Tag Archives: 800 metres

The nearly race

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Three friends ran tonight’s Woodford Green 800 metres with me.

Before I come on to how we all got on, I should explain the setting. We were at the Aston fields track, just a few stops east of Stratford on the central line. Most of the competitors in the races, which clearly were far busier than the organisers expected, were under 18, and the talk around the edges of the event was of a sudden Olympic boom in competition. There seemed to be literally dozens of thirteen year olds capable of sprinting the 100 metres in particular in under 13 seconds. I do so hope that they will still be taking part in athletics in a year or two’s time.

The track was busy, some of the races had to be put back to organise the extra numbers, and as it is late in the summer, we found ourselves running at first under floodlights and later against a vivid backdrop of a sky that was at first red in great, garish streaks, and then (after the sun set) a net of black and rapidly-fading electric blue.

Anyway, as to how we each ran:

Sam is the youngest of us (not much over 30) and the least experienced runner, having never run the distance before. He trains actively with weights in the gym, and exercises on a rowing machine in concentrated bursts of 2 minutes at a time. He attacked the field, running the first lap in 58 seconds (as fast, by comparison, as the women’s Olympic final), and, if he tailed off afterwards, still he just about held on to finish in around 2 minutes 15. He ran with his whole body, unreservedly, and ran brilliantly and won the race easily. I was delighted for him.

John is the most experienced runner of our group: a sub 2:45 marathoner who runs daily. His physique is the opposite of Sam’s; John has fantastic stamina but less fast-twitch muscle. He ran in laps of 70 and 75 seconds and has a vision one day of finishing a 400 metres in under 60 seconds – which I think he could manage, next summer.

Alexis used to run with me when we were both at school, and has maintained his running intermittently but continuously since. He can run 6 miles without difficulty (I can’t). But he smokes and has had sore hamstrings for a while. He ran in laps of 70 and 80 seconds, and was overtaken by John at about 300 metres from the line. We warmed down together afterwards and he told me he felt he had more in the tank, and with a proper summer training he thinks he could break 2:10. He, like John, was content with this race.

I was the slowest of our small group, and the slowest indeed in our  entire race of eight. Throughout the day, my calf felt stiff (although, unusually, I managed to finish without damaging it); I had a cold. And my mood was hardly cheered by the quick downpour that broke less than 2 minutes before we began the race. I had decided beforehand not to run in spikes, for fear of injuring myself before the first lap had ended, and now I regret that decision, as it seemed to represent a deliberate stepping back from the pure end-of-year race I’d hoped for.

As a result my legs seemed light, tired and weak. I had planned a first lap in 1 minute 20, with a very negative split (and a 1 minute 10 second lap), and while my second lap was marginally faster, it wasn’t remotely as good as I’d hope it would be. I tried to accelerate and there was nothing there. I finished in 2 minutes 39, not just last, but crucially eight seconds outside the target I had set myself of 2:30.

My friends encouraged me to be cheerful afterwards. Look, they pointed out, if I had tried to run that distance a year ago, I would have been around 30 seconds slower (and that’s true).

I know the deeper causes of my lethargy – I have been injured off and on throughout the summer, and haven’t done the track sessions I would need to get some speed into my legs. I was injured for much of the past two weeks and you can’t just “turn on” the sort of times I wanted without getting your body prepared for it in advance.

But while I enjoyed the race, and I am grateful to everyone else for running with me, I finished the session dissatisfied and wishing the summer would avail of one last chance to run properly fast

Whatever happened to British middle-distance running?

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After Mo Farah’s welcome victory (really if any UK Olympian is going to win gold – I’d rather it was one who came here as a refugee right in the middle of the nastiest anti-foreigner moment the last three decades has seen), attention turns to the middle distances. Short of a miracle, no UK athlete is likely to acheive a medal in either the men’s or women’s 800 or 1500 metres (in neither distance has a UK man or woman run one of the fastest eight times this year). The fault is not in the athletes but with the way the sport is organised. 

Aged 16, I could run the 800 metres in under 2 minutes. If I had been on the same track with the new young British sensation Sean Molloy (above), I would have finished about 80 metres behind him: close enough to hurt, too far behind to be able to watch his shoes disappearing into the distance.

At the start of June, Molloy broke the British under-800 metres record with a time of 1:48.24, outpacing times runs by previous promising juniors of the calibre of Steve Ovett, Peter Elliott and many others. His triumph marks a counterpoint to the story I’ve noted before, the decline of British middle- and long-distance running (a reduction in the number of athletes running sub 2:15 for the marathon, a reduction in the number of young athletes capable of doing winter training of over 100 miles per week, a reduction in the number of athletes capable of seriously challenging for 800 metres or 1500 metres golds at the major competitions). He later ran in the World Junior Championships, failing to qualify from his heat running against athletes a year older than him.

Looking at the database of times recorded by UK athletes, two matters strike me: Molloy’s 800 metre times (which are world class) are definitely, if not dramatically better than his times for the 1500 metres (4.02.92; by way of comparison Mo Farah won the 1500 metres at England schools running 7 seconds faster at the same age). This may be a small sign that Molloy is going to be a middle-distance runner for life: like David Rudisha, say, but unlike Lee Merrien. This is a good thing: middle-distance running is a specialist activity, and it is not surprising if the best in any age cohort find their times are closer to those of sprinters than to those of long-distance runners.

Second Molloy has been running competitively since he was 12, when his pbs were 28 seconds for 200 metres and 2:14 for 800 metres. These times strike me as seriously fast for that age. Last year, Molloy ran in no fewer than fifty separate races. While I don’t want to make the point too strongly: I’ve never seen Molloy run in person still less met him, nor do I even know who his coach is, and in common with anyone following British athletics I have nothing but admiration for him. But that doesn’t strike me as the pattern you would associate with a coach confident of his runner, shielding him to maximise his performance in the 5-6 races best chosen to further Molloy’s development.

In tennis, we are all familiar with the story of Laura Robson, Wimbledon junior champion, and struggling since then to break into the world top 100. Robson’s appearance in the mixed doubles final at the Olympics, but her inability there to overcome the pressure, suggests the possibility (but not yet the actuality) of a sportswoman belatedly rising to her potential.

In football, we are familiar with the story of countless English talents undone by the harum-scarum of unneccessary games in their late teens, lots of running about in matches that don’t count for much, setting footballers up for a series of injuries rather than a productive career.

In 2010 and combined 2011, both Mo Farah and David Rudisha took part in exactly 34 races altogether, or 17 per year – just a third as many, in other words, as Molloy.  They are at the most productive stages of their career; they run less precisely because their times matter more.

What middle-distance runners like Sean Molloy need is intelligent coaching, a bit of cotton wool where appropriate, and a plan to get them from where they are to where they are capable of being. Is UK athletics, as presently organised, capable of that combination? I doubt it.

Who to watch in the men’s 800 metres; the extraordinary David Rudisha

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Six of the 12 fastest 800 metres of all time have been run by David Rudisha. A former decathlete, and then 400 metres specialist, Rudisha grew up in Iten, Kenya’s middle-distance capital. He is the son of an Olympic 4 x 4000m runner, Daniel Rudisha (who won silver at the 1968 games where  John Carlos and Tommie Smith gave their black power salute) and was guided to the longer distance by Brother Colm O’Connell, the mentor of many of Iten and Kenya’s greatest athletes.

Rudisha is also an example of a phenomenon I’ve noted before, the middle-distance runner with a relatively heavy build (6ft 3, 12.5 stone), ideally suited to shorter rather than longer distances.

In contrast to his nearest competitors, such as Abubaker Kaki Khamis of Sudan, competition brings the best out of Rudisha. Aged only 23, his trophy cabinet includes golds at the World championships, the African championships, and the World Junior championships. Indeed Rudisha’s gold at the 2011 World Championships came after being spiked in the final. He’s already run under 1.42 three times this year. If anyone at the Games is capable of what Seb Coe described long ago as the middle-distance runner perfect race (two laps, each in under 50 seconds), it is Rudisha.

The Olympic trials: David Rudisha runs laps of 52 and 50 seconds

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I have been trying to keep an eye on the Olympic trials taking place this weekend – and I don’t mean the events in Birmingham, for all the frisson of Dwain Chambers‘ victory in the 100 metres final.

The real action is taking place of course in Nairobi, where Kenyan athletes are selected on a strict “top three only make the plane” basis. Here are some of today’s results:

MEN: 800m
1. David Rudisha one minute 42.12 seconds
2. Timothy Kitum 1:43.94
3. Anthony Chemut 1:43.96

1,500m
1. Silas Kiplagat 3:37.60
2. Nixon Chepseba 3:38.00
3. Asbel Kiprop 3:38.30

5,000m
1. Isaiah Kiplangat Koech 13:09.80
2. Edwin Soi 13:11.11
3. Thomas Longosiwa 13:11.28

WOMEN
800m
1. Pamela Jelimo 1:58.48
2. Winnie Chebet 2:00.33
3. Janeth Jepkosgei 2:00.27

1,500m
1. Helen Obiri 4:06.10
2. Eunice Sum 4:07.19
3. Faith Chepngetich 4:08.53

5,000m
1. Vivian Cheruiyot 16:08.08
2. Sally Kipyego 16:09.29
3. Viola Kibiwott 16:09.45

It’s David Rudisha, of course, who will get all the coverage. 1:42.12, at altitude, and without a pacemaker. “Nothing is easy. … I have been working hard and that is why it looks easy when I ran,” he said afterwards. The other thing to notice is Rudisha’s lap times. 52 and 50 seconds – after running a sub-50 first lap recently in New York. To be able to produce a negative split, at that speed, is extraordinary.

The link below takes you to a short of Rudisha’s finish, starting at about 3 minutes in:

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If I could run a perfect race: what would it be

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Every Wednesday the Marathon Talk podcast asks its interviewees how fast they could run a mile, if only they had the benefit of 6 months’ training without injury. The guests compose a mix of present-day athletes (Mo Farah predicted he would be well below 4 minutes), health scientists, race promoters and former athletes, many of whom give times of 5, 6, 7 minutes, times, in other words, they would easily have surpassed at their running peaks.

The exercise is a nice reminder of how often middle-aged runners (a group in which I undoubtedly belong) have a notion of our potential speed which is completely out of kilter with how fast we routinely run. I think for example of the non-running sports doctor who told Marathon Talk, only a couple of programmes ago, that he would confidently expect to beat five minutes: no, sorry, not from just 6 months’ training.

The exercise points to a second, deeper, insight which is that every runner really ought to have at least one personal ambition. It might be as simple as “I’d like to finish the London marathon”, or “I’d like to run a marathon in under three hours”.

A good friend told me on Sunday that his running ambition is to keep on running until he is 80 (more than double his present age). He runs marathons in under 2:45; a pace which he maintains and improves. There are lots of runners with his running profile who would take up ultra-marathons. He is tempted, but so far says no. And I can see the logic: an ultra-marathon would be a new challenge, but it would mean significantly increasing his risk of injury.

When I was a young runner, I ran a sub-2 minute 800 metres (once). I ran 1500 metres several times in loose change above 4 minutes. I have been running slowly over the past year, and never further than 6 miles. I need a target which is ambitious enough so that I might not make it this year, but might in a year’s time. But I also want a target which I can actually make; even if it would make me no faster overall than when I first began running with my school team, more than 25 years ago.

Here then is my target, for 2012 or 2013. I would like to run 800 metres in under 2 minutes 30 seconds.

The physiology of middle- and long-distance runnning

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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.