At first sight the World Championship marathon course is an easy one with the greatest climb being a 30m ascent in the final kilometre to the Olympic Stadium.

All other hills are more gradual, with nothing more than 11metres of climb over a kilometre. Additionally cool 17-degree conditions are predicted for this afternoon’s men’s race, with warmer condition for the women tomorrow.

Although, as seen this week, the wind conditions are less predictable, the prevailing direction should be from the south west, which would provide a tail assistance to runners up the harder and less sheltered west side of the course. This has suggested 42kms suited to a fast time, but behind this relatively simple overview lies an extremely deceptive course that will see the master tactician come out on top.

Commencing outside the City Hall and adjacent to the harbour, the first 5kms hug the twisting and rolling coastal road, before linking into an undulating 10km lap that circumvents the city centre and stadium. This lap is repeated three and three quarter times before taking the short but steep offshoot to the stadium finish.
It is the multi-lap nature that converts the small undulations into a total climb of over 280m, and with no straight longer than 600m, runners will have difficulty in finding any rhythm. It is paradise for team strategies, and this is where the talented South African quartet can fall short.

On paper the team have the potential to make an impression, both as individuals and in the concurrent World Cup team event, that is determined by the cumulative time of each country’s first three finishers. The combination of New York winner, Hendrick Ramaala, Gert Thys (12th on all time list), and Shadrack Hoff, who has yet to run his potential at the distance, is one of that many countries envy. In addition they, along with Makhosonke Fika, have proven their current form in the SA half marathon championships, where Ramaala and Hoff ran under 62 minutes. However, if they run as individuals and have not done the planning, they stand to be demoted from real contenders to also rans.

The fact is that other countries, with Japan to the fore, have gone out of their way to study and analyse the course. A group from Japan made a point of observing the Finnish national marathon championships in April when the course was measured and the fact that the start time of 14:20 has been set to coincide with peak Japanese television is indication of their conviction that they can dominate both the men’s and women’s events.

The Japanese, along with the Italians, Morrocans, Ethiopians and Americans, are fielding the maximum allowed, six athletes, in their team, with Japan’s top four men ranked 2nd, 10th, 11th and 12th fastest on the entry list. Brazil, Kenya and South Africa each list five, although Colin Khoza was entered as a non-travelling reserve.

Earlier in the year, the Romanian ‘analysis squad’ went to press stating the course was capable of sustaining a time of 2:08, but their focus is on the women’s event, and this prediction was more likely to be to encourage a fast early pace, something that would be a monumental mistake over this 42kms. Any athlete who tries to run from the front will be under extreme pressure, with the probability of being picked up and spat out on the third lap.
A more likely outcome is an initial break on the short climb before 6km to drop the rats and mice, with a further push at 9kms trimming those over-stretching their abilities. The real contenders will be together for the second and third laps, with perhaps a couple mistakenly thinking they can break on the long down from the highest point in the city centre to the restart of each lap.

The real race will be over the final seven kilometres, where the first attack will be at 36km, and the next on the slow poison kilometre climb to 39km, by which time the new Champion should be determined. If, by chance, the title is still in doubt, expect a moderate descent over the next two kilometres to lead to a leg-blurring sprint over the first 200m of the final climb to the stadium, where, weather permitting, the clock will record a time of between 2:09:45 and 2:10:30.

Most contending countries will run in teams, but it would not be a surprise to see the Japanese, Italian and Ethiopian teams opting to sacrifice one or more of their members, with instructions to destroy any rhythm or pace that is developed up-front.

These are typical of the intricate tactics that are pervading the modern championships, and unfortunately it appears foreign to South African marathoners, who still tend to run for individual and not team glory. The irony is, as the Japanese, Italian and Brazilians showed in Athens, committing to a team vision frequently results in individual success.

Combined Ramaala, Thys and Hoff present a medal-winning trio, but as individuals they have yet to display the pacing patience that puts them into the real danger zone. In particular, if Ramaala, and Hoff converted their 10km and half marathon pace into the corresponding marathon potential then on the right course they would endanger the World Marathon record.  Too many times we have witnessed South Africans engage in the thrust and surge tactics of the shorter events, when an even effort strategy was more appropriate.

Ramaala won New York having followed a conservative distance racing strategy based on speed, but he may have lost that advantage with today being his fourth marathon in the last 12 months. (Athens, New York, London and today in Helsinki) It is this, as opposed to her 10,000m world championships outing last Saturday, that may be the most telling contribution when Britain’s Paula Radcliffe takes on the might of the Japanese tomorrow.

On the other hand, Hendrick Ramaala has presented a glimmer of hope in his last two outings in New York and London, where a more restrained approach has resulted in a win and third place. If lessons learnt there have been accepted and shared amongst the team then it could be a welcome new dawn for South Africans … resulting in team and individual medals and much needed points on the Championship table.

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