Monday, August 27, 2007
Rubbing Is Racing
Whoops! My bad. Somehow I misread the startlists on the IAAF website in writing the previous post. Alan Webb was racing against Ramzi and Mansoor Ali in his semifinal heat, but not the others I considered contenders. But that's not to say the semifinals weren't full of action and, ulp! drama.
First, in the other heat, Bernard Lagat ran a masterful race to win in the relatively slow time of 3:42 (a 3:58 mile). A naturalized US citizen, Lagat seemed to be fading as a contender during the slew of 'regular season' European meets this summer, losing the speed necessary to compete in the 1500 at age 31. Folks thought a move up to the 5000 meters would be Lagat's best bet in the future.
Championship 1500s are typified by slow running for three laps, then a jailbreak as everybody goes for broke. Typically, nobody wants to set a fast pace, as frontrunners spending the mental energy of leading often simply set up runners behind them to go flying by in the last lap. Slow laps create a bunch of athletes all clumped together, making positioning all-important. In the past, talented US athletes, such as Georgetown alum Steve Holman, were able to run fast times in rabbited races that get stretched out around the track, allowing for free movement, but struggled when thrown into the jostling, elbowing frenzy of a slower race. In these tight quarters, when openings allowing a mad dash to the finish fail to emerge, people get physical, as when the aforementioned Holman shoved Haverford alum Karl Paranya in the 1997 US Championships (Paranya stumbled but recovered well enough for 3rd, 2nd when Holman was DQed).
Hence the mayhem of the last 50 meters of Lagat's heat, which saw Baala of France give Higuero of Spain a Vulcan nerve pinch in order to get by. Higuero hit the deck, sending Baba of Morrocco down as well. Baala got DQed for the wrestling move while the two men he impeded get a free pass to the final. The French team has petitioned for Baala's reinstatement...
Seeking to avoid the scrum inside the pack, Alan Webb made the curious decision of bolting to the back of the pack as his heat started. He remained there, dangling over the precipice until the last 200 meters. Then he pulled around out of last place, intent on relying on the big kick he's rediscovered this season.
Problem is, everybody else starts charging, too.
Whereas Bernard Lagat, the experienced pro, moved around the pack in his heat with obvious guile and precise timing, it's clear Webb has waited too long. In the last 100 meters he's got 7 men ahead of them, seemingly moving too fast for him to catch.
Then, at the last second, a couple guys fade, and Webb finishes in 5th for the last automatic ticket to the final.
Not trusting myself, the startlist for the final is here.
Will Webb put himself in position to win? Does he need to stretch out the race with a fast pace from the beginning? Make a move at the halfway mark like he tried back in 2005?
Can Lagat regain his form just in time to win a tactical raced with a sprint at the end?
The final is full of subplots, too.
Kiwi Nick Willis, who was a teammate of Webb's during Alan's one year stint at Michigan, will be in the mix, but likely not be a player.
Asbel Kiprop, the finger-waving Kenyan from the first round, is only 18 years old and yet has pledged "to rule the world."
Kids these days...
Defending world champion Rashid Ramzi is lurking...
There are lots of teammates running together on Wednesday: three Spainards, and two each of the Algerians, Bahrainis, Americans, and Kenyans. Team tactics are not unknown. A team of three could try and control the race from the front, boxing in any other contenders until the final dash. Here is the 1996 Olympic final, as 3 Kenyans try to bottle up the immortal Nourredine Morceli (in the white and blue at the front).
A pair of runners have worked in tandem as one athlete acts as a pace car, a sacrificial lamb who sets a fast pace for the other runner, turning a slow race into a gingerbread man catch-me-if-you-can. The 2000 Olympic final featuring Hicham El Guerrouj and his chauffeur.
But with no dominant runner in play, it seems most likely that the final will be every man for himself. For the Americans, Lagat would favor a slow tactical race, Webb a fast one. No American has medaled in the 1500 in 20 years.
My gut tells me Webb will try to dictate the pace of the race, either from the gun or at 800 meters. He has a history of not doing well when he has to think and react on his toes, even though this seems to have improved in the past year. Like Pre, he'd rather lose a tough, fast race (3:30 - 3:34) than a tactical 3:35-3:40 race. He'll want the 800 meter split to be around 1:55-1:56. If it's not, he needs to go. A good model for him might be this race by Steve Cram.
After all the hype, it all comes down to three minutes and change on Wednesday.
1st - Webb
2nd - Kiprop
3rd - Lagat