17 August 2008

Women's Olympic Marathon

Watching the Women's Olympic Marathon last night was a particularly interesting experience for me. I like watching the distance races because I understand them better than sprints or other events like swimming. This time was the first that an Olympic Marathon was held on a course that I knew a fair part of. Earlier this summer I was in China, including Beijing, Tian'anmen Square, the Temple of Heaven, and Forbidden City, all of which figured in the course. I don't normally get to say 'I was there' in watching Olympics.

Understanding the race, and an injury, also changed part of my viewing this time. Paula Radcliffe was running the marathon with a recent (8 weeks ago) stress fracture to her femur. I got a stress fracture in my second metatarsal (base of second toe) at the end of April. Three months later, I was cleared by my podiatrist to start back running at 80%. 2 months after stress fracturing her femur -- the biggest, heaviest, hardest to fracture bone in the leg -- she was out running a marathon at Olympic speed, not one of my leisurely 5k jogs. I was watching in astonishment that she was still in the race and in the lead pack for most of it, while every time she landed on the bad leg and took off for her next step had to have been starting at painful and gotten worse for every one of the 12,000 or so steps she did it. If you start a marathon in perfect health and well-trained, you're still going to be hurting by the end if you race it. She took on all that ordinary pain plus the fact that she didn't start the race in perfect health or training.

As the race neared the end, and had resolved to the race for second between Catherine Ndereba and Chunxiu Zhou, I had some sort-of inside information that let me pick the winner of the duel. That is, I've raced Ndereba before. At least for a very loose sense of the word 'raced'. I ran in the Beach to Beacon (Cape Elizabeth, ME) 10k in 2000. Ndereba raced there too, on her way to the Sydney Olympics. Aside from at the awards ceremony, of course, I never saw her. Her race was to win, my race was to run hard. We both succeeded, just that her success was to be close to 30 minutes and mine was around 45. Since then, though, I'd kept an ear out for her career. That included her later world record in the marathon, and the fact that among an extremely competitive group (elite marathoners are not casual folks!) she was considered extremely tough. So, come to the end of a marathon ... Chunxiu Zhou was a former 1500 m racer, which means plenty of speed. But the end of the marathon is much less about speed than sheer mental toughness. So my guess, which held up, was Ndereba.

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