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Big City Marathons.

The second highlight in this series is going to the big city marathon season.

I’m going to focus on one in particular, one that usually gets overlooked in these conversations. And that is the first one of the year: Dubai.

 Dubai Marathon 2012

For the rest, Rotterdam, Boston, London, Chicago, Berlin, Frankfurt, New York, they were all very exciting and there were some great talking points. Sadly, New York was hit by an event that makes any trivial pastime like this pale into insignificance. But there was Boston’s heat, Berlin’s “sprint” finish, Chicago’s Kebede renaissance, and the Spring DNF’s of Geoffrey Mutai in Boston and Patrick Makau in London.  I’m not sure they delivered the blow-your-head-off performance that many of their 2011 counterparts had. But perhaps that 2011 bar had just been set too high?

Either way the big city marathons in 2012 were headed into with a LOT of hype.

2011 had been an incredible year for men’s marathon running. Times had plummeted, the number of truly world class performances sky rocketed, and in fact the definition of a “world class time” had changed by virtue of the volume of staggering performances between January 2011 and December 2011. One country did the lion’s share of the damage. Kenyans took the marathon world by the scruff of the neck. 2:04 men, 2:05 men, 2:06 men. Every time a weekend passed by there were another half-dozen new performances on the all-time top 100 list. At the forefront of this incredible wave were two men who had emerged head and shoulders above the rest of the elite pack. Patrick Makau and Geoffrey Mutai. Behind this duo were plenty of elite Kenyan marathoners just waiting for them to put a foot wrong. The Kenyan Olympic marathon selection became headline news amongst the running community. Who would they pick? Who should they pick? Why was their selection criteria so complex? Why wouldn’t they commit? Why would they commit? Back and forth it went.

2011 had been a watershed year in marathoning, the likes of which would be unlikely to be seen again soon, nevermind in the very next year. But that didn’t stop the hype and the hope.

27 January 2012

 Ayele Abshero in Dubai

Dubai opened the year up and was a cracker. If this was how 2012 was going to start, there was much to be excited about. Three unheralded Ethiopians took the podium spots in record times left and right. Ayele Abshero won in 2:04:23. Dino Sefir was second in 2:04:50 and Markos Geneti was third in 2:04:54. If 2011 had been the year of Kenyan marathoning, 2012 might become the year Ethiopia took the power back.

Dubai’s official marathon website race report had this to say:

Ayele Abshero, the 2009 Junior Cross Country World Champion, also established himself as a leading contender for Ethiopia’s Olympic trio – if not victory at London 2012 – as he headed an Ethiopian 1-2-3, with Dino Sefir second in 2:04:50, and Markos Geneti third in 2:04:54, both personal bests.

 The quality of the performances was such that based on the final finishing times, the $1 million race featured the greatest marathon field in history. Never before in marathon history have more than three men broken 2:05 on a legal course yet here in Dubai four men broke that mark. Best marks-for-place were set for positions from third through to 17th, making it arguably the greatest marathon ever in terms of depth.

We were set for an unstoppable assault on all sorts of time barriers. Here we go, strap yourselves in. But in fact, Dubai, as far as times went, was as good as it was going to get. And it was pretty good.

The times were hellishly fast. Abshero was the new marathon kid on the block. With a run like that he had marathon fans the world over wondering what he might do in subsequent races. Geneti, a seasoned campaigner over other distances, had now marked his marathon card with a world class performance. It also seemed to signal a rapid changing of the guard in Ethiopian marathon running. The Olympic selection committee went on to pick all three of the Dubai finishers for the Olympic squad, displacing the established trio of likely’s: Gebre Gebremariam (NYC Marathon winner), Tsegay Kebede (London and Chicago winner) and Haile Gebrselassie (there’s not enough space here, but he’s done a bit, take my word for it).  

The selection seemed a rash decision even at the time, and with hindsight’s infallibility it has been exposed as being just that. Why would you disregard seasoned, proven big stage professionals like Gebremariam and Kebede, arguably at the height of their powers? Haile might have been a sentimental selection, but the other two surely were unlucky to miss out. As it turned out, none of the Dubai trio finished the Olympic marathon, which goes to show not only that you can’t judge from single performances, but also how difficult the sport of marathon running is.

The women’s race in Dubai was equally amazing. Aselefech Medessa from Ethiopia took the win in 2:19:31, with Kenyan Lucy Kabuu second a few ticks back in 2:19:34 and Dibaba Hurssa rounding out the top 3 in 2:19:52. Three women in sub 2:20 in the same race. Incredible.  

From the marathon website race report as earlier :

Medessa and Kabuu provided a thrilling end to the women’s marathon.

 I know the course so I felt confident,” said Medessa, who edged out Kabuu by just three seconds. “I prepared well and I’m delighted with 2:19. I’m now the best Ethiopian – and with a time like that, I hope to be selected for the Olympic Games”. 

It was the first time in international marathon history where three women have all ran under 2:20:00 underlining the event’s IAAF Gold Label status and its standing as one of the greatest marathon stages in the world. As with the men’s event, the women’s race saw incredible depth and best marks-for-place were set for positions third through to ninth.

To absorb how good the times in Dubai were, the top ten results are below.

Men

Pos Name Country Time
1 Ayele Abshero Ethiopia 2:04:23
2 Dino Sefir Ethiopia 2:04:50
3 Markos Geneti Ethiopia 2:04:54
4 Jonathan Maiyo Kenya 2:04:56
5 Tadesa Tola Ethiopia 2:05:10
6 Yami Dadi Ethiopia 2:05:41
7 Shami Dawit Ethiopia 2:05:42
8 Deressa Chimsa Ethiopia 2:05:42
9 Seboka Tola Ethiopia 2:06:17
10 Yemane Tsegay Ethiopia 2:06:29

Women

Pos Name Country Time
1 Aselefech Medessa Ethiopia 2:19:31
2 Lucy Kabuu Kenya 2:19:34
3 Mare Dibaba Ethiopia 2:19:52
4 Bezunesh Bekele Ethiopia 2:20:30
5 Aberu Kebede Ethiopia 2:20:33
6 Lydia Cheromei Kenya 2:21:30
7 Sharon Cherop Kenya 2:22:39
8 Atsede Baysa Ethiopia 2:23:13
9 Mamitu Daska Ethiopia 2:24:24
10 Isabella Andersson Sweden 2:25:41

It was an incredibly stand-out set of results with a number of excellent performances further down the line.

In one of these, the legendary Hendrick Ramaala showed that turning 40 is no obstacle, and ran 2:12:12 for 19th place. With this run he secured the qualifying time for what would have been his fifth Olympic games. Sadly the South African Olympic committee chose not to select him for the team. But that in no way detracts from what was yet another top quality performance from our old team mate.

So Dubai opened the book on 2012 marathoning. It paved the way for some great racing in the subsequent Spring and Autumn big city marathon season (and of course in the Olympic marathons). But none of them were able to produce the staggering set of results to match those in Dubai.

Highlights of 2012. Part 1. NIA Grand Prix 2-mile indoors here

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The 1993 Great Train Relay 
Way back in 1993 I was a first year Engineering student at Wits University, Johannesburg.

I had recently joined the Athletics Club which was to change my life in so many ways. We had a proper coach, who gave us proper programs to follow. The improvements had been nothing short of incredible for those of us who had never stuck to a program before. But that’s by the by. I was hooked on running and was sponging up advice and experiences wherever I could.

Sometime in the second half of the year, a trip to Port Elizabeth (a city on the South African East Coast) to race a train was in order. It was called the Great Train Race and the train was called the Apple Express. 

From the now defunct race website “The Great Train race is an annual 10-man relay event over 73 km. It is hotly contested and has become the de facto South African club relay championship. The race is not only between the teams of runners, but also between the TRAIN and the runners – the aim is to beat the steam train!”.  The link also mentions that at the height of its popularity, in 1996, there were 624 teams taking part. That’s 6240 runners. A big event.

I have no idea who organised the trip, although it was probably the likes of Keith Sherman or Geoff Lee (the club chairman and soon-to-be ultrarunning hero). Anyway we were bundled into a team bus and sent down to the seaside.

The runners I can remember being on that trip are: Hendrick Ramaala, Alex Burrows, Paulo Contente, Philip Knibbs, Piers Cruickshanks, Mark Wadley, Geoff Lee, and me. There were ten in a relay team so there must be another two who have completely slipped my mind.

We had no realistic aspirations of greatness in the race. Club running in South Africa is (or was at least; having been away from the scene for over a decade I don’t know whether this is still the case) dominated by a number of top level clubs sponsored by large mining companies or other big hitting industrial companies. They filled their teams with national and world class professional runners, and the competition was fierce at the top. The likes of President Brandt Mines had Xolile Yawa (60min half marathon runner, multiple SA national champion at 10000m, Olympian), Meck Methuli etc. President Steyn Mines was another top club, Iscor Steel etc. Anyway, the point is we would be nowhere near these elite teams and had considered a top 50 as a good target.

But we had an ace up our sleeve. Unbeknownst to any of us, and possibly not yet to himself, Hendrick was fast.

Hendrick was on the verge of breaking through to good provincial level and soon after that national level, and a few years after that, truly world class (two silver medals at World Half Marathon Champs, sub-60 half marathons ten years before it became commonplace among Kenyans). He was on his way to somewhere good. But we didn’t know it yet. What we did know is that he was the fastest on our team, so he got first leg. The advice was “Be cool Hendrick, you will be among professional runners so don’t try and go with the pace. Top 15 to 20 is your target”. Naturally Hendrick ignored this nonsense and went out like the steam train. He was leading the whole damn race halfway through his leg.  He ended in second place, Xolile having caught him somewhere towards the end (probably thinking who is this guy??).

Our second leg runner was Alex Burrows. He didn’t train with us so we didn’t know him too well, but what we did know is that he had run a 3:54 1500m in Joburg (2000m above sea level), so yeah he had some moves. He lost a place or two but we were still about 5th overall. The rest of us ran as hard as we could, each losing a few places. All I remember about my leg was going out way too hard. Welcome to relay running mince. When the adrenalin wore off I realised I was screwed, but hung on as best I could. And so it went. Until our last leg runner, Paulo Contente, got going. Amazingly we were still high up in the placings, 21st overall.

As each of us finished our leg, the team bus had picked us up and drove to the next leg. So we were all in the van and driving the final leg of the race. Paulo was running well. He was a 9:30 steepler, so he was pretty hot shit in our books. He was also Portuguese and I mention this because, outside of the running, the trip had been punctuated by Paulo’s tales of any and all things Portuguese. He also told the most disgusting jokes my young mind had ever heard. He was great.

So back to the final leg. We’re lying 21st and the finish is about half a mile away. The route goes left and left again, around a large field. So you can see the finish banner from a long way off. We had driven ahead of the runners now, to get to the finish, so now were waiting about half a mile from the end, to see if Paulo had held onto 21st . He comes into view down the road, sprinting like a man possessed, in TWENTIETH place! We’re driving alongside him and he gasps something about the guy in twentieth making a wrong turn. Sure enough a few seconds later we see the runner who had been ahead of him previously, CLIMBING THROUGH A HOLE IN THE FENCE to get back onto the road from the field he had somehow ended up in.

Turns out he had gotten lost and asked Paulo which way to go. Paulo, being a competitive guy (understatement) had seen his opportunity and taken it. He offered a route that he knew was wrong. Off the runner went, and on realising his mistake had cut through the field to try  and make up lost time. Paulo was long gone by now, sprinting as though it was a 400m race. The runner behind him came through strongly, but Paulo held on by a few seconds and we secured twentieth!

Before you get all “that’s not cricket”, remember that runners and teams were supposed to know their leg routes beforehand. This guy hadn’t done his homework.

It was an awesome first away trip with the club, and there were many more to come. But this one always stays with me, because it was the first.

Hendrick’s opener and Paulo’s closer made it all the more memorable. How did the train do? No idea.

Footnote: In researching the Train Relay to look for photos etc., I sadly discovered that from the height of its powers in the late 90’s it has not been run since 2004. There is talk of it restarting soon, so here’s hoping.

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but here’s one anyway.

south africa’s most successful road runner of all time. twice world half marathon silver medallist. NYC marathon winner, closest ever battle for victory a year later.

not the little emporer - the guy with the bandana

rolling with the big dogs

not the guy in red. he’s decent though. and he OWNS london. not the little emporer either – see yesterday’s link for his greatness. the guy in the bandana. the big H-man. the one and only…

watch this space…

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