Men’s World Championship Marathon 2019 – Review

On Sunday 5 October 2019, Qatar’s capital city played host to the second ever night-time marathon at the World Athletics Championships. In this post, I’ll answer the question “What happened during the 2019 men’s World Championship marathon?” and explore the important running lessons all runners can learn.

What happened in the race?

The men’s marathon was packed with quality athletes from across the world. Although cooler than the women’s race, the course and nighttime conditions were the same and would still severely test the athletes. The 29-year-old Ethiopian Lelisa Desisa stood as one of the favourites, finishing as runner-up in the 2019 Boston Marathon earlier in the year.

After less than 90 seconds, Derlys Ayala made a significant break. He continued to check his watch and pour water over himself as he extended his lead. Sweden’s Adhanom Abraha attempted to push on with him, but the majority of the field dealt with his move. Ayala had a projected finish time of 2 hours and 6 minutes in the early stages. His competitors remained calm. A few athletes ran a few metres in front of the main pack but this was only temporary. Ayala ran the first 5 kilometres in 15:06, one minute ahead of everyone else.

The Paraguayan looked smooth in his arm drive and leg turnover, and maintained his minute-lead through 10 kilometres. His time was an impressive 30:40, but Ayala’s face began to show a new story. His eyeline was more often than not projected downwards. But the lead remained over one minute at 15 kilometres. Callum Hawkins even surged at this stage, but it was only temporary.

Paul Lonyangata of Kenya then surged. The field began to string out a little. Adhanom Abraha then surged. Ayala started to slow by 17 kilometres. Zersenay Tadese, the former half marathon world record holder, reacted best. Ayala was being reeled in by the others. Six athletes, including Lelisa Desisa, breezed by Ayala before the halfway mark. Ayala soon dropped out, exhausted by his lone running. Tadese, Desisa, Mokoka, Geremew and Kipruto were now the lead group.

The defending champion, Geoffrey Kirui, then led the race at 25 kilometres. Four different groups formed along the long stretch of road. The lead kept changing. The pace surged and dropped. Kirui was dropped first. Then before 32 kilometres Tedese fell off the pace. Four athletes led, then Tadese returned to the lead pack. The South African Mokoka surged at 35 kilometres. Tadese and Desisa appeared to be dropped by the front three. They spread across the road. 

With 2 kilometres to go, Hawkins reached the lead pack. Mokoka instead began to fade. With 1 kilometre to go, the three East Africans surged and a significant gap developed between them and Hawkins. Kipruto was dropped. Desisa gritted his teeth. Geremew looked relaxed. Desisa then sprinted with  250 metres to go. He broke the tape to win the gold medal by four seconds, having never looked in control of the race.

Running lessons from the race

There were three running lessons from the men’s World Championship marathon; 1. Confidence can falsely lead runners to run too fast too soon; 2. Looks can be deceiving, and 3. Patience can significantly benefit marathoners.

Confidence can prove counterproductive

Although self-confidence is important to all athletes, too much can result in sub-par performances. The Paraguayan’s early front running dominated the first half of the race. It was clearly pre-planned. He had achieved a new personal best of 2:10:27 two weeks previous, and presumably wanted to see if he could produce another outstanding performance. But he dropped out of the race as soon as he was caught at halfway. The plan did not work.

Four nations had no athletes finish the race despite having at least one on the start line. Notable DNFs included multiple Paris Marathon champion Paul Lonyangata, 2019 London Marathon third place finisher, Mule Wasihun, and the 2018 Commonwealth Games marathon silver medalist, Solomon Mutai. Although less men dropped out than in the women’s race, Doha still tested the athletes to their maximum. Overconfidence meant there were no happy endings for some athletes.

Fatiguing appearances can be deceiving

An athlete’s running technique and facial expressions can tell a lot about how the athlete is feeling. However, sometimes it can be deceiving. Desisa looked more fatigued in the second half of the race compared to his rivals. His arm drive was far from efficient and he didn’t appear relaxed. But he triumphed, and even did a victory dance after the race. Kenya’s Korir’s excessive forward posture, and grimaces by other athletes couldn’t hide their discomfort. But it’s athletes who can push through the inevitable pain that make the most of their talents. Appearances are not everything. 

Patience in the marathon can offer rich rewards 

The most surprising performance of the evening was by Great Britain’s Callum Hawkins. Except for a brief stint at the front of the race he maintained relatively consistent five-kilometre splits. When others began to fade he was able to gain momentum as he passed them. Many of them had faster personal bests than him. He tested the best athletes in the world and except for the final surge with a kilometre to go, he had a great opportunity to win a global medal. Unfortunately for him it wasn’t to be but his racing strategy was certainly effective. 

Desisa, on the other hand, didn’t make a serious move until the final few hundred metres. Having the patience to wait until there can be no response from your competitors shows the experience and class of the Ethiopian. This performance would have been a satisfying one for the 29-year-old, who won silver in the marathon at the 2013 World Athletics Championships  in Moscow.

Conclusion

The 2019 men’s marathon at the World Championship was a cagey race. The lead pack surged throughout, which meant the racing was enthralling and unpredictable. With 18 athletes in the elite field (equivalent to 24.7%) unable to finish the race, the Doha humidity once again defined the race. Still, the race rewarded those who were patient and not over-confident; a marathon lesson that everyone can employ in any conditions.

Women’s World Championship Marathon 2019 – Review

On Sunday 27 September 2019, the city of Doha was host to the first ever night-time marathon at the World Athletics Championships. In this post, I’ll answer the question “What happened during the 2019 women’s World Championship marathon?” and explore what lessons all runners can learn from this historic race.

What happened in the race?

The women’s marathon was full of experienced champions. But the 70% humidity, and 32℃ temperature levelled the field. Although cooler than earlier in the day, conditions were at the limit of what the organisers would allow for the race to go ahead. The 25-year-old Kenyan Ruth Chepngetich stood on the start line as the favourite. She didn’t disappoint.

The course was along the Corniche in downtown Doha. Crowds were not as huge as would have been expected. But those who were along the waterfront promenade saw athletes slightly more than six times throughout the 7-km flat loop.

Athletes took sponges and doused themselves within the first 90 seconds of the race. Most athletes sensibly took on water in the early miles. Sardana Trofimova, an authorised neutral athlete, was an early leader. She opened up a five-second lead. But it only lasted another kilometre or so. The East Africans then pushed on and subsumed her into the lead pack. The lead group contained 16 athletes. They ran the first 5 kilometres in 18:21. This pace predicted a 2:34 marathon finish. 

Salpeter then lead from the front but Chepngetich took over at 7km. Chelimo used her hands to signal to move closer to aid stations. Salpeter surged at times, dropping her drinks bottle as she retrieved a towel. The lead group ran 10 kilometres in 36:44. But Chepngetich soon surged. Three athletes responded, her compatriot Visiline Jepkesho, Bahrain’s Rose Chelimo and Ethiopia’s Ruti Aga. The field was strung out along the road.

At 13 kilometres Chepngetich held a nine-second lead, but she slowed so that a new lead pack emerged before 15 kilometres. Four athletes ran alongside her; Helilia Johannes, Edna Kiplagat, Rose Chelimo and Visiline Jepkesho. Before the halfway point athletes were starting to drop out of the race, including Aga and Britain’s number one marathoner Charlotte Purdue. The lead pack ran the first half of the race in 1:16:40. Jepkesho dropped off the pack before 25km. Salpeter continued to chase for many miles by herself. But she dropped out just after 31 km.

At 35km a decisive break happened on the last lap. Chepngetich surged with a 3:19 kilometre. Only the defending champion Rose Chelimo could stay within touching distance. The Kenyan’s slight head bobbing and high arm drive was pronounced as she extended her lead. She began lapping other athletes. Her lead extended to 30 seconds with a few kilometres to go. Whilst Chelimo appeared to slow, with justifiably tired legs, Chepngetich maintained a quick leg turnover and relatively high knee lift.

At 39km Johannes pulled ahead of Kiplagat. It was then that the medals would be decided. Chepngetich won the first gold medal of the 2019 World Athletics Championships. She never needed to look back.

Running lessons from the race

There were three running lessons from the women’s World Championship marathon; 1. negative-split pacing remains a winning race strategy for the marathon ; 2. tough conditions are too difficult for some experienced athletes to cope with, and 3. extra fluids are crucial in humid conditions.

Negative-split pacing is still most effective strategy for marathon

Although conditions were brutal for the athletes to run peak performances, Chepngetich proved why a slight negative-split strategy is the best race strategy. Her second half was 37 seconds faster than her first. She was one of only two athletes in the top ten to record a negative-split performance (the other athlete was Mizuki Tanimoto). As a result she won the race in an eventually comfortable 1:03. Her strength in the final seven kilometres showed that rather than surging excessively, she could simply maintain. As most athletes slowed slightly, she did not. 

Even experienced athletes can’t always execute in tough conditions

The field of athletes was strong. Yet, experienced athletes, could not cope with the tough conditions. This was partly surprising because as professional athletes they would presumably have trained specifically for the conditions. Although it was sensible to drop out of the race if athletes were genuinely struggling, the early exits showed in part that athletes had obviously severely underestimated the challenge. Heat tolerance and pain thresholds are different for every athlete, but every athlete would have been aware of the conditions well in advance.

There were sixteen nations who had no athletes finish the race despite having at least one on the start line. Most surprising were Ethiopia, Uganda, Italy and Great Britain. Notable DNFs included marathon national record holder for Israel, Lonah Salpeter, who won the 10,000m gold at the 2018 European Championships. Charlotte Purdue, the best British marathoner this year, also suffered in Qatar’s conditions.

Extra fluids are essential in humid, hot conditions

Athletes drank more during the race than what would usually be expected in a marathon. The humid and hot conditions meant that athletes sweated much more rapidly than under cooler conditions. This meant that athletes were more prone to heat exhaustion, especially if they had not adequately acclimatised themselves to the conditions pre-race. Most, if not all athletes took advantage of their special drinks, available to them every 5 kilometres. Another water station was set up so that no runner was too far from any fluids. To ensure everyone got what they needed, there was always a spread of athletes whenever they reached water stations. Athletes poured water over their heads, and weaved across the road.

It must be emphasised though that although hydration is important during hotter conditions, slowing your pace to an appropriate level is just as crucial for success. The demands of the marathon are rigorous even on favourable days. This is why it wasn’t unsurprising to see no athlete record a personal best. Even the champion Chepngetich ran 15:35 slower than her personal best set only eight months ago in Dubai.

Conclusion

The 2019 women’s marathon at the World Championship was a unique race. Not only was the evening time, hot weather and repetitive course different from other World Championships, it was controversial. With 28 athletes in the elite field (equivalent to 41%) unable to finish the race, many would argue that this was far from ideal for spectators, coaches or athletes. 

There should be recognition that the athletes all worked hard to get to Doha. Still, there should be as many questions asked of the organisers as there should be of the athletes. The relatively low finishers’ rate for such an important race shows neither the organisers or athletes truly grasped this Middle Eastern challenge to the detriment of the sport.