Martin Lel could only smile when asked if he thought he could win Sunday’s ING New York City Marathon.
“I can’t predict anymore,” he said.
It was a telling and fitting reaction from a man many people have been trying to get a read on for years, only to be left bewildered each and every time.
With the exception of the late 2008 Olympic champion Sammy Wanjiru, over the last decade there has been no more dominant marathoner in the world than Lel, who won the ING New York City Marathon in 2003 and 2007 and the Virgin London Marathon in 2005, 2007, and 2008.
At the same time, there probably hasn’t been a more fragile star in the sport than the Kenyan, who was slated to compete in New York in 2004, 2008, 2009, and 2010 but was forced to scratch each time due to knee injuries. Two of those withdrawals came after he had already arrived in the Big Apple for race week.
But this time, Lel says, things are different.
“In training, everything has been going well,” he said. “I have been training well and haven’t been having any problems. I can say that due to being well-managed by my coach I never lost confidence in myself. Even though I was injured frequently, my mind was still very strong. Coach was giving me confidence that I could still run.”
Lel attributes his health to a change in training philosophy. He came to the realization that while his prime performances may have seemed to be, he is not superhuman. At age 35, it is unrealistic to expect him to effortlessly match the youthful East African wunderkinds dropping 2:03s seemingly every race.
That is not to say that he can no longer compete at today’s elite level. His runner-up finishes at the 2012 Virgin London Marathon in 2:06:51 and the 2011 Virgin London Marathon in 2:05:45 would seem to indicate otherwise. It is just that Lel is no longer forcing that issue.
“For sure it has been an obstacle, breaking down with too-frequent injuries,” Lel said. “But when I came back, I found that it was a blessing because I stopped trying to maintain up with the performances. I was frequently doing sprints and high mileages. When my body was speaking up, I would still have a long way to go [in training] and it was easy for me to get injuries.
“I realize that at times I was overtraining and then I exhausted my body. During that time, my body was so fragile. Nowadays, I am approaching training from a different angle where at the end, I will be at the same shape as always. I haven’t been overloading things as much, which is an excellent thing for me.”
Another bonus for Lel has been the ability to train with rising 27-year-old Kenyan Stanley Biwott, who won the 2012 Paris Marathon in a personal best 2:05:12, finished third at the 2012 Shanghai Marathon in 2:09:05, and was leading the 2013 London Marathon at 35-K before fading to eighth in 2:08:39. In September, Biwott established himself as a runner to watch in NYC by winning the Rock ‘n’ Roll Philadelphia Half Marathon in 59:36.
“Stanley and myself are quite different,” Lel said. “He is still very young and for me I am getting up there a little bit. But our goal, his and mine, is the same, to try our best to get the best results, if not for me but for him to win.”
Lel said that he and Biwott, who are sharing a hotel room here, have been discussing the race and “have shared some ideas.” One can fully expect that strategizing to continue once both runners hit the course.
Another thing you expect from the unpredictable Lel is that he won’t be intimidated by his younger competition. In fact, he feels that his experience might be beneficial.
“Although this generation is coming up with high speed, New York is good because it is not like other highly fast courses,” he said. “You need experience here because this course is a little bit hilly and in addition to being in good condition you have to have some experience because it’s not so easy.
“I respect these young athletes. When I ran my first marathon here in 2003, they were all still in school or very young. Now, I am still competing with them. I like them and I enjoy running with them.”
“Our races are to our sport what Wimbledon and the Australian, U.S., and French Opens are to tennis, and what the Masters, U.S., and British Opens and PGA Championship are to golf. Each race has the history, the tradition, the honor roll of legendary champions, and a special place in the eyes of all to make them stand apart from the other events.” Mary Wittenberg