Can Team Scoring Work in the Marathon? RunCzech Is Trying to Find Out with This Weekend’s Battle of the Teams

By Jonathan Gault
May 26, 2021

You can watch the race at 6:30 CET / 12:30 am Eastern on Sunday below.

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One of the best things about ESPN’s broadcast of this year’s NCAA Cross Country Championships was the graphics. Running diehards — which is to say, pretty much anyone who would deliberately tune into ESPN to watch a cross country race on a Monday afternoon — know that cross country is a team sport, and the broadcast treated it as such. Every kilometer, within seconds of the field crossing a timing mat, splits were calculated, converted to team scores, and displayed in a leaderboard on the left of the screen.

In the hands of a good production team and commentators, that sort of information can really elevate a broadcast by providing context and allowing the viewer to better appreciate the drama unfolding on the course — not just at the end of the race, but at the start and middle as well. And that’s precisely what happened in a compelling women’s race, where we were able to track upstart Northern Arizona’s fast start and the ensuing NC State-BYU battle in real time. By the time BYU pulled away in the final kilometer to win with 96 points to NC State’s 161, it felt as if we had truly seen the story of the race, from start to finish.

Can such an approach work in the marathon? That is the question RunCzech’s Carlo Capalbo hopes to answer this weekend. In place of the traditional Prague Marathon, which was postponed to October this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Capalbo and the RunCzech team have dreamed up the Battle of the Teams, an attempt to bring team racing to the marathon. The race, which will be streamed live on Sunday morning on LetsRun.com (6:30 a.m. CET/12:30 a.m. EDT), will consist of four teams of eight athletes battling it out for a total of $92,000 in prize money.

Some serious talent has signed up, including World Marathon Majors winners Dickson Chumba (2:04:32 pb) and Ruti Aga (2:18:34 pb) and 2019 Valencia champ Kinde Atanaw (2:03:51 pb). Here’s what you need to know.

How it works

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Last week, 32 athletes were drafted onto one of four teams, each bearing the name of a different race sponsor: Team Volkswagen, Team Mattoni, Team CEZ Group, and Team Birell. Each team consists of four men and four women, at least one of which must be Czech.

Before the race, each team nominates three men and three women to score points, with the other two runners serving as reserves (they will still run the race and their scores will be counted should one of the other runners fail to finish). The scoring system is fairly simple: each athlete’s time is converted into a point total based on World Athletics’ scoring tables, with an athlete receiving a 10% bonus if they run a personal best. The team with the highest combined score across its six runners take home the $32,000 first-place prize (there is also $48,000 in individual prize money).

If that sounds a little tricky to keep track of in real time…well, yes, it is. But during the race broadcast, the production team is hoping to simplify things, instantly converting splits to a projected finish time and points. The aim is to quickly produce projected team scores after each split, so that viewers can easily tell which team is in front (athletes will have colored bibs and arm bands to show which team they’re on).

There are no pacemakers, but there are primes — similar to the halfway bonus at the Fifth Avenue Mile — for the leader at 15k and 30k.

There is no mass race. Outside of the four teams, there will be roughly 80 Czech athletes in the field running as part of the national marathon championships — and that’s it.

Who is running?

Here is a breakdown of the entries by team (athletes in bold are scoring runners):

Team Volkswagen Team Mattoni
Name Country PB Name Country PB
Dickson Chumba Kenya 2:04:32 Kinde Atanaw Ethiopia 2:03:51
Yitayal Atnafu Ethiopia 2:06:21 Lencho Anbesa Ethiopia 2:06:18
Vit Pavlista Czech Republic 2:15:35 Tibor Sahajda Slovakia 2:15:25
Purity Rionoripo Kenya 2:20:39 Valary Aiyabei Kenya 2:19:10
Diana Kipyokei Kenya 2:22:06 Tigist Abayechew Ethiopia 2:22:45
Lilia Fisikovici Moldova 2:27:26 Eva Vrabcova Nyvltova Czech Republic 2:26:31
Mengistu Zelalem Ethiopia 2:08:48 Abel Kipchumba Kenya 2:09:39
Worknesh Mola Ethiopia 2:24:42 Betty Lempus Kenya 2:23:40
Team CEZ Group Team Birell
Name Country PB Name Country PB
Nobert Kigen Kenya 2:05:13 Benson Kipruto Kenya 2:05:13
Thomas Kiplagat Kenya 2:06:00 Samuel Wanjiku Kenya 2:06:02
Jiri Homolac Czech Republic 2:14:35 Wily Canchanya Peru 2:12:57
Ruti Aga Ethiopia 2:18:34 Guteni Shone Ethiopia 2:20:11
Bedatu Hirpa Ethiopia 2:21:32 Birke Beyene Ethiopia 2:23:19
Reia Iwade Japan 2:23:52 Moira Stewartova Czech Republic 2:29:39
Abdi Ibrahim Bahrain 2:08:32 Kenneth Keter Kenya 2:07:34
Aberu Mulisa Ethiopia 2:28:49 Meseret Belete Ethiopia 2:24:54
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The idea behind the draft was to land on four fairly even teams, and as you can see, that’s how it worked out. As for who the individual favorites are, it’s hard to look past the two fastest athletes in the field, Kinde Atanaw (2:03:51) and Ruti Aga (2:18:34). Atanaw has only run one career marathon, but it was a fast victory over a solid field in Valencia in 2019. After DNFing 2020 Valencia in December, he’ll have a shot for redemption here. Dickson Chumba is the most credentialed man in the field, with major wins in Tokyo (twice) and Chicago. One of the most consistent marathoners in the world from 2014-18, Chumba, 34, has started to show slippage of late (7th at 2019 Chicago, DNF 2020 Tokyo). Is his run at the top at an end, or can he rebound with a win in Prague?

In the women’s race, 2019 Tokyo champ Ruti Aga has the fastest pb and six podium finishers at World Marathon Majors. She’s the woman to beat, but Kenyan Valary Aiyabei is also a force to be reckoned with. Though Aiyabei is coming off a rough 2020 (DNF Tokyo, 10th in London), she owns a quick 2:19:10 pb thanks to her win at 2019 Frankfurt and boasts nine marathon victories overall. One of those came in Prague in 2017, though on a different layout (Sunday’s event will utilize a loop course).

Will it work?

The big question. It would not be accurate to say NCAA cross country has a lot of “fans,” but the team concept undoubtedly works in NCAA XC, for a few reasons:

1. The athletes are a genuine team. They train together in the same place under the same coach.
2. They compete together multiple times per season.
3. They represent something meaningful (a school).
4. There is a history/tradition associated with the team.
5. Teams compete against each other in a logical, understandable system.

Bringing team competition to the professional level has been more of a struggle. Remember the TrackTown Summer Series? That was organized by one of the best track promoters in the USA, Vin Lananna, and backed by a significant financial investment, yet it fizzled out quietly after two years. Part of the issue is that track & field, as a sport, simply isn’t that popular. But part is because professional track & field is an individual sport. Lananna & Co. chose to associate each team with a city — a smart move — but when the only association between team and city is the name on the chest (and the TrackTown Summer Series didn’t even have that), it’s difficult to create a connection between team and fans.

Consider another example: the World Half Marathon Championships. Every year, team awards are handed out. And while the athletes on each team don’t always train together, they represent something extremely meaningful: their country. But does anyone care about the team competition at the World Half? Can you tell me the team champions from last year’s race? If we can’t get excited about competitions between national teams on the road, getting fired up for a competition between corporate teams seems impossible.

And yet, it’s not. Because that’s exactly what happens in Japanese ekidens (granted, the college ekidens are far more popular) and cycling races like the Tour de France. One of the reasons why no one cares about the team standings at the World Half is because it is promoted as an individual race. To get people to care about the team aspect, you have to promote the team aspect. Calling your event “Battle of the Teams” is a good place to start.

The bigger problem facing the organizers at RunCzech is creating a connection between fan and team. Why would anyone root for “Team Mattoni,” a team that will cease to exist after the race consisting of a squad of athletes who have no connection to each other (or any sort of city/country)? In October, I watched the Michigan Pro Ekiden because the teams (NAZ Elite, Hansons-Brooks, etc.) meant something. Until the Battle of the Teams can solve that problem, it could be tough to sell the public on the idea of teams in the marathon. Maybe the solution is to pit training group against training group, or sponsor against sponsor? We see Nike vs. adidas in every major marathon, but branding an event as such and keeping score would add an extra element of intrigue.

Whether the Battle of the Teams works or not, Capalbo, RunCzech, and the Prague International Marathon deserve credit for using the pandemic to try something new and give athletes a chance to compete in what has been a limited spring marathon season. You can’t move the sport forward without experimentation. Now it’s time to run the experiment and study the results.

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