Marilson Gomes dos Santos of Brazil was the first invited athlete to arrive at in New York City, on Monday (26), nearly a week in advance of the ING New York City Marathon, and the first to meet reporters on Tuesday morning. These are minor distinctions; more to the point, dos Santos was first to the finish line here in 2006 and 2008, and has high hopes of adding a third victory to that record.
The ING New York City Marathon is an IAAF Gold Label Road Race.
Dos Santos is a small figure, lean beyond the point of gauntness, and speaks with a soft, high voice; only the prominent bones and signs of many kilometres of training on his face betray his age (32). The Brazilian training model centers on high training volumes, which Gomes runs at over a mile of elevation, and he has been running since he was twelve.
Out of obscurity
When he broke away from the leaders in the 2006 NYC marathon, few of them knew him and none considered his move worth covering. However, dos Santos' relative lack of notoriety outside South America has less to do with his significant ability, as he demonstrated with two sub-2:09 clockings in London and Chicago in 2007, and more to do with the Brazilian distance-running culture.
With relatively few tracks in the vast territory of Brazil, its runners develop more through domestic road racing than through the traditional athletics circuit. While the resume of top-ranked marathoners through the rest of the world will include 10,000m and 5000m results from the World Athletics Tour or the World Cross Country Championships, the Brazilian marathon corps develops almost entirely domestically, meeting the rest of the world only when they enter major marathons. Those results can be as dramatic as they were unanticipated: the 2:06:05 World record of Ronaldo da Costa in 1998, the Olympic bronze medal run of dos Santos' clubmate Vanderlei de Lima in 2004, and Marilson Gomes dos Santos in New York.
One Kenyan marathoner who might have warned the 2006 New York pack about dos Santos was Robert Kipkoech Cheruiyot, who split a pair of races with dos Santos between 2002 and 2003. São Paulo's São Silvestre road race attracts many of the world's top road racers, with Paul Tergat a multi-time winner in the late 1990s. Cheruiyot had beaten the young Brazilian in 2002, then lost to him in 2003, but Cheruiyot had run in Chicago in 2006 and was not in the New York pack. Dos Santos, slight, inexperienced-looking and clearly not African, was written off despite his two São Silvestre victories. It was not a mistake anyone is likely to make again.
The confidence of experience
The 2006 win in New York put dos Santos' face on the cover of major magazines in Brazil. "He was like the President," says his agent. His return victory in New York in 2008, after two years of fast times but few victories, was a dramatic return. After allowing Abderrahim Goumri a lead of nine seconds with less than four kilometres remaining, dos Santos stormed back to pass Goumri in the final stages of the race on Central Park South and an eventual margin of victory of 24 seconds.
"In the first part, I was not there," he told reporters. "In the second part, I really felt my body pushing, and I felt better." Dos Santos ran the second half of the race in 1:02:37. "I was very confident the entire time."
Coming in to this year's five-borough tour, dos Santos arrived in New York with that unshakable confidence intact despite his lackluster racing results so far this year. He was 16th in 2:15:13 at the World Championships in Berlin, a warm day where the early splits were fast and the Kenyans were surging to thin down the pack; dos Santos held on through halfway, but unlike in New York, he suffered in the second half. Now, he shrugs off that race. "Every marathon," he explains, "gives me more confidence in my mind and makes me more prepared for the next one."
Training for the third victory
After Berlin he returned, unshaken, to his training base in Campos do Jordão, at 1600m of altitude in the mountains outside São Paulo.
"Since Berlin," says dos Santos' coach Adauto Domingues in New York, "he has left Campos do Jordão only for the half-marathon in Birmingham, and for this race."
Dos Santos was 17th in 1:02:41 at the World Half Marathon Championships, the first South American finisher, but well off his best time for the distance. At 59:33, a time run in 2007, dos Santos is the fastest non-African in history at the half-marathon distance, but only twenty-first overall.
"I did not change much about my training for the half-marathon," explained dos Santos. "My priority was this marathon."
With 70 days between the World Championships marathon in Berlin and Sunday's race in New York, then, dos Santos has been focused entirely on solitary training in his mountain town. "For most of my life I have trained by myself. In a group, I feel more easy; I love running in a group but I feel more benefit from training alone."
Domingues underlines dos Santos' solitary plan, explaining, "In Brazil, there are very few athletes (dos Santos) can train with."
The last few days of sharpening will be in New York, then, and dos Santos has no specific faces in his mind as he visualizes the approaching race, not even the tenacious, if frustrated, Goumri. "It is difficult to mention challengers, because there are more than two or three. I don't want to be unfair." This may be the voice of one who was overlooked himself in the past; it may be the response of an athlete who simply never concedes a race in his mind.
"Every single race is the same field," is how dos Santos characterizes his competition. "There's no difference between New York and any other race. Every race is the same field, and the same rush."
Parker Morse for the IAAF