(c) 2015 Race Results Weekly, all rights reserved. Used with permission.
CHICAGO — With a back to basics approach this year, race director Carey Pinkowski announced on August 26 that pacemakers would be eliminated from this year’s Chicago Marathon, hoping to refocus fan and media interest on head-to-head racing instead of fast times and record-breaking. Chicago now joins the Boston Marathon and New York City Marathon among the commercial events of the Abbott World Marathon Majors which no longer employ pacemakers.
“Here at Chicago we have such a great tradition of athletic performance, head-to-head performance,” he told the media here today. “I think we got away from what the essence of what competition is. We’ve had historic performances from head-to-head competitions. So, we’ll take a look on Sunday and we’ll see.”
But Pinkowski’s move has been an unsettling one for some of the event’s elite athletes. Pacemaking has become so pervasive in top marathons that some athletes have never run a race without them, and aren’t quite sure how best to approach the race.
“I’ve never run that way, but we’ll do our best,” said 22 year-old Birhane Dibaba of Ethiopia, this year’s Tokyo Marathon champion who boasts a 2:22:30 personal best. “Ever since I’ve been running major races I’ve never run without a pacemaker.”
She’s not alone. For 25-year-old Lucas Rotich of Kenya, the situation is the same. He’s run three marathons—twice in Hamburg and once in Amsterdam—and has never competed without the benefit of pacers. He seemed perplexed about what might be an appropriate strategy for Sunday’s race. He said he’d be willing to push the pace, but only if some of his rivals would, too.
“I think for me this is my fourth marathon, so I don’t know know the distance so much without pacemakers,” he told Race Results Weekly. He paused and added: “There are no pacemakers in the Olympics. No pacemakers in the championships. It doesn’t matter if we cooperate, the athletes.”
In a mild disagreement with his manager, Michel Boeting, Rotich said he thought that the race would have pacemakers when he agreed to run, saying that he only found out about it by reading a running message board on the Internet. Boeting reminded him of a conversation where he told him that it was “looking like” Chicago wasn’t going to use pacers this year. Rotich wasn’t sure.
“Midway, they decided that there were no pacemakers,” Rotich insisted. “It didn’t change my mind or my progress. If there are pacemakers or not pacemakers, it doesn’t change my plan. I am focusing on two things: one is to run a good time and to win the race.”
Another Kenyan, Dickson Chumba, who is coached by Italy’s Gabriele Rosa, said he had already decided his best course of action on Sunday: key off of a top contender.
“I follow Kitwara and the other guys,” he said, referring to the fastest man in the field, Kenya’s Sammy Kitwara, who has a 2:04:28 personal best. Kitwara finished second here last year. “I know Kitwara.”
But would Kitwara lead? He, too, said he’d never run a marathon without pacemakers.
Ethiopia’s Mulu Seboka offered a more nuanced point of view. She has run marathons with and without pacemakers, and said they could be equally satisfying.
A veteran of 33 marathons (with nine victories), Seboka pointed out that although she had run faster with pacemakers, she had also won without them. For instance, at the 2014 Dubai Marathon, she won the race in 2:25:01 when pacemakers were not used in the women’s race, but only finished sixth in this year’s Dubai race when she ran her personal best 2:21:56 with the aid of male pacers.
“It’s good if there is a pacemaker, it’s also good if there isn’t,” said Seboka through a translator. “I’ve had the experience before so it’s not a problem.” She continued: “Both are good. Winning is good, but being able to improve my personal best and run a fast time was also good.”
Wesley Korir, the 2012 Boston Marathon champion, was unambiguous about his position: a race without pacemakers was better for him. In today’s press conference—where he gave a rousing, impromptu speech on the sport’s need to increase anti-doping efforts—he could hardly contain his glee. When he won Boston and Los Angeles (in 2009 and 2010), there were no pacemakers.
“I looked at all of my history, and all of the races that I won had no pacemakers,” Korir said. “I’m excited.”