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Like An Airline: A Behind-The-Scenes Look Into What It Takes To Set An Elite Marathon Field
No-shows are common, so you'd better have more people than you need at the start

by: Molly O'Toole
November 10, 2009

Editor's Note: Molly ran cross-country and track and field for Cornell University. She is now a graduate student at the NYU for journalism (and international relations).

The week following the 2009 ING New York City Marathon, readers have consumed friendly features celebrating Meb Keflezighi's struggles and victory, intense debates about his "American-ness," ponderings on the fate of "plodders," and possibly writings on the return of Deratu Tulu.

But long forgotten are the feats of most 43,475 finishers, and longer still the near-dozen elite entrants who never made the start. But it's all part of the same story: those who don't run and those who do (and win).

Gaining entry to the New York marathon is no 26.2 miles through New York's five boroughs, but it does make personal invitation seem like the simplest way to get in. Yet even a "Please come. Sincerely, New York Road Runners" doesn't mean you’ll make it to the line; in this sport, there are no guarantees. No race better exemplifies the innumerable variables faced by professional and amateur marathoners alike than this year's NY marathon.

The Elites
The New York Road Runners guest list for the 2009 ING New York City Marathon:

Marilson Gomes dos Santos of Brazil, two-time winner and defending NYC Marathon champion.
Hendrick Ramaala
of South Africa, 2004 Champion.
Paul Tergat
of Kenya, 2005 Champion.
Martin Lel
of Kenya, two-time NY champion.
Patrick Makau
of Kenya, who has run the second-fastest half marathon time ever.
James Kwambai
of Kenya, the third- and seventh-fastest marathoner in history.
Robert Kipkoech Cheruiyot
, the inaugural World Marathon Majors champion, four-time Boston Marathon champion, fifth in the World Championships Marathon this year.
Jaouad Gharib
of Morocco, last year's Olympic marathon silver medalist, and the only man to have won the World Marathon championships twice.
Martin Fagan
, Irish Olympian and half marathon record holder.
Ryan Hall
, United States Olympian and the top U.S.A. Championship marathon performer ever.
Brian Sell
, U.S. Olympian and the sixth-best U.S.A. Championship marathon performer (in, according to Sell pre-race, his last marathon).
Jorge Torres
, United States, in his first marathon.
Abdi Abdirahman
, 3-time U.S. Olympian.
Meb Keflezighi
, U.S., 2004 Olympic Marathon silver medalist and the 2005 NYC marathon runner-up.

Paula Radcliffe, Great Britain, three-time NY champion and the world's fastest female marathoner in the history of the sport.
Joan Benoit Samuelson
, U.S., former holder of the world and American records in the marathon, the first women's Olympic Marathon gold medalist in 1984, and current holder of the U.S. over-50 marathon record.
Ludmila Petrova
, Russia, whose runner-up performance last year in NY set the world masters (over 40) record.
Salina Kosgei
of Kenya, 2009 Boston Marathon winner.
Tatyana Petrova
of Russia, a world-class 3000-meter steeplechaser who won the Dubai Marathon this year in her debut at the distance.
Christelle Daunay
, who set the French marathon record in 2008.
Yuri Kano
of Japan, seventh at the World Championships Marathon this year.
Lewy Magdelena Boulet
, second last year in the marathon at the U.S. Olympic trials.
Dire Tune
, Ethiopia, 2008 Boston Marathon champion (by two seconds) and 2009 runner up (by one).
Lornah Kiplagat
, Netherlands, 4-time world champion, two-time Olympian, holder of world records in the 5 kilometer, 10-mile, 20k, and half marathon distances.
Jelena Prokopcuka
, Latvia, two-time NYC marathon champion in 2005 and 2006, three-time Olympian and national record holder in seven distances.
Mara Yamauchi
, Great Britain, sixth in the marathon at the 2008 Olympics and the second fastest female British marathoner ever.
Deratu Tulu
, Ethiopia, double Olympic 10,000m gold medalist.

In the weeks preceding the marathon, NYRR, the main organizers, hyped these elite entrants, lauding "a lineup of some of the world's best long-distance runners" that confirmed New York as "consistently boasting the most global professional field in the sport."

Race Director Mary Wittenberg, president and CEO of NYRR, announced the addition of Gharib, Kwambai, and Makau on Sept. 23, saying, "The world has always come to New York to run, and this year the field again includes contenders from a host of countries."

8 Pros MIA
But by race day last Sunday, Nov. 1, at least eight prominent professional signings were missing from the 43,740-crowded Staten Island start. Three contending male runners, Paul Tergat, Martin Lel and Martin Fagan, and five established female runners, Dire Tune, Lornah Kiplagat, Jelena Prokopcuka, Mara Yamauchi and Tatyana Petrova, all withdrew. The dropouts dealt a blow to the competitiveness of the field that was significant even by the standards of a sport known for its attrition on athletes. Attrition is common because the training required of the top professionals is incredibly demanding.

Because training varies by athlete, I'll give you two of the more successful examples of the intense preparation required of professionals at the distance.

Gharib, the sole two-time world champion of the marathon, said at a pre-race press conference that he has run roughly 200 kilometers per week for the last two years (often at altitude in the Atlas Mountains, stretching through his native Morocco).

"Intensive, hard training, tough, continuous," he recommended for the marathon, in Arabic, "Will make the body tougher, stronger. Hard on the body. Lots of water massage."

Boston's 2009 women's champion Kosgei interestingly said that she trained for the NY marathon at similar mileage to Gharib, by multiple runs a day for five months.

To take a hypothetical hybrid of the two, for reference: running for about 20 weeks at roughly 124 miles a week means the duo amassed nearly 5,000 miles between the two of them.

Most professional marathoners run two or three major races a year to make a living, according to ING New York City Marathon professional athletes' consultant David Monti, though some have outside contracts and sources of income.

"When you're a marathoner, your annual income is derived from running marathons - you get two to three times to the plate, the third usually not for money," he said. "You have no incentive to withdraw. People want to be here."

But given the length and intensity of this preparation, making it to the starting line is never a guarantee, much less making it in the money. Think of it as 2,500 miles for 26.2; one day, one race, one chance. And if that day's not theirs then, well ... it's never too early to take the first few strides towards next year, when it's 2,473.8 away.

Ironically, at the "Best of the World" press conference Oct. 28, three days before the race, Monti described his own job as a long planning process that, come race day, can't plan for everything.

Like An Airline
"A marathon is like an airline - it sells more spots on a plane than are seats. If you do it right, get lucky, the plane is exactly full when it takes off," Monti said.

He continued, "Things sometimes fall apart. It's not like we're putting on a mile race." He looked towards the reporters surrounding Gharib, Kosgei, and Kano - Makau, Kwambai, and Daunay, slated to attend the conference, met logistical issues. "I've worked on this event  nine times, been in this room; it's never been like this, this is way outside the norm."

In a drastic shift of tone from its original confidence in the field, a NYRR press release stated, days before the race, "This will be an anxious week for ING New York City Marathon professional athletes' consultant David Monti ... [he] is desperately hoping there will be no more late withdrawals."

According to Monti, he identifies, recruits, and signs athletes to run the race, starting in January, intensifying in the spring, and finishing, ideally, by the end of July. He approaches each athlete individually, focusing on goals, stage of development, and schedule often right from college and for a several year period. Monti noted that NYRR typically over-recruits, budgeting for attrition on a variety of factors: illness, injury, family issues, fatigue - the New York marathon, in November, is later in the season, he said, and a runner can still feel ready in February, June ...

"Five women went out that would have formed the core of a terrific marathon in August," Monti said. "(At the time), I was feeling as if it was too full - I never would have imagined such a downdraft."

Monti described the female scratches as above normal and even, for several, "really unusual."

Abnormal # Of Withdrawals
Kiplagat, Yamauchi, and Tatyana Petrova all nursed injuries, according to NYRR. Monti added that Kiplagat, the four-time World Champion, injured her knee, while a previously hurt foot didn't heal in time for Yamauchi, the second-fastest British marathoner behind, of course, Radcliffe. Injuries are common in long distance running, especially for female athletes whose bodies are more vulnerable to intense training.

Yet Monti said that Tatyana, this year's Dubai champ, went to the hospital with an unexplained fever days before the race, "sick beyond being able to recover" by Nov. 1.

"Petrova is not hugely paid," he said. "This is a huge blow for her."

Prokopcuka, a two-time NYC champion, discovered as she prepared for a third that she was pregnant, according to Monti and NYRR.

"Gals that do endurance sports don't normally think about it," he said. "She and Alex have been looking forward to having a family, something they hoped for, but I think that now was not the time."

The story of Tune's decision not to race is a tragic one. According to Universal Sports, on Sept. 29, Tune's mother, father, and sister in law - the family of her husband, fellow Ethiopian runner Kelil Aman, also coached by Hadji Adilo - were shot and killed by Aman's brother in law. Several Ethiopian runners have changed plans this fall in the aftermath of the incident.

"Hopefully she will be able to mentally recover from [the tragedy]," said Monti.

Even NYRR called the female losses "the worst depletion of the women's field in the event's history."

While the men's field did not suffer from the same level of attrition - normal, by Monti's standards - as the women's, the caliber of the withdrawn athletes caused some to reconsider their pre-race predictions.

Fagan withdrew due to fears that the marathon may exacerbate a minor Achilles tendon injury, Manager Ray Flynn told the NYRR.

Several years ago, just before he graduated from Providence College to begin his professional career, Fagan gave this telling advice: "It is at all times demanding," he said. "You've got to find the right balance."

NYRR announced the scratch of Paul Tergat, named by the ING NYC Marathon website as an athlete of "massive international reputation," on Oct. 14, roughly two weeks before the race. Tergat also withdrew from the Lisbon Half Marathon in October.

"Tergat continues to suffer from leg injury that forced him to withdraw ... earlier this month," the announcement stated.

Martin Lel "The Best" Is Out As Well
Of the three removed runners, Lel received the most votes for victory, according to the Associated Press and USA Today. NYRR  cited his 22-2 career win and loss record against the field's top competitors. Lel and his manager, Frederico Rosa, notified race organizers he was "not 100 percent," according to Monti; Lel's withdrawal was announced three days before the marathon.

"It's not nice. Not easy, Tuesday before the marathon," Rosa said, describing Lel's leg injury, in the hip area, as bothering him for several preceding weeks. "He's in top shape. They love Martin here, every year."

Of the five times he has committed to run New York, Lel, "a bit of a perfectionist," has only made it to the line twice, according to Monti. He won, both times, in 2003 and 2007.

"Injury, always an injury, nothing different," Rosa said of Lel's dropout and success rate in New York. "Recovery, treatment, get him healthy, start to train again - normally under a month he's back to 100 percent."

Rosa didn't think the attrition rate of this year's race was indicative of a trend in modern marathon running.

"No, it can be an unlucky year, unlucky situation," he said.

Luck or no, Rosa described Lel as disappointed.

"Terrible," he said of how the two-time winner took the setback, "he knows he's the best."

While the runners that remained in the field downplayed the effect of the withdrawals both before and after their races, many expressed regret for their fellow competitors, having suffered similar setbacks themselves.

Yuri Kano claimed to not be in the best condition approaching the marathon, but didn't wish to focus on it. Just 5 kilometers in to the race, Kosgei and Kano tripped, with Kano falling hard on the asphalt. She continued running to a ninth place, but has expressed disappointment.

"She thinks if you can run this race well, next time should be good," said Kano through an interpreter to the athletes who withdrew.

Despite her fall, Kosgei placed fifth, two minutes behind Radcliffe, who herself suffered from a stiff leg in the latter half of the race. Kosgei said prior to the race that the drastically changed female field would not affect her approach.

"No, no. That's not affect so much because I am myself," she said with her broad grin. "I am confident because you have to run a race and there is winning and there is losing. It' normal in a race."

Kosgei's argument would nullify some assertions that withdrawals of high-caliber contenders before the race may have contributed to some degree to the unexpected victories - Tulu, 37, of Ethiopia, rather than the overwhelming favorite Radcliffe, and Keflezighi, 34, of the United States, whose career many had (previously) claimed was over.

Fellow American Jorge Torres also represents a counter argument. In his rookie debut at the distance, he placed seventh in a top ten with six other U.S. athletes.

"You can only control what you do," he said after sitting with Keflezighi and Hall at a post-race American press conference. "Lel wasn't running - it's not like I was wishing it ... I'll always come in with the mindset, 'Race your butt off.'"

Unlike Torres, new to the marathon, Samuelson has watched the sport evolve through her long and successful career.

"We all face challenges at different times in our career," she said of the number of runners who did not make it to the line this time. At this year's marathon, Samuelson again set the U.S. women's marathon record for 50 years and over. Her advice to stay in the running: "balance."

"Marathon is the sport of heartbreak, way more than joy, for pros and even more so for winners," said Monti. "Truly great marathoners have the mental make up to deal with this - sleep, train, recovery, there's little else. All eggs are in one basket."

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