Friday, March 16, 2012

How fast can Chrissie Wellington run?

“Chrissie has done it. Chrissie has done it. Chrissie Wellington - who won in her debut at the Ironman World Championships in Hawaii five years ago - has won Gold in the marathon at the London Olympic Games!”

Wellington, still without a hat sponsor, smiles a little wider.


Ok, that isn't going to happen - as far as we know. But what if she had chosen first to qualify for the Olympics and then, compete at them.

While winning a gold medal at the Games has proved beyond the reach of many of the world's greatest athletes, here's a case for why it would have been exciting to see Wellington test herself this summer.

Wellington last month told the Guardian that she'd be keen to run “2:20 something” at the London marathon.

The British athlete said she'd look to do so next year. Next year? Why wait? What if she had chosen to do so next month? Did she give it serious consideration? Did anyone try to convince her to do so?

If Wellington had refocused on running after winning the Ironman World Championship for the fourth time in October, the London marathon would have been the perfect race to do.

The reason to run this year is simple enough: a second round of selection for Team Great Britain’s marathon squad will take place after the April 22 race. As for the qualifying standard - a mere 2:31.

Wellington, who turned 35 last month, must have run some numbers in her own mind. But if not, here goes!

The fastest marathon Wellington has run - in an Iron-distance race no less - is 2:44:35, at Challenge Roth last year. At first glance it would seem a huge ask to run more than 13 minutes faster.

But running fast is what Wellington does. She ran 2:48:54 in Roth in 2010. In 2009, she ran 2:57:32. At Ironman South Africa in April 2011, she posted a 2:52:54 and at Ironman Arizona in November 2010, Wellington ran 2:52:56.

Wellington also has run fast in Kona: 2:52:41 in 2011, 3:03:05 in 2009, 2:57:44 in 2008 and 2:59:57 in 2007. *Mirinda Carfrae, of course, holds the run course record on the Big Island with her 2:52:09 last year.

And each of these runs came after four to five hours of racing a 3.8km swim and 180.2km bike.

In an interview with the BBC in January, Wellington dismissed the idea of competing in London, saying it would be "disrespectful" to think she could switch sports and compete at a global level. She says it’s a decision she would have had to have made two years ago.

But Wellington has never been limited by past performances by herself or other athletes, hence the title of her new book, A Life Without Limits.

And what a better way to “embrace” an opportunity during her “gap” year - or two - from Ironman, and give a 110 per cent, as she told the BBC, in trying to qualify and then compete at the Olympics.

Notwithstanding that Wellington would have needed to be training at a high level the last few months in particular, a number of questions need to be asked.

First, would it have been worth her time and effort? Team GB has already named Paula Radcliffe and Mara Yamauchi to its London Games' marathon team.

The window of opportunity would have been narrow. But all that Wellington would have to do is train consistently and get to the start healthy. And then see what would happen on the day. The objective: Wellington, Olympian. A worthy objective, no?

The top UK runner at last year's London marathon, Jo Pavey, crossed the line in 2:28:24 and the next UK woman was Louise Damen, in 2:30:00.

Could Wellington be competitive as an elite marathoner? There's every reason to say yes.

It's not scientific nor representative but both Desiree Ficker and Joanna Zeiger, two superb former pro triathletes, have run more than 30 minutes faster in standalone marathons.

Ficker ran a 2:40:28 standalone marathon in February 2007, about four months after finishing second in Kona with a 3:11:49 marathon split. She has since lowered her PB to 2:39:30. And she recently decided to focus entirely on running.

Zeiger, who won Ironman Brazil 2005 with a 3:16:08 run and had a stellar half ironman career, last December ran a 2:43:48 marathon. Zeiger, who represented the US in the Sydney Games in triathlon, retired from the sport after a devastating bike crash while trying to defend her title at the 70.3 World Championships in 2009.

There’s also an earlier comparison.

Irma Heeren of the Netherlands fell short of qualifying for the Dutch marathon team for Sydney, running 2:35:53 while injured in 1999. In a bid to refocus, Heeren raced at the Iron-distance event in Almere about four months later, posting a 2:55:48 split and finishing in 8:56:23. A difference of almost 20 minutes.

So the question becomes how much faster can Wellington run, when she doesn't need to first swim and bike?

Running 30 minutes faster sounds far-fetched. If she ran 30 minutes faster - like Ficker or Zeiger, she would eclipse Radcliffe’s world marathon record of 2:15:25. If she ran 20 minutes faster - like Heeren, she would finish in 2:24 something. (Interestingly, the Olympic marathon record is 2:23:14, set by Naoko Takahashi of Japan at the Sydney Games in 2000.)

Wellington would appear to have the potential to be one of the world’s top marathoners. That’s why she should be racing in London next month. It's a missed opportunity for her, and sport.

And if she came up short, so be it. No one looks at Michael Jordan with any less respect for his decision to give baseball a try. Nor does his tenure as a coach detract for a moment from all the Wayne Gretzky achieved on the ice.

So what if Wellington could run about 2:25? How would she have ranked going in the London Games?

At the Boston marathon last year, Kenya’s Caroline Kilel won in 2:22:36, two seconds ahead of Desiree Davila and six seconds ahead of Sharon Cherop. Caroline Rotich was fourth in 2:24:26, with Kara Goucher rounding out the top five in 2:24:52.

In Houston last month, Shalane Flanagan set a US Olympic Trials record of 2:25:38 in only her second marathon, Davila finished in 2:25:55 and Kara Goucher in 2:26:06.

For perspective, Radcliffe has qualified for the UK team with a 2:23:46 time in Berlin last September. Yamauchi got her spot with a 2:27:24 in Yokohama in November.

There have been seven Games that have held the women's marathon, and a Brit is yet to secure a medal of any color in the event.

Alas we'll have to wait until next year to see how fast a marathoner Wellington is.

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