Monday, November 08, 2010

Run a mile in someone else's shoes, or even your own shoes

One of the most absurd things about marathons is how bad most people's predictions are. Granted, marathons are notoriously hard to predict, so hard to predict that I think the most unpredictable thing is actually a predictable race (ie the favourite wins in the sort of time you expected), but I'm amazed at how people ignore everything they might possibly know about running.

Let's take predictions for the men's race at today's New York Marathon, which was won by Ethiopian Gebre Gebremariam in 2:08:13, the fifth-fastest time ever at that race. Leading up to the race, this thread wondered if American Dathan Ritzenhein was a lock to run a course-record 2:07 based on his training.

Over here, readers variously predict a 2:06, 2:08 and 2:09 for Ritz, as well as a 2:09 or 2:10 (one person boldly said 2:07:50) for Canadian Simon Bairu. One especially astute person wrote: "I'll say 2:07-08 range [for Bairu]. Ritz most likely in the 2:08-09 range if the injury, poor training, etc, etc, rumors are true, 2:06-07 if he's 100%."

New York is, of course, a hilly course with several bridges and the hills they entail, as well as a tough uphill finish in Central Park. More importantly, with no rabbits and lots of competition, it's pointless to do anything but jog for the first 15 miles. Consequently, times are always notoriously slow. Not everyone who tosses out predictions actually watches these races, which is reasonable, but shouldn't the detail of your predictions be reasonably proportional to how much you actually know?

A ridiculous prediction is fine, especially on the Internet, but why use scant knowledge to offer a supremely detailed guess? If all you know about the race is that it's in New York, why tap some obscure Ethiopian for the win in 2:08:47, and then go on to pinpoint the very street corner on the Bronx where he will distance himself from the pack?

The other thing we can take away from New York is the hit to Haile Gebrselassie's legacy. The knock on Gebrselassie is that he can only win non-competitive marathons in flat, cool, dry weather (essentially a large treadmill). Dropping out at New York, where the large lead pack is the antithesis of the duos or trios at Berlin or Dubai, will do a lot to boost the case of the naysayers. It is by no means impossible for him to run at the age of 39 in the London Olympics, but it's very difficult to imagine even a fit Gebrselassie winning a tactical marathon, which is the only thing he hasn't done in his 19-year, 3:31 1500 to 2:03 marathon career.

Edit: I wrote the above right after the race, about an hour before Gebrselassie announced his retirement at this press conference. In retrospect, assuming this announcement is permanent, his career seems about 99.9% perfect, much like Tergat's lacks an Olympic or World Championship medal. I don't think anyone who saw him beaten in the 10,000 at Athens 2004 would have predicted that we would be debating his merits six years later. If he had retired then, he still would have been one of the greatest ever. Now, he's still the greatest ever, but his greatness as a marathoner has the flaw of no wins at a highly competitive race.

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