Monday, June 09, 2014

What does it mean to finish a 26:44 10k in 1:57?

In 2011, not long after losing a 10k on the track for the first time in his life, Kenenisa Bekele ran a 26:43 at Brussels. He ran the last two laps in 1:57-1:58, closing in roughly 60-61 and then 57 for the last lap. Kenyan Michael Rotich was not far behind as Bekele barely held him off. You can probably credit him with the same splits. Galen Rupp was unable to keep up, but ran the last two laps in around 2:03, with splits of roughly 61 and 62. Bekele's 26:43 remains the fastest time of this decade and the 21st-fastest performance of all-time.

Galen Rupp, though, came close to topping that performance with a 26:44 last Friday night in Eugene, Oregon. Having set out to run faster than his national record of 26:48, he slowed in the ninth kilometre, and it looked as though he would finish in just under 27 minutes. Improbably, though, after having let the pace slow to 65-second laps, Rupp ran the second-last lap in 59 seconds and then came back to run the last lap in 58 seconds. If this Rupp had been in the 2011 race at Brussels, he would have been either right behind Bekele. He might even have been able to beat Bekele.

A 1:57 800 for a 10k is not unheard of, especially in a championship race. Bekele ran the last 800 of his first Olympic gold medal in around 1:54, splitting 61/53 in a 27:05 race. He ran 27:08 at Helsinki, closing in 63/54 and then 1:58 at Osaka (63/55) in another 27:05 race. I can't find his splits for Beijing, but in his last major global title, Bekele ran 26:46, closing in 63 and 58 seconds for the last two laps, destroying a highly competitive field in the process (Rupp was almost a minute back in that race). But, in a race where he was pushed to the absolute limit of his abilities, his 26:17 world record, Bekele ran the last 800 of his world record 26:17 in just 2:00, split as 63/57.

Clearly, Rupp wasn't pushed to the absolute brink of his abilities. While it's probably impossible for him or anyone to push themselves so hard in the first 24 laps that the last lap is simply an average of the first 24, a 1:57 finish is remarkable. At the very least, we can agree that Rupp can run under 26:40. What is remarkable, though, is that Rupp has closed his PB faster than Bekele, and probably most of the others ahead of him on the all-time performance list for the 10,000 metres. What's even more remarkable is that Rupp, while always a talented distance runner who, along with his coach, was willing to forego success at a younger age for bigger goals in the long-term, was never really known for his speed.

As late as 2012, his 26th birthday, Rupp could barely break 4 minutes for the mile. His best performance at either the mile or the 1500 was a 3:39 1500 in 2009 or a 3:57 in 2010, performances that are roughly equivalent. Then, all of a sudden, Rupp ran a 3:34 in May of 2012. He won a silver medal at the London Olympics, which was not a surprise for someone who had ran 26:48 the previous year, but what was surprising was the fact that he ran the last lap in about 54 seconds. Rupp then went on to run a 3:50 indoor mile the following winter, while his training partner, who had his own mid-career breakthrough in 2012 from an also-ran in championship finals to a sudden world-beater, ran a 3:28 in the summer.

There are any number of explanations for these performances, such as focused training, sprints, weights, thyroid medication, excellent coaching, excellent tactics, late-blooming talent, and so on. We don't know for sure whether Rupp and Farah are doping, and we probably never will. On the other hand, they're a bit like Barry Bonds, who hit a career-best 49 home runs at the age of 35 after having never hit more than 46 in a single season (which he did at the age of 28), and then hit 73 the following year at the age of 36. Bonds never failed a drug test and we'll never know for sure whether he used drugs. However, no one considers Bonds' records to be legitimate.

I can only hope that track fans in America and around the world, who were so quick to accuse Taoufik Makhloufi of doping after coming out of "nowhere" to win an Olympic gold medal against an underwhelming field, are more skeptic of all athletes who suddenly achieve mid-career breakthroughs that are akin to Seinfeld's magic loogie that changes direction in mid-air. As one commenter on this interview with Vern Gambetta, former conditioning coach with the Nike Oregon Project says of his conversation with a doctor highly involved in an Olympic sport, "the only surprise for him is never the discovery of doping, nor the relative rarity or frequency of its occurrence, but always the level of public shock."

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