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.