Saturday, November 12, 2011

Have Marathon Times Gone Nuts?

"Most people never run far enough on their first wind to find out if they have a second wind" - William James

What in the world is going on with marathon times? I mean, records are falling left and right, and not just by a second here a couple of seconds there. Last week, in New York, both the men's and the women's course records were smashed by over two minutes! And if Mary Kitany had been able to hold herself together, there would have been a new female World Record - she literally put all her eggs in one big running basket and committed one of the very basic errors all runners violate at some time - DON'T GO OUT TOO FAST!

But, more than just the times, the more amazing fact is the ridiculous dominance that Kenya has in the Marathon world. Last week, I quoted Steve Jones, former record holder, when asked why the Kenyans are so dominant..."Because they're better". Yeah, I guess so. They won over 75% of ALL marathons in the world last year. Ok, the Yankees used to win most of the American League pennants, but it wasn't like they anilated all the competition along the way. They simply were better. So, Steve, I think the Kenyans are way more than better and that has been undeniably reflected in what has happened to marathon times so far in 2011. Kenyans now occupy the top 20 places in world rankings,

To date, Kenyans have won every single major marathon this year. No exceptions. They took London, Boston, Paris, Chicago, Berlin, Rotterdam, Amsterdam and the IAAF World Championships in Daegu, Korea. What is more, the course records in every single one of the World Marathon Majors has been broken THIS YEAR. Sometimes, these guys had pacers, sometimes they worked together, sometimes they went out solo, and at least once, God blew a wicked tailwind behind them.

Back in April, at the Boston Marathon, a tailwind pushed the runners from Hopkinton (west) 26.2 miles to Boston (east). When it was over, Geoffrey Mutai had crushed the world record by almost a minute with 2:03:02. But, it was determined that Boston's course should not qualify as a WR course (point-to-point, plus it has an overall loss of elevation), so it was called a World Best. Yeah, I've done Boston 5 times and if anybody tells me Boston's course is easy, well, they better defend themselves. Anyway, Haile Gebrselassie's 2 year-old World Record of 2:03:59 still stood. Now, he's Ethiopian, so that must've really brissled the hair on the Kenyan's backs because it's been attack, attack, attack since then.

Just this summer, Patrick Makau, took down Gebrselassie's world record in Berlin with his 2:03:38. Then, just six weeks later, a relative unknown Kenyan runner, Wilson Kipsang, boldly said he was going after Makau's record at the Frankfort Marathon. Most, including me (the all-knowing, never-wrong pundit) brushed this off as a little too much butt for his britches. Well, he put up a real fight and crossed the line in 2:03:42 - ouch!!

A typical year used to see between 5 and 10 sub-2:07 performers. This year, it's 26 already. When Khalid Khannouchi set his WR in 1999 in Chicago of 2:05:42, I was there, and after I crossed the finish line and my wife told me his time, I was sure she got the time wrong, because 2:06 had never been cracked. Three years later, Ken & I were running the same race together and we were about on mile 17 when some guy yells on a bullhorn "you are now running on a new WR course. Khannouchi just finished in 2:05:38!!". These were times from the stratosphere. In the past 9 years, that time has been bettered 39 times!!! In 2011 alone, poor Khalid's time has been beaten TWELVE times!!! Ten of those times have been by Kenyans. Now, that is crazy fast!! The AVERAGE of the top 10 times in '09, '10, & '11 all bettered that barrier. It gets kind of numbing, but let me put it this way - Geoffrey Mutai's NY Marathon time of 2:05:06 is the like putting the treadmill on 12.5 MPH for 26.2 miles!!! AND THAT'S TWO MINUTES OFF THE WORLD BEST!

So, what is happening? What has caused this seismic shift in marathon times? And why from Kenya? I'm no scientist, so I can only take guesses like you... living in altitude? genetics? Hunger for success? Yeah, those are all a blog in themselves. But, I agree with some others and I really think the "Tipping Point" was with the Olympic Marathon in 2008. It was a hot, humid day in Beijing and the common strategy was to hang back in a technical race and win it in the last mile with a respectable, but not an eye-popping time. The late Sammy Wajiru (surprise, from Kenya) transformed marathoning that day by attacking from the start. All the competitors were more than glad to let him go until it was too late. His early aggression to kill off the competition early produced a Gold Medal with an Olympic Record of 2:06. It was a dominant performance

I think now the marathon is more of a speed event, and no longer just an event of endurance. You watch Mary Kitany take off with a balls-to-the-wall attack (obviously a figure of speech) in NY, and build over a two and half minute lead, only to falter in the last couple of miles, get caught in the last half mile and finish third. But, she decided to "race" it from the beginning, not just "run" it. The men have been doing this for a few years now, and so the times tumble because sometimes this attack strategy works. The runners are not afraid of the distance anymore. They see it as a long 5K or 10K. Boom - take off - try to catch me! I don't have a whole lot of years left, but most certainly, I'll see 2:01 approached...and then the unthinkable, the TWO HOUR barrier will be seriously spoken about. If you love this stuff, then you REALLY have to love that marathon times have gone nuts.

I'll see you on the slower roads - AL

"One child lost is too child saved can change the world"

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