Following Boston’s monumental 115th running last Monday, the talk once again has turned to the cold vivisection of the finishing times rather than the hot-blooded competition that produced them.  

     The question is simple, was Kenyan Geoffrey Mutai’s 2:03:02 not just the fastest time ever run over 26.2 miles of roadway, but, in fact, a marathon world record?  The general consensus is NO, Boston was wind-aided on April 18th with a steady 15-20 mph push the entire way.  Add in the net elevation drop of 459 feet from Hopkinton to Boston, and the combination makes the venerable old course ineligible for record recognition.

     Academically, I agree.  I called the race for WBZ-TV in Boston, and have covered every Boston since 1977.  I believe the tail wind last Monday was worth two minutes overall.  It was like swimming down current; the same physical effort created faster overall speeds.  We have seen similar results in other notoriously windy Boston Marathon days in 1975, 1983, and 1994.  But if Boston 2011 was aided, then so, too, is every year’s Berlin, Chicago, London, and Rotterdam, the creme of the “legal” courses on which records traditionally have been set.

     I called this year’s Rotterdam Marathon on April 10th for Universal Sports.  In my pre-race conversations with organizer Eric Brommert, he outlined the rigors to which Rotterdam had gone to break Haile Gebreselassie’s 2:03:59 world record from Berlin 2008.  Eric signed six pacesetters, each a sub-60 minute half-marathoner, and charged five of them to run till 30k.  “Super pacer” Sammy Kitwara was tasked to go to 35K.  Added to the phalanx of pacers were aid station handlers to assist each man with his bottles, coaching from the lead moto, and the utter lack of competition until the final seven kilometers.  And Boston is aided? In that case, the term “legal” seem mighty flexible, indeed. 

     Paula Radcliffe’s 2:15:25 women’s world record in London 2003 had Kenyan male pacers the entire distance!

     Our old ESPN show Running & Racing once filmed American cyclist John Howard attempt the world land speed record for cycling.  John hit 152.2 mph tucked in behind a wind-faring on a pace vehicle.  John’s record has since been broken, and the mark currently stands at 167 mph.  The unpaced world land speed record was set in 2002 at 83 mph, less than half the paced mark.  And sitting in between the paced and unpaced records is the downhill speed record of 101 mph set in 2009.  So how much weight should be accorded pacing versus windy and downhill, especially since running Boston’s downhills actually shreds your legs?  Or should we ask Kim Smith, who led the women’s race for 30k before her right calf blew up?

     Of course, what the sport of running is best at is shooting itself in the foot.  What the current contretemps over Boston’s times once again reveals is the need to recalibrate the definition of excellence and what we decide to celebrate.  Since Roger Bannister first broke the 4:00 barrier for the mile in 1954, we have been obsessed with times.  Even beyond baseball, another record-obsessed sport, we have engendered two generations of drug-induced records that now stand beyond our capability to either better or expunge. 

     If we in the sport can’t find a way to elevate competition among and between carbon-based life forms over the antiseptic extension of record times, we will continue falling farther and farther off the general sporting population’s radar.  But guess what, they stopped paying attention a long time ago. 


6 thoughts on “AIDED?

  1. Reading Pat Butcher’s recent hyperbolic, ridiculously condescending, arrogant and totally off-the-mark blog about whether or not Boston should even be called a marathon makes it even clearer (at least to me) that road racing must, must (OK, I’ll go for the hyperbolic caps) MUST split from the International Association of Athletics Federations/United States of America Track & Field and form its own NGO. Until that happens, we will continue to have these apples to oranges arguments that waste valuable time and energy when we could be focusing on much more important issues, and people will continue to complain and bemoan the “state of the sport.” To paraphrase Tom Hanks in “A League of Their Own”: “Are you crying (whining, complaining)? There’s no crying (whining, complaining) in road racing.”

  2. Greg,

    In point of fact, I would dismiss all talk of “world records” for road racing, and instead speak only of course records. The track is meant to be a more clinical examination, while road racing has a charm particular to its individual course and history, none more so than Boston. Though even tracks vary in conditions and surfaces, the variety of road courses makes comparisons with others both strained and unsatisfying. Let’s just leave Boston 2011 as the current outlier in a 115 year-old saga of human expression.

    1. Tony-first of all, your commentary is always great.

      The cycling comparison is irrelevent.
      As far as pacing-Ryan Hall paced for a long time and the other runners have given him credit for this.
      Would you accept a world record in the 100 meter if it was aided by a 15 mph wind? On a cinder track? With no fans in the stands? With no competition? I think not.
      This marathon will stand as one of the greatest if the not greatest of all time. It isn’t a record, though, because that devalues records. Someone will go to a point to point really downhill course and run sub 2 hours and what will we do then?

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