A Promising Debut

Two weeks on from the Virgin London Marathon I have been surprised there hasn’t been more written about Mo Farah’s debut.  The little reaction that I have read seems to suggest that Mo’s debut served only to prove he should stick to the track – something his coach, Alberto Salazar has recently recommended.  As you can probably tell from my title of the blog I have a slightly different opinion.

Many people have criticised Mo’s decision to make his debut in London against such a strong field citing Bekele’s debut in a much weaker field in Paris as a wiser move.  Maybe so, but Mo’s comments at the end of the marathon in London were, in my opinion, revealing and heart warming.  Mo grew up in London.  He is a gooner (an Arsenal fan).  He acknowledges the contribution the London crowd made to his Olympic success in 2012.  I think it was a courageous and touching decision for Mo to make his debut in London knowing that it may result in the British media and public viewing it as a glorious failure.  Or just a failure.  Sadly, this seems to be the case despite a more than creditable performance.

Mo Farah Marathon Debut

Mo Farah Marathon Debut

So let’s ignore the hype and hyperbole and look at some cold, hard facts.

The elite men’s field at the London marathon was arguably (although I doubt many would argue) the strongest and most competitive men’s field in the history of the marathon.  The field included the world record holder in Wilson Kipsang, the world’s fastest man in Geoffrey Mutai, and World and Olympic Champion in Stephen Kiprotich.  To highlight the strength of the field running legend Haile Gebreselaisse, albeit in the twilight of his glittering career, was a mere pacemaker and didn’t even make it to half way.

Mo’s stated intention was to run in the second pace group and go after Steve Jones’s British record of 2:07:13 and not to attempt to stick with the world record pace asked for by some of the elite Kenyan and Ethiopian runners.  Now, let’s look at how everyone finished up.  Ok, Mo was a long way back from winner Wilson Kipsang.  The deficit of nearly 4 minutes is equivalent to well over a kilometre but given Mo’s pre race intentions the deficit is hardly surprising.  He was never likely to catch and overtake the world’s best marathon runners having given them a lead in the first half of the race, especially when they were running close to world record pace.  It would have been foolish, if not fool hardy, for Mo to have tried to go with this pace in his debut marathon.  Mo’s time of 2:08:21 was just 2 seconds behind Emmanuel Mutai, 3 seconds behind Geoffrey Mutai, and over 3 minutes ahead of Olympic champion Stephen Kiprotich.

And let’s not forget the challenge that Mo faced during the race.  Unfortunately he was isolated early on as the pacemakers for the second group ran 50m ahead of him and the only other competitor, Ibrahim Jeilan, fell off the pace before half way.  The pacemakers here really failed to do their job.  Whilst they are paid to set a particular pace the reason for them being there is to lead runners through the first 13 – 20 miles of the marathon.  They should have eased off and waited for Mo.  We’ll never know, but I wonder if better support from the pacemakers could have helped Mo to a UK record. Interestingly this was Ibrahim Jeilan’s debut marathon too – Ibrahim Jeilan being the only man to have beaten Mo in a championship race on the track in recent years.  It is clear evidence showing just how well Mo has adapted to the marathon distance in comparison to another track runner looking to make the transition.

Now, what about comparing Mo’s debut to some of the best marathon runners in the World at the moment to see how he matches up.  The list makes for interesting reading and, in my opinion, clearly shows that Mo’s debut was not only promising, but world class, especially given he ran alone for such a long time.

Wilson Kipsang

Wilson Kipsang

Wilson Kipsang – 2:07:13

Kipsang’s debut marathon came in Paris in 2010 where he finished third.  Later that year he surprised the world by running 2:04:57 in Frankfurt – conclusive proof that your debut marathon should not be relied on too heavily as an indicator of future potential.


Stephen Kiprotich

Stephen Kiprotich

Stephen Kiprotich – 2:07:20

Kiprotich ran 2:07:20 in April 2011 at the Enschede Marathon but struggled in the World Championship race in Daegu later that year, finishing a distant 9th in 2:12:57.  His performances highlight the difficulty of the marathon distance that often results in inconsistent performances.

Geoffrey Mutai

Geoffrey Mutai

Geoffrey Mutai – 2:12:40

Geoffrey Mutai’s made his marathon debut in Monaco in 2008 winning the race in 2:12:40.  Later that year he ran 2:07:50 in Eindhoven.  His stand out performance came in the 2012 Boston Marathon where he ran the fastest time in history of 2:03:02.

Emmanuel Mutai

Emmanuel Mutai

Emmanuel Mutai – 2:13:06

Emmanuel Mutai’s debut came in Rotterdam in 2007.  In hot conditions he ran 2:13:06, finishing seventh.  Coincidentally Rotterdam was won that year in 2:08:21 – the same time Mo ran for his debut.  Later that year Emmanuel won the Amsterdam Marathon in 2:06:29.  With the exception of his stunning performance at the 2013 Boston Marathon where he ran 2:03:52 he has tended to run marathons between 2:06:00 and 2:08:00 since Amsterdam.

Two things stand out about each of these athletes and their marathon running:  they are all marathon specialists and, with the exception of Kiprotich, all ran their second marathon significantly faster than their debut and have continued to improve.  Mo’s debut is faster than 2 of these 4 athletes and compares favourably to the other 2.

These athletes have not raced extensively on the track and have, therefore, the advantage of years of training specifically for the rigours of both road running and the marathon distance.  In contrast Mo is making the transition from track athlete.  This transition takes time – it is almost inconceivable that any runner will run their fastest marathon on their debut, especially a track athlete.  We only need look at the debuts and subsequent progression of two legends of the track to see this:

Haile Gebreselaisse – 2:06:35

In his debut marathon Haile Gebreselaisse was convincingly beaten to 3rd place after falling off the pace.  He took another 5 years to go much faster than this, running 2:04:26 in the Berlin Marathon in 2008.  We shouldn’t forget that Haile, the emperor of long distance running, dominated the sport over many years setting many world records, before making the transition to the marathon.

Paul Tergat – 2:08:15

Haile’s great rival was Paul Tergat.  In making the transition from the track Paul Tergat, 5 time World Cross Country Champion, failed to win his first five marathons before eventually going on to break the world record.  Tergat’s debut marathon time of 2:08:15 is a mere 6 seconds quicker than Mo – that’s less than 0.1%.

Haile Gebreselaisse and Paul Tergat

Haile Gebreselaisse and Paul Tergat

On the flip side, those who believe Mo should return to the track, will tell you not every runner can make the transition from 10,000m to marathon and would probably give you the example of Zersenay Tadesse.  Tadesse is a class athlete having claimed bronze in the Olympic 10,000m in 2004 and silver in the World Championships in 2009.  He has also won the World Half Marathon Championship an amazing 5 times.  His debut over the marathon distance came in London in 2010 where he finished in 2:12:03.  Two years later he ran his PB of 2:10:41 again in London.  Clearly Mo’s debut outclasses Tadesse by some distance over the marathon.

Mo Farah is also a proven championship runner.  He has made his name by winning major championships, not running fast races.  We only need to look at his 5,000m and 10,000m performances to see this.  Surely this stands Mo in good stead if his target is the marathon in Rio 2016.  Looking at the winning times in Olympic Marathons reveal a compelling fact – Mo’s debut time of 2:08:21 would have placed him in the medals in every Olympic Marathon.  Ever.  In 2012 it would have placed him in third place, significantly around 1 minute ahead of Wilson Kipsang, whose exuberance and poor tactics cost probably him the Olympic title on the day.  Looking further back in history, with the exception of Sammy Wanjiru’s astounding performance in Beijing, Mo would have won gold with 2:08:21 in every other Olympic Marathon.

Olympics Gold Silver Bronze
Sydney 2000 Abera – 2:10:11 Wainaina – 2:10:31 Tola – 2:11:10
Athens 2004 Baldini – 2:10:55 Keflezighi – 2:11:29 De Lima – 2:12:11
Beijing 2008 Wanjiru – 2:06:32 Gharib – 2:07:16 Kebede – 2:10:00
London 2012 Kiprotich – 2:08:01 Kirui – 2:08:27 Kipsang – 2:09:37

This is perhaps a little misleading, however.  It is a well known fact that championship marathons tend to be won in slower times than the marathon majors – perhaps because the field is limited to  3 athletes per Country, in recent years resulting in the exclusion of some of the best Kenyan and Ethiopian runners.  For example in 2012 Patrick Makau, then world record holder, was not selected for the Kenyan Olympic team.

It should also be noted that the standard of marathon running for men at the elite level has rocketed in recent years, probably since Sammy Wanjiru’s Beijin performance.  There is phenomenal strength in-depth, especially from Kenya and Ethiopia, as mentioned above.  But the fact that elite marathon runner is as strong as it has even been is surely a reason to compete over the distance for a world class athlete like Mo Farah?  Doesn’t every athlete want to challenge themselves against the very best in the world?  Put in these terms Mo’s decision is actually quite simple.

Mo is double World and Olympic Champion over 5,000m and 10,000m.  He has little left to prove over these distances, except maybe a fast time – but the world records of Kenenise Bekele really are exceptional and seem a little out of reach.  Mo has little to gain by turning out for another World Championship 5,000m or 10,000m but everything to lose – retaining his titles would be great, but without meaning too sound blasé, so what?  Mo’s already been there, done that, and got the t-shirt.

Like the rest of us, Mo isn’t getting any younger.  His success is based on his incredible speed over the last 600m of a race, but as we all know, speed doesn’t last forever.  I’m not suggesting that he hasn’t got that speed anymore, but it will fade over time.  Bernard Lagat may be the one exception to this rule, but he’s exactly that – the exception to the rule.  More importantly is what we’ve learnt from looking at other athletes who have made the transition from the track to the marathon – it takes time to make that transition.  To run your best marathon you need years of specific training to build your strength and endurance, which means Mo needs to focus now on marathon training to prepare for Rio 2016.  It may seem like a long way off, but to prepare for a marathon at the elite level you need a long time!  It took Gebreselaisse 5 years to get close to his best over the marathon.  Mo is 30 years old.  If he delays his transition to the marathon until after Rio 2016 has he got enough time to reach his marathon peak?

In Alberto Salazar Mo has a coach that understand what it takes to prepare for a marathon and uses a science based approach to optimise his athletes performances.  This surely gives Mo a great platform to make the transition from world class track athlete to world class marathon runner.  As I said in my introduction Salazar is clearly focussed on Mo running the 10,000m in Rio.   So Mo’s greatest challenge may not be making the transition to the marathon to compete against the best in the world, but convincing his coach that he can!

Mo is already a legend.  He is a member of a very elite group of men as a double World and Olympic Champion, but the group of men who have also won the Olympic marathon is even smaller.  I haven’t checked  but Emil Zatopek is the only runner I can think of who has achieved this.  This is a fact that surely can’t have passed either Mo, or his coach Alberto, by.

%d bloggers like this: