Sunday, October 10, 2010

Top marathoners getting younger

By Philip Hersh

Ethiopian coach Getaneh Tessema was training his marathon runners in the outskirts of Addis Ababa five years ago when a friend told him about a local athlete and asked if the young man could join the group.

Tsegaye Kebede was only 18 at the time, an age at which, until recently, most runners had usually stuck to training for shorter distances. But Kebede was most interested in the marathon, and the reason became clear as soon as he began training with Tessema's runners.

"He was immediately the best of the group,'' Tessema said.

Three years later, at 21, Kebede was the bronze medalist in the 2008 Olympic marathon, a race won by another 21-year-old, Samuel Wanjiru of Kenya.

In the field for Sunday's Bank of America Chicago Marathon, Kebede and Wanjiru, now both 23, are among five runners under 24 with impressive personal bests under 2 hours, 6 minutes. One, 20-year-old Feyisa Lilesa of Ethiopia, could become the youngest men's winner in race history.

The elite field also includes Kenyans Robert Kiprono Cheruiyot, 21 when he won this year's Boston Marathon, and Vincent Kipruto, 23, third in the 2009 Chicago Marathon.

Last year, Wanjiru became the second-youngest Chicago winner, after 21-year-old Alejandro Cruz of Mexico in 1988. In the 20 years between Cruz and Wanjiru, just one men's winner was under 25.

"We somehow came up with the idea that older runners who weren't fast enough for 5,000 or 10,000 meters anymore would go to the marathon, but that's not who is running the marathon around the world anymore,'' said Vin Lananna, track coach at the University of Oregon.

In Kenya and Ethiopia, home to 19 of the 20 fastest men in the world this season, many runners are turning to the marathon as early as 17 years old, for reasons that include both financial opportunity and personal preference.

Six of the world's eight fastest men in 2010, all Kenyans and Ethiopians, are between the ages of 20 and 23. A decade ago, there was just one runner under 24 in the top six.

"I think the marathon has become the blue-ribbon event of (track and field); it used to be the mile,'' said Steve Jones, the Welshman who turned from the track to the marathon at 28 and set a world record a year later in the 1984 Chicago Marathon.

"It's a shortcut to fame and glory. You just need one good race, and you can set yourself up for half a lifetime with invitations to races.''

Federico Rosa of Italy, who manages Wanjiru's career, said growing competition for a shrinking pot in track events is driving young runners to the marathon. He pointed to a former steeplechase world champion earning just $250 at this year's Bislett Games meet when a solid time of 13 minutes flat in the 5,000 meters was only good enough for 11th place.

"For long-distance track races, the money is not there,'' Rosa said, "and it's difficult to get a spot in a top race. Moving to the marathon, there is a good possibility of a career. The old way was to have your career on the track and then do the marathon.

The Chicago Marathon media guide notes that before he became a top runner, Kebede had been earning less than a $1 a day gathering firewood and herding animals in Ethiopia. He made about $75,000 for his first big marathon win at Paris in 2008 and $120,000 for his winning performance in London last April.

Lilesa made $20,000 for winning a second-tier event, the Dublin Marathon, in his debut at the distance last year.

Lilesa said he moved into the marathon because he wasn't fast enough at 5,000 and 10,000 meters — but he made the move at 19.

Wanjiru did it at the same age because an injury derailed his track career after he had become the 13th-fastest man ever at 10,000. When he tried to run with spikes, the injury recurred.

"The first time we met, Sammy said, 'I want to win the (2008) Olympic gold medal in the marathon,' and I thought, 'So young?' '' Rosa said.

Wanjiru's debut was a victory at the prestigious Fukuoka Marathon in 2007. He had four wins and a second place before failing to finish this year's London Marathon with a knee injury he attributed to a lack of rest between a lot of shorter races.

With the substantial appearance fees offered by the world's top marathons to runners such as Wanjiru, the temptation is to race too often. For young marathoners, that could mean early burnout.

Or striking while the legs are hot.