Invigorated by an extra hour of sleep Sunday morning and a brisk run on the Battle Road trail, I returned home and immediately turned on the TV to watch the broadcast of the New York City Marathon. Having blithely ignored the build-up to the race and suggested in an earlier blog post that the shine was off the big apple, I was eager to atone, and I was genuinely excited to see how the races would play out. Would Kipsang win the men’s race and the WMM title? Would Mary Keitany’s return to marathoning be more successful than her last attempt in New York when she went out at a suicidal pace? Would Desi Linden be competing for the win? Would the American men be competitive? I settled in to watch it all unfold.
In theory, watching a marathon on TV should be great because you can take in so much more information that would be possible if you were following the race on-site. It becomes more difficult if the information isn’t available due to technical difficulties, or if the broadcast is sloppy about details. But I’m not going to rage against the coverage (that can wait for another day); instead, I want to take time to appreciate the extraordinary and rare ability shown by both the men’s and women’s winners: the ability to accelerate late in a race in a way that can only be described as cruel.
Before describing the final miles, it’s worth pointing out that the weather was really tough for a marathon. The ambient temperature was ok, but there’s nothing worse than high winds, and New York had them. I didn’t learn until this morning that, for safety reasons, the wheelchair race was shortened to 23.2 miles to avoid having competitors start on the Verrazano Narrows Bridge. The winds affected the entire race, making the pace appear very sluggish.
Like Boston and unlike London, Berlin, and Rotterdam, New York does not employ pacers. With no one being paid to get out there in front of everyone and hammer out aggressive splits, the men’s pack congealed into a mass of very fast runners chugging along at well over five-minute pace. This was a boon to the slower runners in the pack. In his comments after the race, Meb Keflezhigi admitted that in the early miles he went to the front of the pack and slowed down the pace.
The lack of speed up front resulted in a 10K split of 31:30 (5:05 pace) for the leaders, a 20K split of 63:16 (5:06 pace), and a half-marathon split of 1:06:55. Of course, this led to speculation that all the really fast guys were all just biding their time, and would at some point take off and crush the final miles. I believe one of the broadcasters used the phrase “shot out of a cannon.”
The women’s race was developing along similar lines. The 10K split was 35:01, 20K slightly faster at 1:09:45, and the half-marathon at 1:13:40. At that point, there were still more than ten women in that lead pack.
So the stage was set for someone to drop the hammer. Who would it be, and who would be able to handle the surge? Here’s where the technical difficulties and lack of information about splits made it difficult to appreciate what was happening out there on the course. In the men’s race, what happened was that between mile 21 and 22, Wilson Kipsang threw in a merciless surge (4:22 mile), with only three runners — DeSisa, Mutai, and Gebremariam going with him. Meb and Olympic/World champ Stephen Kiprotich declined to follow, running that same mile in a more reasonable 4:45.
Now, 4:22 is very fast. Sometimes we talk as though suicide pace only happens at the beginning of a race, this was a great example of how a late race surge can destroy those who can’t handle it. Mutai, arguably one of the top five marathoners in the world, couldn’t handle it. He would struggle mightily in the final couple of miles, incapable of anything faster than 5:40 pace over the last two miles, and Meb and Kiprotich would pass him before the end.
Desisa was great, and hung on through all of Kipsang’s late race surges until the very last one. In the last 350 meters, Kipsang had one more devastating turn of pace, an acceleration so fierce that he gained seven seconds on Desisa in less than a minute of running. Kipsang’s ability to surge repeatedly over those last few miles and still have such a kick was the most impressive thing about the race.
How much more impressive, if we had actually known the splits he had run to get to that last 0.2 miles?
The technical difficulties that prevented showing the moves in the men’s race also meant that we got to see more of the women’s race, and the back-and-forth duel between Jemima Sumgong and Keitany. In fact, the women’s race exploded in Mile 22, as well, with Keitany and Sumgong blazing through a 4:53 mile, leaving the pack in tatters. As in the men’s race, those who followed the acceleration took a huge risk. In particular Moreira and Prokopcuka survived to finish 3rd and 4th, while Mukim and Dado lost three minutes to the leaders over the final four miles (ouch!) and were overtaken by Linden (top American, in 5th).