuit and in each of those races only a very small number of some 15-25 runners can participate.

    On the road no such limitations exist as there are mass races with attractive prize money on offer at especially 10K, Half Marathon and Marathon more or less “everyday and everywhere” all over the world. The influx of new talent to the roads in the last few years has been incredible and most of those runners have no previous background in serious track running. They have instead gone directly to the road where their recent success proves that Marathon running is not necessarily something only suited for “retired” track specialists in their 30s. And the new road runners have gone there with a fresh attitude of not being scared or intimidated by paces previously thought to be suicidal.

    One final reason why 2011 will go down in the history books as a very remarkable year indeed in marathon running: on the 2011 world list (as per early December and only counting “record legal” courses) all of the top-20 runners come from the same nation – Kenya! Not even traditional rivals Ethiopia managed to break into the top-25! In this day and age of truly globalised athletics and in an event available to everybody (no need for special arenas or expensive equipment) in every corner of the earth – but Antarctica – such complete domination by one single nation should not be practically or theoretically possible. But still it happened!?!

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