Absorbing The Post-Race Elite Vibe At The 2009 ING New York City Marathon: Injuries And Wind Challenge Humbled, Grateful Pros
The Best Fall On Their Faces Just Like Everyone Else
by: Emory Mort
November 1, 2009
I came to New York City to watch my first major marathon not knowing what to expect. Around 9am Sunday morning, I joined members of the media from all over the world on the 36th floor of the Oriental Mandarin Hotel on Columbus Circle, just off the corner of Central Park. Well over 100 members of the media filled the room sitting in neat, compact rows watching the men's and women's marathons simultaneously on big-screen projections. Five screens in all, the outermost screens were set up to show every important kilometer or mile split for each of the top runners in the race. The center screen often was split-screen with men and women and each sex had their own large screen.
As the women started to run first, I scanned the room. Behind me was a reporter from "Sports Radio 66. The FAN! WFAN, New York!" giving periodic audio updates to their 20/20 hotline. To my right was a print reporter for the Queens newspaper, an older man who knew running fairly well. All around me people were tweeting, facebooking, socializing, and the guy directly in front of me was reading LetsRun.com. I came to realize throughout the day that very few of the media there to cover the race knew very much about the elite runners, or elite running in general. For example, no more than 5% of the room could have told you who James Kwambai was and why he was an important entrant in the race.
The Race - A Tough Major Marathon
No rabbits, windy conditions, bridge crossings, Central Park hills and tough, veteran competitors combined to make today's NYC Marathon extremely grueling and interesting. Almost every competitor I spoke with after the race spoke about how tough the wind was, how tough the last few miles were, and simply how drained they felt. One elite described the wind as "in your face for 18 or 19 miles." On a course that usually yields many negative splits, surprisingly few from either race could churn out faster miles in the second half. The men went through the half in 65:11 and only two men broke 2:10. Many elites ended up with second-half splits 8, 10, 11 minutes slower than the first half (you can see all of my various post-race interviews/videos on the letsrun.com youtube page).
The volunteers, spectators and many members of the media were understandably excited and joyous around the finishing area, but most of the athletes were so obviously beaten. Paula Radcliffe was crying and helped through the mixed zone by race staff. Former champion Hendrick Ramaala, Abdi Abdirahman, Brian Sell, Christelle Daunay, Ryan Hall, Yuri Kano and many, many others were simply beaten down by the toughness of today's race. And they were the finishers. A few of the big favorites didn't finish (former champion Marilson Gomes dos Santos, as well as the #1 and #3 fastest men in the field in James Kwambai and Patrick Makau), or even start (Martin Lel). Negative splits and smooth races produce happy, joyous runners. The runners today were not just exhausted (as is expected) but clearly sullen and humbled.
Not A Banner Day For Kenyans
Kenyans Patrick Makau, James Kwambai, Martin Lel and Salina Kosgei were expected to contend for wins in New York, but various problems kept them off the podium. Even Jackson Kipkoech failed to finish well after he was near the front of the lead pack deep into the race, surging ahead at times and forcing the other runners to react.
Kosgei had the most dramatic collapse. She tripped herself early in the race, falling to the ground and taking pre-race buzz Yuri Kano down with her. Kosgei fell relatively hard but Kano fell extremely hard, flat on her stomach. The fall in the women's race caused by far the most palpable reaction in the media center as journalists gasped at the sight of the tiny Japanese runner hitting the pavement so hard. Both Kano and Kosgei recovered from the fall well enough to finish the race well inside the money. Kosgei, the 2009 Boston Marathon champion, was able to recover and catch the lead pack and Paula Radcliffe. Kano was not as fortunate and struggled home the rest of the way.
Kosgei stayed with the lead group of five for much of the race before the pain from the injury was too much. Despite this unfortunate accident, she was pleasant after the race saying, "Yeah, I was seeing the trouble that I had, but I - I tell myself I feel lucky for this race." Kano offered similar sentiments, saying she wanted to finish so that in the future she would be stronger.
Patrick Makau was a popular pick to win the race, as was James Kwambai. Neither would even finish. Makau didn't make it to the 15km mat despite leading some early on. Kwambai was a much more significant player but had serious problems after mile 22, as his 23rd mile was covered in 17:10 (not a typo). Former world king of marathoning Martin Lel sustained an injury and didn't make the starting line.
It certainly wasn't all bad news for Kenya. Robert Kipkoech Cheruiyot proved that he is back to old form. After injuries hampered the 4-time Boston champion for the past year, he has now recorded two solid starts in a row. He was 5th in a very fast World Championships marathon only 2.5 months ago and today bested all but Meb Keflezighi in typical Cheruiyot fashion. He was tough as nails, simply more able to endure than many of his more flashy, compact and youthful competitors.
Another promising performance came from Jackson Kipkoech, a 21-year-old running his 4th marathon. His best is a 2:08 on the flat Rotterdam course, and today he was very aggressive. Talking to him after the race, he told me in typical straightforward Kenyan fashion that New York is different because of the hills (he also told me he wasn't afraid of any of the guys in the race, which showed in his aggressive style). Through 35k, Kipkoech was in contention for a top finish, but his last two miles were well over 13 minutes, plummeting him out of the top 10.
As we all know, most big city marathons around the world have been dominated by Kenyans and Ethiopians. For whatever reason, only one Kenyan or Ethiopian finished in the top 10 in New York. Perhaps it was a combination of over-aggression with deceptively debilitating conditions.
Americans Take It To Foreigners
The big theme of the day from the mainstream media's perspective was the return of top-flight American distance running. Meb Keflezighi obviously ran the race of his life to become the first American winner in New York since Alberto Salazar. Meb is a tremendous story because he's 34 and has worked extremely hard to come back from a broken hip in late 2007. Behind him, Americans filled five out of the next nine spots to amazingly put six in the top 10 in the race. Going in, that number would have seemed absolutely absurd given the qualifications of the international elite.
While the press were thrilled with the American success, the Americans themselves seemed very subdued, with the exception of Meb. Ryan Hall was visibly frustrated and angry. Jorge Torres was obviously happy his first marathon ended in a 7th-place finish but the first thing he said was "that's a long race." That was pretty much the only humorous comment anyone gave all day, the mood was so serious and deflated. Tears flowed in Torres' press conference when he brought up the death of his mentor in a car crash this summer.
Brian Sell, the blue-collar American workhorse who made the Olympic team in 2008, had a devastating positive split, as did guys like Fasil Bizuneh and Max King. Normally talkative Abdi Abdirahman wanted to take no part in the post-race interviews and was visibly dejected despite a top 10 finish.
So while all the press will probably write about this American rebirth, it was really interesting to look around at all these tired, frustrated guys. Perhaps the story of the day really should focus on just how determined the Americans were. They by-and-large ran very, very tough races but seemed somehow dissatisfied or perhaps dominated by a tough day and a tough course.
Before I move on to the next topic I have to mention this: Hansons-Brooks runner Nick Arciniaga cracked the top 10 in front of every Kenyan but one. I didn't see Nick after the race, but his performance is yet another significant feather in the Hansons' cap.
"The Race Within The Race" - The Grinder vs. The Speedster
Serving as the men's American marathon championships, some had dubbed New York as a race within a race. Thanks to Meb's amazing personal best performance, this didn't materialize. There was no 1st place American who was really 6th overall. There was only one race and the American champion was also champion of New York.
But as I sit here and try to figure out what happened to such a talented field to allow six Americans in the top 10, I think the race really boiled down to the tough, future-oriented, "grind-it-out"-type elites vs. the aggressive, throw caution to the wind-type guys. Obviously this tag doesn't fit everybody, but it might work in general. The huge main pack of men crossed halfway in 65:11, but only two men could run another 65:11. Kwambai, Makau, Kipkoech, Abdi, and others fell back after stabs at the front. Cheruiyot and Meb, the patient, veteran guys who have shone at marathons like Boston, Chicago and Athens 2004 in all types of weather conditions, came through today. Hall and Torres, Jaouad Gharib and Abderrahim Bouramdane came through late to finish well despite being a bit off the top guys. But speedsters and antsy competitors seemed to struggle late, and struggle really badly.
Hall vs. Meb
Despite the fact that Meb Keflezighi had run lifetime bests at the half marathon and full marathon in 2009 and despite the fact that Keflezighi's most recent half marathon was faster than Hall's, almost 75% of LetsRun voters picked Hall to be the top American in New York. Meb got a paltry 15% of the vote. New York seemed to drive home the point that 2009 was an off year for Hall, and a tremendous year for Meb (Side note: If an off year is 3rd at Boston and 4th in New York, clearly the bar is set very, very high for Mr. Hall). If the two Mammoth trainees race the marathon again say, in London 2010, how would the voting go? My gut tells me more people would vote for Meb, but still Hall would be the majority pick.
Despite progressing into his mid-30s, Meb is very motivated and ready to continue to run good marathons. Hall obviously hopes to get a big marathon win in the near future. Meb, who just now won his first marathon, is a mentor to Hall and can help him be patient in the long run. Hall has many, many more years of racing ahead of him. He sat in the press conference afterwards visibly frustrated, upset and un-Ryan Hall-like. After his 3rd-place in Boston he hugged his wife Sara and smiled. After this marathon he seemed to be seething, unable to put his finger on why he could not go with the top guys. He mentioned a possible lowering of expectations. Perhaps an even deeper respect for how hard it is to win these things (especially when you're trying so hard).
Women's Race Full Of Interesting Stories - Paula - Tulu - Daunay - Petrova - Kano
Outside her well-documented Olympic disappointments, today in New York, Paula Radcliffe failed to win a marathon for the first time in her career. Radcliffe did lead most of the race in her typical style, but the slowness of the pace was atypical. After the race, Paula explained everything to the public with an injury revelation new to all in the room. The injury apparently occurred two weeks ago and Paula had hardly been able to run since then. She only started the race because the racing this year had gone so poorly and also she got a scan on the injury that confirmed she wasn't going to do any long-term damage by racing. She said the injury began to re-emerge today around the halfway point. She couldn't bend her leg or use it properly.
Immediately following her finish, Paula was crying as she was helped off the course. She had narrowly lost out on a top-3 finish, coming in behind a 37-year-old mother of 6, a 41-year-old Russian mother and a Frenchwoman whose biggest career accomplishment to date was an under-appreciated third-place finish in the Paris Marathon that broke the French national record.
Paula said she wasn't upset that she lost, but bothered by tremendous pain in her leg that basically prevented her from bending and using it properly. Paula's entire press conference was sincere, logical and heartfelt. She answered questions from the British press, including one question of, "Do you think maybe your body is trying to tell you something?" Paula can't win with the press. She works extremely hard to set world records and be the most dominant women's marathoner of all time, but when she has difficulty with injury or setback then she is asked "why don't you back off?" She of course dealt with everything like a pro. As she stepped down from the podium she needed assistance and still almost fell over thanks to her left leg being shut down and locked up.
Paula wasn't the only athlete to struggle as Yuri Kano and Salina Kosgei both fell in the opening quarter of the race. Considered the three favorites, it certainly was a strange coincidence that all three international athletes faced such major turmoil in the race.
There to taste victory were three unexpected podium finishers. Petrova, the runner-up for the 2nd consecutive year, said her goal as a masters runner was to hang on as long as possible. She is very adept at this tactic, despite it being sort of boring and annoying. Daunay ran courageously and confidently all day, matching Radcliffe stride-for-stride and often running right next to her. I thought Daunay was going to win the race and was upset with myself for not paying more pre-race attention to her. She was incredibly tired and sullen at the post-race press conference.
The overall feeling of the post-race press conference for the women was odd because each woman needed a translator and there was this feeling that nobody in the room really knew anything about any of the women. Derartu Tulu garnered some attention because of her earlier successes on the track, her return from childbirth, her return to fitness and her unexpected win. Tulu's responses were in general inspiring, in contrast to Petrova and Daunay, who just seemed disinterested and sort of off-putting (I can't blame them; the press seemed to have no interest in them and they had just finished fighting very hard for a win they knew they would never have the chance at again). The fortunate winner Tulu admitted she had given herself not much of a chance of winning.
I left New York with immense respect for Tulu. During the race, she tried to help the struggling Radcliffe stay on the lead pack late in the race. How many times do you see something like that in a major competition? I don't know if I've ever heard of something as altruistic as that. The media and I were enamored with the fact that Tulu has given birth to two and adopted four other orphaned kids, and talked about losing 18kg of excess weight to get fit again. During it all, she said, she never stopped training. She ran some very discouraging marathons in the past two years that would signal to me, "Your elite career is over." High 2:30s marathons and the like.
Today she won the New York City Marathon over Paula Radcliffe and Salina Kosgei. Pretty stunning.
Perhaps most stunning is the unbelievable (literally, I can't believe it) lack of young elite women's marathoners. Seriously, this is a once-in-a-lifetime career opportunity for some tough, charismatic, healthy women to make some serious money.
Elites Suffer - But Are Grateful In Face Of Extreme Fatigue And Disappointment
I might be getting a bit deep here, but I did have it as a goal to explain the tone of the day beyond the mainstream media's headlines and cliché questions about things like "what this means for American distance running."
The elites suffered massively today. Their times were slower than they could have imagined. Their bodies hurt very, very badly. Ryan Hall mentioned thinking during the race, "I'm doing 18-mile tempo runs at 7,000 feet at 5:00 pace. Why does 5:00 pace feel so hard right now?" My Willow Street club mate was one of the lucky "12-minute positive split club" members. Kano fell on her face in a race she probably could have won. Some days the elites make running fast look like a cake walk. Today they made it look really unforgettably exacting. Yet they were, to a person, extremely grateful, spiritual, sensible and optimistic despite being face-to-face with their weakness and "failure."
That's what I took away from the day. The best fall on their faces just like everyone else, but if they stick with it long enough and passionately enough, they eventually might get unexpected victories and windfalls like Meb and Derartu did today.
- Emory Mort, LetsRun.com
To watch and hear LRC exclusive footage of interviews with the following people, click here.
Magdalena Lewy Boulet
Marilson Gomes dos Santos