Posted by: Joe English | August 15, 2008

Preview: 2008 Olympic Women’s Marathon

Deena Kastor at the US Olympic Trials

Deena Kastor at the US Olympic Trials

BEIJING — Amid one of the greatest sporting spectacles that has ever taken place — in the form of the amazingly grand Beijing Olympic Games — tomorrow the best women runners in the world take to the road for the marathon competition. With a tremendous field assembled, a tough course and potentially tough weather conditions, this race could be anyone’s to grab.

Although the Athen’s Olympic Champion is not in the field, the two fastest women in the world are in the field and there are a number of other women that you should keep your eye on as the action unfolds.

No marathon is without its wild-cards and this one is no exception. The big ones: the weather and the health of world record holder Paula Radcliffe.

Weather woes
There have been concerns about air quality and pollution for months as athletes starting making plans to run in Beijing. The big story around the air quality was the early withdrawal of men’s world record holder Haille Gebrselassie. Gebs was so worried about the air quality that he made the decision not to attempt the marathon in Beijing for fear of worsening his asthma and possibly causing lasting damage to his lungs.

China mounted a massive effort to clean up the air, spending billions of dollars on programs to lower air pollution and pulling millions of cars off of the roads. With the air quality outlook seeming better, there is another weather issue: heat and humidity. For anyone that has ever been to Beijing, temperatures can sore and humidity can be oppressive. The weather outlook at the moment is more mild for tomorrow’s run, but the potential is there for it to be hot and muggy.

Paula Radcliffe: ready or not?
The other major wild-card is the status of Paula Radcliffe. After suffering a stress fracture in her hip earlier this year, the world record holder has been cross-training like crazy to get fit for the race, but admittedly has not run as many miles on the roads as she would like.

In an interview yesterday, Paula commented: “Obviously I could do with a few more weeks’ training. But I am here and I think the fact that I’m here, and I’m strong — very strong actually — will be an advantage for me in the race too.”

Is this false bravado or a bluff to throw off her competition? We should know early on. Paula has a tendency to show her cards early by jumping to the front and setting the pace. A confident Radcliffe might seize control of the crowd early like she did last November in New York, while a less confident Radcliffe (if there is such a thing) might allow others to do the pace-making while she feels out her fitness.

Radcliffe will no doubt be under enormous pressure. She is not only the world record holder by almost three minutes, but she has also won seven of the eight marathons she’s run in her career. The only race of those eight that she hasn’t won was the 2004 Olympics when she pulled out of the race and did not finish. Radcliffe would like to come home with a Gold Medal to add to her unquestioned credentials as the greatest female marathon runner in the business.

Others to watch
Most eyes will undoubtedly be trained next on Kenya’s Catherine N’dereba, who is the only other woman in history to have broken 2:19:00 (Radcliffe, of course being the other). But N’dereba wasn’t in perfect form last November when we saw her at the New York City Marathon. She couldn’t keep to the pace of the two women in front of her, the hard-charging Radcliffe and Ethiopia’s Gete Wami. N’dereba is certain to factor here — she may challenge Radcliffe early on to test her fitness. She has the stomach for such a challenge.

Gete Wami of Ethiopia — in my view — is the one to watch most carefully in the race. Wami easily won the Berlin Marathon last September and then was the only woman to match Radcliffe stride-for-stride in her power-house run through the streets of New York. Radcliffe ultimately out sprinted Wami in the last 800Ms, but Wami was only operating on a little more than four weeks rest between her two races. If Wami’s looking good, I could see her on the podium in Beijing.

Deena Kastor is our top American runner. The winner of the Bronze Medal in the Athens Olympics, Deena has been quietly preparing for another shot at the Olympic Gold. On paper, she may not have the speed of Radcliffe or N’dereba with a PR of 2:19:36 (London 2006), but she looked extraordinairly strong at the US Olympic Trials in Boston this past April. Kastor sat back strategically in that race and then seemed to throw it into another gear to cruise out to the front, picking up minutes on the leaders ahead of her in the final miles of the race. She was far and away the strongest runner in the field in the Boston Trials and she just may be able to podium again in Beijing.

The fastest Chinese runner is Zhou Chunxiu, who has run 2:19:51 (Seoul 2006). She will have the home-field advantage and crowd support along the way.

Not in the running
Athens Olympic Gold Medalist Mizuki Noguchi pulled out of the race due to a hamstring injury, so the diminutive Japanese runner will not be a part of the action in Beijing.

This Olympic race should be filled with plenty of action and suspense as we see how it unfolds. With such a strong field, it will certainly be a strategic race and we could see a fairly slow pace early on — as the field sorts out who takes the reigns — or we may see one of two people try to run away with the race like we saw in New York last November. It will be fun to watch for sure.

To find out more about when and where to see the Olympic Marathon broadcast, click here.

Coach Joe English, Portland Oregon USA
Managing Editor, Running Advice and News


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