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Twin Cities Marathon: Tyler Pennel hopes first time’s the charm

Tomorrow’s Medtronic Twin Cities Marathon offers an intriguing twist: the favorite on the men’s side, 26-year-old Tyler Pennel, has never raced the distance before. Pennel boasts the fastest half-marathon PR in the field, with a 1:01:44 at this year’s USA Half-Marathon Championship in Houston. Pennel also ran 1:02:20 at the World Half Marathon Championship in March.

Pennel seems prepared to avoid the classic debutant’s mistake. In an interview on usatf.tv, Tyler said that he’ll “try and stay relaxed and attack the last 10k.” When he says, “every time I move up, I tend to run better,” he echoes a younger Ryan Hall.

Tyler McCandless, who is coached by U.K. marathon record holder Steve Jones and who led during much of last year’s race, is among those likely to mix it up with Pennel. Sergio Reyes, who won Twin Cities in 2010 and finished 4th last year, is the top returning finisher. Sean Quigley has a 2:14:12 marathon PR and won the 2014 U.S. 7-mile championships.

On the women’s side, 2012 champion Jeannette Faber is back, though dealing with plantar fasciitis. She will likely be challenged by Esther Erb, Meghan Peyton, and Brianne Nelson.

The Twin Cities Marathon doubles as the USA Marathon Championship, and though the entrants include only longshots to make the 2016 Olympic Team, a surprising performance or two could change that. At the very least, it is a decent undercard to the upcoming World Marathon Majors in Chicago and New York and offers a glimpse at possible future stars at 26.2. Chilly conditions are forecast.

The races will be broadcast live Sunday on usatf.tv at 9:00 a.m. EDT.

Berlin Preview: Shalane’s “Daunting Task” Familiar to Us All

Flanagan NYC Marathon

Shalane Flanagan en route to 2nd place finish in 2:28:40 at the 2010 NYC Marathon, her debut at the distance.

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.

On the Road Again – NYC Half and Gate River Run

The elite running scene shifts from Mondo to asphalt this weekend with two marquee events. Many of America’s best will be either at the Gate River Run in Jacksonville, Fla. on Saturday, or the NYC Half on Sunday, headlined by internationals Mo Farah and Geoffrey Mutai.

The Gate River Run doubles as the U.S. 15K Championships. Ben True is the defending champ and told us in a recent podcast that he’s fit, but a bit tentative after skipping indoors with a balky hamstring. Expect to see Chris Derrick, coming off X-C victories both at Edinburgh and in the U.S. Cross Country Championships at Boulder, mixing it up with True. Bobby Curtis, who was runner-up to True last year, should also be in the hunt.

Shalane Flanagan, prepping for Boston, is the class of the River Run women’s field, which also features Janet Bawcom, Amy Hastings, and Amy Van Alstine, coming off an upset win over Jenny Simpson at XC Champs at Boulder. Look for Shalane to roll early, in patented fashion, and also hold off the lead men in the “equalizer” competition, which gives the elite women a six-plus minute head start.

At the NYC Half Farah and Mutai, the clear frontrunners, will give us a sneak preview of next month’s London Marathon. Mo won the NYC Half in 2011 and has a PR of 1:00:10 in the distance. Mutai has a 58:58 personal best in the half (on a faster course) and ran 2:03:02 at the wind-enhanced Boston marathon. Mo is the world’s best 10k runner, and Mutai is the world’s best marathoner. We give the edge in this race to Mo, since we think the half marathon is closer to a 10K than a marathon. For Mo to win, he needs to stay close to Mutai and then unleash his superior kick; whereas Mutai would need to work harder to gap Mo and then hold Mo off. We suspect Mutai would gladly trade a loss in NYC for a win in London.

Besides those two, Meb Keflezighi is back in form having just won the U.S. Half Marathon Champs in Houston with a 1:01 in January. Matt Tegenkamp will be making his half marathon debut.

The women’s side is tougher to call. The two best PRs in the field are Hilda Kibet (1:07:59 last year at the Roma-Ostia Half) and Caroline Kilel (1:08:16 at the World Half Marathon Champs in Birmingham, U.K. in 2009). There are at nine women just behind them with 1:09 or 1:10 PRs, including Desiree Linden (formerly Davila). Molly Huddle, the American record holder in the 5,000 meters, is making her half marathon debut, as is Sally Kipyego who won silver in the 10,000m at the 2012 Olympics. Huddle showed great form at the end of 2013 and recently ran a 15:13 5,000m indoors.

Among runners we’ve interviewed in our podcast, True, Nick Arciniaga, Jeannette Faber, and Tyler McCandless are racing in Jacksonville, while Reid Coolsaet, Jeffrey Eggleston, Jason Hartman, and Lisa Stublic are in the Big Apple.

NYC Half Preview – Men’s Race

This Sunday’s NYC Half Marathon may not have as deep an elite field as last year, when 15 men went sub-1:02 and five women broke 1:10, but what it lacks in depth it makes up for in star power and interesting debuts, particularly on the men’s side. Here’s a rundown of the big names:

  • Wilson Kipsang, the Olympic bronze medalist in the marathon who also owns three sub-2:05 times including a stellar 2:03:42 in Frankfurt two years ago. Kipsang’s PR in the half is 58:59, easily the best in the field.
  • Bernard Lagat, the track superstar making not only his half marathon debut, but also his first race longer than 5000 meters and first on the roads longer than the Fifth Avenue Mile.
  • Dathan Ritzenhein, the two-time Olympian who set a PR in the Chicago Marathon last fall with a 2:07:47 and has a half-marathon best of 60-flat at the World Championships in 2009.
  • Abdi Abdirahman, a four -time U.S. Olympian with a 1:00:29 PR in the half.
  • Deressa Chimsa of Ethiopia, who finished second in the IAAF Half-Marathon Championships last year and has a 1:00:51 PR in the half.

Here are our staff predictions for the men’s race.  A women’s preview will come later.

Gregg: 1) Kipsang, 2) Ritzenhein, 3) Lagat. While I’m not quite crazy enough to pick Ritzenhein for the surprise win, I think he has a much better chance than people realize. He’s focused on this race as opposed to using it as a tune-up for a spring marathon like Kipsang who’s running London, and Abdi who is running Boston. Ritz is coming off his best marathon performance but the half is still his sweet spot, and he ran a great one last fall in Philly, turning in a 1:00:56 just before his strong performance in the Chicago marathon. Lagat will eventually be a major threat in the marathon and half-marathon, but my guess is it will take a race or two to get fully adjusted to the long distances.

Editorial side note: Ritz caused a firestorm among race fans last month for saying that the World Cross-Country Championships, which he is skipping in favor of the NYC Half, were “no longer significant.” He apologized soon thereafter. Now I understand why people were offended, and a world championship is nothing to be scoffed at. However, I also think Ritz had a point, however poor his choice of words. World Cross may have one of the deepest fields in running, but it’s basically a well-guarded secret to all but the most hardcore race fans in the U.S. Marketing of the race appears to be very limited, and the IAAF dropped the 2012 edition of the race and made it biannual. On the other hand, New York Road Runners, the host of the NYC Half and the NYC Marathon, is doing a better job of anyone of marketing the stars of the sport, and oh by the way getting them some paydays.  If we want pro runners to gain higher visibility among fans in the U.S., then what is the best place to showcase their talents – on the streets of New York, zooming past Times Square ahead of 15,000 other runners? Or in Bydgoszcz, Poland?

Brenn: 1) Kipsang, 2) Lagat, 3) Chimsa. I’m not buying the Ritz hype. By a loose application of the transitive property, Lagat beats Chris Derrick (Millrose 5,000m, 2012), Derrick beats Ritz (X-C, 2013), Lagat beats Ritz. I believe the distance at which Ritz would currently beat Lagat is 17 miles and up. Kipsang’s stated goal for this race is 60 minutes, while Lagat’s is 61 minutes. I think Chimsa will try to go with Kipsang, and Lagat will pick him off late. If the temps as currently forecast are in the 30s, I’d bet the “over” on 60 and 61.

As for Bydgoszcz, Poland, the city is hosting World X-C once again after hosting in 2010, which is a head scratcher given that, on the IAAF website, one reads “international sport federations such as the IAAF need to be pro-active when trying to reach new audiences and find new hosts for their events.” In 2010, the Polish men finished 18 out of 21 teams (beating, among others, Iraq), and the women 12th out of 12. Poland did not field teams at the last world X-C champs in 2011, though one of its cross country skiers, Justyna Kowalczyk, has won several world titles and Olympic gold.

From U.A.E. to Waikiki: Half Marathons Heat Up

Before the spring marathon season gets into high gear, a number of stars will be tuning up in half marathons over the next several weeks.  These events run the gamut from stacked, ultra-competitive fields to glorified solo training runs.  Here’s a quick rundown:

  • Feb. 15: Geoffrey Mutai headlines a deep field of 10 sub-60:00 half marathoners at The RAK Half Marathon in the United Arab Emirates. Emmanuel Mutai, the London Marathon course record holder, is also in that group, as is Ethiopia’s Feyisa Lelisa who finished second in Chicago last year and is not to be confused with countryman Lelisa Desisa, who just won in Dubai.
  • Feb. 24: Mo Farah is entered in the Rock ‘n’ Roll New Orleans Half Marathon. The double Olympic champ at 5,000 and 10,000 meters may move to the marathon in a few years. He aced his only other half to date, winning the 2011 NYC Half in 1:00:23 over Galen Rupp and Gebre Gebremariam.
  • March 10: Marathon world record holder Patrick Makau (2:03:38 in Berlin, 2011) will get in a scenic run at the Hapalua Half Marathon in Waikiki Beach, Hawaii.  Just a suggestion, but if Makau wants to run in more exotic locales, why not try Macau?
  • March 18: The NYC Half field includes Meb Keflezighi, Dathan Ritzenhein and Kara Goucher, and the international field has yet to be announced. Meb and Goucher are in the field for the Boston Marathon a month later.  Desi Davila is also in the NYC Half field, but since she recently pulled out of Boston with an injury, it would be a surprise to see her run NYC.

Rupp vs. Gebremeskel vs. Gebrhiwet

Galen Rupp’s 3:50.92 mile at Boston University last weekend blew a hole in the Feb. 16 Wanamaker Mile — billed as Matt Centrowitz’s attack on Bernard Lagat’s meet record (3:52.87), it now seems like a race for second best, though it should still be a good one. Centrowitz set the Armory record in winning the event last year in 3:53.92.

Making Rupp’s mile doubly impressive is that though he had pacers, he didn’t have competition and ran the last quarter solo. That won’t be the case this weekend when Rupp races Ethiopians Dejen Gebremeskel (12:46.81 in the 5000) and Hagos Gebhriwet (12:47.53 in the 5000) in the 3000 at the New Balance Indoor Grand Prix. Rupp is 26 years old, Gebremeskel 23, and Gebhriwet just 18.

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