- Published: Tuesday, 16 April 2019 10:01
Watching the Boston Marathon this year reminded me that a great distance runners is a gambler.
When Worknesh Degefa decided to break from the field at mile 12, it was certainly a gamble. When I say break, I don't mean she was 100 yards ahead with the chase pack staring at her back. She was out of sight, at one point more than 3 minutes ahead of the next runner. Her gamble came from the fact that there was still more than half the race to run. Betting that you are going to smoke a pack of elite runners that early on and hold the lead for the next 13-plus miles is a risk that could place you on the podium or put you in the ER.
I watched Degefa with amazement and joy—I love a good blowout—but I also thought, when is she going to crash and burn? A marathon is a long way to run and from what I've heard Boston is a tough course with decent elevation change. Degefa had never run it either, which placed her at a disadvantage. Or did it? Sometimes not knowing that a "heartbreak hill" lay beyond the next bend allows you to remain optimistic. The bliss of ignorance can be a powerful ally as long as when the unforeseen obstacle presents itself, you accept it willingly rather than despising its presence. Degefa may not have had course knowledge but she knew herself. She knew her capabilities as she made an educated gamble early.
So many things go through a runner's head during a marathon. You may feel great in the first 5, 10, 15 miles and think, wow, this will last; I'm going to PR. But will it last? What determines whether we crash at mile 22 or push through the adversity and pain and continue to PR or podium? I'd say that these accomplishments are achieved during training, all that time spent putting in the miles and listening to the body. Then when race day comes, critical decisions are more from calculation than frustration or impulse. Training is about conditioning the body and preparing the mind for what to expect and how to attack.
What made Degefa a great at Boston was not just her ability to push through but to put on a poker face for both competitors and spectators during the entire 26.2 miles. Her expressions and form exuded strength and command at all times. She maintained a steady pace for much of the race. One race announcer mentioned her lateral agility late in the race as she dogged water puddles. A simple observation, but one that gave insight to her condition at that moment more than midway through the course.
Degefa's pace faded slightly in the last few miles, but whether the slowing was due to fatigue or a conscious decision is unknown. Edna Kiplagat made an impressive charge for Degefa at the end, closing the gap to 42 seconds. But was Degefa's early decisions that paid off as she broke the tape at 2:23:31.
Would she had won if she remained with the pack longer? Remaining back may have given Kiplagat the advantage and Degefa possibly anticipated this triggering her decision to widen the gap early. Who knows? But that's the beauty of endurance sports. We challenge our minds to see what our bodies are capable of and we accept the outcome. A great sport that in so many ways mimics life.