All photos by Andy Kiss.
Shalane Flanagan’s mindset as she readies for the BMW Berlin Marathon this Sunday is familiar to far less accomplished runners. Instead of focusing on the win per se, Shalane’s focus will be on a specific time.
Of course in Shalane’s case, the time happens to be 2:19:35 or better, which would make her the fastest U.S. women’s marathoner ever, breaking Deena Kastor‘s record set in London in 2006.
What this means is Flanagan has no doubt been obsessed with a certain number, namely 5:19, the pace she needs to crank out every mile on the fast, flat course in Berlin. Just like those of us trying to break 3 hours, for example, have 6:52 etched in our brains.
And for all runners, stretching our limit from the get-go can be nerve-racking.
“I may epically fail, but at least I’ll find out whether I have what it takes. It’s a daunting task,” she told Runner’s World recently.
Shalane’s willingness to openly discuss her record ambition is atypical, as most runners tend to be coy about specific time goals (an exception would be our recent guest Christo Landry who is looking for a 2:10:51 or better in Chicago to become the second fastest American this year). But Shalane seems to enjoy laying it all on the line, leaving little mystery. Typically, her strategy has been to attempt to break her competitors’ will with relentless front-running, such as at this year’s Boston Marathon. Her competitors at Berlin know they will have to run fast to win.
This Sunday, she’ll be tuning out the other women and, for the majority of the race, staring at the shoulder blades of personal pacers Ryan Vail of the U.S. and Rob Watson of Canada, who are both training for fall marathons.
Some may say that even splits with pacers and no surges makes for a boring race to watch. But like any marathon, the drama will build. Will she be able to hold on in the latter stages of the race? If she is in the hunt for a win (which she should be if she is running 2:19 pace), how will that affect her race? It’s hard to believe that she won’t also try to bag a World Marathon Major win, the first by an American female since Kastor won Chicago in 2005.
Flanagan chose Berlin over Chicago, another pancake-flat course, mainly because of the greater predictability of the weather. She has some company in Dennis Kimetto, one of the favorites on the men’s side along with Tsegaye Kebede and Emmanuel Mutai. Kimetto ran a sparkling 2:03:45 course record in the Windy City last year but has said that he believes Berlin is faster. The weather appears favorable though not ideal, with high-50s to low-60s temps, little wind, but also little cloud cover forecast.
Our guess for Flanagan? We think she has the ability to break the record, and she said she’s fitter than ever for the marathon, so we’re giving her at least a 50-50 shot. Her 2:22:02 at this year’s Boston was under perfect conditions, with a slight tailwind, but the flatter course of Berlin should yield an additional couple of minutes. She was on sub-2:19 pace halfway at Boston. With a slightly slower first half and even splits, she could still set the record.
We also think there’s at least as good a chance she wins the race outright. Of the other main contenders, notably Ethiopia’s Feyse Tadese and Tirfi Tsegaye, none have a personal best better than 2:21, and the absolute best in the world are elsewhere, with Rita Jeptoo and Florence Kiplagat running Chicago and Priscah Jeptoo and Mary Keitany running New York.
On the other hand, being in great shape gives a runner a chance at a breakthrough performance, but it doesn’t guarantee one. Further, both Tadese and Tsegaye know Flanagan’s hand. Their response may be to hop on board the Flanagan-Vail-Watson train and wait to strike with a hard surge with a few miles left. Will Shalane have the strength and speed to respond? Either way it will be fun to watch.
In Episode 28, we digest the daylong street festival of running that is New York City’s 5th Avenue Mile. We’ve got post-race interviews with the pro race winners Jenny Simpson and Jordan McNamara, as well as Brenda Martinez and Irishman Paul Robinson. We also chat with Central Park Track Club masters runner Daniel Gercke, who shares keys to his remarkable improvement after a late start in the sport. Elsewhere in the show, Brenn recounts his double mile, and the recently relocated Gregg offers his first impressions of running in the U.K.
Jenny Simpson again punctuated a dominant track season with a win at the 5th Avenue Mile. Simpson’s 4:19.4 was her third win and second consecutive sub-4:20 at the race, following last year’s 4:19.3. Including Simpson’s victory last year, it was only the fourth time in the 34-year history of the event that the winner broke 4:20. As runner-up, Brenda Martinez, who closed fast to a 4:19.6, ran the ninth best time in the event’s history, slicing 4.6 seconds from her own winning time in 2012.
The race was a much tighter victory for Simpson than last year’s, which she won by more than four seconds. “Last year I don’t think I had a strategy to go out hard. I just kind of went by feel. I was kind of surprised how the race came to me. This year was different. I was ranked #1 in the world coming out of the track season and just ran a great 3k. My fourth race in four weeks, I said just run it as I’ve been running and go hard from the gun. With that plan in mind, I think it was actually a little harder. The pressure was there.”
The race was a clean sweep for New Balance, which sponsors Simpson, Martinez, and Ireland’s 22-year-old Ciara Mageean, who finished third in 4.21.2.
Early in the race Jordan Hasay, Mary Cain, and Treniere Moser from the Nike Oregon Project settled in behind Simpson as Martinez hung back. Hasay gamely gave chase before fading in the final kick, and the hard charging Martinez nearly caught Simpson at the line. Hasay, Moser, and Cain ended up 8th, 9th, and 10th with times ranging from 4:23.9 to 4:25.5. While Nike clearly dominates men’s middle distance, on the women’s side New Balance, for now, has gained the upper hand. Throw NOP’s Shannon Rowbury into the mix, along with NB’s Kim Conley, Abbey D’Agostino, and Emma Coburn, and these two groups are destined to clash well into the future.
Regardless of sponsor, that the United States is home to the best women’s miler (and 1500m runner) on the planet deserves a little shouting from the rooftops.
In the men’s race, a trifecta would have payed handsomely, as Jordan McNamara, Garrett Heath, and Irishman Paul Robinson stormed by favorites Matt Centrowitz, Augustine Choge, and Will Leer to win, place, and show. Robinson’s performance came out of the blue, as he was even less touted than the other Irishman (Ciaran O’Lionaird) in the race, though probably equally unexpected as countrywoman Mageean in the women’s run. It was a good day for Ireland: even Feidhlim Kelly of The Irish Examiner got into the mix, scorching the Media Race with a 4:27 victory.
Back to the pros: Leer and Lawi Lalang took to the front, but the two burnt fuel in a mid-race surge to claim the $1,000 bonus for being in the lead at the 800-meter mark. Leer got it in what would be a mid-race photo finish, if there were such a thing. The stipulation of the bonus held that the runner in the lead would still have to break four minutes, which Leer did by finishing in 3:55.9.
Remarkably, 15 of the 16 competitors ran faster than 3:58 and a mere two-tenths of a second separated McNamara’s winning time of 3:51.0 from fourth place finisher Choge.
In the final kick, it appeared that last year’s third-place finisher Heath would claim his first victory at 5th Ave. Relatively stocky and well-muscled, Heath swung his arms wide in an attempt to ward off McNamara on one side and Robinson on the other, but McNamara snuck around, raising his arm at the tape. Said McNamara after the run, “I was in dead last with 600 to go, everybody was going so fast I thought man, eventually it has to settle and it did. The last 400 people started coming back and I got excited. Once you start getting excited, cool things can happen.”
In our latest episode we discussed marathon debuts and how much elites typically improve from their first attempt at the distance. Here’s a summary of the data.
We looked at the 10 fastest active U.S. women marathoners and compared their debuts to their personal bests (excluding Renee Baillee who has not yet attempted a second 26.2 miler). The remaining group improved by an average of 8 minutes and 55 seconds. At one extreme, Desiree Linden (née Davila) improved by 22 minutes from her 2:44 opener in Boston 2007. Shalane Flanagan sliced 6 minutes off her 2:28 debut in New York in 2010, and hopes to cut further this fall in Berlin. Kara Goucher had the best American debut of all time with a 2:25 at Boston in 2008, and managed to take another minute off three years later in Boston.
Only one woman in the group has not improved on her debut – Amy Hastings opened with a 2:27:03 in Los Angeles in 2011. Her second best was oh-so-close: only 14 seconds slower at the 2012 Olympic trials.
Among other big names, Paula Radcliffe had an incredible 2:18 debut in London 2001 and still ran 3 minutes faster with her 2:15:24, which stands as the world record by a wide margin. Buzunesh Deba the Ethiopian-born runner who trains in New York, opened with a 2:44 at Quad Cities in 2008, and has chopped 24 minutes off that with her 2:19 at Boston this year.
The evidence of improvement is true of men as well: Ryan Hall, Meb Keflezighi and Dathan Ritzenhein have PRs and average of 4:48 faster than their debuts.
In Episode 27 we chat with Becky Wade, a bright young star with a global perspective on the sport. Before her debut victory in 2:30:41 at the California International Marathon in December, Becky spent a year on a Watson Fellowship surveying running cultures abroad. Wade is now squarely on the map among elite U.S. distance runners as she prepares with the ASICS Mammoth Track Club for the Chicago Marathon this fall. Elsewhere in the episode, we discuss racing at the NYRR Team Championships in New York, and Gregg sets his sights on the U.K.
With his American record–tying run in the 25K and wins at Cherry Blossom and Peachtree, Christo Landry has vaulted to the top of the USARC leaderboard. In Episode 26, we ask Christo about his recent emergence, his training, and this fall’s Chicago Marathon, where he hopes to demolish his 2:14:44 PR.