Thursday, February 2, 2012

Around the World

On Friday, Ayele Abshero of Ethiopia ran 2:04:23 to win the Dubai Marathon in his debut at the distance. He led an Ethiopian sweep of the podium, as four runners broke the 2:05:00 mark, with a remarkable 13 runners inside of 2 hours, 8 minutes. Ethiopians comprised all but one of the top 10 positions, as Kenyan Jonathan Maiyo slotted into 4th (2:04:56). Abshero negative split the race, running 2:02:22 for the first half, and covering the last 21.1km in 2:02:01. Interestingly, Martin Lel was in the race, was dropped before 30k, but finished, crossing the line in 2:34:57.

The women's race was a similar story: Ethiopian domination as 6 of the top 10 spots went to runners from the east African nation, including the winner, Aselefech Mergia Medessa. The defending champ, she set a Course Record, stopping the clock at 2:19:31, just 3 seconds ahead of Kenyan Lucy Kabuu. The top 3 women were all under 2:20:00, and 10 women broke 2:26.

Two things stand out from this race:

1. Considering how dominant Kenyans were last year at the marathon, this is an great result for Ethiopia early in the Olympic year.

2. It brings up the debate we had last April: what is it going to take to see women run fast times?
The answer to that question is: about a million dollars.

The Standard Chartered Dubai Marathon, held in the oil-rich UAE, features a huge purse ($250k top M/F, money 10 deep), and as such, can command a field of comparable quality. As they say in The Wire, "follow the money." But, as Brennan might say, "I hate when the money's there."

With that kind of payday on the line, the fact that a "21 year old" first-time marathoner was able to win is incredible. Setting a Course Record is even more impressive. This race is no stranger to quick times, Haile Gebrselassie won here in 2008, 2009, and 2010, running the previous CR (2:04:53) in 2008. He returned to Dubai to break the World Record, but could never match his 2008 result. In 2009 he ran 2:05:29, and in 2010 he ran 2:06:09. Only last year's champion, Kenya's David Tumo, was even close to Geb's 2010 time, running a 2:07:18. On Friday, 2:06:29 would have earned you 10th place.  There were 13 runners under 2:08, and 17 under 2:10.  Imagine running that fast and not getting paid?  In all of America's running history, 17 men have run faster than 2:10.  Incredible.

Not only is this a great boost for Ethiopian marathoners, but it sets 2012 up to be another banner year globally for the distance.

Americans Take Flight in Houston

I'm pretty sure the Kenyans and Ethiopians aren't too concerned with the US Marathon Trials, I doubt they watch much television, but both the men's and women's races in Houston served as notice that maybe they shouldn't be counted out just yet.  While the times are not as eye-popping as the Dubai results, a few things should be considered:

1) This was a race comprised solely of Americans.  2 of the top 4 finishers ran PRs, and, for the first time ever, 4 men were under 2:10 at an Olympic Trials race.  Not only that, but there were a number of superb marathon debuts in the field.  Same for the women, PRs for a few (albeit, Shalane and Kara have together only run a couple of marathons) and a fast race.

2) It was a winner-takes-all event.  You never really know the effect of tactics when you're fighting for a spot on a team, rather than just looking for a payday. 

3) No rabbits!

4) The US is, I believe, the only country to host an Olympic Trials race for the marathon.  The other countries generally choose their athletes based on performances or other qualifying criteria throughout the Olympic cycle.  So at least 16 of the 19 Kenyans featured in the 2011 Top 20 times list will be sitting at home, and just because you can run 2:03, doesn't mean you will on one smoggy day in a late London summer. 

Millrose Games, and the new Millrose Games

Indoor track fans - all 1,000 of them - were stunned last year when the Millrose Games announced that they were going to leave their home of the past century, Madison Square Garden, in favor of heading 120 blocks north to the Armory.  Why would you take this great event out of the World's Most Famous Arena, only to move it to a venue that hosts literally dozens of meets each month, from high school to college, from alternative lifestyle meets to professional meets?

USATF then announced that they would no longer support the Millrose Games, and they were going to put on their own event.  An all too familiar situation for meet organizers.  USATF was going to hold the US Open at Madison Square Garden, so basically reincarnate the Millrose Games, but, you know, make it different.  Even the announcers couldn't get used to it, because all they did was draw parallels to the former Millrose events, like the showcase Wanamaker Mile.  I went to the Millrose Games a couple of times in high school, and it was cool, but was a little long in the tooth with all the heats of 4x400s.  This meet seemed more streamlined, and it appeared to have a decent number of fans in the stands.  Even if they had 5,000 in attendance, that's more than the Armory can even hold. 

But the Armory likely stands to benefit from faster times.  The short track, tight turns, and formerly wooden boards of the MSG track made Millrose notorious for slower times; for most athletes, the thrill was in getting to compete in the Garden.  The Armory is built for speed, and with the depth of the field competing at the new Millrose Games, plus a few races in the legs, next weekend's event should be a good one.  Of course, not all the athletes are psyched about the venue swap, as Bernard Lagat made his preference for the allure of Madison Square Garden known.

Perhaps my favorite post-race interview came from Women's Mile winner, Brenda Martinez.  She won the NB Games mile the previous week at the Armory, and owned this one from early on, setting an indoor mile PR (4:34.xx).  Afterwards, she was quick to thank the fans, and USATF, for their support in getting this meet going.  Compared to other interviews with athletes being critical of their race, even after a WIN, this was a very polished remark from a relative unknown.  She will earn herselves some sponsors for sure.

This Sunday, don't forget to set your DVRs for ESPN2 at 2pm for the New Balance Indoor Grand Prix, from Boston.  Forget about the Superbowl, we've got Track and Field!

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