Lessons learned from the New York City Marathon and the media surrounding it…
Geoffrey Mutai is the best distance racer on the planet. If I had told you in January that a runner would sweep the Boston and New York marathons and average 2:04:04 while doing it, you would have told me to put down the crackpipe. Those courses are far too difficult, and the races employ no pacemakers. But Geoffrey Mutai did just that. Today he destroyed the New York City course record by over two and a half minutes. The only other time in the last few generations that a course record at a truly major marathon that has been broken by that much? Boston, this spring, by Mutai.
In terms of accomplishments, I think Geoffrey Mutai’s season even trumps even Mo Farah’s, despite the Brit’s Worlds gold/silver double. Farah lost only twice all year, at 3000 meters in February’s New Balance Indoor Grand Prix and at 10,000 meters at the World Championships. If memory serves me, Mutai has lost only once, with a fifth place at the World Cross Country Championships. He even won the Kenyan cross country championships, which is probably the third-hardest race in the world to win (after the World XC and Olympic marathon).
Mary Keitany is the best distance runner on the planet. Note that above I said “racer” and here I said “runner”. Keitany took out the pace almost from the gun, forging a huge lead of over two and a half minutes by 15 miles. She was nearly on world-record pace. But, of course, she had no pacemakers to ease the task, and New York’s course is deceptively difficult. So by mile 24 she got reeled in by Firehiwot Dado and Bizunesh Deba. Dado made the decisive move up a long hill on Central Park South, and that was that.
The result is that you have to figure Keitany as having won this with relative ease had she followed a sane strategy. Going out at 2:16 pace all alone on a course where none of the all-time greats have ever broken 2:22 is not sane.
After the race, Keitany made conflicting statements about her strategy, at least according to the New York Times. She said “maybe if I come next year and my body will react O.K., maybe no problem. I would run the same. I would not change.” But she also said “Maybe I was trying, but I was not thinking.”
Pacemakers should be called “boringmakers”. Neither Boston nor New York employ pacemakers. I would guess that between the inability of either course to produce a World Record, and that both races can command massive media attention without notable times, it’s simply not worth the money to management at either race.
This year, however, we’ve really seen what you can get out of a lack of pacemakers: interesting races. All the races on pancake-flat courses that use a “flying V of pacesetters” (to borrow David Epstein’s phrase) end up being solo efforts against the clock. Great headlines, boring viewing.
Look at Boston and New York this year alone, though. In April, Geoffrey Mutai battled Moses Mosop all the way down Boyleston Street, as did Caroline Kilel and Desi Davila. You literally did not know who was going to win either of those races until they crossed the finish line. Today’s races were close to as interesting; the Keitany self-immolation in Central Park was taking place at the exact same moment that Mutai blew up a nine-man pack at the twenty mile mark.
All of the above required uneven pacing to take place. Uneven pacing does not produce the best times. It does, however, produce the best racing, because that rests on a certain amount of unpredictability. Who will break out of this pack to win? Will this big lead hold up? Will they catch her before the finish? Unresolved conflict is the basis of a plot.
The single most enduring image of the New York City Marathon is this:
Competition, joy, pain, the thrill of victory, the agony of defeat. An outcome not determined until the very end. The reasons we compete and the reasons we watch competition. You can’t have these with pacemakers.
Universal Sports is…not good. It was very nice that Universal Sports offered up the marathon webcast for free. But it’s become almost totally predictable that they’ll totally f*** up a webcast in some way. Early on, the main feed went dead for a long time, somewhere between 30 minutes and an hour. No wonder that the corresponding TV channel is being dropped some of the very few cable providers who carry it.
I suppose it was just as well. The webcast featured the annoying ramblings of Larry Rawson, a once-good-now-bad announcer whose webcast work brings on the same kind of “why is he still doing this” wincing as Dick Clark’s work on the New Year’s Eve show. I found a pirated Eurosport feed instead.
If it’s any comfort, Universal Sports is no more incompetent than NBC as a whole. The Peacock recently suffered the indignity of being beaten in the ratings for an entire evening by its sister cable channel, USA. For quite a long time, they haven’t known what people want or how to give it to them.
While I have big problems with Universal Sports on technical matters (including its contractual obligation to use Microsoft Silverlight, the worst of the commonly-used video platforms), I think its content is great. The track writers are good, the offering of video is good, and innovations such as Ato Boldon’s Diamond League post-meet shows mean they’re actually thinking. Unfortunately, if the former pisses off a paying customer, they’ll never know if you have the latter.
As far as today’s race highlights show on NBC, it was unusually good (both for treatment of a race on American TV and for NBC in general). They used Toni Reavis and Al Trautwig. They covered the important points of the race well. They did just enough with the celebrities and the whole “New York, the greatest city in the world” thing. They did a professional job, something that NBC most certainly does not do with its coverage of the Olympics or domestic track and field (and, for that matter, neither does anyone else on U.S. television).
Why isn’t the race live anymore like it was in the 80s? Why is it on tape-delay? I suppose one reason is that a two-hour package is more desirable. But I think another possible reason is that it may be too valuable a property to be on at 9:00 in the morning.
Meb Keflezighi is like a zombie. Every time you think he’s dead, he just keeps on coming back. Last spring he was without a sponsor and couldn’t get an appearance fee at a marathon. Literally no one wanted him. His race results didn’t suggest anything big was coming. But today, in his tenth year of marathoning and some seven years past his greatest race, he broke his PR. Who breaks their PR in their tenth year of marathoning? That’s just ridiculous.