Mo vs. Meb: Who Would Win 13.1?

Who has the edge in a half-marathon: middle-distance runners or marathoners?

By Barbara Huebner—Runners in the pack aren’t the only athletes who love the half-marathon: Pro athletes do, too. Likening it to cross country, the pros say they relish the chance to compete against athletes they don’t normally line up against: road guys, track guys, and distance guys get the chance to meet 5000-meter specialists and even milers. Fun though it may be, who has the advantage? Is it the marathon specialist stepping down in distance? The 10,000-meter runner who combines endurance with track speed? Or the fastest athletes, stepping way up from the shorter distances? Going head to head on the topic are Neil Amdur, former sports editor of the New York Times, and Dick Patrick, freelancer and former Olympics writer for USA Today.

Neil Amdur: I have the utmost respect and admiration for marathon runners. They brought an identity and respect to road racing that was sorely needed in the first phase of the running boom. And they continue to produce some of the greatest performances in a sport that is thriving at the participant level but losing the struggle for media exposure.

But I don’t think marathon runners would fare well against middle-distance runners who are moving up to a half-marathon. History is against them on many levels, as Rod Dixon, a world-class miler and bronze medalist in the 1500 meters at the Munich Olympics, demonstrated when he became the 1983 New York City Marathon champion, and as Mo Farah reaffirmed with his victory in the New Orleans half-marathon last month. Farah, a double gold medalist in the 5000 and 10,000 meters at the London Olympics last year, ran 3:33.98 in the 1500 in 2009 and managed surges and 4:26 miles in New Orleans before kicking to win.

None other than Alberto Salazar, a three-time New York City Marathon champion and now a seasoned and respected coach, pointed out in his wonderful autobiography, 14 Minutes, published last year: “Once you run a marathon, you can’t return to the track with the same consistent short-distance speed that you exhibited before running 26.2. Regardless of what I thought in my arrogant youth, the marathon is special. Its mystique is deep and legitimate.”

If Bernard Lagat falters in a half-marathon debut, it will simply be because he waited too long to test his aging legs at a longer distance.

Dick Patrick: Don’t be so quick to consign marathoners to the trash heap. Based on conversations in recent years, even Alberto would concede that a marathoner’s career can be lengthened if the runner is dedicated to sound mechanics and recovery. Coaches and runners are increasingly prioritizing those two factors. Look at Meb Keflezighi. (Full disclosure: Meb and I collaborated on his biography, Run to Overcome, in 2010). He was running personal records in his mid-to-late 30s in the marathon and was fourth last year in the London Olympics at 37 after finishing second in the 2004 Games. His years at the marathon haven’t stopped him from improving. He could still step down to the half and crank one.

You mention Mo Farah. Sure, he’s got 3:50 mile speed, but I don’t think most people consider him a middle-distance guy. He’s a distance guy, a 5K and 10K specialist with intriguing marathon potential. Yes, he won a half-marathon in New Orleans, yet his 60:59 didn’t come against a stellar field and he didn’t leave marathoners quaking in their racing flats. Not to demean his accomplishment: He’s an incredible talent and was certainly nowhere near peak shape in New Orleans. Think of this scenario: A lot of times when a 10K or marathon is close late in the race, you’ll hear an announcer spout the runners’ times at shorter distances and proclaim that the faster one is the favorite if the race comes down to a finishing sprint. But the faster guy doesn’t always win; the stronger guy usually does. Sure, speed thrills, but at the longer distances it can be trumped.

NA: Whoa. There’s never a disparaging word from this corner when it comes to marathon runners. What is most interesting is that the half-marathon has emerged as the new “in” distance in road racing—a hybrid that is catching on faster than even many promoters envisioned. And with good reason: It is less taxing, so that you are not giving up your body to future knee and hip replacements. And it is equally satisfying because it stretches you physically and mentally. Speed can only go so far in a race, and even one of my dear friends, who is now training for a half-marathon in May, believes that “more in the tank” will prevail when it comes to decisive finishing in a half-marathon. But I can’t help feeling that today’s middle-distance runners are putting in the premium mileage and quality interval training that would allow them to withstand a sustained power surge over the last 5K of a half-marathon.

DP: The expression that keeps echoing in my mind is “There are horses for courses.” Sure, there are some middle-distance runners who can be great at the half-marathon—but not all of them. Remember, there have been really good 1500-meter guys who couldn’t move up to similar success in the 5000 meters, much less the half-marathon, and there are great half-marathoners who aren’t great marathoners. There probably are fewer great marathoners who aren’t great half-marathoners. That’s why there are races—we don’t know what’s going to happen. This comes down to individuals. That’s why there’s such interest in Lagat, an amazing runner who has great longevity and great range. Can it extend to the half? We’ll see. If it does, the next question will be whether he can run a great marathon. Let’s enjoy.

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