at the races Five Takeaways from the Marathon at the Tokyo Olympics

Five Takeaways from the Marathon at the Tokyo Olympics

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I hope everyone enjoyed the final weekend of Tokyo 2020. The marathons are my favourite events to watch. They are always filled with intrigue, personal achievement, and amazing racing.

Before I discuss my five takeaways, here is a quick recap of the race:

The women started out controlled and calculated, taking into account the heat beating down from the hot sun, but as the pace picked up at about the halfway mark, the large lead pack began to slowly whittle down. Included in that group, however, were Canadians Malindi Elmore and Natasha Wodak who went on to run amazing performances. Elmore came through strongly in the latter stages to finish ninth and Wodak finished thirteenth. Both of them ran in their third official marathons and the ninth place for Elmore is the second best finish ever by a Canadian woman. Canadian Dayna Pidhoresky did not feature at the front of the race as she was running injured and after two weeks in isolation. Pidhoresky did well just to finish in a performance which encompassed the Olympic spirit.

As the pace accelerated, the top four athletes opened the gap fairly quickly. They included Brigid Kosgei (Kenya), Peres Jepchirchir (Kenya), Molly Seidel (USA) and Lonah Salpeter (Israel). As it looked like Seidel was going to be dropped at the 39K mark, Salpeter was forced, due to heat exhaustion, to slow to a walk ending her chance of a medal. As this occurred, Jepchirchir, a former winner of the Ottawa 10K surged away from Kosgei, the marathon world record holder, and held her off to win the Olympic title. Kosgei finished second; Seidel third.

Although the runs by the Kenyans were impressive, they were expected. The run by Molly Seidel was not. Top American commentators suggested that an apocalypse would have to occur for any American to medal, but Seidel defied these expectations. It’s not like she did not have the pedigree. She is a multiple time NCAA Champion and in her debut marathon, made the U.S. Olympic Team, but defeating the likes of Salpeter who has a personal best seven minutes faster was not considered to be in the cards. The Molly Seidel story is one all young athletes should be inspired by.

Despite her NCAA stardom, she struggled with eating disorders, mental health issues, and injuries including stress fractures. After seeking help, she began running competitively again while holding two jobs: one as a babysitter and one as a barista. After finishing second at the Trials, Seidel left those jobs and began to focus on running full time, it clearly paid off. Her story is a cautionary tale, yes. But her story is also one of determination, the importance of seeking help, and how with the right attitude, anyone can fulfil their dreams. 

Here are the results from the women’s race. Full results here:

  1. Peres JEPCHIRCHIR (Kenya) – 2:27:20
  2. Brigid KOSGEI (Kenya) – 2:27:36
  3. Molly SEIDEL (USA) – 2:27:46
  4. Roza DEREJE (Ethiopia) – 2:28:38
  5. Volha MAZURONAK (Belarus) – 2:29:06
  6. Melat Yisak KEJETA (Germany) – 2:29:16
  7. Eunice CHUMBA (Bahrain) – 2:29:36
  8. Mao ICHIYAMA (Japan) – 2:30:13
  9. Malindi ELMORE (Canada) – 2:30:59

     13.  Natasha WODAK (Canada) – 2:31:41 

     73.  Dayna PIDHORESKY (Canada) – 3:03:10

The men’s race also started out controlled, again the men feeling the heat. At about 20K there was a pack of thirty-five or so athletes including Canadian Cam Levins, world champion Lelisa Desisa from Ethiopia, American favourite Galen Rupp, and the greatest of all-time Eliud Kipchoge, who was giving fist bumps, instructing younger athletes on how to run the tangents and looked like he was out for his Sunday jog.

The racing really began at the 25K mark as Kipchoge began to turn the screw and the pack began to dissolve. Desisa was the first to go as other athletes began to fall off one by one. At 30K, Kipchoge truly applied the gas. He strode away for the win. The battle royale ensued behind as about six athletes vied to complete the podium. Rupp was dropped followed by Japanese hopeful Suguro Osaka. The race for the silver and bronze came down to four athletes and in the final dust up the Dutch athlete, Abdi Nageeye and Belgian athlete, Barshir Abdi, out sprinted Boston Marathon Champion, Lawrence Cherono (who ironically won Boston in a sprint). The top Canadian in the race was Ben Preisner, who was running only his second marathon. 

Here are the results for the men’s event. The full results can be found here.

  1. Eliud KIPCHOGE (Kenya) – 2:08:38
  2. Abdi NAGEEYE (Netherlands) – 2:09:58
  3. Bashir ABDI (Belgium) – 2:10:00
  4. Lawrence CHERONO (Kenya) – 2:10:02
  5. Ayad LAMDASSEM (Spain) – 2:10:16
  6. Suguru OSAKO (Japan) – 2:10:41
  7. Alphonce Felix SIMBU (Tanzania) – 2:11:35
  8. Galen RUPP (USA) – 2:11:41

      46. Ben PREISNER (Canada) – 2:19:27

      48. Trevor HOFBAUER (Canada) – 2:19:57

      72. Cameron LEVINS (Canada) – 2:28:43

Here are my 5 Takeaways from the Event:

  1. Heat causes a lot of DNFs, but fewer than cold and rain

The heat was an obvious factor in Sapporo, despite International Olympic Committee attempts to move the marathon’s away from Tokyo to a cooler location. Perhaps they did save a couple degrees centigrade, but I do not know if it made a major difference to the outcome of the event.

Due to the heat there were a lot of DNFs. In a field of 105 on the men’s side, only 75 runners finished, resulting in about a 29% dropout rate. As Krista DuChene mentioned on the broadcast: women are traditionally better and more conservative pacers than men, and as such, 15 women dropped out of a field that was 88 strong, an attrition rate of 17%.

It is interesting to compare these stats against the 2018 Boston Marathon. You will recall that Boston 2018 featured a freezing cold day that included rain and some sleet. Temperatures on that day were 1-3 degrees celsius, but with the precipitation, it felt much colder. On that day, 41 elites started the race and 23 dropped out. That is a rate of 49%.

There are a number of reasons elites drop out of the marathon, the number one being that if it’s not their day, dropping out saves the legs so they can make their living in another race and/or run a standard in another race. 

I think our conclusion here is that it is easier to prepare for a hot marathon than a cold one. Heat adaptation is easier. 

2. There is tremendous depth in the marathon in Canada

The Canadian women have been crushing it lately in running. Between Gen Lalonde, Andrea Seccafien, Gabriela Debues-Stafford, there has never been so much depth. The same holds true, or perhaps even more so, for the marathon. Malindi Elmore and Natasha Wodak both ran stellar races to get themselves inside the top-15. Dayna Pidhoresky struggled due to injury, but before the games she had also lowered her personal best in the marathon.

There has never been this much depth. Beyond those who went to the Games, we have to acknowledge that Rachel Cliff and Lyndsay Tessier had also both achieved the standard. This is a large departure from a long period where Canada had no women participating in the Olympic Marathon. I think we have the likes of Lanni Marchant and Krista Duchene to thank for that.

I fully expect the depth in the women’s ranks to grow as we look forward to qualifying for Paris 2024.

3. Kipchoge cements GOAT status

If it wasn’t clear before, it is clear now. Eliud Kipchoge is the greatest of all-time. Now the question becomes is he the greatest marathoner of all-time or the greatest distance runner of all-time.

Before we get into the discussion, it is important to note that of all the defending champions in the men’s athletics events, not one, save Kipchoge, defended his title. The remainder either did not qualify, retired, or crashed and burned in their title defence. 

Kipchoge’s resume now reads like this: 2x Olympic Gold Medals (Marathon), 1x Olympic Silver Marathon (5,000), 1x Olympic Bronze (5,000), first human under 2 hours in the marathon, World Record Holder, 1x Chicago Marathon Champion, 4x London Marathon Champion, 3x Berlin Marathon Champion. 

I think it’s safe to say Kipchoge is the greatest distance runner of all time. 

4. Refugee Athletes win medals for European Nations

The Olympics began with the fantastic news that Canada is accepting a number of the athletes from the Refugee Olympic Team to reside in Canada and eventually gain citizenship. 

This great news was followed up by former refugees in the marathon. Although they did not represent Canada, Bashir Abdi and Abdi Nageeye are both Somolian Refugees who worked together throughout the marathon and came to stand on the podium. This is a crystal clear example of when countries open their arms to those in need, refugees will represent their new country with pride and succeed. 

Moh Ahmed (who won a silver medal for Canada) also escaped a war torn country and is representing Canada with pride and honour. 

5. Kenya runs well, Ethiopia struggles.

In both cases it was clear, Ethiopia struggled while their rivals from across the Rift Valley, thrived. Across both the men’s and women’s marathon’s, Kenya won three medals (two gold, one silver) to Ethiopia’s zero. In the men’s race, not one Ethiopian finished the race. In the women’s event, only Dereje finished—although she did put in a good showing in fourth. 

Meanwhile, Kenya absolutely dominated the women’s event with Jepchirchir and Kosgei both reaching the podium. On the men’s side they looked set to do the same, but Kipruto dropped out with 15K or so remaining and Cherono was out-kicked for a medal, despite pulling the group along in the last 10K. Kipchoge, however, easily made up for this disappointment with his spectacular victory.

So why such contrast in results? For one, we know that Kenya does have slightly more depth than Ethiopia in the marathon, but I still believed that Ethiopia would come away with at least two medals. 

I think the main reason for the discrepancy comes via the time of selection. Kenya selected their team in late 2019, providing its runners at least six months to prepare. When the Games were delayed it gave them even more time to prepare and sharpen specifically for this event. On the other hand, Ethiopia hosted a controversial trials over the distance of 35K on May 1, 2021. This gave their athletes significantly less time to prepare and may not have sent their best team as Mare Dibaba missed the team and legends Tirunish Dibaba and Kenenisa Bekele did not even run in the event. 

It is safe to say however, that these two nations will again do battle in the marathon at Worlds in 2022, 2023 and once again in Paris in 2024.

Stephen Andersen is a law student and cross country athlete at the University of New Brunswick. He is from Burlington, ON. You can find him on Instagram @andersen_runs or Twitter @AndersenRuns

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