Since Olympic officials set the marathon distance at 26 miles, 385 yards following the 1908 London Olympics, there have been 45 new men’s marathon world records set. In that time, the mark has dropped from 2:55:18   to 2:03:59, a 30-plus percent drop in 103 years. With the 2011 spring marathon season upon us, Haile Gebrselassie’s 2008 world record 2:03:59 will once again come under fire. Will it withstand another series of challenges?

The last two world records set in the U.S.A. came in Chicago, Welshman Steve Jones ran 2:08:05 in 1984, and Morocco’s Khalid Khannouchi posted his 2:05:48 in 1999. Since then, the record has been the province of Berlin, with Paul Tergat’s 2:04:55 in 2003, then Haile Gebrselassie’s 2:04:26 in 2007 and his current 2:03:59 in 2008.

What factors, then, and in what order, are necessary to achieve a world record marathon?

First, we begin with the athlete and his preparation.  A runner of surpassing talent with a flawless build up is a given. This year, with so many more young athletes foregoing track careers for the lucrative paydays offered after 26.2 miles of racing, the chances for a breakout performance are at least arithmetically better than in previous generations.

Second, the course must be one capable of yielding to a world record. In its 114-year history, the Boston Marathon has only seen one men’s world record, 2:25:39 by South Korea’s Yun Bok Suh, back in 1947. Once you introduce hills, goodbye records.

In modern times, Berlin has become the record route of choice, yielding four world records in the last 13 years, including the last two marks set by Ethiopia’s Haile Gebrselassie in 2007 and 2008.

Once the athlete and course have been matched, you will need the true wild card to turn in your favor, weather. For the top 10 fastest marathons in history, the average start temperature has been 42 degrees Fahrenheit (5.5 C). The average finish line temperature has been 51 (10.5 C). So the adage that a day when it’s a little chilly to watch is a perfect day to race, is backed up by the hard evidence.

Next up in world record necessities – pacing. The times are so fast – the current marathon world record averages out to just under 4:45 per mile (2:57/Km) pace – that fuel management is an absolute key. During the Berlin `08 world record, Haile was paced through the half in 1:02:03 by, among others, Abel Kirui of Kenya, who won the 2009 World Championships Marathon in Berlin. So it takes a special athlete just to pace a world record attempt. With Kirui assisting through 20 miles in 2008, Haile was able to run the second half in Berlin seven seconds faster than the first half, an almost perfectly even effort.

Compare that with London 2009 where Beijing Olympic Champion Sammy Wanjiru’s pacers took him through 10k in 28:35, 4:36 per mile. That’s sub-2:01 pace! Compounding that over-cooked pace was the near 60 degree temperatures at 15 miles. Though he set a course record of 2:05:10, Wanjiru’s second half was run a full two minutes slower than his first half. So it’s a fine line an athlete must tread, but one he dare not cross if he wants that world record. To date, 1:02-flat for the first half seems to be that line.

Finally, the surge of competitive adrenalin is just the kicker needed. In Chicago 1999 Kenya’s Moses Tanui threw down at 30k. But in attacking from so far out Tanui supercharged Khalid Khannouchi. It took Double K until the last mile, but in the end, he managed to run down the two-time Boston champion. But with competition as the final spur, Khannouchi was able to notch the first of his two world records. So, too, was Paul Tergat pushed to the line in Berlin 2003 by Sammy Korir, and Haile had the surprise figure of James Kwambai on his hip at 35K in Berlin `08.

Add it all up: athlete, preparation, course, weather, pacing, and competition; they all have to line up and fall into place. Which is a tall order, indeed. If just one doesn’t fall, then the record won’t fall either.

The super-fast Rotterdam Marathon goes off next Sunday, April 10th. With Duncan Kibet and James Kwambai’s 2:04:27 in 2009 and Patrick Makau’s 2:04:48 last year, Rotterdam sits right behind Berlin on the all-time marathon quick list.

The 31st ABN AMRO Rotterdam Marathon start list includes:

  • Vincent Kipruto 2.05.13 KEN
  • Feyisa Lelisa 2.05.23 ETH
  • Eliud Kiptanui 2.05.39 KEN
  • Getu Feleke 2.05.44 ETH
  • Wilson Chebet 2.06.12 KEN
  • Gilbert Kirwa 2.06.14 KEN
  • Chala Dechase 2.06.33 ETH
  • Michael Kipyego debut KEN

Former World Junior 10,000 meter champion and steeplechase specialist Michael Kipyego is the intriguing debutant. His compatriot Sammy Kitwara will lead the rabbits, who will try to measure the pace as fast, but controlled.  Let the wagering begin.



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