What is the best way to pace a marathon? Positive, negative or even splits? Does it depend on who you ask and could culture play a role?

At the 2018 Tokyo Marathon, there were 21 runners under 2:11, a solid result in most people’s books. The faster end of a marathon race is usually full of even or negative splits for the Kenyan and Ethiopian athletes, but this was not the case in Japan.

The fact that a huge amount of runners were on world record pace after the first kilometre gives an insight into how the race played out for most. And if you take a quick glance at the splits from the top 21 men a picture certainly emerges.

Did anyone run a negative split?

Dickson Chumba, the race winner, did run wonderfully even splits of 62:44 and 62:46. The top six were all together at halfway, all registering around 62:44-45 mark, but then it changed a little. Yuta Shitara, now Japan’s marathon record holder, was even a second ahead.

Every single runner in that top 21 ran a positive split, even if Chumba’s was minimal. All the other runners took, on average, 143.35 seconds longer in the second half.

This ranged from Yuta Shitara having a 45 second slower second half, to Tsegaye Mekonnen blowing up around 30km to post a positive split of nearly five minutes (298 seconds).

Mekonnen was in the lead group up to 30km and then really slipped away. Whereas Shitara led and then held on for a national record.

Given that Tokyo does have a slightly downhill start one might expect different splits, but Chumba’s even effort does show it is possible.

Now the discussion, what is best for an optimum race?

Here we have 20 runners who have all run sub 2:11 with positive splits of 58 seconds or more. Is banking miles the best way to run a marathon? Would a wider look at the results or a larger statistical analysis show a different picture?

It could be that the current boom in Japanese distance running, especially over half marathon distance, is just seeing more fast runners attempt the marathon?

If you have a huge number of fast half marathoners setting out to run 63:45 to halfway then larger numbers might hang on to the finish. Like throwing 50 darts at the bullseye and hoping some land.

Who ran the best race?

Dickson Chumba came away with the win, that’s the simple answer. He also ran the most level race out of the top 21. If this were simply a war of attrition as to who can hold on longest, then surely Dickson would have flagged some more?

Yuta Shitara ran a big PB and a Japanese record, with a 45-second positive split, still the second best out of the field.

Baring a few exceptions from the lead pack falling off in the second half (a Moroccan, Kenyan and Ethiopian), the size of the positive split grew as you went down the rankings.

One could argue that the Moroccan, Kenyan and Ethiopian runners were there to race, so when the podium chance went, the effort level followed.

They might already have been thinking about their next race.

Chicken or the egg?

Now does that mean those aiming for equal splits ran better or just that those who finished higher up the rankings merely suffered better? A man with more time might start to compare the half marathon PBs of those in question, past marathon attempts and the pacing strategies from those too.

Maybe Will Beaumont, who carried out the statistical analysis of English regional cross country finishing times, should be contacted as his grasp of numbers is better than most.

Yet still from this small data set one might be able to create some hypotheses. The question that one would like to answer is that “is a positive split the optimum way to run a marathon”.

Chumba may have won on the day with the closest to an even split, but was that the best Chumba could have done on the day? If a PB is an aim, such as the huge amount of Japanese runners behind the Kenyan, then do you need to start fast.

What does that mean for the rest of us?

Winning a world marathon major isn’t a realistic goal for many, but a PB certainly is. Should we be setting out to run evenly and finish fast like most Kenyan marathon winners do?

The cultural difference mentioned above is to do with suffering and the image presented to the world. There is a great video of a Kenyan and Japanese runner in a marathon. The pair battle for first and second, but in very different ways. It was a discussion with Adharanand Finn that prompted this thought.

Culturally it is frowned upon to show suffering in Kenya. Young males within tribes can be subject to coming of age ceremonies were not showing pain is the aim of the youth. You might say this is the way a Kenyan runs a marathon too, almost making it look easy throughout.

What about Eliud Kipchoge’s smile?

Now in Japan, it is important to show how hard you are working. You want people to know you are suffering and doing your utmost. Finn’s “Way of the Runner” looks at the Japanese ekiden races and how the finish line can be like an amateur dramatics society meet.

Runners collapse across the line, having given every last ounce for the team.

With this in mind could a faster start suit a Japanese runner? They want to show they are suffering at the end, so the more real that is, the better.

They have a lifetime of digging deep to finish their races.

How does this translate for other nations?

Could the British and the Irish have a cultural impact on their pacing?

As a British runner, I often love being one thing on race day. The underdog. It suits my nature to see myself as the little guy against the bigger, more established talents. I’ve worked harder than those who were born gifted. It’s a mindset I feel many can relate to.

With that in mind, I feel I perform best when running an even or negative split. Coming from behind, like a football team down at halftime. The rallying cry from the coach (an inner monologue in a running race) gets the team (the limbs) working together. Then you give every last ounce of effort.

On the rare occasions out front, it is a different beast to motivate the best out of oneself. Yes, for shorter efforts it helps, but for a marathon, I would rather hunt for an hour or two, than be hunted. Please feel free to step in and comment if you’re a psychologist reading this.

For now, have a look at those results. That’s impressive running regardless. Would you tell any of those runners that they should have run the race differently? What happened on your PB day?

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