Scenery vs. Tactics

Is it worth it to “speed up” a course at the expense of historic landmarks and cultural sights?

It was a typical Thursday night in the Solera home.  My wife and I had invited a couple of friends to the apartment and we were watching choice episodes of 30 Rock and Parks and Recreation while enjoying pizza and a sampler pack of craft beers.  We had cycled through several episodes, often speaking over them because we knew them already by heart and could afford to break out into spontaneous conversation without ruining any of the thousand perfectly-timed zingers.

Although we were watching highly-regarded and universally appealing comedies, I also wanted to watch the Dubai Marathon, which was streaming live on the internet.  Known for its generous prize money and time incentives, the race has reliably produced some of the fastest times in the world in recent years.  And yet despite the attractive lure, this is a race that hasn’t featured a big-name, top ranked athlete since Haile Gebrselassi’s three victories between 2008 and 2010.  Unlike the World Marathon Majors, it never draws the most visible athletes but still produces fast times, usually thanks to talented newcomers and debutants hungry for its $200,000 first place prize.

But rather than subject my friends to the agony of watching a sport they don’t enjoy (especially one where very little actually happens until the last twenty minutes), I flipped open a laptop and set it next to me while Tina Fey and Amy Poehler continued on TV with their reliable parade of hilarious one-liners.  Every now and then I would sneak a quick glance at the computer to see if I had missed a strategic breakaway or if the race had taken an aggressive turn.

Despite the athletes’ legs moving at an impressive rate, I couldn’t help but feel like they weren’t actually going anywhere.  Every time I looked at the screen, I saw the same image, as if the feed were on loop.  Whenever the broadcast would switch between the male lead pack to the first females, I swore they couldn’t have been within a block of each other.  They simply kept running on the same stretch of road.  While sets and characters on TV would change, the top runners on my laptop, most of whom were Ethiopian, seemed to be stuck on a giant treadmill.  The whole thing seemed ripped right out of a Twilight Zone episode.

Eventually 18-year old Tsegaye Mekonnen Asefa broke free from the lead pack and broke the junior world record for the marathon by finishing in an astounding 2:04:32.  Five years ago that would have made him the fourth fastest marathoner of all-time; today he has to settle for eleventh.  While his performance was incredible and Dubai once again delivered a slew of fast times, I was more focused on how boring the race seemed.  While the race contained its fair share of professional marathon hallmarks – the fast initial 5K split, the lead pack jockeying for position, the eventual thinning and final breakaway – it didn’t feel like the race really took them anywhere.

The reason for this is because the course is as simple as it can possibly get.

Taking a play from the Carlsbad 5000’s playbook, the Dubai Marathon’s course was changed this year to a long out-and-back along the coastline on Jumeirah Beach Road.  It is literally an incredibly long “T” shape with only the start and finish lines jutting from the road.  That’s it.

2014 Dubai Marathon Course Map

2014 Dubai Marathon Course Map

The minute I saw that, I realized why it seemed like nothing was different every time I looked at the live feed.  It wasn’t like watching the Chicago Marathon, which ushers runners in and out of the city three different times; or the New York City Marathon which proudly escorts the largest marathon field ever assembled through its five unique boroughs; or the LA Marathon’s “Stadium to the Sea” tour of the city.  Even if watching twenty East Africans run for a little over two hours isn’t your idea of fun, some of these broadcasts offer a compelling and diverse profile of historic cities.

But Dubai’s cameramen showed none of that.  Buoyed by the prestige of becoming the next world record course, organizers decided to change the course to allow for the fastest times possible.  But in doing so, I believe they may have sacrificed too much.

In recent decades the sport has exploded.  It is no longer the hobby of a deranged sliver of athletes but a worldwide phenomenon.  Friday morning, over 20,000 runners crossed the finish line in Dubai, all but a handful vying for a world’s best.  While I want to assume that the majority of those were proud of their accomplishments and wore the medal proudly, I’m confident that a large number were also disappointed with the simplicity of the course.  Is it really worth it to cater to the top 3 runners at the expense of denying the remaining 19,997 a diverse and engaging path?

It’s been said many times before that running a successful marathon requires a strong body but also a sound mind.  Many runners try to divide the 26.2-mile race into smaller, less intimidating pieces in order to cope with the challenge without bluntly acknowledging the insanely long distance.  However, if the entire ordeal is one seemingly interminable stretch followed by another one, this mental game loses its pieces.  A change of scenery can invigorate tired runners and something as simple as a turn can add an extra jolt to their speed.  Even Boston, which is technically a “straight” line from Hopkington to Boylston Street, has its turns and hills.

I’ve never been to Dubai, but the city has had its fair share of publicity in the last ten years.  Though the course as it was run on Friday runs past the famous Burj Al Arab and likely sports a view of the Burj Khalifa (then again, with its height I’m sure you can see it from pretty much anywhere), the view from my couch didn’t provide the typical city-tour that I’ve come to expect.  In my head, the perfect layout would escort runners along Jumeirah Beach Road, pass the Burj Al Arab, circumvent the Burj Khalifa on Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Boulevard and even enter the trilobite-shaped archipelago known as the Palm Jumeirah.  It would be a great way to showcase a new city playing on the global stage.

But I doubt that’s possible.  The more I thought about it, I started to suspect that this was probably the best the organizers could design, even if they weren’t solely focused on engineering a fast course.  I’m sure this has to do with Dubai’s complex infrastructure, which includes a lot of onramps, thick highways and broad swaths of projects mid-development.  But when you sign up for a city’s namesake marathon, you expect a certain degree of sightseeing to go along with the depletion of glycogen.  Marathons aren’t just about notching fast times; they can be a vehicle to enjoy the world around us.  Paris starts on the Champs-Élysées, London ends at Buckingham Palace, New York in Central Park, all before winding through their own cities in almost unpredictable fashion.  And despite not being a perfectly straight and flat line like Dubai, all of these races have very fast course records below 2:06.

Maybe this has just been an overly long and petulant complaint about the race only appearing boring on TV for those of us who didn’t shell out the big bucks to fly to the Arabian Peninsula.  But there is a discussion to be had here: if your favorite race offered you the chance to alter the course, would you prefer to pull it to unique landmarks or would you remove a few turns to help you secure that shiny new PR?  Let’s word that differently:

Do you expect to see famous monuments when you sign up for expensive, big city races?  Are there any prestigious races that have surprised you, for better or worse, with their course?  If you had the money, would you run the Dubai Marathon, even though the path is straight-as-an-arrow?