The future belongs to Africa

A few months ago I speculated on whether or not some non-African runners might make an impact in the big city marathons in the near future. I focussed on Dathan Ritzenhein as he prepared for the New York marathon, and Ryan Hall who was aiming for a US record in Chicago.

A year earlier, Ritzenhein had joined a group of selected athletes in the well-funded Nike Oregon project.  The athletes live in a house in Portland, Oregon, where the bedrooms and living room have a controlled atmosphere that makes it possible to live high (that is in an atmosphere with oxygen content similar to an altitude of 12,000 feet), yet train low (near sea level), under the guidance of Alberto Salazar.  In order to adjust training load according to body physiology, various high technology devices are used to monitor heart rate variability (based on fairly sound science) and brain omega waves, which as far as I am aware is at best based on speculative science, and is perhaps as mind-boggling as the Cryosauna Space Cabin, in which temperatures of -170 degrees C are employed to hasten muscle recovery.  In my post on 4th September, I expressed some concern that Salazar had attempted to change Ritz’ running style, encouraging him to land on the mid or forefoot, despite his well know susceptibility to metatarsal stress fractures.  So far, the outcome has been disappointing.  Dathan achieved 8th place in New York, in a time of 2:12:33.

Ryan Hall was training with Terrence Mahon at Mammoth Lakes at an altitude of 7800 feet.  I was concerned by the approach to training that led to what he described as a brutal training run of 12 miles climbing from 7,000 to 10,000 feet over Tioga pass, a week before his tune–up in the Philly Rock and Roll half marathon.  He ran poorly in Philadelphia, and subsequently withdrew from Chicago.  Around the same time he also announced that he was leaving Terrence Mahon’s training group.

Meanwhile, in 2010 Kenyans and Ethiopians were again dominant.  The winners of the five World Marathon Majors were:

Berlin, Patrick Makau (Kenya, born 1985) 2:05:08

London, Tsegaye Kebede (Ethiopia, born 1987) 2:05:19

Boston, Robert Kiprono Cheruiyot (Kenya, born 1988)  2:05:52,

Chicago, Samuel Wanjiru (Kenya, born 1986) 2:06:24

New York, Gebre Gebremariam  (Ethiopia, born 1984) 2:08:14

The fastest marathon of the year was the Rotterdam Marathon, won by Patrick Makau in 2:04:48.  It is noteworthy that the oldest of the winners of the 5 Majors, Gebre Gebremariam, was born in 1984. All are younger than Ritzenhein and Hall, both of whom were born in 1982.  All the signs indicate that the Africans will continue to dominate marathon running for the foreseeable future.

In their review of the highlights of long distance running in 2010, IAAF statisticians A Lennart Julin and Mirko Jalava reported that 59 of the athletes in world top 100 marathon runners were Kenyan while 28 were from Ethiopia.  Of the top 18, 10 were from Kenya and 8 from Ethiopia.

Whatever the role of genes or high altitude training, a major factor must simply be the power of cultural expectation.  Just as Bannister’s 4 minute mile opened a floodgate, a floodgate has been opened in Kenya and Ethiopia.  Aspiring young Kenyans and Ethiopians know that times faster than 2:10:00 are not only possible but to be expected of themselves and their compatriots.  Conversely, perhaps the high tech of the Nike Oregon Project has created a barrier in the minds of US marathoners that appears as insurmountable as the 4 minute mile once did.

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One Response to “The future belongs to Africa”

  1. Ewen Says:

    Interesting post Canute. That’s an amazing (intimidating?) statistic with 59 + 28 out of 100 from Kenya and Ethiopia. Also that young marathoners are expecting to run 2:05 to 2:06.

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