26 December 2011Monte Carlo – Statisticians A. Lennart Julin (SWE) and Mirko Jalava (FIN) continue their ‘End of Season’ review with their fifth installment, which looks back at the year’s action on the Roads: Running and Race Walking.
- MEN -
When the history of modern Marathon running is written sometime in the future the year 2011 will almost certainly be considered as very special indeed. Strangely enough not mainly because of the new World record set in Berlin by Patrick Makau when he lowered Haile Gebrselassie’s 2:03:59 from 2008 by 21 seconds. Of course a new World record is always something very special and Makau executed his race in brilliant fashion.
But still the real “greatest ever” magic wasn’t quite there as it didn’t feel at all like a perfect record race. Makau himself was in fact mainly focused on winning the race and “wasted” valuable energy on tactical maneuvers aimed at shaking off former record holder Gebrselassie. And just a few weeks later the feeling was confirmed when Wilson Kipsang in Frankfurt almost snatched the record from Makau missing it by just four seconds.
No, what really made 2011 a year that will be considered of historical significance in the sport of marathon running was that it changed our perception of what is really possible. The best illustration is probably the fact that there were new course records set in all the five races making up the “World Marathon Majors”.
On 17 April in London Emmanuel Mutai won handsomely by over a minute (ahead of Martin Lel and Makau) in 2:04:40 taking half a minute off Samuel Wanjiru’s two-year-old course record of 2:05:10.
The next day in Boston Geoffrey Mutai and Moses Mosop waged a breathtaking two-man battle culminating in a sprint finish won by Mutai in 2:03:02, four seconds ahead of Mosop. The previous top time at this, the most classic (born 1897!) of all yearly marathons, was close to three minutes slower: 2:05:52 by Robert Kiprono Cheruiyot just one year earlier. The 2:03:02 was also by almost a minute the fastest Marathon ever on a full-distance course, although the net drop from start to finish invalidated it for record purposes.
On 25 September in Berlin Makau as said lowered the official World record – set in Berlin three years eariler by Gebreselassie – by 21 seconds to 2:03:38. Makau won the race by well over four minutes.
On 9 October in Chicago Moses Mosop – claiming to be quite far from top fitness after injury problems during the summer – still with his 2:05:37 took four seconds off Samuel Wanjiru’s course record set in 2009. Mosop won the race by 38 seconds.
On 6 November in New York the ten-year-old course record (Tesfaye Jifar 2:07:43) was completely demolished as Geoffrey Mutai took away over two and half minutes in a race without pacesetters! With his 2:05:06 he not only had a 1:22 time cushion over his nearest opponent (London-winner Emmanuel Mutai) but also suddenly moved the supposedly un-fast New York course from “nowhere” up into sixth place on the all-time course record list (seventh if Boston is included).
But even more intriguing than the course records themselves were the “race profiles” where all but Berlin had negative splits (and Makau lost just 10 seconds) and where all but Chicago had the winner running sub-1:02 in the second half. The most impressive negative splitting came in New York where Geoffrey Mutai passed halfway in 1:03:18 and then added 1:01:47.
What has happened to that much talked-about “wall” you are supposed to hit after running “out of gas” at 30K or thereabouts? A question that gets even more pertinent if one looks at some of the 10Ks recorded on-route: In Berlin and Chicago Makau and Mosop respectively were clocked in 28:58 and 29:01 between 25K and 35K. And in London and New York we saw 28:44 and 28:54 between 30K and 40K for winners Emmanuel and Geoffrey Mutai! Not to mention Boston where G Mutai and Mosop pushed each other to 28:24 at 30-40K!
The exact same pattern was also displayed in the World Championships race in Daegu where winner Abel Kirui broke away by running the 10K between 25K and 35K in 28:58! His halves were 1:05:07/1:02:31.
Obviously that infamous wall has crumbled – or the top runners have found some kind of “hole” in the wall to sneak through that enables them to run sub-29 10Ks even in the second half and even after opening at supposed breakneck paces of 1:01-1:02. This observation has inevitably fueled speculations and discussions concerning whether the first sub-2:00 performance will happen within a not so distant future.
“Common sense” and experience says it is impossible – but maybe we have been fooled by history? There now definitely is a new breed of Marathon runners that approaches the event – both in training and in competition – with a different attitude and maybe also a new level of specific talent? Rather than being something that “old” track runners do when winding down their long careers the Marathon now is something you focus on right from the start.
People like the Mutais, Makau, Kipsang and Mosop have of course competed on the track but they quite early decided not to have track running as a main priority. Only Mosop has run in international championships on the track (World 10,000m bronze in 2005) but already at age 22 (in 2007) he left the track to focus 100% on road running, mainly half and full marathons. People like Gebrselassie and Tergat, following traditional wisdom, didn’t make their switches until they were into their 30s.
With so many young runners - especially in Kenya – now having aspirations on successful international careers there is not room for all of them on the track. There are simply not enough races on the professional circuit and in each of those races only a very small number of some 15-25 runners can participate.
On the road no such limitations exist as there are mass races with attractive prize money on offer at especially 10K, Half Marathon and Marathon more or less “everyday and everywhere” all over the world. The influx of new talent to the roads in the last few years has been incredible and most of those runners have no previous background in serious track running. They have instead gone directly to the road where their recent success proves that Marathon running is not necessarily something only suited for “retired” track specialists in their 30s. And the new road runners have gone there with a fresh attitude of not being scared or intimidated by paces previously thought to be suicidal.
One final reason why 2011 will go down in the history books as a very remarkable year indeed in marathon running: on the 2011 world list (as per early December and only counting “record legal” courses) all of the top-20 runners come from the same nation – Kenya! Not even traditional rivals Ethiopia managed to break into the top-25! In this day and age of truly globalised athletics and in an event available to everybody (no need for special arenas or expensive equipment) in every corner of the earth – but Antarctica – such complete domination by one single nation should not be practically or theoretically possible. But still it happened!?!
Race Walking has in recent years – especially at the international championships – been dominated by Russia. In the last three global championships – 2008 Olympics and 2009 and 2011 Worlds – Russia has won five of the six gold medals at stake. However, it should be noted that all the three 20Km triumphs have been courtesy of one single athlete – Valeriy Borchin – and only this year in Daegu did Russia have the backup in the form of also the silver medallist (Vladimir Kanaykin).
Borchin’s current supremacy at the shorter walking distances was underlined by the fact that he in addition to the World title also won the international 20K events in Rio Maior (POR) in April and Sesto San Giovanni (ITA) in May. He finished off his perfect year by securing the IAAF Race Walking Challenge title after dominating also the final 10Km event in La Coruna (ESP) a couple of weeks after Daegu.
But the 25-year-old Borchin still ought not to become complacent with the 2012 Olympics coming up as China’s Wang Zhen –five years younger than Borchin – improved substantially in 2011. Finishing fourth in Daegu Wang just missed the podium in his international championships debut. Before that he had compiled an impressive season winning in both Lugano and Taicang in 1:18 as well as in Dublin in 1:19. Wang capped his breakthrough year by finishing second fairly close behind Borchin at 10K in the Challenge final in La Coruna.
The new 50Km World champion Sergey Bakulin just like Borchin was born in 1986 which signals that he probably is still in the beginning of his career at this distance which he first tested just two years ago. Look e.g at silver medallist Denis Nizhegorodov who at 31 did his sixth global championship and who scored his fifth top-five finish. And remember that legend Robert Korzeniowski won his first global title at age 28 and his last at 36.
The 50Km walk is probably still the least “global” of all athletics events. In Daegu only 22 of the IAAF’s 200+ member federations were represented; of those 15 were European. But that is not preventing Australia from arguably being the top 50K-nation after Russia thanks to the trio of Jared Tallent (bronze in Daegu, silver in Beijing Olympics), Luke Adams (fifth in Daegu, his seventh global top-10 placing combining 50Km and 20Km) and Nathan Deakes (dnf in Daegu, but winner at the 2007 Worlds).
The Russian golden domination is also present in the junior and youth categories where the reigning World junior champion from 2010 is Valery Filipchuk and the reigning World Youth champion from 2011 is Pavel Parshin. So even though the 2011 World champions Borchin and Bakulin are just 25 Russia seems already well equipped to keep its success well into the next decade. Something that is not possible to say of some other traditional walking powers.
Actually one reason behind the increased Russian walking success is that nations like Italy, Spain and Mexico seem to have problems with finding and nurturing new athletes capable of challenging for the top positions. In Italy it seems that everything now rests on Alex Schwazer, the Olympic 50K winner in Beijing. This year he didn’t compete at that distance and at 20K he finished ninth, almost two minutes behind the winner.
As for Spain their top finish in the 20K in Daegu was 17th and in the 50Km none of their three entries finished the race (2 dq and 1 dnf). Typically their top-three men statistically of the year at 50Km were 42, 38 and 32 years old in 2011. In Mexico Eder Sánchez is the only man capable of seriously challenging for podium positions, but he failed in Daegu having to be content with a very discrete 15th place in the 20Km.
- WOMEN -
The times have really changed with the standard of marathons in the last few years. Before for women, a 2:23 or a 2:24 Marathon would have easily taken a place in the top five of the season, but this season there were a total of 39 women under 2:25 in 2011.
At the top 34-year-old Russian Liliya Shobukhova was the strongest runner with two fast national records during the season. First Shobukhova finished second in London clocking 2:20:15 behind Kenyan Mary Keitany and then won in Chicago in a world leading 2:18:20 in October. Keitany’s 2:19:19 in London was the second fastest of the year and the 29-year-old also finished third in New York in 2:23:38 in November for a fine duo of marathons for the season.
Much like on the men’s side, the women’s Marathon is being dominated more and more by two African countries, Kenya and Ethiopia. In 2011 there were eight athletes from both countries for a total of 16 in the world top 20 leaving only four places to other counties, one each from Russia, Germany, United States and Sweden.
Although many times these days different athletes are competing in the World Championships Marathon than those occupying the top placings in the major marathons, the picture is same there, too. In Daegu Kenya scored a 1-2-3 lead by Edna Kiplagat while Ethiopian Bezunesh Bekele finished fourth. In addition to Kenya and Ethiopia, China has done well in recent World Championships. It’s the only country with an athlete in the top six four times in a row 2005-2011 including two medals, one gold (Bai Xue) and one silver (Zhou Chunxiu). Zhu Xiaolin has placed in the top six in three successive World Championships 2007 (4th), 2009 (5th) and 2011 (6th) and in between 2007 and 2009 she placed fourth in Beijing at the 2008 Olympics as well. In the last four editions 2005-2011, Kenya has won the most medals with five and China and Japan are next with two each.
Ethiopia has easily the best depth in this event with 33 athletes in the world top 100. Kenya has 18 for second place and Japan 11 for third.
Although there was a World record (pending) set in the women’s 20Km Race Walk, the athlete in charge of that performance, Russian Vera Sokolova, was nowhere near being the best walker of the season. In race walking winning the major championships is everything and at the moment there is only one walker winning and that is another Russian Olga Kaniskina.
The 26-year-old has won every major championship since finishing in silver medal position in Gothenburg at the 2006 European Championships: three successive World titles 2007-2011, the Olympic title in 2008 and of course the 2010 European Championships as well. Kaniskina knows how to prepare for major meets. She only competed twice before Daegu, winning both times, first in April in Rio Maior and on May Day in Sesto San Giovanni. She was nowhere near the fastest time of the year and still added an easy title in Daegu winning in 1:29:42.
The number two walker seems to be quite clear too as 24-year-old Chinese Liu Hong has won a medal in the last two World Championships. Following a bronze medal in Berlin she walked a balanced race in Daegu for a clear second place 18 seconds behind Kaniskina. She only lost twice during the season, both times to Kaniskina (she did finish in fourth place in London in a test race on the Olympic course, but that was not a real competition).
2010 European silver medallist Anisya Kirdyapkina won the first worldwide medal finishing third in Daegu in 1:30:13, but new World record holder Sokolova did not do as well finishing the race in 11th place well behind the medals. In the yearly results Kirdyapkina was second in the same race where Sokolova set the World Record in Sochi in February with a 1:25:09 result, just a second behind the winner.
Third on the world list was Liu Hong, who equalled her 1:27:17 personal best with a win in Taicang in April having previously walked the same time in Beijing Olympics 2008 where she was fourth.
China continues to dominate this event with 28 athletes in the world top 100. Russia is a clear second with 16 and Spain third with seven.
Note: This year Julin covers the men's side of the action and Jalava the women's.