Sydney’s Olympic marathon route went through the rigorous process of final measurement in May 2000 and there is an opinion that it will take a sub 2;10 performance to secure the Gold over the interesting and mixed course. Most importantly it could suit South Africa’s marathon squad to a T.
Spectators and the millions of TV viewers will find have no shortage of sights to view and ponder as the point to point course meanders from the northern suburbs over the harbour bridge, through the city centre and then out west to the Olympic Park. However the runners will require a considerably more focused approach if they are to avoid the potential pitfalls of a course that will require strategizing and careful pacing.
Their chances of going off course have been totally nullified by a continuous almost luminous blue line that ‘illuminates’ the marathon streets of Sydney. Unlike most such city marathon lines, this has been laid by a marathon runner who knows the value of cutting corners and as such cuts right into the corners to snip the course to the shortest possible line.
The course combines a fast first 25kms with a harder undulating and winding 15km before the final downhill 2km to the line. Joshua Thugwane surprised the field in Atlanta to secure the gold for South Africa. The hills and heat, together with his relative unknown status worked to his advantage in Atlanta, but he will be marked much more closely in Sydney.
The course commences at 82 m above sea level and the first 300m sees a gradual climb to 89m before the commencement of a gradual drop over the first 1km which then becomes a precipitous ‘fall’ onto the approaches of the Sydney Harbour bridge some 50m below. Three kilometers later the athletes will be on the even lower south bridge approach heading into the city centre which they reach at 5km. Winding round the central Hyde Park they will commence a 1km gradual climb up 28m through the city’s club-land of Oxford Street to head towards the main arterial western road of Anzac Parade.This dual carriage way arterial becomes home for the race for the next ‘out and back section16km with a single excursion for a 4km circuit of the impressive Centennial park between the 9 and 13 km marks. The long expanses of straight running have almost unperceivable climbs with the lowest point at 15.5kms which is repeated on the return at the half way mark. The large radius turn point occurs just before18km, but if there is a wind this is where the runners are most likely to experience it as they head north and west on their way back to the city centre.
Passing 23kms they head back down Oxford street and round the other side of Hyde Park to continue downhill to a low of 7m at 25.6kms before the short but steep climb onto the Western City link which will take them over the double-cable stayed Anzac Bridge.In all probability there will be a large group of athletes in the lead pack at this stage and the pace will be impressive, however many of their legs will have been ‘softened up’ with the downhills. It is here that any excessive and over ambitious efforts over the first 25kms will start to come back to haunt the runner. Undulating from 7m to 43m in 2 kms, the early ‘bumps’ are relatively easy to handle, but are likely to signal the break-up of any packs.
The South Africans need to be in the group to have any chance, but the next section would certainly seem to suit the likes of Colleen de Reuk and Hendrick Ramala.
Smooth surfaces abound throughout the course, but none more so than on this dual carriageway which winds westward along the estuary waterfront towards the more residential areas. It is here that the runners hit the lowest point on the course at a mere 3m above sea level. The 23m climb and right turn into Ramsey Street at 33kms puts them on the 4 1/2km ‘roller-coaster’ and winding roads leading to the final approaches to the stadium.
Hitting the freeway at 37.5km they return to a 3m low which is maintained through to 40km and the Olympic Boulevard. If groups still exist the next 600m and 13m of climb will be the place for those who still have leg power. Cresting out behind the warm up track, the final 1.7kms are gradual downhill through the Olympic Park area into the stadium tunnel. The winner will have 500m of track running to celebrate his victory, or hold –off any closing ‘hunter.’
Thugwane has already scouted the course and will be aiming for the double from Atlanta, but he may be marked out of the race. A more dangerous prospect may therefore be Ramala who has the awesome speed that makes him the fastest man over the half marathon distance in the field. In addition he has a change of pace that will allow him to capitalize on the hills and turns, and although he has the experience of two marathons in his repertoire he may well be overlooked as a major threat. The big difference between this course and the big city marathons is the hills of the latter section, so the fastest marathoner may not be the favourite. The speed surging typical of the Kenyan runners, will make for a more dangerous contender. The pure speed merchant will find this a difficult course, but the patient and strategic athlete who has good acceleration and power is the one to cover. Given the potential for a fast first 25kms, it is unlikely that anyone will risk trying to go it alone in the hope of having a big enough lead to hold off the challenge over the last 17kms. However, do not expect a slow winning time, the clock is unlikely to make 2:10 before the gold has been secured and the lap of honour commenced
The weather may also play a part in determining the winner. The ladies race looks set to have more predictable conditions due to the early 09:00 start, which will probably see the thermometers showing around 15 oC and calm if any winds. However, the 16;00 mens start could have the mercury up at 22 degrees and the chance of winds, which should be from the west, are considerably more likely. There could well be a significant and welcome cooling towards the end of the race.In both races the South Africans will be no strangers to the conditions, but the warmer the conditions the more it will suit our runners.
The course could have all the attributes to catapult Colleen de Reuck in to the medals. A good tactician, a strong hill runner who is running at her fastest over the short distance, and after her initial omission from the squad has a point to prove. Combined these can be an awesome armory which could be put to good use on the 24th of September, and there will be more than a few Kwazulu Natal viewers watching supporting the ex- natalian athlete during the early morning South African TV coverage. We will have to wait a week after that to see if any of the South African trio can claim a medal, but on paper Hendrick Ramala would seem to have the best chance of becoming the next Olympic marathon medallist