Friday, February 26, 2010

Marathon Day I: 30,000 Meters

They don't race the marathons much: once a season at the Holmenkollen each March (always in individual-start format, and alternating skate and classic from one season to the next), plus once at the World Championships or the Olympic Games, lately in mass-start format and kinda-sorta alternating between freestyle and classic.

The rarity of the marathons is one key problem in trying to pick the podium. Another factor is that the marathons are substantially longer than the next-longest races: the men's 50k is two-thirds again as long as the men's pursuit or occasional 30k, while the women's 30k is twice as long as the women's pursuit.

History can offer a bit of help in seeing who's likely to win. Leaving aside the individual-start Holmenkollen races, here are the podiums of the recent mass-start 30k races:
2009 Worlds, Liberec (freestyle): Kowalcyzk, Medvedeva (+8.8s), Shevchenko (+9.3s)
2009 World Cup, Trondheim (classic): Majdic, Kowalcyzk (+11.7s), Ishida (+12s)
2007 Worlds, Sapporo (classic): Kuitunen, Steira (+6.9s), Johaug (+22.8s)
2006 Olympics, Pragelato (freestyle): Neumannova, Tchepalova (+1.4s), Kowalczyk (+2.1s)
2005 Worlds, Oberstdorf (classic): Bjørgen, Kuitunen (+8.9s), Baranova-Maskolina (+10.3s)

One name that jumps out here is Ms. These Tracks Are Too Easy, Justyna Kowalczyk, with three podium spots in five races. She'll be gunning for her first Olympic gold, and she's got a good shot.

But so far the 2010 Olympics are playing out a lot like the 2005 World Championships, where Marit Bjørgen won three golds (the mass-start classic 30k, the team sprint, and the relay), a silver (the pursuit), and a bronze (the 10k freestyle). (That year, she also won the 30k at Holmenkollen.) With three golds and a bronze in four races at Whistler, Bjørgen has to be the favorite for the marathon - and all the moreso because Petra Majdic won't be racing. Hence:

1. Bjørgen
2. Kowalczyk (+10s)
3. Steira (+11s)
Renner: 8; Randall: 17; Brooks: 24; Arritola: 32

I'll confess that my pick for bronze is wholly sentimental. I dunno if KSS can really do 30k in classic, but I hope she can race well enough to finally take that individual Olympic medal.

I'll also confess that I hope the distance and/or the weather* rip the field into little packs and let some other racers get into the mix, if not onto the podium. I'd love to see Ishida duplicate her success at Trondheim, or Johaug show off her renewed form, or or or... Given the distance, the variable weather (which is surely going to catch someone out, over an 80 or 90 minute race) and the fatigue that almost everybody should be feeling, we could see a wild race.

* As of 11:35 CDT, the Canadian Weatheroffice (rilly!) is predicting "Rain showers or wet flurries, high plus 3" (37°F!) at Whistler on Saturday. The race kicks off at 11:45 local time, so it could be messy. Hairies and zeros, anyone?