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Archive for the ‘cross country’ Category

 There has been a niggling feeling lurking around the murky depths of the running community for the past couple of months (possibly years). The whispering that goes on behind closed marathon doors. People only want to watch fast races and see fast times, the whisperers are saying. The perception that time is king and the actual racing is secondary. 

Are we so obsessed with time we cannot enjoy a race unless it is fast? No. This opinion undermines the intelligence of running fans. Everyone wants to see an exciting race. And what is more exciting than two or more people burying themselves late in a race in an attempt to get rid of their competitors? Nothing.

But running fast is also exciting. I don’t think fast running deserves the bad rap it seems to be getting from the learned running media.ryan hall finishing houston half

It is not, as many people would seem to have us believe, an on-or-off situation. Actually you can have your cake and eat it. If you love the racing you don’t have to hate the time. And if you love world record attempts you don’t have to hate racing. When you think about it, that is a ridiculous proposal anyway. But that is the choice we are told we are making.

Well I reject that choice. Distance fans are smart enough to appreciate a race and a course for what it is. No-one would say an elite marathoner who wins a race has run badly in that race because he was five or ten minutes slower than his Personal Best. Those guys run races to win. Fast times are secondary. In the choice between a fast time trial and a tough attritional battle between gladiators, as a spectator it is a no brainer. And for the competitors it is win first, time second. If you can win in a fast time, well that’s just dandy. But just as the two concepts aren’t mutually exclusive, they aren’t joined at the hip either.

What needs to be remembered is that writing off time as being pointless is just as foolish as saying it is all that matters. Sure you want a close race, but it has to be reasonably fast, by default. What does reasonably fast mean? That is the question. Not because we want it fast, but because if it is not reasonably fast you will have dozens of contenders for the win. We might not care as spectators but you can be sure the elite runners in the field will care. The top half dozen runners don’t want a bunch of guys they don’t know hanging around the lead pack waiting to show off their unheralded kicks. Fact is it has to be some form of fast. Fast doesn’t relate to an absolute pace. Fast in Berlin might be 2:03, but fast in New York might be 2:05, and fast in Honolulu might be 2:11. Fast in Mumbai might be 2:15. In road racing terms, speed is a relative thing.

In cross country, pace is completely arbitrary. Yet there again you know the pace is “fast”. You know this because top quality runners are being burned off left and right. Guys who have run 27 minutes for 10k on the track, which is fast by anyone’s definition, are barely in shot as the camera follows the lead pack. So you know it’s quick. More than that it doesn’t matter. It is all about the race.

 

sprint finish Pure racing taken to the extreme is just as bad as solo time trialling. In more 1500m and mile races than I care to remember, I have seen the group go out at a pace barely above crawling. They creep around for 3 laps and then blast the last lap. There are plenty of people in contention but I wouldn’t call it exciting. I don’t want to watch a bunch of 1500 guys trying to decide who the quickest 400 guy is. An honest hard pace for 3 laps and THEN a kick. That’s when the final lap split counts. Who has the quickest 400 once when your legs are full of lactic and your lungs are burning and you can taste blood in your mouth. That’s compelling racing and has both a time and a race element.

Let’s summarise if possible.

Two competitors repeatedly attacking each other over the final miles of a race IS incredibly exciting.

Mass sprint finishes CAN be exciting.

Solo races against the clock CAN be exciting.

I don’t see the need to write off races based on a pre-conception of “how races like this go”.

There is one rule that applies across the board. Racing must come first. But really this is the default position anyway. When Haile Gebrselassie was chasing marathon world records in time-trial fashion a few years ago, he went out hard with the clock and pacemakers as predetermined company. However when he hadn’t shaken off a competitor or a couple of competitors by the 20 mile mark he made that his priority. Win first, time second.  And he would state it afterwards. “once I saw I hadn’t shaken off x or y, I knew I had to forget about the world record and go for the win”. That’s not a direct quote but it is generally words to that effect. All professional athletes have this understanding.

I can say that with certainty even though I am far from a professional athlete myself. It is clear that winning trumps a fast time, every time. Moses Mosop ran 2:03:06 in Boston last year, second to Geoffrey Mutai in 2:03:02. Geoffrey took the bulk of the limelight but Mosop ran an incredibly fast time. If you have offered Mosop the win but said it would be in 2:04:06, a minute slower than he ran, what do you think his response would be? I know what I think. Winning is the thing. Bill Rodgers won Boston four times and New York four times. An amazing marathoner. A hero. Probably a lot of hard-core marathon fans know the times Bill ran, but outside of them, people tend to remember the winning. Grete Waitz, who held the world record for a while in the marathon, is remembered primarily for one outstanding achievement: Grete won the New York Marathon NINE times. Nine times! That achievement surpasses any of the quick times she managed, and she was quick.

 

 Road cycling teaches us this lesson in unequivocal terms.  One-day classics or individual stage wins in a three-week grand tour. It’s the winning that matters. When Mark Cavendish wins a sprint finish no-one cares about the time. It has no meaning. A great post which goes into far more depth on this, and on the odd occasion where people do pay attention to times in road cycling, can be found here, on the incomparable inrng website. Long breakaways or bunch sprints, the underlying principle remains: it’s the racing not the time.

However, while this is a good lesson, it is not one that running can swallow hook, line and sinker. Because running is intrinsically different. Track racing is track racing, and cycling has track too, so for sensible comparisons we will ignore the track elements of both sports.

Marathons are a very precise distance. 26 miles and 385 yards. Because of this standardised length, times are unavoidably compared. Courses are different and this is accounted for in winning times anyway. Every running fan can appreciate that a 2:04 marathon, no matter where it takes place, is incredibly impressive. But it doesn’t have to work the other way, i.e. that a 2:12 is NOT impressive. There are always factors on the day that have a major influence on time.

Then, on certain occasions you get great racing and great times. Sammy Wanjiru in Beijing is a great example of this. Dog-eat-dog racing with scant regard for race conditions, AND a three minute improvement on the Olympic Marathon Record.  The outcome was a very special event that people identified straight away as being something we will remember for a long time.

This shows that there are certain occasions, when the planets are aligned and the stars are shining brightly, when we can be treated to great racing which we get to watch unfold at record speeds.

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I went to watch the Inter Counties last Saturday at Cofton Park in Birmingham. It was a great event, hosted in a great XC venue. I only got there in time to see the Senior Men’s race.

In the absence of Mo Farah (who had other – indoor – fish to fry), Andy Vernon won it again, after a big lead group split up over the final two laps of the course.

I took some ropey video footage, which can be found here:

Start of the race:

First Lap:

Long uphill on Second Lap:

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The Edinburgh cross country international is always the January highlight. It’s the meeting that gets rid of the turkey fat and Christmas cheer lingering around the house and running community. It says “Boys, the fun’s over. Now the real fun can start again”.

So when I looked over the press releases for the 8 January 2011 event I had some lofty expectations.

One of the best bits of the Edinburgh race is watching the best in the world tough it out, man-on-man. The organisers always put together an impressive field. There are always some tasty head to heads – usually linking in some top westerners (i.e. Americans), top Europeans (Sergey THE LEGEND Lebid) with the top East Africans.

Make no mistake, Kenny B, Eliud Kipchoge et al pretty much always dust the pretenders and run away unchallenged for the final portion of the race. Almost always.

Anyway here is my gripe for January’s race. They invited Dathan Ritzenhein and Galen Rupp, two of the US’s brightest stars. Dathan in particular has a fantastic cross country pedigree.

But why then are you griping midpack slacker? Here’s why:

THEY HAVE SET UP A SEPARATE RACE FOR THE NON-AFRICANS.

A Men’s International Team Challenge. Ridiculous. We want to see Ritz charging off alongside Asbel Kiprop, going “hey there, what you have got? Here’s what I got”. That’s how Ritz races and that’s why we love watching him. All the guts and glory of the opening miles of a cross country race. Different athletes, specialising in different distances, meeting over common ground. Literally. It’s the magic of cross country.

But not this year.

Nope. You’ll get Kiprop, Kipruto and the gang smashing up a 4km race, before a second race, an 8km team challenge (??) comprising the US, UK, and rest of Europe runners. Granted, it will be interesting to see the pecking order in this “second string race” (yes, that’s what it is, sorry). But the point is this pecking order would have been just as well decided had it all been in one mass race.

C’mon Edinburgh Cross Country, let’s go back to the good stuff next time around, yeah.

Disappointing to say the least.

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The absolute legend that is Kenenisa Bekele.

Something I’ve been thinking about with mild melancholy for some time: Are we in the throes of a changing of the guard within the very top echelon of distance running? Will we look back on this time as the phase when he became beatable again?

It seems to me he may be vulnerable at the moment. Not in any sense other than that he may not be the absolute belter he was three, four or five years ago. Look, let’s keep some perspective, he could show up at just about any race the world over and win. But things have changed there’s no denying it.

His record at the world cross country champs will never be beaten. I can make that unequivocal statement because the short race has now been removed from the program, and for someone to match his 11 individual gold medals would require too much longevity at the top, a minimum of 11 years in fact. So I’ll throw that out there (it’s not a bold statement at all when you consider it). But since his DNF at the 2007 world champs where Zersenay Tadese stomped all over him in the blistering Nairobi heat, he hasn’t had the same dominating success. Caveat: He did win it the following year in Edinburgh, in amazing fashion after his shoe came off and he stopped to retie it and still came back to win! But last year he didn’t run and Gebremariam stepped in to ensure the individual title stayed in Ethiopia. This year it’s looking unlikely that he will run. He is refusing to commit one way or the other at this stage, and why should he? But if he does compete I’m not sure he will come away victorious.

2010 has not been kind to KB as yet. It began as it has for the past few years, with him competing in Edinburgh at the World Cross Challenge meeting held around the foothills of Arthur’s seat, Holyrood Park. A nasty place to run, hilly and twisty, but with good memories for the king, having won his most recent World XC title there. But this year it was different. A cold snowy January had resulted in a lot of snow still sitting on the course. “White mud” as Hayley Yelling called it. KB was beaten, and well-beaten at that, by a trio of Kenyans. The enormity of their achievement, whilst not lost on the runners themselves, was largely underplayed by the commentary and the resulting media. In fact, it was huge. When had KB ever been beaten as a senior in a cross country race?? Aside from his DNF at Worlds 2007… um…never. And this wasn’t losing out in a mad-sprint finish either, this was a relentless pounding that broke him with almost half of the race remaining. He seemed untroubled in the interview immediately afterwards but I get the feeling that as more time passed, it sunk in a bit and it shook him up, being beaten like that; and as a result he has lost some confidence and the aura of invincibility (even if only in his head).

The 2008 World Champs in Berlin seems a long time ago all of a sudden. He was pushed in the 5k by Bernard Lagat and came up trumps in a cracking final few laps and final sprint; and again knocked over his 10k rival Zersenay Tadese in the 10k. So no chinks in the armour then…

I had been eagerly anticipating his indoor performances this year, especially his hyped world record attempt over 3k in our own NIA in Birmingham. He pulled out of the event the night before, citing a calf injury. Disappointing but oh well. He had to have been pretty close to competing otherwise he wouldn’t have left the announcement so late, would he?

A couple of weeks later and another much publicised attack on the 3k mark, this time in Liévin. Again he withdrew at the last minute, citing the same injury. Surely if this injury had troubled him enough to pull out of Birmingham and troubled him enough to pull out of Lievre two weeks later on the day before the event again, he’d have known in between that he couldn’t make the Liévin meet? I read all about the “only in spikes” reasoning etc, but I’m just saying.

Conspiracy theory: Whilst I think he does have some sort of calf niggle, it’s not that that is stopping him from competing. I suspect he is trying to get himself into shape and hit the splits in particular workouts he has that will tell him he is in the right form to have a crack at the world record. After the years of dominance you can be sure he has a pretty concrete package of workouts he can run through and that he knows will get him into world-smashing shape. Am I talking shit? Probably.

Still, it’s nothing more than the musings of a fan, and he could disprove everything by delivering a world crushing performance in Poland. That would set him up for a great European summer on the track and make all this speculation look even more foolish than it already does.

If, however, he does continue to struggle with his calf injury and is unable to race World XC, or set any more records on the track, it will be the drawing to a close of the most magnificent distance-event track athlete we have ever had the pleasure of witnessing. And the dusk on his track career may well prove to be the dawn of his road running career, and by road running career I mean one thing, the Marathon. Another chapter in his running life and may it be just as successful as his track career has been, even with the bar set in the cirrus, as it is.

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murky depths

In a good way.

Last Saturday’s cross country race (16 Jan, Birmingham League, Division 1, Meeting 3, Coundon Park, Coventry) brought it home for me yet again. The depth of high quality competitive club runners in just one region of the UK, on a cold January afternoon, is truly something to behold.

Our club’s top marathon runner, we’ll call him Martin, ran a pair of 2:29 marathons last year and a 2:30 on top for good measure. On Saturday he could only manage 79th. Our top cross country runner, who incidentally won the U17 Intercounties championships, last year, didn’t break the top 50 on Saturday. Granted he had a bad day out, but even so…

This is a high quality field.

It makes me ponder (again), on what happens just beyond the very sharp end of these fields. I assume the other district cross country leagues are of similar levels and depths. Certainly at the intercounties championships our divisions don’t clean up the medal table. So it would appear as though the standard of our league, whilst it may be above the county average is not head and shoulders above it.  

There’s a lot a top quality runners just bubbling beneath the national level and sooner or later a group has to burst through and make the leap to national class and beyond.  

The chap who won on Saturday incidentally, did so by a comfortable margin (somewhere around 20 seconds from memory) and is still a junior. By all accounts he was a class apart and made that clear pretty early on. Personally I was engrossed in a battle of trying to finish in the top half of the field – I failed – and so only have the word of some educated spectators as to this youngster’s class. There is a chance that he will bridge the gap to the next level – lets hope so, achieve national success and then perhaps onto international competitiveness in the years that follow. 

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