The Bowerman Track Club Goes to Japan: Andrew Bumbalough and Betsy Saina Set to Make Debuts at 2017 Tokyo Marathon

By Jonathan Gault
February 22, 2017

For Betsy Saina and Andrew Bumbalough, the last two years couldn’t have been more different. As Saina, 28, developed into one of the world’s top long distance runners, taking eighth in the 10,000 meters at the 2015 World Championships and fifth over the same distance at last summer’s Olympic Games (the latter in a stellar time of 30:07.78), Bumbalough, 29, was largely out of action thanks to a sports hernia in 2015 and a stress fracture last year. But the Bowerman Track Club teammates will find themselves in the same spot on Sunday morning (Saturday night U.S. time): making their marathon debuts on the streets of Tokyo. Here’s how they got there.

Bumbalough Ready For Marathon Debut After Missing Last Two Years To Injury

When Bumbalough’s injuries began in the spring of 2015, he had established himself as one of America’s most consistent distance runners. Bumbalough placed in the top five at USAs in the 5,000 every year from 2010 through 2014, including a best-ever finish of second in 2014, when he defeated the likes of Hassan Mead and Ryan Hill. In March 2015, he had a great debut half marathon at the NYC Half in New York, finishing as the top American (5th overall) in 62:04, three seconds ahead of Dathan Ritzenhein, the man who (accurately) described himself as the best American half marathoner ever earlier this year.

Shortly after that race, however, Bumbalough began to struggle in training, and after months of trying to figure out what was wrong, he was forced to skip the USATF Outdoor Championships and have surgery on a sports hernia in July. Encouraged by his half marathon success in New York, Bumbalough and coach Jerry Schumacher decided to refocus on the Olympic Marathon Trials in February 2016. But as Bumbalough returned to training, he still didn’t feel right.

“I was having all kinds of problems with my stride pattern and all [that] other stuff associated with that surgery,” Bumbalough said.

Ultimately Bumbalough was forced to withdraw from the marathon trials, and as he rushed to prepare for the track trials in July, he developed a sacral stress fracture that knocked him out of that meet as well.

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Obviously timing couldn’t have been worse in terms of missing a World Championship year and an Olympic year back-to-back,” Bumbalough said.

The one, small silver lining: with those major events in his rearview mirror, Bumbalough no longer had a deadline to meet for his recovery; he could take his time and do it right. He started up slowly and by September, though he wasn’t close to where he wanted to be, Bumbalough was fit enough to race for the first time in 18 months, taking 11th at the U.S. 5k Road Champs in a modest 14:18. He continued to gain fitness in the fall, clocking 28:09 for 10,000 meters on the track in Japan on November 26 and reached the point where he was ready to dial in his training on a single event: the Tokyo Marathon.

Bumbalough had always responded well to high-volume training and since he had been preparing to run the marathon at the Olympic Trials in 2016, another attempt at 26.2 was a natural fit. Few Americans run Tokyo (Bumbalough is the only U.S. man in the elite field), but the course is more forgiving than Boston and, with 18 men with PRs between 2:10 and 2:14, he will have plenty of guys to run with.

Bumbalough said that his buildup has gone “exceptionally well,” as he’s logged between 115 and 120 “Jerry miles” per week (for a refresher on what that means, click here) as compared to a maximum of 95 during his 5k days.”In some ways, it wasn’t too bad of an adaptation because the intensity is just so much lower in marathon training,” Bumbalough said. “It wasn’t so hard to get extra runs in especially in the afternoon when you haven’t done a killer workout in the morning.”

“In some ways, it wasn’t too bad of an adaptation because the intensity is just so much lower in marathon training,” Bumbalough said. “It wasn’t so hard to get extra runs in especially in the afternoon when you haven’t done a killer workout in the morning.”

During his buildup in Flagstaff, Bumbalough generally ran two tough workouts per week, one of which was his long run. One highlight: a broken-up tempo run (6 miles-5 miles-4 miles-3 miles with 3 minutes’ rest between segments) over the holidays in Raleigh, for which Bumbalough averaged around 5:00 for 18 miles of work. Though running workouts alone was an adjustment for Bumbalough after years of training with BTC’s 5k group, he viewed it as beneficial as he would not feel the pressure to hang with his teammates and risk pushing too hard.

“Not ever (having run) a marathon, it seems like being able to find that tipping point but not go over it early is key,” Bumbalough said. “And so I think through trial and error over the last eight to ten weeks, I’ve been able to maybe be able to figure that out a little closer.”

That Bumbalough is even on the starting line in Tokyo is a victory in and of itself.

“There were definitely points during that time [when I was injured] where I thought, ‘This is it, I’m never going to get back,'” Bumbalough said. “I’ve always been a guy that, unless I’m continuing to improve and get better, just maintaining in the sport isn’t enough to keep me engaged in it. I’ve always thought once I level off and I don’t believe I can get better, I know that’s going to be it for me.”

But Bumbalough views this buildup as a reboot of his career, the first step that, should all go according to plan, will have him back in Tokyo in three years’ time to run the Olympic marathon. Representing the U.S. at the Olympic Games would be special to Bumbalough, in part because of one of his old training partners who didn’t get to experience it: Chris Solinsky. Though Solinsky’s times (12:55 for 5k, 26:59 for 10k) put him on a different level than Bumbalough, their careers followed a similar outline: close at the Olympic Trials (Solinsky was 5th in the 5k in ’08, Bumbalough was 4th in the 5k in ’12) before missing their next Trials with injury four years later. Solinsky never got a shot at his third Trials, injuries causing him to retire at age 31 last April. Bumbalough, 29, said that Solinsky was “kind of a hero of mine.”

“I’ve never heard of anyone who trains harder than he does,” Bumbalough said. “I hope that I can rewrite that story for both of us, maybe in terms of me being [at the Olympics] eventually. That’s what’s keeping me engaged: the thought of, four years from now, feeling like the marathon is going to be my best event potentially. I guess we’ll see. I mean, no one really knows how they’re gonna go in the marathon until they do it.”

For Sunday, Bumbalough’s main priority is to run a strong second half and, as a result, he plans on going out conservatively for the first 13.1 miles. Bumbalough, for his part, said that anything under 2:14 would be okay and that 2:12 would be a “really good day,” but any time goal is largely dependent on his target split for his first half, something he and Schumacher will hash out later this week in their final pre-race meeting. Mostly, Bumbalough just wants to get back to what drives him as an athlete: making progress.

“I think Jerry has had some athletes get in over their head in their first marathon and I think he’s learned from that and just wants me to have a good, solid race,” said Bumbalough. “I think he views this as a four-year process. You run a marathon, a couple marathons a year and by the time the Trials come in 2020, I think I’m going to be really seasoned and ready.”

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After Stellar 2016 During Which She Ran 30:07, Saina Is Ready For “No Pressure” Debut In Tokyo

Betsy Saina heads into Tokyo on the strength of a terrific 2016 season and, if the success of 10kers turned marathoners Sally Kipyego and Molly Huddle, who went 2-3 in November’s New York City Marathon is any indication, she could contend for the win against a field that does not contain anyone from LetsRun’s 2016 top 10 world marathon rankings. Saina, the 2012 NCAA XC champ at Iowa State, has reason to be confident: she beat Kipyego in the 10,000 at the Kenyan Olympic Trials last June and went 3-0 against Huddle in 2016, including a head-to-head win at the Olympics during a race in which Huddle set the American 10,000 record.

Coming off that success, Saina wanted to chase a half marathon PR at the Great Scottish Run on October 4, but first she had to convince Schumacher, who is notoriously selective when it comes to racing — they had planned to start building toward Tokyo by the end of October, and Schumacher wanted to ensure that Saina would be rested and ready to go at that time. Eventually, Saina won him over, and because they weren’t meeting for regular group workouts at that time of the year, she essentially got to design her own training for the month leading up to the race. Saina raced boldly and aggressively in Glasgow and was rewarded with a PR — for a few months, anyway (Saina’s 67:22 winning time is no longer her official PR after the course was found to be 150m short). Afterward, she took two weeks off and was ready to dive into marathon training upon her return.

Saina, with her dazzling 30:07 10,000 PR and fluent English, would be a nice get for any marathon organizer. She ultimately chose Tokyo for her debut, however, because it’s a major marathon without major expectations.

“It’s still among the [majors], but I didn’t want to put myself in London, [where] it’s so loaded,” Saina said. “I wanted to approach my first marathon calm, no pressure, I’m not worried about it, just go there and just race.”

(Editor’s note: The winning women’s time in Tokyo since it became a major in 2013 have been 2:25:34, 2:22:23, 2:23:15, and 2:21:27 last year)

Starting in late October, Saina gradually built her mileage from the 90-95 mpw she had done as a track runner to a peak of 120 mpw, largely training in Flagstaff with fellow Kenyan Dominic Korir (who ran 2:20:35 to win the Mercedes Marathon in Alabama on February 12) as Shalane Flanagan and Amy Cragg were on different schedules. Though Saina couldn’t train with her BTC teammates, their experience was invaluable during her first marathon buildup.

“Shalane has been there for a long time, marathon running, and she could just tell me what to do,” Saina said. “She’s been there before, Amy has been there before, they have run great. It was really, really easy to get everything from them. Sometimes when I’m worried, you can do the workout and you say, it didn’t go the way I wanted, [and] they can tell you, yeah that happens in this set of the workout…I [knew what to expect] in the workout before even I started because [they] already told me where I would feel the pain.”

For Saina, the biggest differences in marathon training have been the volume of her workouts — she generally does 10 to 12 miles of work during interval sessions — and the way she treats her long runs. While training for the track, she’d do 18-mile long runs but wouldn’t treat them as a workout; during this buildup, her long runs have stretched as long as 25 miles, and most of them involve some kind of workout. The side effect is that, with such an emphasis on volume, Saina hasn’t been stressing out as much about hitting all of her splits exactly during workouts.

Saina said that her main goal on Sunday is to be patient and just get through her first marathon. Publicly, she doesn’t want to set a time goal.

“The first marathon is very hard to be like, oh I’m in 2:20 pace, or I’m in 2:25 or I’m in 2:30,” Saina said. “I just want to go out there, go have fun.”

Deep down, however, she has a time in mind. Prior to the Olympics, Saina changed her Facebook password to include the numbers 3020 as a way to remind herself every day of her time goal for the 10,000 in Rio. Since Rio, she updated the password to include her goal in Tokyo — though she won’t share it, for obvious reasons.

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Talk about Bumbalough and Saina’s marathon debuts on our fan forum: MB: BTC Teammate’s Betsy Saina and Andrew Bumbalough do the 26.2, how low will they go?

Editor’s note: Check back later today for our full 2017 Tokyo Marathon preview. Our men’s preview is now up: Tokyo Marathon Men’s Preview: The 2017 World Marathon Majors Kick Off & Wilson Kipsang Wants the World Record?

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