27 February 2017

Just how important is race strategy?

This past weekend I watched with anxious anticipation and what was going to transpire at the 2017 Tokyo Marathon.

Partly because it's the first Abbott World Marathon Major to take place in the calendar year, and partly because I'm a huge admirer of the culture of Japanese distance running (which of course would be disproportionately represented at this event).  But perhaps it was mostly because of Wilson Kipsang's bold prediction for his finishing race time:


If Kipsang were to complete this astonishing feat of averaging 2:54/km for 42.195kms he would then regain the title of marathon world record holder from his countryman Dennis Kimetto (whose 2:02:57 supplanted Wilson's previous WR of 2:03:23).  In order to do this he would need to have a lot of things go his way - and heading into Sunday's race he was able to capitalize on a number of those things:
  • Pacers:  both Barselius Kipyego and Nicholas Korir of Kenya were tasked with getting Wilson (and whomever else was brave enough to go) through the half-marathon in a time of 1:01:20, with one pacer carrying on through to the 30km mark
  • Stiff competition:  the lead group would also feature current Tokyo Marathon course record holder Dickson Chumba (2:05:42) and Japanese all-comers record holder Tsegaye Kebede (2:05:18)
  • Momentum:  Wilson's last marathon was in Berlin last September where he'd set a new PB of 2:03:13 after dueling it out with Kenenisa Bekele (the eventual winner)
  • Equipment:  Adidas developed their 'sub-2 hour' shoe which Wilson featured in the race
  • Fast course:  while not quite meeting Berlin's super-flat and fast standards, changes to the hill segments at this year's Tokyo Marathon did flatten it out (especially in the final quarter of the course) and leaves only a notable hairpin turn at 35km to potentially slow things down
  • Weather conditions:  the race started with ambient temperatures of 6°C (and a projected high of 13°C) with very little wind (6 kph), setting a near ideal table for taking a shot at the WR.
After all was said and done however Wilson broke the tape in 2:03:58 - yes, setting a new fastest recorded marathon time on Japanese soil and winning his first Tokyo Marathon but missing both the WR and his own PB times.

So what happened?

I know that I'm not alone in wondering whether or not he committed the cardinal error of all long distance road-racers:  going out too fast.

Even having declared that he would anticipate running a modest positive split for the race (61:20 first half, 61:30 second half) many jaws were dropping after the first 5k (a net downhill section) was clocked in 14:14 - a 2:00:06 pace.
Far be it from me to think that I know better than one of the greatest marathon runners of all time ... it's just an observation that perhaps even with the confidence of so many of the details lining up in just the right fashion Wilson could have benefited from sticking with the game plan and gone out a bit more conservatively (he would up running splits of 61:21/64:37).  It just goes to show how much of a factor the actual race strategy execution plays into the final result.

Could he have pushed harder had he not been running alone for the last 5+ km?  Quite possibly - it was a remarkable duke-out that he had with Lelisa Desisa at the end of the 2014 New York City Marathon, and maybe that would have turned things up a notch.

The truth is that we could play "what if" all day - I am wholeheartedly excited for Wilson's victory, what that means for his upcoming year and overall legacy, and how it elevates the status of Japan's marquee running event on the world stage.  At the same time I'm reminded that we are all human, prone to potentially making the same mistakes (regardless of our experience and level of ability) and that on any given day any number of things can go wrong.

Or right.

Here's hoping that I get more things right than wrong for this week's upcoming Chilly Half-Marathon.