Running on Tilt

Wanjiru vs. Gebrselassie

2009 marathons teed up, training update

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There was something glorious about how Jamaica and Kenya dominated the sprints and the marathon at last year’s Olympics. In these relatively impoverished countries, runners are heroes. And while Usain Bolt stole the world’s attention on the track, what Kenya’s Samuel Wanjiru accomplished in the marathon was hardly less impressive. As oppressively hot and sunny conditions made road-kill of many elite marathoners, Wanjiru ran at a blistering pace from start to finish, setting a new Olympics record.

2009 has the potential to be a watershed year for the marathon. On April 20 in Boston, 26-year-old American Ryan Hall, with a 2 hour, 6 minute London Marathon to his credit, will be racing against four-time champ Robert Cheuryiot and Ethiopian Deriba Merga. Merga, who won the Houston Marathon in January, slashing the course record by more than two minutes, is the runner who last year in Beijing heartbreakingly wobbled to the finish as his countryman passed him for the bronze. American Olympian Brian Sell will also be in the race.

On the women’s side in Boston, Kara Goucher, coming off her third-place finish in her marathon debut in New York, will challenge defending champion Dire Tune from Ethiopia.

A week later in London, Wanjiru will toe the line against Americans Dathan Ritzenheim and a re-energized Meb Keflizhigi in a race that will feature six of the top nine finishers from Beijing. Ritzenheim was the top American marathoner at last summer’s Olympics, but Keflizhigi, coming off an injury-plagued 2008, beat him in January’s Houston half-marathon with a personal-best time of 61:25.

For the women, Paula Radcliffe will run against the Romanian Olympic gold medalist Constantina Dita, Ethiopia’s Gete Wami, and Kenya’s Catherine Ndereba, the silver-medalist in Beijing.

The Boston and London marathons, loaded as they are with talent and promise for the Americans, are mere appetizers to this year’s main course.

If ever a marathon resembled a heavyweight boxing bout, an Ali/Frazier “Fight of the Century,” we may just get it on September 20 when Wanjiru and Ethiopia’s Haile Gebrselassie lace up in Berlin. The tale of the tape: At 5’4’’ and 117 lbs, Gebrselassie is the same height and is five pounds heavier than the 5’4’’, 112 lbs Wanjiru. The two men are breaking barriers at either side of a generational divide: Wanjiru, at 22, is younger than the prototypical elite marathoner; Gebrselassie, who soon will be 36, is older. And yet they are in a class of their own: Wanjiru has run three marathons, winning two, and finishing second once, all at sub 2:07. Wanjiru started running at age 15, at which point Gebrselassie already held world records in the 5K and 10K. Fellow Ethiopian Kenenisa Bikele then took those records from Gebrselassie. Rather than quit, the old man has transferred his reign to the world of road racing, specifically the marathon, making the Berlin race his personal whipping boy. Gebrselassie has won the past three Berlin races, setting world records in the past two, including last year’s 2:03:59, the only sub-2:04 marathon ever run.

Bolt, of course, won’t be running a marathon, but he has been stretching himself with longer runs lately. He’s raced two 400s over the past two weekends, first in 46.35, then on Saturday in 45.54. Trimming nearly a second in one week, from an already fast time, has fans wondering what if. These races are mere teasers, though: Bolt will again focus on the 100 and 200 for the World Championships in Berlin this summer. I wonder whether some marathoners follow Bolt’s method—begin preparations for a 26-mile race by competing in events twice or four times as long. There are 50-mile and 100-mile ultra-marathons. How one would prepare for a 100-mile race I haven’t a clue.

Back in the land of mortals, my training for Big Sur is going according to plan. I just logged my second consecutive 50+ mile week, and I hope to get in the 60-70 range soon. I was feeling weary after getting pasted by 36-39 minute 10K group of the Central Park Track Club last Thursday, so I took a day off, and have been able to recover nicely with long mileage since. I’ve been running five or six days a week, and my longest run has been 15 miles. I’ll kick that up a notch this Sunday. I’ve added sit-ups and push-ups to the routine, and I’m starting to keep a water bottle with me at work and will take it, along with shot blocks and/or Gus, on longer runs. I’m fortunate not to be an injury-prone runner, knock on wood, but the wonky feeling at the end of 15+ mile run can get to me, so hopefully eating and drinking while running will nip that in the bud.

Finally, unlike Bolt, my own races-before-the-race will be shorter than the race itself. I’ve got two races in the bank: the Bronx half and December’s holiday 4-miler in Central Park. This Thursday night at the Armory I’ll be running the shortest of the prep races, at less than one mile long. I hope to run a 1500, though I may have to run the 800 depending on what time I get out of work and on whether the A train makes haste from the Financial district to 168th Street. I did one workout this winter at the Armory, and it was rough. There isn’t much time to ease into such a short race, and the type of pain, though less drawn out, is immediate. We’ll see how it goes.