The CHill Zone of T&F: Conway's View From the Finish Line

The Middle Distances Post London

Aug 20th, 2012
4:16 pm PDT

David Rudisha2 I’m going to talk about the relays and hurdles, which are speed related, but I want to skip over to the middle distances because it’s become one of the most exciting areas of the sport.
Heading into London, I think most people assumed that the 800 & 1500 were the exclusive property of Kenya, who annually dominates the yearly lists – though personally I had some reservations about said dominance. After watching the events play out in London, the lack of Kenyan dominance is just one of the key issues I see in these events moving forward.

While the country of Kenya didn’t dominate in London, the most dominant single performance of the Games was turned in by Kenyan David Rudisha as he took the 800 WR under the 1:41 barrier. He did so without the aid of a pacemaker, never trailed, and looked to have a little something left in the tank when he finished. The scary thing for the competition, is that he’s only 23 and should be approaching his peak in Rio de Janeiro! This man ran the 400 in 49.28 (faster than Sanya Richards  Ross’ gold medal winner) then continued on to run 51.6 for his next 400! I’m not sure I can overemphasize just what type of performance this was – and yet he most likely will surpass it with good health going forward.

As dominant as Rudisha was in London however, he’s going to have to stay sharp if he wants to be the Alpha Male in Rio because the field behind him is young, diverse, and talented. No less than THREE teenagers were in that London final as 18 year old Nigel Amos (BOT) took silver in an incredible WJR 1:41.73; 17 year old Timothy Kitum (KEN) took bronze in 1:42.53 (under the old WJR); and 18 year old Mohammed Aman (ETH) finished 6th in 1:43.20. When you take into account that the WJR at the start of the race was 1:42.69 and that the record holder was only 7th in this race, you understand how rapidly this event is improving. This trio is really just a group of kids right now, and they should just be beginning to mature heading into Rio with their peaks lying ahead in an as yet to be determined Olympic location in 2020 or 2024 – now THAT is scary! Conceivably this trio and Rudisha could be forcing the limits of the 1:40 barrier by, or in, Rio.  

They are just the tip of an iceberg that includes Abraham Rotich (19, KEN), Abubaker Kaki (23, SUD), Taoufik Makhloufi (24, ALG), Kevin Lopez (22, ESP), Andrew Osagie (24, GBR), and Adam Kszczot (23, POL) – all between 1:43.1/1:43.7 this year with Kaki sporting a 1:42.23 PB. Given that 800 runners tend to have careers that last well into their 30’s Americans Duane Solomon (28) and Nick Symmonds (29) have a shot at being in on the party in Rio, as well as the stops in Moscow and Beijing in between. Especially given that both just PR’d under 1:43 in London. As much as I love the sprints, the 800 is shaping up to be one of the most exciting events in the sport – and meet promoters need to make sure to put it on their schedules if they want to promote the sport globally. No other event has the combination of a star in the making like Rudisha; the level of tremendous young talent nipping at his heels; and the breath of countries represented at the top of this iceberg!

In contrast to the diversity of the men’s race, the women’s 800 has become the property of the Kenyans and Russians – along with the distraction that has become Caster Semenya. Yes, I said distraction because as I’ve said the past my personal opinion is that Semenya doesn’t belong on the track with these women. I understand that the sport had attempted to be "fair" to Semenya. But this is an athlete that is caught between genders – neither all one or the other – and that simply means that we have an athlete without a place. But then everyone doesn’t have a place in this sport at the elite level, because everyone isn’t elite. Semenya is clearly not good enough to compete with the men, yet that doesn’t necessitate that the athlete be allowed to compete with the women – as that male component is a bit too much. All you have to do is look at the Olympic final where Semenya stayed in the back until it was time to medal them summarily eased by the field to take silver to understand my position. The attempt to be fair to one individual in this case is to be unfair to an entire event of competitors and THAT ultimately is NOT fair, or right. And frankly I find it a bit ironic that in a sport where we discourage the taking of drugs to alter one’s performance we ask Semenya to do so to temper performance – that in and of itself is all one needs to know about this situation IMHO.

That said, if you want to be a major factor in this event you must be able to run under 1:57 – and right now only Mariya Savinova (27, RUS) and Pamela Jelimo (22, KEN) can make that claim in 2012. In that vicinity, there are close to a dozen women running 1:57.8 or faster this year but the majority are either Kenyan or Russian – Alysia Montano (26, USA) and Fantu Magiso (20, ETH) being notable exceptions. If the Russia / Kenya dominance is going to be broken up the rest of the world is going to have to get past times of 1:59.xx as being the norm – and frankly this event should be well past that by now. I find it interesting that as fantastic as the world’s young men are running  in the 800, there seems to be a serious lag with their female counterparts.

In part that’s why I’ve been excited about US chances in this event – we’ve had several women running 1:58.xx over the past couple of seasons led by Phoebe Wright (24), Morgan Uceny (27), Anna Pierce (28), and Alice Schmidt (31). Competitors in that range have a chance on the Circuit, but are also in the range where one can improve and get into that 1:57 position to be competitive for medals. Of course the issue here is that most of our best 800 women on the clock are also our best in the 1500 and tend to choose the 15 over the 8 come championships time. So, like the rest of the world we must find a way to get out 1:59 women out of the “2:00/1:59” rut if we hope to have more than Montano attempting to challenge for medals in major competition.

Now, how about the 1500 meters? Well, on the surface it looks like Kenyan domination when looking at the men’s yearly list – and they are certainly knee deep in talent, especially at 3:31 and faster where runners like Asbel Kiprop (23), Silas Kiplagat (23), and Nixon Chepseba (22)  clearly dominate on the clock and on the Circuit – and are young enough to continue to do so for at least two Olympic cycles given good health. Ironicall however, and for whatever reason, they allow the pace to dawdle in championship competition, and that allows the rest of the world to to join the fight for the medals! Because right below that trio on the clock sit several young milers from multiple nations that are hungry and looking for their  own shot at glory including London champion Taoufik Makhloufi (24, ALG),  Ayanleh Souleiman (20, DJI), Mekonnen Gebremedhin (23, ETH), Ilham Tanui Ozbilen (22, TUR), and Abdalaati Iguider (25, MAR) – a young diverse group of milers with good speed and serious kicks that should be contesting for the podium in Rio and beyond.

While not quite at the level of the fastest milers on the clock, the US  managed to medal in both Daegu and London with runners capable of running in the 3:32/3:34 range. With championship paces that settled well into that range, Matthew Centrowitz (23, Daegu) & Leo Manzano (28, London) were able to use good tactical running and solid last laps to make the podium in both meets. As long as championships are run at a slower pace than Circuit races, runners like Centrowitz, Manzano, Robbie Andrews (21) and Andrew Wheating (25) – potentially our best young milers moving forward – will have a shot at winning medals. I will also say, that the work that is being done in Oregon with the various clubs in that area, has been a big boon to middle and long distance running in the United States and I would not be surprised to see others come out ready to compete.

On the women’s side of things, the dichotomy between “Circuit” running and “Championship” running seems to be even greater than on the men’s side. This season no less than a dozen women ran under 4:00 for 1500 meters. In London, however, the pace dragged on until a swift final lap only produced a winning time of 4:10.23! In that race only one woman that has run under 4:00 made the podium – gold medalist Asli Cakir Alpetin (TUR) who brought an SB 3:56.62 to London. In contrast, joining her on the podium taking the silver was teammate Gamze Bulut (TUR) who brought an SB 4:03.42 to London! The moral of this story being quite simple, in championships it’s all about tactical running in this day and age. And THAT opens things up for a whole lot of women. That’s why Shannon Rowbury (USA, 27) was able to take bronze in this event in Berlin and Jenny Simpson (USA, 25) was able to win the race last year in Daegu – and why this is one of the most unpredictable events on the schedule of most Majors.

It’s also why trying to predict the top women going forward is very difficult, because whereas the men tend to produce the same top producers on the clock every year, the names of the women tend to change with regularity. Especially this year with several new entrants into the sub4 club. The most consistent women in terms of time and competitiveness have been Maryam Yusuf Jamal (27, BRN), Geleta Burka (25, ETH), Btissam Lakhouad (MAR), Nancy Langat (30, KEN), Mariem Selsouli (27, MAR), Shannon Rowbury (27, USA), Jenny Simpson (25, USA) and Lisa Dobriskey (29, GBR) – a rather eclectic bunch that says that age has it’s virtue. Going forward these women should be challenged hard by the up and coming Ethiopians Abeba Aregawi (22) and Ginzebe Dibaba (21), who I expect to be “on point” during this iupcoming championship cycle and should make Ethiopia the force it has been in the past in distance running events. I also see a rise in distance running from Turkey – gold and silver this year. I see little in their “pipeline” but they came to run in London and were fierce in the process – I would expect to see more of the same especially since they’ve become a player in hosting and bidding for World Championships.

So that’s my view of the middle distances. There is a lot going on in these events and I would expect that that will continue. Next a look at hurdles and perhaps relays, before stepping up to the longer distances.

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