Brutal is not best

After a decade in which African runners have almost totally dominated distance running, there has been growing interest in the possibility that athletes from elsewhere in the world might once again compete on an equal footing with the Africans.  Last year, Meb Keflezighi won the ING New York marathon, but that is probably of little relevance to this question.  Meb spent his school days in America and is a genuine home-grown American athlete, but he had been born in Eritrea, and there has been much discussion about the degree to which his African roots contributed to his success.  Perhaps even more important to the discussion of whether non-Africans might seriously challenge African domination of distance running is the fact that Meb is now 35 and approaching the age at which it will be a struggle to sustain the pace of his younger days.  Wonderful though his achievement in New York was, if there is going to be a substantial re-balancing of the geographical distribution of power in distance running it is more likely to be achieved by a slightly younger generation.  So hopes have been invested in two younger American distance runners: Ryan Hall and Dathan Ritzenhein.

Both have indeed shown great promise.  While it would be foolish to place too much emphasis on small blips, nonetheless, it is noteworthy that last weekend there were interesting hiccoughs in the career trajectories of both of these young hopefuls, and these hiccoughs are worth examining because they might perhaps be pointers to more serious underlying flaws.

In recent weeks I have on several occasions discussed Dathan Ritzenhein and the question of how he is dealing with his metatarsals.  In my recent post I speculated that his attempt to change his running style might have contributed to his disappointing slow-down in the final 5Km of the Great Northern Run a week ago.  Today, it is time to wonder why Ryan Hall had a disappointing run in the Rock and Roll half marathon in Philadelphia that same weekend.

Hall is currently preparing for the Chicago marathon in October.   The Philly R&R was intended to merely mark a stage in his preparation for Chicago but nonetheless he approached it with hope that it would confirm that his preparations were going well and that he was building from the solid base demonstrated by his 4th place in Boston this year.  In his blog on Sept 13th he wrote ‘The great thing about running Philly is that I have a positive experience from last year to build from’.  Last year he had won.  His time of 61:52 on that occasion was somewhat slower than his personal best (the current US record) of 59:43 set in the Aramco half marathon in Houston in 2007, but nonetheless a victory indicates that you are the best in the field on the day.  So his hopes for the 2010 Rock &Roll were well justified.

However, these hopes were dashed.  After a sound start in which he followed his usual tradition of setting his own pace rather than worrying about maintaining a place in the leading group, at 10Km he was on course for a time similar to his time last year, but then faded badly in the second half to finish in 14th place in a time of 63:55.  What happened?

In that blog posted only six days before this year’s event, he also described his recent training:

‘On Sunday I ran my last significant long run before Philly. It was one of my favourite long runs of all time. …. On the trip to Mammoth there is a section of road from the 395 to the entrance of Yosemite National Park on the 120 that is called Tioga Pass. It is a brutal climb with majestic views. ….Tioga pass climbs from 7,000 to 10,000 feet over 12 miles, but that stat doesn’t do the run justice. The majority of the climb happens over a six-mile stretch, which makes for the steepest paved road grade I have ever run–and at an increasing altitude, to boot. Part way into the run I could see the elevation sign off in the distance and was sure it was going to say 9,000 feet, as I was already hurting and was sure I had already climbed a significant part of the pass. It was a little disheartening when I got closer to the sign and saw that it marked 8,000 feet. I still had 2,000 feet of climbing over the next four miles.’

Hall had intended the Rock  & Roll to be merely as a staging point in his preparation for the Chicago Marathon in a month’s time, and it would have been inappropriate to take time out of his preparation for a long taper for a race which merely marked an intermediate stage, but was it sensible to do such an exhausting long run in that particular week?  The phrase ‘brutal with majestic views’ I think reflects a mind-set that contrasts with phrases expressing the need to respect the body that are typical of elite Kenyan and Ethiopian runners.  For example, in his interview with Akio Harada before the Fukuka marathon in 2008, Olympic champion Sammy Wanjiru made clear that he races with grit.   He stated ‘but I’m not the type of guy who runs behind someone else.’   In contrast, his approach to training exhibited a respect for the body: ‘Sundays are off, and if it rains I also take the day off from training. If you train too hard in the summer it’s bad for your body.’

While it is sensible to run a competitive half marathon as a tune-up in the final 6 weeks of the preparation for a marathon, it seems to me that preceding a half marathon race with a ‘brutal’ long run ascending from 7000 to 10,000 feet is not a sensible and respectful way to treat the body. It is the hubris that invites nemesis.   I hope that Hall manages to recover in time for a good run in Chicago.  Perhaps it might be even more important for him to re-evaluate his approach to building up rather than wearing down his body.  Both Haile G and Paul Tergat emerged stronger after disappointing performances during their careers, so it would be far to dramatic to make too much of the recent disappointing half-marathons of either Hall or Ritzenhein, but I think every race performance requires a little bit of scrutiny to see if there are lessons to be learned.


[2] Akio Harada (2008)  ‘Samuel Wanjiru shares the secret of training to win.’, published in the program for the 2008 Fukuoka marathon; translated from Japanese by Brett Larner with editorial assistance from Mika Tokairin, and posted on

15 Responses to “Brutal is not best”

  1. Ewen Says:

    Thanks for the background research Canute. I’ve driven down Tioga Pass — great views, but an incredible descent. Not sure what they were thinking doing a training run like that the week of Philly. If (a big if) Hall had been competitive and run a similar time to last year, it would have been a positive mental boost for Chicago. Now he has to say “I did a brutal training run that week which took the edge off me.”

    • canute1 Says:

      Yes Tioga pass is spectacular.

      I agree that Ryan appears to have squandered a good opportunity to boost his confidence for Chicago. My even greater concern is that by brutal training followed by a competitive half marathon at the beginning of the final few weeks before the marathon taper, the final few weeks which should provide the opportunity to lift oneself to peak fitness, he has already started the process of blunting his fitness.

      But I hope not

  2. Ewen Says:

    I just saw a link from Rick’s blog that Hall is out of Chicago. Sounds like he’s been struggling to get on top of his training (and get enough rest) for a few months, and it wasn’t just the Tioga pass run that did him in. Perhaps a case for HRV-guided training being better than prescriptive training?

    • canute1 Says:

      Ewen, Thanks for drawing my attention to Rick’s post, and Rick, thanks for finding the article about Ryan Hall’s decison to drop out from Chicago.

      That is a shame. If he was already struggling with fatigue, a brutal 12 mile run with a 3000’ climb at high altitude followed by a HM race was definitely not sensible, but illustrates that fact that many athletes are tempted to increase effort rather than rest when performance begins to decline. .The fact that even an elite athlete with an experienced coach can make this mistake does suggest that HRV has value – though as discussed in my recent post on HRV (on 12th September), obtaining reliable results requires some care.

  3. Rick Says:

    Canute, I have been a keen follower of ryan since I saw him at the London Marathon.
    there he was holding his own against the best from africa, this tall white guy standing out from the Crowd!
    I was jumping up and down in delight as he came from behind and finished so strongly.
    Both me and ryan have had a bad end of summer, after setting new P.B.s this spring I ignored my coach and got back into racing only 1 week after London, then started hard training for my second marathon of the year.
    End result burn out and a poor second marathon { sorry coach, my fault].
    the moral of this story too much hard training without rest is not a good thing.
    Now ryan, he has said on ‘master shift’ that he enjoys training more than racing, problem with this is your more likely to test yourself out in training to get confidence and reading his blog and watching his video’s you get the impression that his hard sessions are very intense.
    the fact that he has not really improved from that London performance shows to me that overtraining might well be the cause.
    it might be hard for him, but holding back a little in training would i think bring him great rewards.
    Maybe it is time for his coach to move him on to someone who can control his energy and set his heart on fire to race!
    By the way Canute what do you think to this video,

    • canute1 Says:

      Thanks for that comment. I agree that Ryan needs to find the right balance between effort and recovery so that his training builds his body up rather than wearing it down. As your own experience after the London marathon in April shows, maximum effort over a long distance takes a lot out of the body and demands a generous recovery to avoid tipping the body into a downward spiral in which yet more training becomes counterproductive. Your recent mountain marathon performance was below your true capability but not a complete disaster. Give your body an adequate rest over the next month or so and then you should be able to rebuild for another good marathon next spring. I was interested to note that Marius Bakken had advised you to rest after the London marathon. He is famous for that photo of him flat on his back and totally exhausted after the World championship 5000m final in Edmonton in 2001 ( but he also spent a lot of time in Kenya where he learned much about how to achieve the right balance between effort and recovery. So recover well and good luck for next season.

      Thanks also for the link to the video on flexibility and running style. It contains some good ideas though some of the claims are a bit too simplistic. I will do a post explaing my thoughts in more detail in the near future

  4. Rick Says:

    Dathan Ritzenhein
    I watched Dathon in the Great north run and to be honest his form looked ugly from the start, his whole upper body looked full of tension and his arms and shoulders twisted wildly from side to side.
    He was not the same man that smoothly crossed the line in 3rd place at the world 1/2 marathon champs.
    His form makover was not good, maybe he was landing on his midfoot, but everything else was so wrong.
    He was was getting tensed up thinking about holding his new running form instead of relaxing and flowing along.
    After two years of trying different running methods I am using what I call a natural style, this is first using good posture and second letting the natural stretch reflex actions of the leg muscles do there job without forcing anything.
    This is to my mind running like a free flowing powerful animal, instead of slowing yourself down through forced tension.

    • canute1 Says:

      I agree that the make-over of Dathan’s style has not been a success. It is interesting that you noted the upper body tension. His own account of his calf muscles seizing up completely in the last 5 Km of the GNR makes me think that the major reason for his slowing over the final 5Km was too much tension in this calf as a result of trying too hard to land on forefoot or midfoot, but I suspect you are right to point out that there was too much tension in his upper body as well. He still has 5 weeks until New York. I hope he focuses on relaxed running and, for the time being, forgets about whether he lands on his heel or his forefoot.

  5. Rick Says:

    At the start of the race, i wondered who this guy was, he looked like a club runner sprinting all out to get on the camera!
    only when Steve Cram said in was datham, did it sink in!

  6. Rick Says:

    OPPS typing erroe should have said NATHAM.

    • canute1 Says:

      Rick, your typing speed is making you too creative. However it is clear who you mean.

      Your comment about his strained look at the start is supported by his own admission on this blog that he felt he had pushed too hard in the first few Km. In fact for a person with a 5000m PB of 12:56:27 and a 10,000m PB of 27:22:28, you might expect that he would have felt reasonably comfortable with the early pace of the GNR which was around 14:10 for the first 5 km. While it is probably true that he would have been better advised to aim for 14:20 for the first 5Km, I am surprised that he found 14:10 stressful. Something wasn’t right and I think it was most likely that his attempt to change his style has made him too tense.

  7. Grellan Says:

    Hi Canute. I was very interested in your previous post on heel v’s forefoot striking. While I would naturally heel strike with no ill effect I have recently switched to running some of my runs in vibrams which pushes me on to my forefeet and understandably I have felt more tightness in my calves. What type of conditioning work do you recommend for your calves to help deal with the additional stress of forefoot striking. regards,


  8. canute1 Says:

    I do calf raises (on one leg at a time), while standing with forefoot on a step so that the heel drops below the level of the forefoot at the low point, to maximum the eccentric stretch during lowering. I typically do 3×20 on each leg several times per week.
    I do not hold weights when doing so but provided you build up slowly that should increase the benefit.
    Good luck

  9. Grellan Says:

    Thanks Canute. I had been doning calf raises following injury but had stopped a few months ago.

  10. Rick Says:

    Top American Runner Leaves the Pain Behind

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