The press coverage of the London Marathon focuses on two familiar stories: one is the triumph of Kenyan athletes, not just Wilson Kipsang in the men’s marathon, but Mary Keitany in the woman’s event. Behind their victory is a familiar story of Kenyan success: conventionally explained in terms of the pervasiveness of role models and of non-competitive running, and of the knowledge of running as a route out of poverty. The contrast is with Britain, where the avarage age of marathon runners is increasing, and the times of elite marathon runners are worsening and not improving.
The second story is the partial success of the Brits: including top-finishing British woman Claire Hallissey, who took 2 minutes off her personal best in running an Olympic qualifying time of 2 hrs 27 (9 minutes behind Keitany), and will almost certainly be picked as the third choice for the Olympic marathon squad. Compare Lee Merrien, who ran 2:13 in the men’s race (again, 9 minutes behind Kipsang), outside the 2:12 required to join Scott Overall in the men’s London 2012 team. It seems almost inevitable therefore that Team GP will have just 1 runner in the Olympic men’s marathon.
A number of friends have criticised a piece I posted here a month ago, arguing that middle- and long-distance runners have different builds and a different psychology.
With that in mind, it’s interesting to look at the records of Hallissey and Merrien.
I haven’t been able to find a record of Hallissey’s weight or height, but looking at a database of Hallissey’s top times, I see that she runs shorter distances often (she had her annual bests recorded for 800 metres over 5 of the last 9 years), but also relatively poorly. Her all-time best over 800 metres is 2 minutes 18 seconds. (This was the 307th best time run by a British woman that year, in other years Hallissey’s times would put her around 600-700th in the UK rankings).
In other words, she is a light runner with a very high proportion of slow-stretch muscle, and a relatively low-proportion of fast-stretch muscle. This shouldn’t be surprising, it explains why she is good at the marathon. (Presumably, she would be even better still at ultra-marathons). But it’s a very different physiology from a middle-distance runner, who needs a much more explosive finish, and who necessarily has a much higher proportion of fast-stretch muscle.
Lee Merrien is a more complex runner. Aged 32 (33 in a matter of days), for a long time he was ranked only as a middle-distance runner. Indeed his early times over 800 metres were dramatically faster than Hallissey’s: including a 1 minute 49 in the 800 metres. (There’s a 10% gap between their best times over the marathon but a 25% gap between their best times over 800 metres). But he’s been gradually shifting to longer distances: his best times over 800m and 1500m were reached when he was 27, he got his 10k pb at 29, and he’s just had his best time for a marathon.
Merrien’s height is recorded as 181 cm / 5’11” and weight: 65 kg / 143 lbs.
While this isn’t as spindly as Kipsang, this is definitely a much lighter physique than say Steve Ovett (2 cm taller and 5 kg heavier at his peak).
Merrien is alos relatively lighter than Alberto Junatorena, Ovett’s nemesis at the 1976 Olympics, who was 9 cm taller and a full 25 kg heavier than him.
Natural middle-distance runners do just have a heavier build even than a reconditioned runner like Merrien who started off in the middle-distances before joining the marathon club relatively late in life.