Those All-Or-Nothing East African Runners

All-or-nothing African racing tactics helped push American Ryan Hall to a 2:04:58 finish at the Boston Marathon. Photo: Bob Betancourt

Kamikaze African racing tactics help American marathoners excel.

Written by: Matt Fitzgerald

Americans Desiree Davila, Ryan Hall, and Kara Goucher finished second, fourth, and fifth, respectively, in last week’s Boston Marathon. But it was a different story midway through the race. All three of the Americans who finished among the top five in Boston were well outside of the top five at different points between 13 and 20 miles.

Hall fell back to eighth or ninth place when Ethiopia’s Bekana Daba surged at 15 miles, and dropped to about the same position again when eventual winner Geoffrey Mutai surged at 30K. At 35K, Hall was three seconds behind Daba, who wound up finishing ninth. Goucher also fell back to eighth place when the big shakeup occurred 16 miles into the women’s race. And Davila was off the back from the get-go. She hovered behind the nine-woman pack that chased solo leader Kim Smith until the shakeup occurred. Then she moved up from eleventh place to second over the last ten miles of the race.

How were the three top Americans able to finish so strong compared to their rivals? One reason is the all-or-nothing marathon racing tactics of the East African runners—their tendency to cover every surge and stay with the leader as long as they possibly can, even at the risk of blowing up, instead of sticking to their own fastest sustainable pace.

Now, in offering this explanation I don’t mean to take away from Davila, Hall, and Goucher’s performances. All three of them raced brilliantly, and earned their finishing spots. But it’s possible that Hall and Goucher, at least, would have finished one or two places farther back if elite American and elite African runners didn’t approach marathon racing so differently.

It starts at the youth level. In the United States, youth runner development is oriented toward the best interests of the individual runner. Boys and girls are typically brought along slowly, their training loads held in check through high school to prevent burnout. Goucher never ran more than 35 miles in one week as a star high school runner in Minnesota. By contrast, in Kenya and Ethiopia, youth runner development is oriented toward the best interests of the nation. Individual runners are expendable. Boys and girls are thrown into brutal training camps that destroy the majority. But the few survivors—those who can absorb the hardest training—are invariably world beaters.

The best American runners are taught to minimize risk. Their goal is to make a living as runners. To do that, they can’t subject themselves to training camps that only reward the last man or woman standing. They need to take the long view—deferring their lifetime maximum training load until they are ready, doing everything possible to prevent and treat injuries, and so forth. And, in microcosm, they have to race for the best possible result in every competition, instead of taking a win-or-die-trying approach. Better to finish a solid fourth or fifth, knowing you could do no better that day, than to hang with the leader to mile 24 and then explode and drop to ninth.

Elite group workouts look totally different in Kenya and Ethiopia than they do here. If 20 elite Kenyan runners of  somewhat varying abilities run a set of quarters together, the entire group will complete the first 400 together in a tight pack. All 20 run the same pace, despite their varying abilities. Second quarter, the same. Third quarter, one or two runners start to fall off the back, not voluntarily, but because they’re already in over their heads. Those runners won’t even start the next quarter. If you can’t hang with the leaders, you quit. This pattern of attrition will continue through the remainder of the workout.

In local races held in Kenya and Africa, the carnage is even more extreme. Everyone starts at the same pace—the pace that only the winner will ultimately sustain to the finish line. Before even the first mile has been completed, runners are dropping out. Between that point and the finish line, the washout rate may climb to 60 or 70 percent.

Obviously, things are quite different in the United States. Everyone runs his or her own pace in workouts. Of course, efforts are made to place runners of equal ability together, but in the many instances when runners of varying fitness levels do work out together, the weakest are not compelled to shadow the strongest until they explode. Rather, each runner is given his or her custom-fitting target pace and starts the workout at that pace. The weakest runners allow themselves to fall behind the strongest from the very first step.

In races, DNF’s are avoided at all costs. The idea is to run within yourself, aiming for your personal limit. If that puts you in the lead, fine; if not, so be it—you’ll get ‘em next time.

In track races and shorter road races, elite runners face little risk of exploding even when they race with a win-or-die trying mentality. But the marathon is different. It’s just a little too far, even for the world’s best. No matter how talented you are, if it’s not your day, getting in over your head could easily drop you from second place to tenth or right out of the race over the last few miles. This reality opens up opportunities for American runners, with their more conservative approach to racing. The best American runners are good enough to compete with the best African runners at any distance (Exhibit A: Goucher’s 2007 World Championships 10,000m bronze medal), but the odds of achieving a podium or medal finish are best in the marathon, where you can always count on some of the top African contenders to take themselves out.

Contrast Ryan Hall with Kenya’s Robert Kipchumba at Boston. When Mutai surged at 30K, Kipchumba immediately covered the move. Hall let the surge go. Kipchumba was in over his head and exploded, ultimately finishing tenth, six places and nearly four minutes behind Hall, who raced for his best possible finish on that day and got it.

Again, I want to make it very clear that I’m not taking anything away from Hall or from either of the American women who cracked the top five in Boston. There are no asterisks next to their finishing places in that race. I believe that at least one of these three runners will eventually win a major marathon, and the winner of a major marathon is never lucky. But, in the meantime, as one who pulls for the American athletes in these races, I do hope that the African runners continue to race Kamikaze style.

[sgi:MattFitzgerald]

Check out Matt’s latest book, Racing Weight Quick Start Guide: A 4-Week Weight-Loss Plan for Endurance Athletes.

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