The New York City Marathon 2013: Some Final Thoughts

The New York City Marathon is now in the books, and my hat comes off for Toni Reavis’ prediction that Geoffrey Mutai was a sure thing. Marathon handicapping is a tricky thing. My guy, Olympic and World Championship winner Stephen Kiprotich never looked all that comfortable and looked like he was having a difficult time covering the leading pack’s surges. Mutai, however, looked impatient at times and ultimately ran away with it exactly as Reavis predicted, even though Mutai later admitted that the wind made it a tough race. It didn’t look all that tough, and one has to wonder what his time would have been without the wind. My prediction that Kebede might be “on the downside of his career” was obviously a bit premature. If he wasn’t trying to protect $500,000 he might have risked blowing up and challenging Mutai. Kebede looked good and I do predict that there are some additional marathon major wins in his future.

I did choose correctly (as did just about everyone else) in the women’s race, as Priscah Jeptoo won. I don’t think, however, that anybody predicted how Jeptoo would win. After spotting Buzunesh Deba 3:28 by mile 14, Jeptoo came storming back over the final miles to win by forty-nine seconds. The startling thing was that Deba and Tigist broke with the pack almost immediately, but really were not going all that quickly. The possibility of Deba “stealing” the race appeared to increase as the miles passed – she lives in the Bronx and trains on the course. It looked like an upset in the making. At a 1:54 into the race, however, Deba threw up and it was clear that she was slowing. I think she deserves a lot of props for hanging on for second place. I would definitely keep an eye on Deba for next year.

The final chatter coming out of the New York City Marathon is a perceived lack of competitiveness among the top American runners. Ryan Vail was the first male American in 2:13:23 in 13th, followed by Jeffrey Eggleston 2:16:13. Vail’s time was actually quite good considering the wind and bodes well for a sub 2:10 in the future. A cursory look back over New York results reveals that the U.S. field has never been all that deep. In 2003, for example Matt Downin ran a 2:18:48 to be the first American male. When Alberto Salazar won the 1981 New York City Marathon in 2:08:13, Tony Sandoval was the next top American in sixth in a time of 2:12:12. This is fairly typical, although it seems very fashionable these days to rue the lack of competitiveness among U.S. distance runners. The top American woman was Adriana Nelson, who ran a 2:35:05. No other Americans got under 2:40 and Joan Samuelson – age 56 – was the 15th American woman in 2:57:13 after decided the night before that she would even run the marathon. I wouldn’t start the hand wringing quite yet, but it is difficult to claim that American women didn’t have a rough go of it last Sunday. Should we immediately conclude that American distance running is in crisis, probably not? It might be easier to realize that the New York City course is tough at the best of times and the wind made it even worse. It has also been suggested that a lack of American-only prize money has made more competitive runners think twice about going to a race that will probably not result in a PB or a payday.

Finally, ABC7 and ESPN2 managed to deliver credible coverage of the marathon. There were some flashbacks to the old days when their coverage of the men’s race went AWOL and only returned after the Mutai’s surge had managed to break up the pack; but overall the coverage struck the right balance between professional sporting event and civic endeavor. It looks like it might be on for next year. On a personal note, I was inspired to go out for a long run and managed sixteen miles. Maybe a marathon is in my future…

New York City Marathon Television Coverage: Can We Be Optimistic?

So, the big news is that the New York City Marathon is going to be televised live for the first time since 1993. It will air on ESPN2 from 9:00 AM to 12:30 PM EST on Sunday, November 3 and we are also promised a national highlights show on ABC from 4:00-6:00 PM (I’ll be watching this because I don’t have cable). This was supposed to happen last fall, but hurricane Sandy, of course, intervened. Running fans and those who want to create more running fans are excited because an initial press conference with hosts John Anderson and Hannah Storm indicated that they, at least, were serious about presenting the marathon as an elite sporting event and appeared to be familiar with the athletes involved. According to a report of the press conference on the running website Letsrun, Hannah Storm chimed in that Stanley Biwott was her “x factor.” Everyone was also very excited to find out that Anderson is a long-time subscriber to Track and Field News. Race coverage will include thirty six cameras, three helicopters, six motorcycles, and a liberal use of split screen technology. Another saving grace is that the New York City Marathon is not on Universal Sports or NBC, so Tom Hammond will not be anywhere near the broadcast. I have to admit that I am feeling optimistic. I remember religiously watching the New York City Marathon in the 1980s, when it was first broadcast to cover Alberto Salazar’s world record (sort of) run in 1981 – a mix of examining Salazar’s splits and a focus on the front runners, as well as a liberal dose of human interest stories, helped to fuel the running boom and also fostered mass-participation in the populist endeavor of marathoning. As the years went by, however, the balance between elite coverage and “up close and personal” reports started to skew to the back of the pack. I noticed today when looking through a 2012 issue of Running Times, that one of the letters addressed the announcement that the marathon would be televised in 2012. The letter writer was optimistic, but urged that it be covered like any other professional sporting event: “My complaint with past marathon shows is that invariably the producers focus on all the ‘other stories’ of runners overcoming addiction or some other physical ailment, or raising money for a charity, or running while dressed as a gorilla.”(Letter of Brian Schafer, Running Times, August 2012, page 6) It is clear that running fans want less special interest stories and more race coverage

It is also clear that producers don’t believe that television audiences can be captured merely through compelling competition. Already, there are some ominous signs. A prerace behind the scenes show, “On The Run,” airing during race week will include features on charity runners, a 93-year old aiming to become the oldest New York Marathon finisher, and a runner who uses the marathon to get in shape for the world of competitive eating. (http://communities.washingtontimes.com/neighborhood/run-karla-run/2013/oct/30/how-watch-2013-ing-new-york-city-marathon/)

Public Domain Pictures of the New York City Marathon are scarce. You'll have to enjoy this picture of the HMRRC's Pentathlon in August. It's like a marathon...

Public Domain Pictures of the New York City Marathon are scarce. You’ll have to enjoy this picture of the HMRRC’s Pentathlon in August. It’s like a marathon…

I think what we are going to see is a tug-of-war between Anderson and Storm’s efforts to commentate as if they were at a major professional sporting event – which they are – and the producers’ efforts to please advertisers by pumping personal interest stories. Much of the success of the coverage will probably depend on the professional athletes themselves. A compelling fast race with numerous lead changes, some great tactical moves, and some blowups is probably the ideal way to keep an audience. If the race transpires as it did in 1983 when Rod Dixon chased down Geoff Smith in the final meters in the rain, human interest stories will probably not be necessary. Unfortunately, television has a rather bad track record when it comes to distance racing. It is par for the course that a critical break in a race will be made during a commercial or during an “up close and personal” segment. It doesn’t just sometimes happen, it almost always happens. That is why I am trying not to get too excited. There are some good indications that this time could be different, certainly the commentators will be a fresh of breath air; but, there are some signs that this could be merely a continuation of the same hackneyed, frustrating coverage that probably drove viewers away in the early 1990s. Regardless, I will be watching some running this upcoming Sunday.