martes, 24 de mayo de 2011

After Spring Marathons things seem more clear

Kara Goucher and Paula Radcliffe enjoying their maternity
        Men’s Marathon discipline is in its most exciting moment ever.  Since 2008 we have seen an amazing succession of performances cracking the 2:07 and the 2:06 barriers, mainly by Kenyan and Ethiopian aces, increasingly closer to Haile Gebrselassie’s world record.  We could also watch a thrilling race in Beijing, where Sammy Wanjiru improved the previous Olympic record by three minutes, achieving an unbelievable 2:06:32, under the heat. And... what about the girls?  Well, the favourites ran so conservatively the Olympic final, that eventually they could not catch Constantina Dita, who at 38 years of age obtained the gold medal reward to the only brave strategy in the race.  With Paula Radcliffe absent because of maternity leave and injuries, no woman seemed to be mentally able to assume the leader role in the event. On the other hand, while Geb’s 2:03:59, though hard, could be reasonably be targeted by a privileged handful of men, and it pushed them to excellent timings, the Briton’s 2:15:25 record did not seemingly belong to this world.  No one dared to give it a go, because it was just out of reach for anybody in the field. In post Olympic years 2009 and 2010, there were no marks under 2:20, and standards in general remained stuck.
            However, this spring, things have improved considerably.  London Marathon, especially, rose to heights which had not been attained for years.  In only her second try at the 42,195 km discipline, Kenyan Mary Keitany won in 2:19:19, becoming the fourth fastest performer ever, and pursuers Liliya Shobukhova and Edna Kiplagat also dipped under 2:21.  No less than 22 women finished in 2:30 or less, an unprecedented feat in the history of the marathon. During the spring, a total of 103 athletes have achieved this 2:30 standard, already more than in any previous year for the whole season.
          We must realize most of the girls we have seen performing brilliantly this year are rising athletes or new to the marathon, and time is needed to acquire experience before performing your best.  Paula Radcliffe, Catherine Ndereba, Lornah Kiplagat, Constantina Dita, Lidia Simon, Irina Mikitenko, Gete Wami, Berhane Adere, Naoko Nakahashi, Reiko Tosa, Kiyoko Shimahara, Svetlana Zakharova, Irina Timofeyeva, Lidiya Grigoriyeva, Deena Kastor… are too loaded in years.  Some of them have retired and the others are unlikely to keep fighting for the medals in the next major championships.  Other athletes have started taking over after Beijing Olympics and now we are seeing the results as they become more and more consistent.

From L to R, Yoshimi Ozaki (silver)  Bai Xue (gold) and Aselefech Mergia (bronze), celebrate their medals in Berlin
Photo: Stu Forster/ Getty Images Europe
       The 2009 Berlin World Championships were a fine example of the kind of things that happen when a discipline is getting old and the young generation is looking for its self-affirmation.  In similar fashion to the results at the ultra-rusty discus throw event in Berlin and Barcelona, where youngsters Dani Samuels and Sandra Perkovic filled up the emptiness created in the discipline, because the old dinosaurs could not deliver what they used to anymore, three athletes in their first major marathon championship swept the three medals at stake.  Bai Xue, the surprising winner was just 20 years old, Yoshimi Ozaki, the silver medallist, was in her third marathon and Aselefech Mergia, the bronze, in her second.  Thanks to the always solid Zhou Chunxiu and Zhu Xiaolin's fourth and fifth place, China grabbed an unexpected triumph at the World Cup.
    In spite of her age, the world champion had quite more experience than the other medallists, in the discipline.  She had already finished 10 times the 42,195 km course, starting as young as 14 years old at Beijing marathon, where she crossed the line 8th in a not bad at all 3:37:07 timing.  At 16, this young prodigy had run the 5000 metres in 15:29.06 and the 10.000 in 31:28.88, the year she won the senior Asian Championships.  In the Olympic year, she finished second in the qualifying race for the marathon in Xiamen, after another precocious runner, Zhang Yingying, who beat the World junior record.  Yet, because of their age, they were both switched to the Olympic 10.000 metres instead.
 Despite bad results in the beginning of 2009, Bai was chosen for Berlin team, where she produced the biggest upset of the championships, which she followed up with excellent victories at Beijing Marathon and National Games 10.000 metres.   Nevertheless, last year she obtained a so-so seventh place at London marathon and closed the season with a poor display at the 10.000 metres at the Asian Games.  Scheduled for this spring London marathon, eventually she dropped out of the race the day before.  Bai Xue is yet to start her season and, I would like to be wrong, she could perfectly be another case of burnout in Chinese athletics, like the same Zhan Yingying or Athens Olympic champion Xing Huina.  Perhaps four marathons a year is not the most advisable modus vivendi for a teen athlete.    
On the other hand, Zhou Chunxiu and Zhu Xiaolin have been in the top-5 in a major championships marathon three times in a row, four times for the former.  They have not run a fast marathon in four years, a specially remarkable statistic for Zhou, who owns one of the best 10 races average in history (2:23:13).  Yet, they are so consistent, it does not really matter for the moment, because in big championships they are always there, like at last Asian Games, where they won gold and silver.  Notwithstanding, that 26th place for Zhou Chunxiu at last London marathon is something to worry about; maybe age is starting to pay its toll.  

Liliya Shobukhova leads Edna Kiplagat in the last stages
of 2011 London Marathon
Christopher Lee/ Getty Images Europe
Mary Keitany cruises to victory at last London Marathon
Christopher Lee/ Getty Images Europe
          Yoshimi Ozaki will be in a World Championship again and she has the ambition of climbing one step on the podium and come back to Japan with the gold medal.  She argues she do not have speed enough to manage a fast pace, as was evident in 2010 London marathon, but she feels confident enough to endure the heat which is expected in Daegu. Could she achieve this feat, she would help recover her country's confidence, in a moment Japan is plainly losing ground in the event.  Since Yuko Arimori and Sachiko Yamashita’s exploits in the early 90s started the medal streak for Japanese women marathoners, they rarely have returned from a major championship empty-handed.  However, recently, the likes of Naoko Takahashi, Reiko Tosa and Kiyoko Shimahara have retired and the relay it is not being easy.  Besides, Athens Olympic champion Mizuki Noguchi has been fighting injuries and has not run a marathon since Tokyo 2007. 
        In the last decade, Japan was every year the country with the deepest field, placing always between 17 and 20 runners in the top-100, but in the last two seasons their standards have gone down to 12 and 11 athletes, respectively, being overcome by Ethiopia, Kenya and Russia.  While still waiting for Noguchi’s comeback, Ozaki will try to be the leader her country needs. Yuri Kano had also done well in the past seasons, placing seventh in Berlin and winning the Nagoya marathon in 2010.  She has the trust of the national coaches and had been picked for every international championship held in the last few years.  Yet she failed at the 2011 Asian Games, and this year her preparation has been disturbed for the tsunami that ravaged her country and has not qualified for Daegu.  
Arguably, the most promising marathoner among the Japanese newcomers is Yukiko Akaba.  After a disappointing experience in her debut at the distance at Berlin World Championships she has achieved the goal of getting selected again for Daegu, where she is likely to do much better.  In her third year in the marathon, she has run two flawless races, winning in Osaka and finishing a creditable sixth against a loaded field in London.  Her 15:06.37 and 31:15.34 best at the 5000 and 10.000 metres respectively, on the track, indicate she can do a very fast time in the marathon.
      After the last qualifying race for Daegu, the Nagoya marathon, was cancelled, due to the tragic earthquake and tsunami, it was really emotive to see the Japanese outsiders for the World championships running in London, as its organisers had offered their race as a replacement for Nagoya.

Teyba Erkesso, Dire Tune and Korene Jelila Yal at 2010 Boston Marathon   Associated Press

      It would not be unrealistic to think Ethiopia can get another medal in Daegu.  While Japan has lost some of its potential in the marathon, the Eastern African country has passed from placing about 10 runners into the top-100, between 2003 and 2007 to 14 in 2008, 25 in 2009, 34 in 2010 (including 12 into the top-20),  and 32 in this 2011 half-season. (1) It has often been stated, culture and tradition in their countries create barriers to the incorporation of African women to athletics and this is why their male counterparts have a larger representation into the elite.  It still stands for Kenya, but Ethiopian women equalled men number in 2009 in the marathon top-100 and have overcome it in the last two years.  Amazing phenomenon, up to challenge sociologists from both hemispheres. The great Gebrselassie had already predicted some years before this massive arrival of his female compatriots to the marathon elite, so here they are. With such depth, the task of picking up five names for next World Championships is going to be a quite problematic one.  At least 15 Ethiopians might have real chances of finishing inside the top-10 in Daegu.   
     Derartu Tulu, who still shows sporadically glimpses of her enormous talent, as her victory at 2009 New York Marathon, is now 39 years old, while Merima Mohamed Hassen, the recent winner in Dusseldorf, is not older than 18; but, in general, the national road runners are quite young .  Most of the current Ethiopian marathoners do not have much experience on the track and have started running professionally straight on the roads, specially the youngests members of the group.  Some of them had earlier successes in Cross Country as Mamitu Daska or Korene Jelila, or half marathon as Bezunesh Bekele, Aberu Kebede, Aselefech Mergia, Atsede Habtamu, Mare Dibaba or Tirfe Tsegaye.  Some are illustrious veterans, despite still in their twenties, like Magarsa Assale Tafa and Dire Tune, who have represented Ethiopia at Beijing Olympics and three world championships, but most are newcomers to the distance. 
            Since 2009 Ethiopian women have won many of well known classic marathons.  Teyba Erkesso triumphed in Houston and Boston; Atsede Baysa two times in Paris; Firehiwot Dado thrice in a row in Rome; Amane Gobena and Robe Guta have taken several Asian 42,195 km races; Bizunesh Deba seven US marathons, including a last one in Los Angeles; Bezunesh Bekele, Daska and Mergia have been successive winners in Dubai; Habtamu and Aberu Kebede in Berlin, being the latter also a sensational victor in Rotterdam in 2010. 
      However, this season most of them have fallen a little short of the expectations and have been beaten easily for the new contingent of Kenyan marathoners, fewer in number but more effective. Erkesso was injured and could not defend in Boston, and the two other Ethiopian Marathoners that had showed more consistency in previous years, Aselefech Mergia and Aberu Kebede, faded badly as Mary Keitany launched her devastating attack in London.

Caroline Kilel, Sharon Cherop and Desiree Davila at last Boston Marathon
Photo: Jeff Dengate

     No Kenyan finished inside the top-10 at Berlin world Championships, but this is unlikely to happen again in Daegu.  Four woman from this country triumphed at the four most prestigious marathon held this spring.  Curiously, three of them, Mary Keitany, Caroline Kilel and Philes Ongori had been participating together at 2009 Birmingham Half Marathon world Championship.  The fourth one was Priscah Jeptoo, winner in Paris, well ahead of compatriot Agnes Kiprop, improving to a sub 2:23 PB. 
    Ongori, who was based in Japan for several years, made her debut at the 42,195 km distance, with an extraordinary victory in Rotterdam. She was included in 2007 Osaka World Championships team for the 10 km, and has excellent credentials in both track (14:44.20 at the 5000 and 30:29.21 at the 10.000 metres) and road (67:38 at the half marathon, when she finished runner-up in Birmingham).  This speed must allow her to improve largely on her initial 2:24:20.  While Ongori is doing her first steps at the marathon, Lydia Cheromei, who have been around since the early nineties, is making a successful comeback.  She beat the field two weeks ago in Praha, to score a sensational timing of 2:22:42. She might still be in contention for another major medal, 20 years after raising the athletics fans eyebrows at the World Junior Cross Country Championships, when she won at age thirteen.
     Notwithstanding, the most creditable Kenyan victories were produced undoubtedly at London and Boston marathons, which were chosen for most of the best distance runners in the world as their spring marathon.  Despite not displaying a world best like her male counterparts, the Boston female race was highly emotive.  Local athletes did not feel intimidated by African stars reputation and challenged courageously them all over the race.  First was Boston-based-New Zealander Kim Smith, who took the leadership almost from the tape.  The multiple continental recordholder is one of the several athletes, as Kara Goucher, Shalane Flanagan or Liliya Shobukhova, that after a successful career on the track, is trying to make an impression at the marathon event. In her fourth tentative, shortly after a sensational 67:36 at the half distance, she decided she was not going to play second fiddle, and ran ahead of the field for more than one hour.  Sadly she injured herself and had to abandon.
 Then it came to the spotlight Desiree Davila.  The Hanson-Brooks athlete have not ceased of improving since her 11th place at Berlin Worlds.  Last year she lowered her PB to 2:26, after an excellent fourth place in Chicago, and now, for Boston race she stated she did not want to be Kara Goucher’s shadow anymore.  So she proved it.  Losing contact from the front group and catching it back several times, she still challenged, to the finish line, big favorites Sharon Cherop and Caroline Kilel, the two quickest Kenyan in 2010 in the marathon lists, after her respective sub 2:23:30 victories at Toronto and Frankfurt respectively.  Finally Kilel, making a last effort, took the best of the brave American to win in 2:22:36 and fell to the ground exhausted.  Two seconds slower, Davila scored another huge PB. (2)
 Kara Goucher crossed the line fifth in her comeback after becoming a mother. On her own words, she felt horrible throughout the race and did not quit because the public was encouraging her.  The Osaka 10.000 metres bronze medallist has been a hot favourite to become a marathon star ever since she achieved a 66:57 debut at the half marathon, beating Paula Radcliffe.  She has performed quiet well in every one of her four tries at the 42,195 km distance.  However in every one she has feel disappointed and has said she can do much better.  At last, after a decade of having just Deena Kastor as the only competitive athlete at international level, American standards have really improved.  Also, Amy Hastings and Shalane Flanagan have made excellent debuts in the marathon lately, with runner-up positions at Los Angeles and New York repectively, and even great veteran Magdalena Lewy-Boulet obtained last year a huge 2:26 PB.

Edna Kiplagat at 2010 New York Marathon, race which she won
Photo: Nick Laham /Getty Images North America

      Irina Mikitenko was the best marathoner in the world in 2008 and 2009.  Yet, she has slowed in the last two seasons. A pity she could not participate neither in Beijing nor in Berlin for different reasons.  Liliya Shobukhova took the relay in the two following years, with her outstanding move from the track to the roads. Actually, all three long distance Russian best specialists are now in the marathon, making a fearsome team. Shobukhova was the 3000 metres indoor recordholder and finished a creditable sixth at the 5000 metres at the Olympic Games.  Inga Abitova won the European championship at the 10.000 distance and followed it up with a sixth place in Beijing, while Mariya Konovalova achieved the fifth place at that same final.  All these three girls' PBs are under 30:32 at the 10.000 metres, but Shobukhova also owns groundbreaking timings at inferior distances: 8:27.86 at the 3000 metres (indoor!) and 14:23.75 (current European record) at 5000. 
No wonder, with such speed on the track, Shobukhova achieved the astounding goal of doing, the last 5 kilometres split, faster at last Chicago marathon than the male winner, Olympic champion Samuel Wanjiru did.  Shobukhova, after a third place at her marathon debut in London in 2009, followed up with a win in impressive fashion in Chicago that year, then another victory in London, with a 2:20:25 national record, ahead of Abitova, and again in Chicago in 2010, with Konovalova third.  All three Russians made the top-11 in last year lists, with Shobukhova in first place and also being the winner of the World Majors Marathon challenge.  These three awesome runners are yet to make their debut in the marathon in a major championship.  In Berlin, the best Russian was Nailya Yulamanova, who finished eight and also won the gold medal at Barcelona Europeans, after Zivile Balciunaite was disqualified.
Liliya Shobukhova was pointed hot favourite for this year London Marathon, but she had to face, among others, two of the most astounding Kenyan runners of the moment.  Edna Kiplagat, who had won Los Angeles and New York marathons in 2010 and expected to continue on her streak, and Mary Keitany, freshly minted half marathon record holder, making her second try at the distance, after finishing third in her debut in New York.
 5000 metres specialist Iness Chenonge made the pacemaking duties in a highly uneven pace, upsetting Shobukhova, who was constantly pushing her. As Chenonge retired at half race, Keitany took over with and explosive change of speed, which no one could maintain, covering the 16th mile in 5:00, and by the 35th kilometre her difference over pursuers Shobukhova and Kiplagat was up to 1:09, thanks to a 30-35 km split of 16:00.  The Russian closed slightly the gap but Keitany reigned supreme, achieving the first sub 2:20 timing in 3 years, with a 1:08:42 negative split for the second half of the race. (3) Shobukhova obtained a new national record, and Edna Kiplagat showed why she had won New York marathon.  Only Bezunesh Bekele and Atsede Baysa did well among the Ethiopians.  Yukiko Akaba was the best among the Japanese contenders for Daegu, with Azusa Nojiri also getting to be selected.  Jessica Augusto, in eight place, made a remarkable debut as her compatriot Ana Dulce Felix did in Vienna.  If we add Marisa Barros, the most consistent (besides the Russians) European at the event, along with Anna Incerti and Christelle Daunay, in the last three seasons, the Portuguese can also have a powerful marathon team in Beijing, provided the whole trio decides to run that distance.      
The astonishing Mary Keitany’s breakthrough was a long announced one.  Her close second place after Lornah Kiplagat at 2007 Udine half marathon world championship in 66:48, then the fourth best timing ever, came by surprise.  Yet, when she was back from maternity leave to win the 2009 edition in Birmingham, lowering her PB by 12 seconds, she was immediately labelled as the future marathon Olympic champion, not having even made her debut at the 42,195 km distance. (4) Then she smashed Lornah’s record in Ras-Al -Khaimah by no less than 35 seconds (65:50) and soon after came her London Marathon sensational exploit.  While Edna Kiplagat has volunteer for Daegu, Keitany will skip it, because she feels she has what it takes to improve Paula Radcliffe’s world record. It is going to be the first time someone else gives a try to that world best since the British athlete established it in 2003.  Then, Shobukhova is waiting for revenge at London Olympics.  And, who knows, someone else can be also in the mix.  Anyway, the marathon women event is now back to life and the next major championships promise to be more thrilling than ever.

(L-R) Nobukazu Hanaoka , Yurika Nakamura, Mizuho Nasukawa, Azusa Nojiri, Risa Shigetomo, Yoshiko Fujinaga, Yukiko Akaba, Madoka Ogi, Noriko Matsuoka and Choke Yasuoka all of Japan pose with a Banner Thanking the United Kingdom for their support during the Virgin London Marathon 2011 Photo Call at the Tower Hotel on April 14, 2011 in London, England.
( April 13, 2011 - Photo by Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images Europe)

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