Duncan Kibet finishes his sensational 2:04:27 in the 2009 Rotterdam Marathon (John de Pater) © Copyright
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2009 - End of Year Reviews – ROAD: Running/Race Walking

MonteCarloIn the fifth of their eight part season review, Statisticians A. Lennart Julin (SWE) and Mirko Jalava (FIN) highlight the key action on the Roads - long distance running and the Race Walks.



The standards in marathon running have risen remarkably in recent years and this process continued – and even picked up its pace - making 2009 the greatest year of all-time quality-wise clearly surpassing the previous top-year 2008 on all levels but one: Haile Gebrselassie's World record 2:03:59 from Berlin last year remained intact.

But even that was only just as the Kenyan duo of Duncan Kibet and James Kwambai moved up to joint 2nd place all-time with their 2:04:27's in Rotterdam. But the really impressive numbers are still the more general ones like:

* 2009 was the first year ever when over 100 different runners dipped under the once so formidable barrier of 2:10.

* 2009 saw no less than 25 new performances sub-2:07 which meant that the historical total number of such performances grew by 33%.

* In 2009 there were brilliant new course records set in Rotterdam (2:04:27), London (Samuel Wanjiru 2:05:10), Fukuoka (Tsegaye Kebede 2:05:15), Chicago (Wanjiru 2:05:41), Paris (Vincent Kipruto 2:05:47), Frankfurt (Gilbert Kirwa 2:06:14) and Amsterdam (Gilbert Koech 2:06:18)!

Of the most prestigious and internationally recognised marathons thus only Berlin (Haile Gebrselassie 2:06:08 vs his own 2:03:59 last year), New York (Meb Keflezighi 2:09:15 vs Tesfaye Jifar 2:07:43 in 2001) and Boston (Deribe Merga 2:08:42 vs Robert Cheruiyot 2:07:14 in 2006) missed getting new records this year.

Quantitative facts as these would normally have been interpreted as indisputable evidence of a strong positive trend sweeping around the whole marathon world. But if one makes a more thorough analysis the picture quickly becomes almost the opposite, i.e. marathon standards are slipping dramatically all over the world with just two significant exceptions: Kenya and Ethiopia.

Because out of the record number of 103 sub-2:10 runners this year (as of 8 December) 64 are from Kenya and 27 from Ethiopia leaving the combined grand total of ... 12 for the remaining 200+ nations in the world of athletics!! Several nations that just five or 10 years ago were quite strong in the event have now more or less vanished from the elite scene: No sub-2:10 runner at all from Spain, Portugal, Great Britain, Brazil, Mexico or Tanzania, just one each from Japan, Italy, South Africa and Korea, two from the USA and three from Morocco.

The effects can now also be clearly seen in the championship races. Just compare the top-8 in the 2003 Worlds in Paris with the outcome this year in Berlin:

The strange thing is that all this has happened at the same time as big city marathons have become more popular than ever, especially in Europe. But despite this convenient access to attractive competitive opportunities it seems as if runners in Europe and the rest of the world have become content with marathon "jogging". They have more or less surrendered the competitive aspect of the event to the East African powerhouses Kenya and Ethiopia.

What consequences that will bring in the future is still a question without answer. Will race organisers continue to invite and attract (by good prize money) foreign elite runners? Or will a feeling of over-saturation of foreign elite runners get the organisers to instead focus 100% on the local mass aspect of their races and not bothering at all with the elite?

Race Walks

Perhaps even more so than the other endurance events race walking has been an event where the top echelon traditionally has been dominated by athletes in their 30's. But at least the 20 km distance has in recent years become a remarkably youthful event. In 2009 the average age of the top-10 statistically was a mere 24.7 years which in fact was e.g. about one year less than for the top-10 in the 100m dash!

But race walking is still an event where just a handful of nations - Russia, Spain, Mexico and China - provide most of the top athletes with France, Norway, Australia, Poland and Slovakia contributing some individuals to the mix. The absence of top walkers from Africa remains striking, especially in view of the success they have in the closely related long distance running events. The complete African presence on the top-100 of 2009 is one Kenyan at 20 km and one Tunisian and one South African at 50 km, all discrete positioned on the lower half of the list.

Although China has by far the greatest depth – they are responsible for about a quarter of the top-100-lists – it is still Russia that comes up with the winners: Valeriy Borchin had full control over the 20 km in Berlin and Sergey Kirdyapkin even more so at 50 km. Borchin is at the tender age of 23 well on his way to create an era of his own as he now is the reigning Olympic and World Champion as well as the current European vice-champion.

Unfortunately all the top walkers only get to compete head-to-head at the major championships as not even the seven-event IAAF Race Walking Challenge manages to attract the top names more than on two or maybe three occasions. That the altogether nine races in the 2009 Challenge series had eight different winners illustrates the situation.

However, Erik Tysse of Norway provided proof that it is possible to do it differently. He competed in Chihuahua in mid March (4th at 20 km), in Rio Maior in early April (3rd at 20 km), in Sesto San Giovanni in early May (2nd at 20 km), in Krakow in late May (2nd at 10 km) and in La Coruna in late June (2nd at 20 km). And he competed well also in Berlin finishing 7th not more than about a minute from the bronze medal.

2009 World Lists - [Marathon][20Km Race Walk][50Km Race Walk]



In the women’s marathon, the talk of the season was the usual one once again: whether or not Briton Paula Radcliffe would make it to the start line at the World Championships. The usual injuries were there as well and although the 35-year-old ran a good test run winning a half marathon in New York with a 1:09:45 season’s best in mid-August, her injuries were not well enough healed and she did not compete in Berlin.

The two fastest marathon times this season came from the same race with Irina Mikitenko of Germany winning the London Marathon with a world leading 2:22:11 followed by Briton Mara Yamauchi clocking the second fastest time in the world this season, a 2:23:12 personal best. In the same race 5000m European record holder Russian Liliya Shobukhova debuted nicely with a 2:24:24 for the third place and countrywoman Svetlana Zakharova, 39, followed in 2:25:06.

The Berlin World Championships race was pretty much open with many of top names opting not to run for one reason or another. 30-year-old Japanese Yoko Shibui was the third fastest in 2009 clocking 2:23:42 in Osaka in January, but she too withdrew from the Berlin team because of an injury. New Ethiopian marathon names Bezunesh Bekele (2:24:02), Teyiba Erkesso (2:24:18) and Atsede Bayisa (2:24:42) had all recorded early year times under 2:25, but they weren’t fighting for the Berlin gold medal. Bekele did run in Berlin, but finished well behind the top names clocking 2:30:03 in 16th place.

In Berlin Asians ruled with three Chinese runners making it to the top five. The early pace was not exactly fast, but when the acceleration started many top names were dropped from the leading group surprisingly fast. In the end five runners, three of them Chinese, were fighting for the win. Just 20-year-old Bai Xue, already running her 11th marathon despite the young age, did everything right and in the end passed Japanese Yoshimi Ozaki quite easily in the late parts of the race to win with a 2:25:15 season’s best. Ozaki also set an SB 2:25:25 for the bronze with Mergia Aselefech of Ethiopia fighting a fierce comeback from Chinese Zhou Chunxiu, 2007 World Champs silver medalist and 2008 Olympic bronze medalist, to take the bronze in 2:25:32 before Zhou’s 2:25:39 season’s best. Another Chinese Zhu Xiaolin was fifth with a 2:26:08 season’s best finishing just outside the medals for the third time in a row. In 2007 she was fourth in Osaka and also fourth at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.

Ethiopia has 25 athletes in the world top 100. Japan has 19 and Kenya and Russia are tied for third with 13 apiece.

Race Walks

The tradition in the women’s 20km walk went on with the fastest times in the world recorded at the Russian winter championships as usual. 24-year-old reigning Olympic Champion Olga Kaniskina walked a super fast world leading time of 1:24:56 missing the fastest ever result 1:24:50 by Olimpiada Ivanova from 2001 just by a mere six seconds. The conditions however were not suitable for World record purposes as there were not enough international judges in the competition so the official World record still stands at 1:25:41 by Olimpiada Ivanova from the 2005 World Championships in Helsinki.

Kaniskina, who was absolutely commanding in Beijing, had absolutely no problems in stretching her win streak to eight competitions in the 20km distance in 2009. After her fast winter win she went on to walk one more competition before the World Championships winning the IAAF Race Walking Challenge in Wuxi, China, clocking 1:28:00. In Berlin her victory was never in jeopardy with the clear race walking world No. 1 gaining another title in 1:28:09. Irishwoman Olive Loughnane came from the back to beat Chinese Liu Hong for the surprise silver medal in a 1:28:58 season’s best and Anisya Kirdyapkina of Russia was fourth well behind in 1:30:09 (bronze for Chinese in 1:29:10).

The world all-time list was rewritten in Adler at the Russian winter champs with the first six of the 2009 annual list coming from this meet. The first five athletes in this competition entered the All-time Top 10 with Vera Sokolova and Anisya Kirdyapkina both clocking 1:25:26 for second and third places in this meet respectively. Olga Kaniskina’s only loss of the season came in her only 10km race in Krakow, Poland, at the IAAF Race Walking Challenge where Norwegian veteran, 37-year-old, Kjersti Tysse Plätzer narrowly beat her with a 41:41 season’s best finish against 41:42 by Kaniskina, a personal best. In Berlin the double Olympic silver medalist from 2000 and 2008 was unlucky and was disqualified in the 20km race.

Russians have really dominated this event with the first 11 places and 14 out of first 15 in the world all-time list going to this country. In fact in the top 24 there is only one Belarussian, four Chinese and 19 Russians all-time. China has the best depth however with 29 athletes in the world top 100. Russia has 17 for the second place and Spain six for third.

2009 World Lists - [Marathon][20Km Race Walk]