There has been a quiet evolution/revolution in the marathon over the last decade and much of it has been unfolding in the Bank of America Chicago Marathon, the IAAF Gold Label Road Race. Weather permitting, that progression will continue in Sunday's race (9)through the streets of the Windy City likely led by World 25,000m and 30,000m track record holder Moses Mosop in the men’s race and two-time defending champion Liliya Shobukhova in the women’s category.
Shattering the seemingly unbreakable
Led by past Chicago champions, Briton Paula Radcliffe for the women, Khalid Khannouchi and the late Sammy Wanjiru of Kenya for the men; World records, race tactics and training in the marathon have been transformed, the result being that what could be called a Golden era in the event has erupted.
Previously seemingly unbreakable barriers have been shattered and competition has never been so fierce or so fast. In 2001 when Kenya's Catherine Ndereba set a world best of 2:18:47 in Chicago, it was heralded as a ground breaking performance, but only two years later, after running 2:17:18 in Chicago in 2002, Radcliffe ran a jaw dropping 2:15:25 in London. In 2002 in London, Moroccan born American, Khalid Khannouchi beat his own World record (set in 1999 in Chicago) in London by four seconds in a time of 2:05:38.
More impressive was the top three in that race which included cross country king, Paul Tergat of Kenya, and the Emperor, multi Olympic and World Championships 10,000m champion Haile Gebrselassie of Ethiopia. Both those men would later drop Khannouchi's record even further in races at the BMW Berlin Marathon, Tergat going under 2:05 in 2003, and Gebrselassie breaking 2:04 in 2008.
No need for fear
But it was a guy who never broke the World record who was the game changer, Samuel Wanjiru, who ran a seemingly pedestrian 2:06:32 to win the Olympic gold medal in Beijing in 2008 in a less than ideal climate. It was the way Wanjiru ran that race that made it revolutionary. He treated both the hot, humid weather and the rest of the world's top marathoners as if neither mattered. He ran his race, pushing the pace from the gun, and destroyed the Olympic record. While most runners feared either the Olympic stage, the other runners, or the weather, Wanjiru slapped them away as if they were an irritating insect, breaking all the rules of top flight competition except one, winning. As dominant as Radcliffe had been in setting her World record, Wanjiru was the same in the sport's biggest event.
Most importantly, Wanjiru demonstrated to the rest of the world's marathoners that you didn't have to fear the event. He also broke the mould of athletes waiting until they were near the end or finished with their track careers to move to the marathon.
"You've seen a big infusion of young, very athletic guys going straight to the marathon," said Carey Pinkowski, Chicago's executive race director. The result of this influx of fearless, talented young Kenyans in particular was evident at this year's Boston Marathon and at the IAAF World Championships in Daegu.
Now anything seems possible
Kenyans Geoffrey Mutai and Moses Mosop shocked everyone, even themselves, by running 2:03:02 and 2:03:06, respectively, to crush, not only the Boston course record, but the, at that point, World Record of 2:03:59. In Daegu the Kenyans swept the top two places in the men's Marathon, along with a sweep of all three medals in the women's event. Then in Berlin this fall, another Kenyan, Patrick Makau, broke Gebreselassie's World record by 21 seconds.
Suddenly, anything seemed possible. After Wanjiru's sturring duel with Ethiopian Tsegaye Kebede at the 2010 Chicago race, his agent, knowing that Wanjiru was far from his best shape going into the race declared that the World record was Wanjiru's for the taking. Wanjiru told Pinkowski that he believed he could run 2:02. Radcliffe commented that she would not be surprised if a man run under two hours for the marathon within the next ten years. Just a the four minute mile was thought to be beyond man's reach in the 1950s, the two minute barrier is the marathon's Holy Grail.
But such a quest is not for the faint of heart. "If you want to be a top athlete you have to be a little bit wild, not be an accountant," said Renato Canova, coach to one of Sunday’s main contenders Moses Mosop.
The training for the event has also been altered, says Canova. As Boston and Berlin indicated this year, race tactics have shifted so that marathoners have to able to surge sharply, dropping 5K splits into the low 14 minute range late in the race. Runners have to train properly to do this, Canova says. The long run has to be fast, not just putting in miles. Changing speeds, surging need to be incorporated as well to allow the body to adapt to what will happen in racing, adds Canova.
Hampered by injury Mosop aims for course record
After his debut marathon in Boston and a World record setting 30,000m on the track in Eugene, at the Samsung Diamond League meeting, Mosop was going to aim for 2:02 in Chicago. An Achilles injury scuppered those plans. Canova says Mosop is about "80-85%," but can probably run 2:05. Mosop says that he wants to break the Chicago course record of 2:05:41, set by Wanjiru in 2009, to honour his sadly deceased countryman.
Aside from his Achilles, which is still tender, Mosop says he is concerned about Ethiopian Bekana Daba, his countrymen Evans Cheruiyot, the 2008 Chicago champion;, Bernard Kipyego, and American Ryan Hall.
His confidence soaring after a 2:04:58 personal best at Boston this year, Hall is viewed as a darkhorse contender to break the African hegemony over marathon running. Boston reinforced his "no limits" approach to the marathon as he continues his experiments in training and racing, hoping to find the right formula at the right time for a podium finish at the Olympics and/or World Championships.
Shobukhova looks for London selection
Two-time women's defending champion Liliya Shobukhova of Russia says she has a "basket full of goals" ahead of her. Primary among them is to run as fast as she can on Sunday to earn a place on her country's London 2011 Olympic team, and becoming the 12th woman to run under 2:20 for the marathon is goal number two. The Russian women with the two fastest times between 1 September 2011 and 31 December 2011 will receive automatic selection to the Olympic team, says Shobukhova.
Also looking for a fast time is Kayoko Fukushi of Japan, who had a rough debut marathon in 2008 in Osaka where she was on 2:21 pace before collapsing four times on her way to a 2:40:54 finish.
The "wild card" in the field is Ethiopian Ejegayehu Dibaba, who will be making her marathon debut in Chicago. She has good family ties, sister to Tirunesh and cousin to Deratu Tulu, both double Olympic champions. Ejegayehu Dibaba has also been very successful on the track, taking the silver medal in the 10K in the 2004 Olympics in Athens, and two bronze (5000m and 10,000m) at the 2005 World Championships in Helsinki.
LIVE global stream
Thanks to NBC Chicago, the marathon's broadcast partner, those wanting to watch Sunday's race can connect to http://www.nbcchicago.com at 7:00 AM Central time (8 AM Eastern, 1 PM GMT). The free live stream is available globally.
Jim Ferstle for the IAAF