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London Marathon is this Sunday and a lot of the pre-race hype has been (rightly) focussed on the quartet of A-list Kenyans on the start line. Selection of the Kenyan Olympic Marathon squad has been an international talking point in running circles. Who will they pick, who won’t they pick, what do they need to run? And so on.

 

But enough about that. I want to talk about a little Eritrean named Zersenay Tadese.

Anyone worth their salt knows a pretty rock solid rule about marathoning. To be a good marathoner, you need to have run a good 10k (and half marathon). Name any great marathoner and look at their 10k. It will be the business. Arguably the world’s best over 26.2, the late Sammy Wanjiru, went well under 27 minutes on the track before he stepped up. However, and this is the point, the converse is not true. Being a quality 10k and half marathon guy does in no way guarantee you success over a marathon. The fact is no-one really knows how they will fare over a marathon until they actually run one. There are probably a few high-profile distance men and women who haven’t reached their marathon potential. (In as much as “potential” is determined by 10k and HM performance) but none are as high profile as Zersenay Tadese.

 

If ever there was textbook case to highlight the lack of conversion rule, it is Zersenay.

 

Remove his marathon attempts from this discussion and his distance running CV becomes pretty much as good as it gets. Kenenisa Bekele may have had his number of the track thanks to an indomitable finishing kick, but Tadese didn’t do too badly behind him.

  • A 10k in less than 27 minutes? Check.
  • A half marathon in less than 60 minutes? Check. In fact a half marathon in less than 59 minutes. In fact the WORLD RECORD HOLDER in the half marathon in 58:23.

Ok, how about championship racing?

  • Any medals on the track at global level? Check. (No titles maybe, as time and again KB put paid to any chance of that). But he has a bronze from the Athens Olympics 10k and a silver from the 2009 Berlin World Champs.
  • Any medals at World Cross Country level? Check. In the toughest race of them all, the World Cross Country Championships, Zersenay beat the world, and KB, in 2007 (KB dropped out of the race with a lap to go). He also has an individual silver and two individual bronze medals in World Cross to go with that gold.
  • Now, the final question, what is he like on the road? I’m glad you asked. Ignoring the marathon, he is probably the greatest road runner of all time. World HM Record Holder, four-time World Half Marathon Champion and a World 20k title for good measure.

 

It’s a pedigree anyone would aspire to. So imagine the buzz around the running world when he decided to run his first marathon. It was a few years back, London 2009.

 

The world waited with baited breath.

 

Zersenay’s debut in the marathon coincided with a big step-up that was currently taking place in the world of international marathoning. He arrived on the scene, with marathoning on a big and aggressive up-curve, and was caught out by experienced marathoners, led by Wanjiru. They aggressively attacked at all points in the race and pushed a ridiculously fast early pace. Zersenay lasted as long as he could before dropping out.

 

The following year, 2010, he returned, to a similarly aggressive racing environment. With slightly more battle experience, this time he finished. But his 2hr12 was widely accepted as nowhere near a true indication of his capabilities, and again the field had beaten him up and left him behind.

 

In 2011 it seemed he decided to take a break from London and move his focus back to the areas in which he had excelled and enjoyed success, the 10k on the track, and the half marathon.

 

Skip to the announcement of the 2012 London Elite Field and his name is back on the list.

 

In early 2012 he ran the Lisbon Half Marathon, the course where he set the current world record, 58:23. It was billed as a World Record Attempt but he ended up running about a minute off that pace, finishing in 59:34 for his third title in a row. The gurus at LetsRun have spoken at length about proper focus on a marathon resulting in a runner that should not be sufficiently sharp to run a half marathon PB in their marathon buildup. If this is true, and I personally subscribe to the same belief, then Tadese may just be perfectly poised for this year’s London.

 

Most of us love to see hard-running, hard-working athletes perform at the highest level, and Zersenay Tadese is the hardest working, hardest running of them all. Over the years he has become one of my all-time favourite and most inspirational athletes.

 

Come Sunday morning, I will be hoping he gets into his familiar groove, seen so many times at the front of races around the world, in the lead pack and survives, or ignores, any suicidal pace changes during the race.

 

In amongst the Kenyan whirlwind of class and ability, and pressure, I would love to see nothing more than the little Eritrean powerhouse slide in under the radar and knock 5+ minutes off his best time, and get his marathon time down to the level befitting a guy of his pedigree.

 

Heck I hope he wins the entire race. It’s a long shot, but optimism never killed anyone, right?

 

 

 

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There are not too many people who have had a significant influence on my running career and my approach to training.

Perhaps I should rephrase that, there have actually been many; in books I’ve read, articles I’ve pored over, biographies, interviews and so on. But there has been a bigger influence from people I have actually met, and in that respect there have been only two.

The first was my university coach, Dudley Hulbert. When I started running, under Dudley’s tutelage, I knew very little and he effectively provided me with an understanding of the key ingredients in a basic training program. His systems worked and were scalable. That was a long time ago now; it has been over fifteen years since I last saw him. Last year I learnt that Dudley had sadly passed away. RIP Dudley.

But the focus of this article is on the second person who ended up having a large effect on how I train and more importantly led me to understand what is actually required to train and race properly. That man was Len Cullen. Len sadly passed away in January this year, and I have been inspired to record my thoughts and views on Len, in the short time I knew him.

I first met Len, and his son Johnny, after a track meeting in the early part of the 2008 track season. It was my first 5000m race since running the London Marathon a month earlier. I had not run well in London (stomach bug – another story) and was looking at the 5k as a chance to get going again. I ran 16:54 which I was happy with, pleased to be under 17 minutes and felt like I was going somewhere again. As I jogged around the outside lane of the track after my race, I bumped into Johnny and his dad at the 200m mark. Johnny ran for the same club as me (Rowheath as we were known back then) and had run the 800m or 1500m that day. They were very encouraging about my race and we chatted for a while. They went on to ask whether I would be interested in running with Johnny on a Saturday morning at the now legendary Cofton Park. I was keen at the time, but did subsequently wonder whether I was getting in over my head and would not be able to do the sessions. Nonetheless I was committed to attending the first one at least.

That first Cofton session is one I will never forget. I had run hill sessions many times over the years. I had cut my teeth on the famous Johannesburg hill called Sweethoogte, frequented by many a top SA distance runner. So I thought I knew what running hills involved. Cofton Park, and particularly the bench-to-bench long hill repeat, took that knowledge, laughed in its face, tossed it to one side and proceeded to slap me in the face viciously, repeatedly and without warning. So unprepared was I for the intensity of that session, that it broke me almost instantly. I think I managed a second repeat, but it had degenerated into a shuffle by then. Johnny would finish the session on his hands and knees, which came to be his modus operandi to close off any Cofton session. Whilst we were flailing about, Len would position himself somewhere near the midway point of the effort and would shout encouragement or advice and instruction as we motored past.

So that session shattered me and I went home a broken man. But a funny thing happened over the next day or two, I started thinking more and more about the session. It got under my skin. I was determined to go back and run it properly. Now that I knew how much it would hurt, I would be better prepared to withstand the hurt when it hit, and it hit suddenly. So, unsurprisingly, I returned. Underneath all of this was the knowledge that this session was absolutely unparalleled in its potential to bring you on in fitness, strength and speed.

Those Saturday mornings became a regular occurrence. The make-up of each session would vary slightly, but the overall philosophy was unchanged. Len was a man who cut through the reams of mediocre shit that permeates the training programs to be found in abundance in current running paraphernalia. First things first, Len believed in running hard. When it was time to hit a hard effort, you hit it hard. Don’t sandbag, don’t save yourself for the rest of the session, don’t worry about even splits or negative splits or any other kind of goddamn splits. Just run the fucking thing hard. I recollect one morning I was feeling a bit tender and on the first effort I tried to sit off the pace just ever so slightly, sure that no-one would notice, and I wouldn’t have to bury myself straight out of the blocks. As we jogged around to the starting point for number two, Len caught up with me and said, “Look, there’s no point in running these efforts like that. Within yourself. You may as well do a steady 45 minutes for that. Run the next one hard. I don’t care what the rest of your efforts look like and you should pay no attention to your watch. Don’t worry about the rest of the session. Just get back onto it now and run hard”. It was a wake-up call. No-one had really observed my training that closely and certainly it would have taken a keen eye to tell I wasn’t quite giving it as much as I should. I realised this was a man you couldn’t fool. Lesson learned. I went out hard and honest on number two. Unsurprisingly, the rest of the session fell away awfully. But Len was pleased. He had identified my innate tendency to protect myself by running slower than I needed to and finishing strong. He knew I didn’t need coaching with that, what I needed was someone to spur me on and to tell me it didn’t matter if my splits got slower and slower on each one. That was what was needed and that’s what he did. Those hill sessions on a Saturday morning, with Johnny and I sucking oxygen in through our eyeballs, our legs literally screaming nonstop before collapsing in protest, and Len masterminding it all from his various vantage points, those sessions are the best I have ever run.

Before too long, the Saturday hill sessions were coupled with Tuesday night track sessions. Many of Len’s philosophies came through in the same way. Don’t concern yourself with volume, don’t attempt sessions that look brag-worthy on paper or that will bulk up your training diary with impressive numbers. Do what you need to do. Do it honestly and do it fast. Don’t chase the speed, run hard and let the speed come to you. Because it will. This is what Len believed, and this is what I soon learned to be the truth. Typical Tuesday stuff would be 8 x 400m off a 200 jog. Sounds simple. Once again, with the years of track training behind me, I would look at these and think, ok that’s not much at all. But sure enough, by the second repeat I was literally panicking about being able to finish at all. Again, Len would take me to one side and go, “Look I don’t really care whether you do all 8 or not. The point of this session is the pace. If you can only manage two at the required pace, then do two, and let’s cut the third one back to a 200m effort and run that at the same pace. Maybe we’ll go back up to 400 for the next one, maybe not. We’ll see how it goes. Don’t put pressure on yourself to complete the whole thing because that’s not the point. That’s a different kind of session for a different time. When we get there I’ll tell you”.

These words of pure gold wisdom were completely new to me and went against a lot of the clutter I had accumulated in my head over years of completing what I thought were impressive sessions. Len believed that you when went to the track for a track session, you went there to run a very specific pace. Let’s say that pace was 66 seconds per 400m. When that got too much, you cut to 200,  or to 300, or to whatever was needed to run that pace. Even the recoveries were up for grabs. He believed you didn’t need to race around between efforts when you were there to run fast. Sure you don’t take 10 minutes, but don’t kill yourself to run a particular rest time. Len believed that you got the speed in place first and foremost. Once you had 66 second 400m’s down pat, you could look at reducing recovery, or increasing quantity and so on. Some days we would run 4 x 600m and some days it would be 3 x 800m or 3 x 1000m. It looks so harmless, but I have learned that those sessions, when you do them correctly will fuck you up while simultaneously bringing you on in leaps and bounds.

Len taught me all of that. And all through it he took a genuine interest in my running career. Always curious as to what my race plans were, and usually pulling his hair out when they invariably involved marathons. “Skip the marathon this year” he would say. “Give me 18 months with you, and I guarantee you will run 2:40. And after that, who knows where you’ll go”. I don’t have many regrets in running, but if I do have any, one would be not taking him up on his offer.

I hurt my foot in early 2009, slipping on some frozen Sutton Park mud on a god-awful cold frozen morning in February. I couldn’t run on it for a  few weeks. Len, also a qualified physio, sat down with me one Saturday morning at Cofton, while Johnny banged out a couple of bench-to-benches. Len sat with me, and took a look at my foot. He diagnosed it and applied cross-friction on it, more than once.  And not once did he me charge for it. It was the only injury I’ve ever had physio on.

Empirical evidence, and that is: my personal experience, Johnny’s experience, excerpts from numerous successful runners back in the day, have shown that Len was right on the money. In 2008 I ran times that today I can only just better; and that is with another three years of solid training banked and now on nearly twice the weekly mileage I did then.

Len, you will be missed. Your insights, advice and approach to training will be with me forever and forever influence the way I train.

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 Birmingham’s first Diamond League Event

Yesterday the global athletics phenomenon that is the Diamond League, rolled into the UK, and more specifically, into Birmingham.

 

One of my “sporting bucket list” items has always been to attend a European Golden League or Grand Prix meeting. A couple of years ago, these meetings were all bundled up into one big tightly-knit and wonderfully packaged, combined series called the Diamond League.

Great format, great locations, great athletes.

 

So the big opportunity arrived yesterday. Less than ten miles from my front door. I’d have to be an idiot to miss this… (…zippit).

 Bec and the girls were obviously keen to come along as well. Bec is as much of an athletics fan as me (almost) and for the girls this was the chance to see sporting royalty after all. (In Abby’s case, it was also an opportunity to bid for ice-cream from start to finish). The athletes’ names are household names (in our house at least).  Naturally my training buddies, Niceguy Eddie, or as we soon might have to start calling him, Hundredmile Eddie (and his wonderful wife Stephanie) and Gracie were all super keen as well. So we stacked out a tidy 7 or 8 seats in a row. We were three rows from trackside, almost in line with the 100m start line.

 

The atmosphere was spine tingling. We seemed to have some real track fans in our area, so for once I didn’t embarrass the family by screaming and shouting my support. Don’t get me wrong, I screamed and I shouted, but the thing was, so did everybody else, hence the lack of “standing out like a sore thumb”.

 

It’s hard to pick highlights, because every event was incredible. The 100m, heats AND final, the women’s 1500, men’s 800, women’s 200 and 400. I missed the men’s 400 hurdles as I was out queuing for burgers (don’t judge me), although I heard it and it sounded like a stonker.

 

But I guess if you pushed me for a highlight, and I can sense the virtual pushing going on right now, I’d say without too much hesitation, the men’s 5000m. An obvious choice, based on our distance running tendencies. But having an on-fire Mo Farah in the field was all the crowd needed to get up and cheering. He really is on top of his game at the moment. Unbeaten in 2011 I believe.

The 5k was stacked. No less than Imane Merga (out for revenge after Mo’s 10k triumph in the Pre Classis Diamond League meeting in Oregon, USA). Throw in Yenew Alamirew (this year’s new sensation), a coming-back-to-form Craig Mottram, my old Blairgowrie mate, Alistair Cragg, US hope Galen Rupp, Aussie star Collis Birmingham, Spanish big-kicking guy Jesus Espana, and UK cross country guy Andy Vernon (maybe a little out of his depth but probably looking to bridge some gaps). Look, it was a good field.

The race got underway, paced by David Krummenacker. They were single file sharpish, which usually indicates a good pace. The pace was quick, but not quite top level for these guys. It became clear pretty early on that, although they were motoring, this would be about places and not about time. Being at the meeting we didn’t get the splits we’d be getting on telly, so I can’t be sure of too much, but I did note the 2k time of 5:17 and 3k was a shade over 8 minutes. So not PB territory for the big guns.

Mo worked his way from the back of the pack, towards the front as the race progressed. His usual modus operandi. Alistair took over for a few laps around the 3 to 4k mark. It was getting quicker now as they geared up for the final km. Into the final km and the business got underway. With 600 to go Mottram (who had been up front for a few laps already) was joined by Collis Birmingham and it was an Aussie one-two coming down the back straight towards the bell lap.

The bell, which has become like a red rag to Mo and his long-kick, did exactly that. They took the hell off. Merga was giving him nothing! Stuck right on his heels through 300 to go, 200 to go. Then it was like the Pre 10k all over again, Mo’s continual increasing pace just had the beating of Merga and he started losing ground. Into the home straight and Mo was clear for the win.

Galen Rupp, timed his kick to perfection and came storming through to close the gap right up to Mo, edging Merga in the process. A great scalp for Rupp and a fantastic finish.

Alberto Salazar, who we had spotted when he walked right past us onto the track outfield, must have been pleased with his training group’s 1-2 finish.

The entire grandstand had gotten to its feet for the final lap, the noise was incredible. I jumped up shouting as usual and pretty much ruined any potential footage I was getting with my handycam. It was an awesome experience seeing the boys so close up and in the flesh. They represent the absolute pinnacle of distance running.

The final event of the evening was the men’s 100. After two abortive false starts, a fair bit of complaining from the red-carded athlete, a pulled hamstring from another contender (Michael Rodgers), Asafa duly got the job done in 9.91 seconds. On a wet track, after have to reset himself three times, that is not a bad performance! He must surely be a medal threat in Korea. And with Usain-in-the-membrane still not firing on all cylinders, the colour of that medal should safely be filed as TBC. Stranger things have happened.

So with a cracking 100m bringing the curtain down on the meeting, we made our way towards the exits and out of the stadium.

 

While waiting for the crowds to disperse in the car park, we saw Craig Mottram and Alistair Cragg out jogging on the their cool-down. I managed to say hi to Alistair which was cool. Whether he remembers me or not is up for grabs. Still cool though.

 

My trusty handycam had this to say on the evening’s shenanigans…

 

 

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I was prompted to write this by an article titled Mokoka aura of invincibility to be tested in Cape Town on the Supersport website.

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First off, this should be a cracking 5000m race.

It is worth mentioning this because there should be a lot more high profile distance races in South Africa than there are. The talent pool is deep and vast in South Africa. With some structure in place, meetings held in the right locations at the right time of the year should be producing fantastic races and fast times – when at sea-level.

I can’t believe Shadrack Hoff is still motoring on after all these years. I have no idea of the form he is in but am very much looking forward to finding out!

Just seeing his name on the start list is a trip down memory lane. In the mid-90’s there was a great rivalry between Shadrack and former Witsie club-mate Hendrick Ramaala. (As an aside I think Hendrick will be the first to admit that his best running was done when mingling with the Wits Track sessions on Thursday afternoons, and on the inter-university championships on road, track and cross-country).

Anyway Hendrick and Shadrack had some good battles, on track and road, back in those days.

Fast forward fifteen years and Hendrick is still operating at an elite level, having “progressed” through the distances. He has enjoyed a world class and I do mean WORLD CLASS career on the roads, most notably in the half marathon (two-time World Silver medallist, sub-60 runner before the millennium – an extremely rare feat back then) and marathon (NYC win and runner-up, multiple London top tens). Unquestionably our most successful distance runner ever, on the international stage.

So it is fantastic, and surprising, to see Hoff is still at it as well. And he is still hitting the 5k track races “showing the youngsters how to do it” etc etc. Outstanding work.

I guess it is no coincidence that the two who excelled the most are the two who would appear to have loved it the most, by virtue of the fact that both are still out there testing themselves, long after many of their contemporaries are putting their feet up and talking about how good they used to be.

But to conclude with some realism. There’s scant place for sentiment when it comes to elite distance running. For the 5k tomorrow I fully expect Stephen Mokoka to show Shadrack Hoff that his time has passed and that it’s all about the youngsters.

Stephen, who finished one second behind Mo Farah in 46:26 in the 2009 Great South Run (10 Miles), and a creditable 8th in the World Half Marathon Championships in Birmingham in 2009, could well – with the right career direction – become the heir apparent to the Ramaala throne.

But that’s for another time.

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more Haile

Every now and then I get to showcase some actual talent on this blog.

Today is such an occassion.

Below is a sketch of Haile Gebrselassie by one of my clubmates. Fellow distance idiot, Gracie. Aka Graceballs, The Artist Formerly Known As Axl, or indeed, Mark. 

Gracie’s tribute to the great man.

Gracie is happy to take requests for other portraits. The only pre-requisite is a 2:03 marathon or a 26-minute 10k. Your choice.

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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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Haile

How do you pay a fitting tribute to a man who has already had every kind of tribute paid to him from all corners of the planet?

Journalists, sports fans, political leaders, have all lined up to sound off on the career of the greatest distance runner the world has ever seen.

 

Perhaps the best I can do is to make a start by writing something from a personal perspective. Let’s go back to the beginning.

In 1992 shortly after taking up “proper” training and joining the Wits University Athletics Club, I met there, amongst others including Hendrick Ramaala, one Philip Knibbs. Phil and I are still close friends today and in contact on an almost daily basis. Both still chasing PB’s, warding off middle-age, and loving running everyday. In 1992 and 1993 we got to know one another and the rest of the Wits running group. We got swept up in anything and everything distance running related. We soaked up articles in Athletics Weekly, Track and Field News, the now-discontinued SA Runner, and even, yes even, Runners World.

We watched the World Junior Athletics Champs in 1992 and the World Champs in Stuttgart in 1993. I marvelled at Richard Chelimo, the Kenyan 10k star. Phil picked out an Ethiopian youngster, Haile Gebrselassie, who we had seen the in the junior champs previously, as one to watch for the future. “I like the look of this guy” “I think he is one to watch”. From that day on, as far as we were concerned, Haile’s progress was intertwined with ours. He inspired and amazed us, and set benchmarks that others could only observe from a distance. He took care of business wining world titles from 1500m up to 10000m on the track, while we took care of business trying to set PBs across all the distances we raced.

When I look back on Haile’s early-to-mid-90’s races, two things about Haile stand out in my mind. The first was his unwavering smile. Before each race, the camera panned from competitor to competitor, each nervously toeing the line and clearly trying to mentally prepare themselves for the physical discomfort they were about to put themselves through. Then the camera would reach Haile and he would be sporting a massive smile, usually looking up at people in the crowd and waving. He never showed any signs of apprehension or nerves or trepidation for what was about to unfold. (An aside: only Wilson Kipketer springs to mind as another pre-race smiler from the 90s). The second thing that stands out, probably as his greatest characteristic on the track, was his vicious and insurmountable finishing kick. He would wait and wait and wait on the shoulder of whoever was brave enough to lead the race, and when the time came, and the time was usually when the final lap bell sounded, for him to unleash his kick, unleash it he did. He was gone. Many would try and live with the kick, responding with a kick of their own; and for perhaps the first 100m or 200m of Haile’s kick, they would be on him, and you’d think, could this be the one? But it never was. Eventually, sometimes after 100m, sometimes after 200m, sometimes even after 300m, the challenger would fade and Haile would be away. The final lap of almost every race he started would end with him enjoying the finishing straight all to himself, blasting along seemingly above the tartan. Smiling. And taking the win.

Haile had many fantastic races on the track, but if there is one that stands out, it is, as many many fans have already pointed out, his duel with Paul Tergat in the Olympic 10000m final in Sydney in 2000. I’m going to come right out and say I was supporting Paul on that day. In any number of the vicious kicking races described above, it was Paul Tergat who suffered at the hands (legs?) of Haile. He was the perennial number two man on the track. His record on the country however was quite the reverse. He was Mr Cross Country in the 90’s. Dominating everyone for five world titles. Incredible record. But on the track it was a different story. He had never toppled King Haile on the tartan. That’s a tasty enough head-to-head on its own, but lets throw in a little more. They had both publicly stated that this was to be their final race on the track, both focussing on the road (and marathons) after the Olympics. More on that later. So this was effectively Tergat’s last chance to wrestle just one global track title from Geb. How was he going to set about doing it? He was going to try and beat Haile at his own game in one respect. That is, he was planning to unleash the mother of all finishing kicks. The kind of kick that would define the kicking ability of Messr Paul Tergat. Every bit of his leg speed would be deployed in the closing stages. Also, he was going to try and do it before Haile got going with one of his own. Race time. 

Let’s jump to 500m to go. The field is whittled down to the usual duo. Everyone else has cashed in their chips and called it a night. We go through the bell, the pace picks up from an already fast pace, it has been increasing for the last few laps in fact. Tergat goes. Haile responds. Haile eases past on the back straight. Doesn’t he? Doesn’t he? NO HE DOESN’T. Tergat is fighting with everything he has. This is his chance. He has been watching the Haile kick year after year and has had the chance to study it first hand on most occasions. Now it is his turn. He throws it down. The back straight comes and goes, the final bend comes and goes. TERGAT IS STILL IN FRONT! He has finally gotten on top of Haile’s finish. The man can be beaten. What a run. But hang on, 50m to go and they are inseparable! It’s a flat-out sprint now. It’s gone beyond a kick. Insane. The crowd is mental. Hairs on the arms and necks of running fans everywhere are on end. What the hell are we witnessing! There is 20m to go and it is still impossible to say who will win. It is the perfect and fitting finish to a pair of track careers and a rivalry that won’t be seen on the track again for many many years. It is the defining moment for both of their track careers. Who won? Oh yeah, Haile got it in the end. And he wasn’t smiling across the line, he was grimacing.

So began the next chapter of Haile’s career. His road career and more specifically, his marathon career. Lets jump to 2002 and the London Marathon. Amazingly (or perhaps not surprisingly), Paul Tergat is also in the race. With a mile or two to go, the lead pack is down to a group of three. Khalid Kannouchi, Paul Tergat and Haile. The race has been marketed as Haile’s debut. Technically speaking it isn’t as he ran one when he was a teenager, managing a finish in the 2:40’s off very little training. But really, to all intents and purposes, London 2002 was his debut. He was probably looking the most comfortable of the three heading into the final mile. Looks, however, can be deceiving. Kannouchi, the world record holder at the time, dropped the hammer with a long push for home as they headed past Big Ben and Haile was dropped straight away. Tergat hung on for slightly longer before also being dropped. Kannouchi’s marathon experience and ability had won out on the day and he had a fantastic race, winning, and breaking his own world record in the process. Haile however, in his “debut” had managed an amazing 2:06:35 for third. It was confirmation that he would enjoy some success over the marathon distance, in the years to come.

In my opinion, that 2002 London performance was to be Haile’s best marathon showing in a world class competitive field. He had some London disappointments after that, with a DNF and a lower placed finish.

But it was to be in even-paced marathon races, on fast courses with publicly stated attacks on the world record that he carved out his road niche. He raced in Europe, in Amsterdam first and then in Berlin, where he was to achieve his best results time-wise, with TWO world records. The second one, still standing, with Haile the only sub 2:04 man in history, at 2:03:59. He also dominated the Dubai marathon, chasing the world record but falling short, albeit with world class times, on three occasions.

During these times, it would be remiss to say he enjoyed the global adoration he had on the track. There was a small, but growing group of athletics fans who began to feel Haile was cheapening marathon racing in a way, by targeting fast races, ensuring no serious challengers were present so he was secure in the win, and then attempting to time-trial his way to a world record. It was, and is, a hotly debated and contentious discussion. Splitting fans down the middle. Whatever you believe, it has to be admitted that Haile never managed to win a marathon with a world class field present. London he tried, Boston he never raced, the Olympic marathon he never raced, and we all know how New York went.

That is not up for debate. What is up for debate is whether this was showing him to be weak or cowardly or a dodger, as the naysayers may have you believe.

My personal take is no. Whilst it is disappointing he never succeeded in a world class marathon field, I think it is disrespectful to suggest he dodges competition, given his track pedigree. He was the ultimate racer on the track. He was there to win, the time was secondary. That he broke so many world records en route is an indication of his unbelievable natural ability and gift. He raced all comers on the track year after year and proved himself against them year after year. Why should he necessarily have to take that same route on the roads? He chose to run marathons focussed on achieving fast times. He didn’t actively dodge world class fields – his number of attempts in London, which undeniably puts together the toughest field in the world year after year, are an indication that he did try and pit himself against the best. Unfortunately he never achieved the success that he aspired to in that area. Running fast times became his speciality and you can’t deny he did that better than anyone.

And so we come to his unexpected retirement announcement. Out of the blue, after being forced to drop out 16 miles into New York on Sunday. Turns out he had been carrying a knee injury and had had an MRI scan and fluids drained on the Saturday before. He shouldn’t have started the race. But he did. Perhaps he was feeling the pressure from the naysayers and the media on him to deliver in a quality marathon field. So he started. And the rest we know.

A final thought on his retirement. He made the decision and statement extremely soon after the race, when perhaps he was a little emotional, with disappointment, frustration, and sadness uppermost in his thoughts. To suggest he can no longer perform at the highest level is flat-out wrong. He ran a 59:30 half marathon in the Great North Run in September this year. Third fastest time ever on the course. He still has it. If he wants to carry on.

Let’s wait and see. I’m hoping he reconsiders.

For me, the best platform for him to show off his wares, is, was and always will be the track. On that surface, a racer, a record setter, a title winner. And all the while a humble gracious and smiling man.

 

 

 

[Footnote: in between writing and posting this; news articles are already circulating saying the Haile is reconsidering his retirement and “would like more time to think about it”. Come on Haile, get those trainers out!]

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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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Mo Farah! The double European track gold medallist. Take a bow slim.

 

It is all about the 10k just at the moment. (Some 5k thoughts – on what was a far more exciting race – will appear down the line, time-permitting)

Once upon a time there was a runner named Mo. He got down to some training, got some good results and promptly had the expectations of the UK running community placed on his shoulders as reward.

Thank heavens Chris Thompson, with his own triumph-to-tragedy-to-triumph story, has joined the party this year and made sure Mo is not the only Brit under 28 minutes in 2009/2010. Which is a ridiculous situation to be in, but there you go.

So with Chris T in tow, and lets not forget, more than just in tow really, looming large on the 10k in particular: less than two seconds separated their season’s bests when they hit the European champs. It may have provided Mo with just what he needed, consciously or subconsciously, to produce his best. Having someone sneak up behind in may have spurred him on as the season unfolded, or it may just have been the camaraderie of having someone else as a medal contender when they faced Europe’s finest in Barcelona.

Either way the 10k on the opening evening of the champs was a fairytale race that developed (almost) exactly according to the script. As the top two in Europe this year, Mo and Chris were always going to have big parts in setting up the race shape. They have two very different strengths however and therein lay the catalyst for a good race. If Mo had his way, a final lap burn-up would have suited him fine (this is the 10k mind, we’ll get to the 5 another time, where perhaps his kick is not the showstopper it is at this distance). For Chris, burn-ups were not the ticket. He would have wanted a good, (“honest” is the word sometimes used to describe this, nobody likes a dishonest race after all, whatever that is) hard race, at a tempo that would get rid of any pretenders hoping for a super-slow-big-kick race to be on the menu.

So with the pesky first half of the race out of the way, Chris made his move. Stretching the pack with around 10 laps to go. It sparked Mo into action and he got right into the flow, settling in amongst the top few as the pack thinned. Then with about 8 laps to go the script looked to be wobbling before going downright awry, with Mo no longer able to resist the urge to get the hell out of dodge and power on, and off he went. Once he got to the front he had no option really, but to pick it up. He wanted to go and his superior conditioning/ability meant that it was a fairly brutal move for the rest of the pack to try and cover. Obviously they did try and cover it. There was no way they could let the pre-race favourite disappear without a fight. So in this covering response from the chase pack, it became clear that Chris was actually pretty close to his limit and was exposed ever so slightly by not responding immediately and strongly. So Mo and his Spanish shoulder buddy, Ayad Lamdassam, pulled away strongly, leaving Chris to head up the chase pack looking for the final medal. This was worrying in that Chris was not on his own and could be swallowed by the bunch forming quietly on his shoulder when the bell went and the bronze was there for the taking.

Two things were happening up front whilst (while?) this was going on. Firstly, Mo was not able to shake Lamdassam, and secondly he was aware that his move had put Chris into some difficulty. So, attempting to kill two birds with one stone, namely he needed to get the pesky Spaniard off his shoulder and out in front of him where he could keep an eye on him and time his unleashing of “mo’s monster” (when it came to final lap time) perfectly, and he also needed to try and slow the pace down enough for Chris to get back into the race. For this to come off, Lamdassan had to take the bait (and the lead) when Mo slowed and stepped into lane two. Surely not? An experienced international campaigner would call this desperate bluff for what it was and tell Mo to get the hell on with it? But amazingly Lamdassam bought it hook line and sinker. So as he scuttled unwillingly past Mo, into the lead, Mo looked back and gestured to Chris to come up and join them at the fast kids party. Obviously Chris didn’t have the legs for this; if he did he would have covered the move in the first place. Still, it may have given him encouragement to see his team mate pulling for him midrace.

Chivalry done, Mo then got down to the business of sitting and kicking. The unlucky Spaniard really had no chance, stuck out to dry in the lead, waiting for the inevitable. And when it was delivered it was with the finality and confident drive of a runner who knows he will not only avoid being passed again this race, but was about to put some serious daylight between himself and the second placer in the space of just a lap. Oh to be a kicker. Ask Geb if he found it a useful tool on the track. Or indeed pose the same question to the legend Paul Tergat. His impressive CV would be ratcheted up a few notches, had he even half the kick of his perennial rival Geb.

So Mo stretched seemingly effortlessly away to the gold, Chris got down to the business of holding off his own pesky cling-on, the Italian Daniele Meucci for the bronze medal. As they pushed each other harder and faster around the bell lap, the Mo-broken Lamdassam came into view. Could they catch him? Suddenly the race for bronze was a race for silver. Chris snatched it by the smallest of margins; he and Meucci were given exactly the same time. It was inches.

 

So a British one-two in an event that has never previously had a British champion. What a race. And it got good exposure on the national news reports, turning distance running (albeit momentarily), into coffee machine and water fountain conversation usually reserved for ball-based sporting endeavours. “Wasn’t that Mo Farah splendid?” “He was toying with the field“ etc etc. There was even some talk of Olympic glory come 2012.

Hush now, let’s enjoy the medals he has won. Wining hardware in a global championship is a LOT harder. The cream if Europe he certainly is, but there are probably a dozen Kenyans and a dozen Ethiopians (and at least one Eritrean) who could take care of business, and Mo along the way, over 10k.

Let’s see Mo consolidate this outstanding championship performance with some world class performances in what remains of this year’s Diamond League meetings. A Sub-13 this season or next would go an awfully long way in turning him into a global contender. A 12-something guy, with proven championship BMT and a big kick to boot (sub-55 only need apply). Now there’s a tasty battle to take to the big boys in 2012.

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Richard Mayer knows a bit about running. Let’s be honest and say he knows more about running, and South African running in particular, than pretty much anybody else I know. (Well, Keith Sherman excluded. Let’s call it a tie)

So when he decided to write a book on the most impressive era of South African road running, you know it is going to be a keeper. There’s no fluffed up, hyped up nonsense in there. Just an inspiring account of some pretty outstanding characters and some pretty outstanding performances.

The review below is taken from a South African newspaper called The Citizen.

The books is called: Three Men Named Matthews: Memories of the Golden Age of South African Distance Running and its Aftermath.

 
We can be the best
 

There was a time, during the isolation years, when South Africa had the best distance runners in the world.

Our elite athletes would, if given the chance, have left Kenyans and Ethiopians in their wake.

I was privileged to have front row seats at championships where these titans waged enthralling battles of will, talent and guile. I was fortunate to win the SA Road Running Association’s Press Award in 1989 and the SA Amateur Athletics Merit Award in 1990. Fortunate because there were several writers doing a better job.

However, none of us could have come close to matching the magnificent work produced by Richard Mayer in his new book Three Men Named Matthews: Memories of the Golden Age of South African Distance Running and its Aftermath.

In recalling the exploits of Mat thews Batswadi, Matthews Motshwar ateu and Matthews Temane, Mayer writes with incomparable inside knowledge and experience. He’s clocked up impressive 5 000m and 10km times at provincial level. He knows what makes top runners tick.

Make no mistake, we had world beaters. Temane’s 60:11 for the 21,1km in 1987 was the fastest on the planet. Incredibly, Temane was also a sub-four minute miler who beat icon Johan Fourie in Potchefstroom to set an altitude record of 3:55.4. Mayer describes this as “one of the greatest – if unheralded – mile performances in athletic history.

“It was a victory for grace over strength, and for the underdog over the overwhelming favourite”.

Indeed Temane was a graceful, smooth striding runner whose almost saintly, quiet demeanour became a focal point for black pride and white admiration. I was struck by the appar ent absence of ego, especially in com parison with lesser athletes who would boast during interviews.

Motshwarateu set a world record 10km record at the age of 21.

Batswadi was the trailblazer, the first black runner to be awarded Springbok colours.

But Mayer’s book is more than a paean to an athletes’ pantheon. A subtext is: we were so good, what happened? As Tim Noakes says in the foreword: “Why could SA athletics produce world-class athletes 20 years ago but apparently not any more?”

There are many answers. Surprisingly, the gold price is one. The mines no longer provide the level of support they did in the 1980s. We’ve also gone soft. All the great athletes in the book actively sought hardship, says Noakes.

We know about the new generation of politically minded administrators whom Noakes says are “less interested in serving athletes and growing the sport than in the pursuit of what they believe sport owes them”.

Noakes and Mayer agree that be hind all great athletes is a great coach. Mayer shows how the role of coaches has been subverted.

Thinking about these things while jogging the well-organised Soweto Marathon on Sunday, I was again awed by the massive community sup port there is for running, despite media bias towards other sports.

I believe we can be the power we were going to be. And to have a galaxy of Matthews triumphant on the world stage will uplift this nation.

There are people with enough knowledge and passion to make it happen. There are people who have the ability to get things done. There are people who can provide enough money.

The challenge is to get them all on the same track.

 The book is available online at http://www.redpepperbooks.co.za/ProductInfo.aspx?productid=9780620424189

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