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Archive for the ‘Chicago Marathon’ Category

I’ve been toying with writing about this topic for a while now. More than a year if I’m honest. Quite how successful I’ll be at spelling it all out, and getting my point across, remains to be seen.

In simple terms, and of course in my opinion, the synopsis is this: The manner in which a competitive international marathon is contested and won has changed. Not a gradual evolution, but a rapid step change, set in motion on the day Samuel Wanjiru won the Olympic gold medal in Beijing in 2008.

Naturally we didn’t fully grasp the enormity of it at the time. It was an astonishing performance yes, one of the best of all time. But the effect it would have on marathons from then on was what truly defined it. All we knew was that the Olympic marathon had been won in a way never seen before.

Beijing was an aggressive non-conservative attritional race. It was full of pace surges – FROM THE GUN.

Fast marathons had been run before but never like this. In the past they had been even-paced or sometimes fast-paced early on, with slow decays to the end. Fast times were obviously still achieved (Steve Jones in Chicago 1985 for example. Halves of 61 and 66) for what was then a world record and is still the UK record. Beijing was different. It wasn’t a fast but even pace. It was fast no question, but it was the surges Wanjiru threw in, oh the surges. Starting inside the first 10km, they were incredible.

They were what set this race apart from those preceding it.

The conditions it was run in are worth more than a mention. They add significantly to the unbelievable nature of what was happening. Beijing was hot (30 degrees?) and humid. It was no place to toying with human performance and pushing your body to speeds teetering on the thin edge of what normally would be considered the top end of what can be achieved in ideal conditions. Yet it was happening.

The group was whittled down to the truly world class in a matter of minutes. And the group of super-elites that reminaed at the front, then began shrinking one by one, as the athletes realised there would be no let-up in pace from Wanjiru, not today. Martin Lel, Luke Kibet, one by one they were falling by the wayside.

Wanjiru was racing it like a cross country race. Or perhaps a 5k on the track with a strong runner not wanting to leave it to a final lap burn-up. Only Moroccan Jaouad Gharib and Ethiopian Deriba Merga were able to cover the moves for any length of time. Indeed Gharib got dropped a number of times but somehow managed to keep the gap under control and come back when you were convinced he was now gone for good. A truly gutsy performance.

Merga covered the moves better than Gharib and in truth, was the only one who could live with what Wanjiru was doing. He ran himself into the ground hanging onto Sammy and ultimately, lost out on a medal to his fast-finishing countryman, Tsegay Kebede.

 

Since then, the age of the super-fast marathon arrived. 2:06 became 2:05. Suddenly a pair of Kenyans were running 2:04 in Rotterdam. Paris, Berlin, Chicago, everywhere big city marathons were having their course records reset.

Wanjiru arrived in London after his Olympic success, and the pace was ludicrous. He hurried the pacemakers up, repeatedly urging them on to the point that the pace at the 10km mark projected a 2:01 marathon. And he was throwing in lung-bursting surges anytime there was a drop in pace. He finally killed off the pack around the 20 mile mark and ran home unchallenged for another low 2:05.

In light of recent events I certainly hope we have not seen the last of Sammy Wanjiru. He has added a new dimension to marathoning that is not wasted on the many aficionados around the world. We owe him and his crew of fellow crazies (Kebede, Merga, Kibet, Makau, the list is growing) a debt of thanks.

We’re experiencing a golden era in marathoning that we may only fully appreciate many years down the line. And when we look back on it and go “Wow, that was awesome”, we will remember it all started in Beijing 2008.

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Not unlike the cricketer for whom the nickname was created, Sammy Dubya delivered a riveting knockout return-to-form performance at this weekend’s Chicago Marathon.

 

Marathons are famously unpredictable. Any one of a dozen elites can win any given race on any given Sunday. The pre-race favourites seem to come through less than half the time.

But, in the last few years, a few super-elites have arrived on the scene and have skewed the picture slightly. It started with Martin Lel (pre-injuries) in the early-to-mid noughties and now two more have joined the club, Tsegay Kebede and Sammy Wanjiru. Patrick Makau looks to be knocking loudly on that door as well.

Consistency over the marathon distance is a rare phenomenon, but these three, and a fit Martin Lel, have it. When they race head-to-head, obviously only one can come out as the actual winner of the race, but if the other two are in the mix and racing for the win with less than a mile to go, that’s consistency in my book.

Kebede in particular, is blessed with this ability. He shows up, you know he will challenge for the win. He never seems to have an off-day in a big city marathon. Wanjiru, bar his London performance last year, is the same. Were it not for that one-off failure, his record would be unblemished. Robert K Cheruiyot, Boston winner this year in emphatic fashion (skipping right over the 2:06’s in taking the course record from the 2:07’s to high 2:05’s) was also in Chicago this past weekend. Those were the big three likely to be challenging for the title. But Cheruiyot had just the one major title to his name, and had not yet been given the opportunity to demonstrate big marathon consistency. The unknown of the three, but with arguably the best recent performance going in.

Skip to the 30k mark and the race begins in earnest. A biggish pack of 6 or 7 athletes looking comfortable. Cheruiyot is already off the back however, his race now over. The group quickly becomes a threesome, as the real contenders emerge. Wanjiru, Kebede and Lelisa. Lelisa, a young Ethiopian, just 20 years old. To call him the young one in the trio is of course relative; as the two “experienced” big match players in the group are both the ripe old age of 23.

The trio continue in this fashion for most of the next 10km. Lelisa is hanging on behind the front two and never really looks like taking it on. He fights bravely but gets dropped with a few miles to go. Whammo, we’re down to the famous pair again.

Any time these two have squared up over the last three years, starting with the Beijing Olympic Marathon, they have delivered the goods. Today was no different. Thanks for coming everyone; it’s down to the two gladiators again.

Tsegay was determined to front run the rest of the way home. He was the stronger, he had the upper hand in recent head-to-heads (Wanjiru dropping out of London the last time they met) and he wanted to make it count. But, and here’s the thing, when they are both at 100% and racing from the top drawer, Wanjiru has not been beaten by Kebede. And it looked like Tsegay knew this. He was confident and strong, but he also knew if he couldn’t find and exploit any chinks in the Wanjiru-armour pretty soon, he might be in a spot of bother.

The final mile was perhaps the most exciting in many years of marathoning. (Hendrick’s battle with Paul Tergat in NYC ’05 being the only one from memory that topped it). They were 50kg heavyweights taking mammoth swings at each other. Wanjiru would run on Kebede’s shoulder, then drop a few yards back, and accelerate past. As he got shoulder to shoulder, Kebede would respond aggressively, once to the point of them both sprinting flat out, to regain to the lead. He would not let Wanjiru get any airtime in front. It happened a few times and with each time not getting rid of Wanjiru the booming got louder and louder. With a quarter of a mile left, it was painfully clear. Tsegay was not dropping him today. Today, Sammy Wanjiru was announcing his return. Boom. A final decisive heartbreaking–to-watch – if you’re a Kebede fan (I am) – 200m that Sammy just destroyed. His winning margin was 19 seconds, which doesn’t tell the story. He was not 19 seconds better than Kebede. He was quite simply unbreakable and refused to let Kebede get the small lead that would have seen him home. He absorbed punch after punch, waited and waited, gathered himself and launched. Boom. The winning time was 2:06 and change, which also told nothing of the drama of the final few miles of this great race.

Now, see it for yourself (thanks Flotrack)

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