Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Who to Pick: The Fast or the Faster?

This past weekend’s London Marathon was supposed to solidify the top Kenyans in the eyes of the Kenyan Olympic selectors. But things are still murky.

Athletics Kenya (AK) created a short list of contenders a few months ago, naming six men and six women to provisional lists. (The men's situation is a bit more complicated/interesting; I won't discuss the women here.) Results from spring marathons would be considered to get that number down to three. At first they gave one spot to Abel Kirui for winning the World Championship Marathon in Daegu last summer (adding to his previous World Championship win in 2009.) They also gave a spot to Patrick Makau, after he set the world record last fall. But after some other Kenyans kept defying standards for fast marathons, it seemed they had spoken too soon to only have one spot left. So they retracted their previous statements and created their list of six. Those six and the stats that got them on the list:

1. Abel Kirui: won 2011 World Championship
2. Patrick Makau: world record 2:03:38 (Berlin), honorary member of Team Teal
3. Geoffrey Mutai: world’s best 2:03:02 (2011’s Boston, doesn’t count for WR), won NYC in course record
4. Emmanuel Mutai (no relation to Geoffrey): won London last spring in course record, 2nd in NYC (a minute and a half behind G. Mutai)
5. Moses Mosop: second in Boston with a 2:03:06, won Chicago in course record
6. Wilson Kipsang: came 4 seconds from breaking Makau’s record last fall

All six competed in spring marathons in attempt to solidify their spot on the team (and of course, because they are professional runners and marathons are their big paydays.) Since Sunday's win at London, the talk is that Kipsang has a lock on his place on the team. The selectors wanted to see these men at their best this spring, knowing the Olympics were on the line, and Kipsang stepped up to the plate. He’s the only one of the six.

Kirui also ran on Sunday, and while he was with Kipsang for much of the race, he faded badly, finishing sixth.  Makau ran Sunday, tried to goad the pace makers to go faster in the early miles, but dropped out before halfway. E. Mutai also ran Sunday, finishing in an unspectacular 7th in 2:08:01. And with that, they became “also rans” behind Kipsang’s commanding win by over 2 minutes.

G. Mutai ran last week’s Boston, but dropped out at 18 miles with stomach issues. The heat may have been his weakness.

Mosop talked about a WR attempt at Rotterdam, but finished third in 2:05:03 behind two Ethiopians (not something Kenyan selectors like to see.)

So what does this mean? AK is set to make their decision early next week. And while I'm glad I'm not making the decision, it's still fun to think about who I'd choose. 

I think AK should pick a combination of people with speed and people with race tactics. Since the Olympics tend to be tactical, and not world record attempts, it makes sense to put someone like Kirui on the team. He’s won World Championship races. BUT, none of these other men were in last summer’s World Championship race. Many of them opted out because they wanted to race for more glory and a bigger paycheck in fall marathons. Is it fair to praise Kirui for winning a race that didn’t have some of the top guys? Makau, Mosop, and G. Mutai all won what some would consider more prestigious races last fall, and Kipsang crushed an amazing field on Sunday.

So what about speed? Obviously Makau has the WR, and Kipsang came incredibly close. G. Mutai and Mosop were faster on that fateful Boston day that doesn’t count for anything, and also broke course records in NYC and Chicago. (It bothers me that this article lists Mosop, but not G. Mutai, who beat Mosop at Boston, as one of the speedy guys.)

Makau in his Team Teal Tee.
Kipsang has the speed (his 2:03:42) and the tactics (his commanding London win when the stakes were high) to deserve a spot. I think G. Mutai does too. He may have faltered in Boston, but he destroyed records and incredibly talented fields in two major races last year; I don’t think you can leave him at home. I go back and forth on the last spot. E. Mutai is out. He hasn’t been spectacular since last year’s London 12 months ago. As I mentioned above, I think Kirui is overrated. That leaves Mosop and Makau. I can’t believe that AK would put two spring DNFs (G. Mutai and Makau) on their Olympic team (although the dropouts will be able recover faster and the Olympics are less than 100 days away.) Nevertheless, although I’m sure it won’t happen, I’m hoping for Kipsang, G. Mutai, and Makau. You can’t leave the WR holder and the man who’s run the fastest marathon ever at home. But if you’re Kenya, you're lucky to have to make that choice.

Olympic marathon selection in the US is based on a one day trial system. There are obvious problems with that style: if a top contender has a bad day, they are out. But it also removes bias and all the speculation that I've just discussed. (Additionally, people like me may get to achieve the dream of a lifetime just by being invited to the trials. If the US ever switches to the style of the rest of the world, this blog, and my hopes, will be crushed.)  Other countries, such as Canada, set strict time standards and whoever beats the time can go. Three men managed to beat their standard (how convenient), but only one woman did. (Two others are appealing.) But what would the standard be for Kenya? Even sub-2:04 has too many qualifiers. England basically picks the three fastest, but this Boston business makes even that difficult.

The equivalent to a "one day trial"  for Kenya may have been these spring races. If we only considered the races from this spring, that would mean a lot of these guys (G. Mutai, Makau, E. Mutai, and Kirui) would be out. Kipsang and Mosop might still be in the picture, but Martin Lel (second at London) and Wesley Korir would become contenders. In the above analysis, I’ve weighted some of last year’s performances over this spring’s. We'll have to wait and see if AK will instead treat these spring races as more of the trials, and choose based on that criteria.

Tune in on April 30 to hear who they pick.

Dream big, 


  1. Well they didn't wait til next week to name the Olympians. They are: Kipsang, Kirui, and Mosop. It seems they did base their picks on what happened this spring, unlike I did.

  2. Ouch! I thought Makau would make it --as the world record holder. Do you think he has an injury/physical problem the insiders know about?

    1. No, I don't think so. He mentioned a hamstring problem that made him pull out of London, but I don't think it's that serious. Olympic marathons never end up being world record fast, it's usually more tactical, so maybe they were thinking the others had better race tactics than Makau.