What we learned from the 2017 Berlin Marathon

Eliud Kipchoge – amazing runner but not good enough to overcome Mother Nature.

The 2017 Berlin Marathon was run yesterday. The men’s race was billed as an almost certain world record. It had the most dominant runner of recent years, Eliud Kipchoge, who was coming off his 2:00:25 “Breaking 2” effort. It had Kenenisa Bekele, who last year came up just seconds short of the world record. It had former world record holder and serial 2:03 runner Wilson Kipsang. How could this race not produce a world record?


Well, Kipchoge won in 2:03:32. 35 seconds short of the world record. Bekele and Kipsang didn’t finish. Instead, first time marathoner Guye Adola pushed Kipchoge, even taking the lead late in the race, before finishing just 14 seconds back.


What did we learn from this event?

Never bet on a record


Kipchoge just ran 2:00:25. People considered it a given he’d go under 2:02:57. The last 6 times the men’s world record was broken was at Berlin. There’s no better course for a world record attempt. This was the best single shot at a world record one could ask for.


Then it rained.


Without the rain, it seems like the record could have happened. Kipchoge was only 35 seconds away and an early race downpour while running at record pace and standing water on the course for most of the race seems like it could easily have slowed him by more than 35 seconds.


That said, this is a perfect example of how difficult a world record attempt can be. You have the right guy on the right course. He seems to have been well prepared. Then it rains. What happens if it’s windy or warm next year? Another time, an injury might happen. Another time, the pacing might not be just right. All it takes is 1-2 seconds per mile to destroy a record attempt.


Generally speaking, it’s safest to always bet against the world record. Everything has to break right for a record to happen. If just one thing goes wrong, forget about it.


By definition, these guys are running at the very edge of human performance. It takes just one little thing for it all to go wrong.


Races are more exciting than record attempts


As I was scrolling through my Twitter timeline early Sunday morning, I found myself somewhat bored watching the early splits. I just scanned right through them. As the race developed and relative unknown Adola challenged Kipchoge, the timeline got much more interesting to me. Yes, records can be interesting. It is interesting to see what humans are really capable of.


However, how many people can tell the difference between an elite runner going 4:41/mile (2:03:00 pace) and 4:44/mile (2:04:00 pace)? Compare that to how many people can see a first time marathoner take the lead on the most dominant marathoner in recent years and say wow, this is a heck of a race.


Which is more exciting?


The Breaking 2 experiment really did involve significant assistance


Yes, the weather likely cost Kipchoge the world record. However, Nike had a plan for that. They had a 3 day window they were aiming for. Had rain been in the area on “race” day, they would have postponed a day or two. In addition, the assistance of rotating groups of pacers was something Kipchoge didn’t have yesterday. He also didn’t have the benefit of the pacers, through some technological assistance, maintaining a tight pack that maximized the drafting benefit. He had to deal with many turns on urban streets. He had to get his own fluids.


Possibly the biggest benefit everyone was overlooking this spring: he didn’t have to worry about racing and could just run as fast as possible. It would have done him no good yesterday to run 10-20 seconds faster if that would have made him Adola’s rabbit and Adola passed him for the win just before the finish line. In the end, in a race, winning matters most to these guys. Going a little slower to secure the victory just makes the most sense.


All of those benefits, among others, seemed small this spring as people were saying he could run 2:01. Do they seem a little bigger today? I was one of the bigger skeptics back then but I admit I may have underestimated how big those benefits were.


Eliud Kipchoge is still an amazing runner


The best marathoner of his time. Among the best distance runners ever. Kipsang couldn’t finish. Bekele couldn’t finish. Kipchoge got challenged but he won…again. And he ran an incredible time in conditions that were not ideal.

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