Marathoner Misses Record by 30 Seconds

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Early this morning in the Dubai Marathon, Haile Gebreselassie ran a 2:04:53 time for the win — but he missed the world marathon record and a $1 million prize by 30 seconds. Robert Johnson, co-founder of LetsRun.com decodes the world of elite racing.

RACHEL MARTIN, host:

You know, I run occasionally.

ALISON STEWART, host:

I've seen you in your little running outfit.

MARTIN: Every once in a while. But I run, you know, I run like four miles. And I think that's kind of enough. But for people who follow running, you know, you know who Haile Gebreselassie - hello. Can I say that? This man is so fast. He is a very fast man and he stays fast for a very, very long time. He is the fastest distance runner in the world. And today, he set out to best his own record because that's what you do, I guess, when you are already the best. You can only compete against yourself.

So early this morning in the Dubai Marathon, Gebreselassie ran in two hours, four minutes, and 53 seconds. I mean that is crazy fast - 26.2 miles. But it wasn't fast enough. He missed his own record, which he was trying to beat by 30 seconds. But a lot more than I thought goes into setting a world record. The weather has to be great. The training had to have been perfect. And then, there are the pacemakers. Now, I have to admit that even as a casual runner, when I hear pacemaker, I can't help but think about my great Aunt Loi(ph) and the thing inside her heart that makes it impossible for her to go near microwave ovens. But in the world of elite running, pacemakers are something entirely different and we're going to explain.

To talk us through what happened in Dubai and what goes into elite pacemaking, we bring in Robert Johnson. He paced Catherine Ndereba to a world record in Chicago in 2001. He's also a co-founder of LetsRun.com, the center of the runner geek universe and a coach at Cornell.

Hey, there, Robert.

Mr. ROBERT JOHNSON (Co-Founder, LetsRun.com; Coach, Cornell University): Hello, everybody.

MARTIN: Hey, thanks for joining us.

Mr. JOHNSON: Sure. No problem.

MARTIN: So, Haile missed it, huh?

Mr. JOHNSON: Yeah. He did.

MARTIN: What happened?

Mr. JOHNSON: Well, quite honestly, there was very poor pacing.

MARTIN: So it really - it comes down to pacing.

Mr. JOHNSON: You know, when you're trying to run fast as anyone in history and as advanced as the world records are nowadays, it doesn't - you can't make a mistake in that. And he sort of made a, you know, I don't know if it was he or the pacemakers, but they made a very sort of (unintelligible) this day today - this morning.

MARTIN: Okay. Before we get into a minutia of what really happened, I am told he planned something - part of his strategy was something called the negative split. Can you brief us actually what that is?

Mr. JOHNSON: Definitely. The negative split is the way to go. It want to sort of, in any race, you know, if you're going to run, let's say, you know, just making it up five minutes per mile, if that's the world record, you don't want to start - you know, most people think, oh, okay. The world record is five minutes per mile. I got to start faster than that and then I'll slow down as I get tired. You don't want to do that. You want to actually start slower. So a negative split is where you would run the first half of the race slightly slower, maybe, you know, 501 or 502 per mile and the second half through the race, after you get warmed up, you'll run faster. And if you look at the world records, almost all of them have been run that way.

MARTIN: And so that didn't work out for him today?

Mr. JOHNSON: Well, that was the plan, was to go with the negative split. But he…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JOHNSON: …totally just did not do that. He went out way, way, way ahead of pace. And I think that's what the average person does when they try to run a marathon. They think, okay, I'm going to get some time and if I can get ahead, and then I'll relax. And it works just the opposite.

MARTIN: Okay. Well, I want to hear more about pacemaking. I want to understand who these people are, what they get out of this and what the strategy is. So stay with us. We're going to keep you on the line so we can talk to you after the break.

We're talking with Robert Johnson, the founder - co-founder of LetsRun.com.

You're listening to THE BRYANT PARK PROJECT from NPR News. Stay with us.

(Soundbite of music)

STEWART: Welcome back to THE BRYANT PARK PROJECT from NPR News.

We are on digital A.M., F.M., satellite, iTunes and online at npr.org/bryantpark.

From the studios of KCPW in Salt Lake City, Utah, I'm Allison Stewart.

MARTIN: Hey, and from BPP world headquarters in New York, I'm Rachel Martin.

We're continuing our conversation with Robert Johnson. We're talking about a very fast man, Haile Gebreselassie. He tried to best himself today in the Dubai marathon. He fell short 30 seconds. We've decided it's about pacemaking. Robert, help me understand what is pacemaking, who are these people and why is what they do important?

Mr. JOHNSON: I mean, I think that the - who are these people is it sort of by varies by the race and sort of what record or what the race is. I mean, even a race at local high school race may have a pacemaker. But certainly that, you know, the pacemaker is a pretty good runner who's trying to run at least probably half the race, maybe two-thirds to three-fourths of the race, sort of at the pace that someone wants to run. And you hear about them more often when they're trying to run really, really fast as this case.

And sort of when you're going for world record attempt, finding someone who can pace the race is actually a big problem because there aren't that many people who can even run half the race at the world record pace.

MARTIN: Well, and what's in it for those people? Come make someone else faster and get them some glory and you just run?

Mr. JOHNSON: Well, at that level, no. Money is in it as well. I mean, I think, you know what, running, like all sports nowadays, is professional, so if you end up being a good, you know, an elite level professional pacemaker, some of those people make, you know, pretty good money. I mean, I think it's a way - it's just - running is very, you know, if you don't win the race or finish in the top five, you go home with nothing.

And pacemaking is sort of what maybe for the (unintelligible) to a person who wants a guaranteed paycheck. You know, I've heard stories from European track races where the rabbit might make more money than the third place finisher in the race that they do a very good job. So…

MARTIN: Huh?

Mr. JOHNSON: It's kind of, you know.

MARTIN: So there is something to it. It's not just you're up for a long turn to make someone else look good. I want to ask you, getting back to this race, the last pacemaker hung in with Haile for about 18 miles. Now, you know what it's like to go out too fast. What do you think it was like for Haile those last 18 miles? And we only have a couple of seconds.

Mr. JOHNSON: Oh, I think it must have been pretty agonizing. I mean, I think he must have sensed it slipping away. I mean he was way ahead of pace at half-way in, and you get to 18 and you can see that your time is drifting down and particularly, you know, in this case, it happened to be $1 million bonus if you did break the world record. So, you know, that's not only the reason why he runs and I think that's one of the reasons why he's an icon and a legend.

MARTIN: And he still is to us and other running fans. Thank you so much for helping us sort through some of this. Robert Johnson, co-founder of letsrun.com, center of the running geek universe, and a coach at Cornell, thanks very much. We appreciate your time.

Mr. JOHNSON: Thank you.

MARTIN: Take care.

So first, we're going to hear some news from Korva Coleman in Washington, D.C.

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