April is a loaded month for Marathons, bringing over the course of the month the Paris, Boston, and London Marathons. Let’s address a few of the story lines:
Mo Farah is debuting in the marathon. So is Kenenisa Bekele. The former is a massive story, while the latter is being, in my mind, very overlooked. Britain’s distance hero is stepping up to the full distance, and people are extremely excited about it – he did, after all, win the last two major races in both the 5,000M and 10,000M. I do not believe he will perform well in the London Marathon, for the same reason that I think Bekele will run very well in (and win) the Paris Marathon: Bekele is a great distance runner, and Farah is not (relatively speaking…).
That may seem unfair, since Farah has beaten him the last few times they’ve raced in the 10,000, and that is often a good sign of Marathon success. Bekele’s success over 10,000 meters has been consistently world class – he has four of the six fastest 10,000 times ever, including the two fastest. The next fastest 10,000 runners are Haile Gebreselassie (who has held World Records in both 10,000 and marathon), and Paul Tergat (ditto). To a large extent, being fast over a full 26.2 miles isn’t all that different from being consistently fast over 10,000 meters. I expect Bekele (at 31, coming to the marathon a bit later) to be a truly world class marathoner, and to win in Paris with relative ease – setting himself up for a major payday in a fall marathon, or perhaps a WR attempt in Berlin.
Farah, in constrast to Tergat, Bekele, and Haile, is not a fast 10,000 runner. His PR is 26:46 – a full half-minute slower than Bekele’s, and his most famous victories (London, Moscow) were in 27:30 and 27:21. Farah’s strength lies in his ability to run 9,500 fairly fast meters, then kick with the speed of a half-miler. This is an extremely valuable skill, and he should be in the conversation of best long distance track racers, but he’s also benefited from the tactics that tend to occur in non-paced championship races. Maintaining a threshold pace for 2 hours in a competitive (and paced) marathon is a totally different beast.
If you want a preview of what might happen, just watch the finish to last year’s Great North Run: Bekele just slowly turns the screws to build enough of a lead that Farah’s kick at the end doesn’t matter. That effect of the true distance runner beating the kicker is likely to be magnified over the course of a Marathon.
That said, Bekele and Farah aren’t racing. Bekele is running Paris, which I think he’ll win, and Farah is running London, against a tremendously stacked field (see previous post: London Calling). Who will play the role I ascribe to Bekele? My personal feeling is that Geoffrey Mutai is still the best Marathoner in the world, and I’ll back him until he loses, especially at the 8/1 odds he’s going off at (Wilson Kipsang, the world record holder, is the favorite at 2/1, with Farah and Tsegaye Kebede following at ~5/1). If you’re looking for a flyer, I like Feyisa Lelisa at 20/1 odds – he’s had good success in the marathon in the past, but has been running a lot of shorter stuff over the last few years. He’s been beaten by good competition in his marathons, but has run well, going under an hour at the RAK half-marathon a couple months ago.
The Boston Marathon is happening this year. It will almost certainly come down to a race between Dennis Kimetto (sometimes Dennis Koech) and Lelisa Desisa (last year’s winner). I really like Desisa, and will be rooting for him, but Kimetto might just straight up be better. I’ll punt on a prediction here for now… For more thoughts on the race, though:
I think the organizers have done a pretty bad job, and have made a lot of decisions that are meant to make it look like they have everyone’s best interests in mind.
1) They’ve doubled the security presence at the marathon and created rules like “no backpacks along the race route” that are meant to create a ‘more secure race’, but are likely only to create logistical issues. Marathons are essentially impossible to protect from acts of violence, and the demands the organizers are making prompt exactly the questions that David Foster Wallace brought up in his 2007 piece “Just Asking”, which basically boils down to: “what if we decided that a certain baseline vulnerability to terrorism is part of the price of the American idea”, and that we accept that fact, rather than subverting the ideals of freedom that make our society what it is.
2) A follow-on from the above security decisions, along with the organizers’ decision to increase the number of runners (ostensibly “to make it the best Boston marathon ever”, but also, as to increase their revenue take, to help pay for that extra security), the Marathon will no longer feature marching military groups (FYI for those who don’t know, in the past, military sections have marched the entire length of the course, to great applause). This absence of a crowd favorite seems to undermine the organizer’s marketing campaign about this being a marathon of celebration etc.
3) The Boston Marathon is a great race, but, for probably the 2nd time in its modern existence, it badly risks losing relevance. From 1983-1985, the sport of running began to professionalize, while Boston insisted on staying ‘amateur’. The top runners stopped coming, and Boston took a bit of a backseat in terms of relevance, reaching a nadir in 1985, when Geoff Smith won in 2:14. Thankfully, John Hancock stepped in as a sponsor, the money began to flow, Rob de Castella ripped off a 2:07-high in 1986, and Boston returned as a premier race. Now, they again lack the money of other big international races, and seem to be content to be a high-level-elite marathon, without the strength-in-depth (or at the top) of races like London, Berlin, and arguably even Chicago (and certainly Boston’s date being a week from London doesn’t help. Nor its being held on a Monday morning).
4) The 2011 Boston Marathon was a really fun race, with Geoffrey Mutai winning in an unprecedented 2:03:02 and Desiree Davila ripping off a great 2nd place run, but it may have done some lasting damage. After Mutai’s win, there was a big to-do about how he didn’t set the World Record due to the course’s being net downhill, and point-to-point (I believe not given the world record fairly — that year he was basically running in a wind-tunnel. I think the general idea of a marathon world record is a bit silly. If you want to have one, run the race on a track). When it became clear that Boston was no longer a chance to set a world record – and therefore not an opportunity for a runner to get the financial rewards of being the world record holder – it lost some appeal to the top runners. Is it likely that there will be a WR in London or Paris this year? Probably not. But runners are generally arrogant/confident, so they’ll think they at least have a chance at it in those races, while that incentive is simply not possible in Boston. Surely that will have something to do with the lack of top level talent in the race.
So, in conclusion, I think Bekele will win in Paris (and become a top 2-3 in the world marathoner), I think Farah will not win in London (and will fizzle a bit as a marathoner), that I’ll probably back Geoffrey Mutai, and I am unsure of what will happen in Boston (I like Desisa a lot, but am probably leaning slightly towards Kimetto for now).
Enjoy the month