The Stars are Out in London

    This from the Science of Sport website on Sunday’s London Marathon:

It’s pretty impossible to describe the quality of the men who’ll be taking to the streets of London on Sunday, for what should be a fitting climax to the Spring marathon season.  So far, we’ve seen a sub-2:05 in Rotterdam, a sub-2:06 in Boston, and now, the grand finale in London promises to be the biggest and best race of the year.

It always is in London, thanks to a massive budget to bring together the kings of marathon running.  This year, that budget was stretched to its limit when most of the top African stars found themselves stranded as a result of the ash cloud over Europe.  A few private planes, $230,000 later, and all will line up in London, hopefully none the worse for their longer than usual journey.

The contenders

Who are they?  Well, London 2010 has arguably the best field ever assembled for a marathon.  It includes:

  • Sammy Wanjiru – last year’s London and Chicago champion, the current Olympic Champion, the course record holder in London and Chicago, and the current World Marathon Major champion.  And he’s ‘only’ the third fastest man in the field with a 2:05:10 (last year’s winning London performance)
  • Abel Kirui – the world champion from Berlin last year, third in that incredible Rotterdam race last year with the second fastest PB in the race at 2:05:04
  • Duncan Kibet – the fastest in the field, last year’s Rotterdam winner in 2:04:27, though he did falter in Berlin last year, failing to finish.  His most recent half marathon performances suggest that was a blip
  • Tsegay Kebede – the Fukuoka Champion last year, in a course record, and last year’s bronze medalist in Berlin’s World Champs, second in London, and also third in the Beijing Olympics
  • Emmanuel Mutai – second in the 2009 World Championships, and fourth in London last year, with a PB of 2:06:15
  • Zersenay Tadese – the unknown quantity in the marathon.  Well, actually, that’s not entirely true, because last year, Tadese started London, but failed to finish despite much hype about what he could do over the marathon.  Most consider that an aberration, and given that only a few weeks ago, he ran to a 58:23 world record in the half marathon, few doubt that he may well be the big threat to the Kenyans

Simply put, there are too many accolades among those men to even remember!  So to sum up, London 2010 brings together all three 2009 World Championship medalists, all three Olympic medalists, the defending champions from Chicago, London and Fukuoka, the fastest man in 2009, the Marathon Major champ from 2009, and the half-marathon world champion.

Picking the winner

So how might this collection of superstars be sorted on Sunday?  It really is impossible to tell. 

Sammy Wanjiru

has raced and beaten every single runner in this field in the last two years.  His victory in Beijing’s heat in 2008 is regarded by many (including me) as perhaps the greatest marathon ever run, and he followed it up with brilliant, aggressive front-running victories in London and Chicago last year.  Last year in London, he ran the 19th mile in 4:25 (2:45/km), typical of what he produces when on form.

However, he has struggled with a back injury since Chicago, and has been handed some pretty big defeats in shorter races since that.  It must be pointed out that pre-Chicago, he also didn’t come in with a searingly fast half marathon, and the same is true this time – a 61:33 in March.  That’s almost the same pace as I would expect them to hit halfway in tomorrow, something just a shade under 64 minutes.  So hopefully Wanjiru has managed himself and his build-up well and is in top form again.  If he is, then the race changes complexion because of his front-running aggression, and you wouldn’t bet against him.  He is the slight favourite.

The big unknown, as mentioned, is Zersenay Tadese

.  The fastest half-marathon runner in history, and that was only a month ago, he is destined to be a brilliant marathon runner.  Whether he can fulfill this on Sunday remains to be seen.  I have concerns over the proximity of his half-marathon record to this race – it was only a month ago and to be in that kind of shape a month out from a marathon, with the need to have been doing marathon specific training in the build-up to that race, may be a problem.  He may be slightly over the peak, and if so, would be found out in the final 10km tomorrow.  Also, last year was a very disappointing performance – he was almost the first big name to drop off the lead group, just after half-way.  But I am sure he will produce a much improved performance, and should be on the podium.  The sub-2:04 performance will come in the future.

The other huge challenger is Tsegay Kebede.  He finished 2009 with performances of 2:05:20 in London, 2:08:35 in Berlin and 2:05:18 in Fukuoka.  That gives him the fastest three-race average in one year in history, and he knows how to get it right in paced big city marathons – successive 2:05s shows this.

Those three make up my likely podium, though I really don’t know the order.  If I had to guess, I’d go Wanjiru, Kebede, Tadese, but this is on occasion where in half an hour, I might well have changed it around!

And then there are so many other contenders.  Don’t be surprised to see Mutai, Kibet and Kirui on the podium.  I’d be surprised if any of them won it, and Mutai in particular is a guy to watch.  What we have seen in recent weeks is that any one of perhaps two dozen athletes can break through to a 2:05-something time – who would have thought that Robert Cheruiyot had that in him, for example, and so this batch of men who lie just outside the 2:05 galaxy inhabited by Wanjiru, Kebede and Kibet are very dangerous indeed.

World record aspirations?

And then there is the time?  London has consistently assembled the best, deepest field in the world, but it seems that it may be just too tough a course for the record, with the depth of the field, the race tactics, and a lot of turns and the wind hampering the pace required to break 2:04.  I would expect that tomorrow.  London uses pacemakers, and so the early pace will be close to the World Record target, so expect halfway to be reached in about 62 minutes.  But then it will begin to drop off, and with such a strong field, you can expect there to be ten men together at 30km.