I didn’t MEAN to watch all two hours and six minutes of the Dubai Marathon last night. But the fact that it started at such a convenient time (7 a.m. Dubai time, 10 p.m. EST), that I just happened to be on the phone with Joni talking about marathons at that hour, and that the streaming video feed was smooth and uninterrupted — all of these things made it very easy to have the race playing on my iPad while I talked, and then later cleaned up and prepared for bed. I have to say, though, that there’s something really odd about watching some of the fittest marathon runners on the planet race to the limit of their endurance — while brushing one’s teeth.
But the race itself wasn’t bad bedtime viewing. In the early miles, there was a pack of 30 or so runners cruising along at sub-2:04 pace and making it look commonplace. The video stream would occasionally show aerial shots of the lead pack, which resembled a brightly colored amoeba making its way slowly along the city’s main arteries. The steady (fast) rhythm of the runners and lack of any dramatic surges induced drowsiness, rather than tension.
Much of the pre-race excitement and attention had focused on Kenenisa Bekele, who was — supposedly — much better prepared for this race than last Fall’s Chicago Marathon where he finished fourth. Unfortunately, it seems that Bekele had been dealing with Achilles tendon problems and hamstring issues, and he would drop out around 30K. Also, the fast early pace was probably a bit too demanding, even for the top runners, and it became clear that the race would become a test of survival, and times were going to be good, but not spectacular.
On the women’s side, there was a little but more interest, at least superficially. Ethiopian (or was it Bahraini?) Tigist Tufa set off early on an aggressive pace and built a big lead over the chase pack. It was pretty obvious that this was a big mistake, and, in spite of the enthusiastic rooting from the announcers, there was little drama waiting for the inevitable moment when the pack caught and passed the breakaway. After leading for nearly 20 miles, Tufa would end up dropping out.
Speaking of the commentary, I had a new and unsettling experience listening to the broadcast. The “play-by-play” announcer was British, and he was pretty bad. For some reason, I thought all British announcers were articulate and insightful, the antithesis of the no-nothing American hacks hired by the networks to babysit marathon telecasts. But this British guy would have given them a run for their money. He didn’t seem to know most of the runners in the lead pack, had a poor grasp of pace, neglected to give meaningful splits, and didn’t seem to be paying close attention when the eventual winner made his decisive move with a kilometer to go. As for calling the women’s race, even though it was obvious to anyone that Tufa’s front-running was a huge gamble and highly unlikely to pay off, the announcer seemed to have no clue that a lead at 25K might not hold up under the assault of a talented and steadily advancing chase pack. In a particularly poignant moment, only a few minutes before Tufa was caught and passed, this guy was talking about what an unforgettable day it would be for her. No kidding, but not in the way he meant it.
One strange and crazy thing about the broadcast is that the British announcer, whose name I never found out, was joined for the latter stages of the race by none other than Haile Gebrselassie, the great one himself. Gebrsellasie wasn’t terribly useful for telling you what was about to happen, but he was so excited about everything and everybody that I was won over. In the final miles of the men’s race, the two announcers started talking about lions. Or rather, they started talking about the two front-runners, Hayle Lemi Berhanu and Lelisa Desisa, as the young lion and the old lion. Would the old lion (Desisa) maintain his dominance of the Marathon? Or would the young lion, Berhanu, the unknown challenger, depose the old guard?
In the end it was the young lion who had the goods, putting in a hard surge with 1k to go to and leaving the old lion to limp home in second. For Berhanu, a 2:10 marathoner with no international experience, it was obviously a life-changing moment to win the $200,000 prize for first. Watching him realize his dream when I should have been sleeping made the late night/early morning worth it.
I missed the end of the women’s race, and that was a shame, because it came down to a fierce sprint between Aselefech Merga and Gladys Cherono, with Merga prevailing by a single second, ensuring an Ethiopian sweep of the men’s and women’s titles. It must have been something to see, and it’s an amazing thing that we can see such a thing live in the early hours of a cold New England winter night.
But I missed it. I was asleep by then, dreaming of lions.