Wilson Kipsang, world record grin
Wilson Kipsang, world record grin

The ink isn’t even dry on Wilson Kipsang’s new marathon world record (2:03:23) from last Sunday in Berlin, and already speculation has begun over what might be next for the iconic distance event.

Golfing legend Gary Player, winner of nine major titles and countless others world-wide, believes we have yet to see the best golf there is to play, notwithstanding Tiger Woods and the now more athletic generation that Woods has inspired.

“We haven’t seen a Jordan or a Shaq on Tour yet,” Player told ESPN’s SportsNation recently.  “And when we do they will hit 420 yards, and courses will be obsolete.”

Like golf, running has dipped its toes into a new pool of talent where we begin to question the definition of endurance.  This past Sunday in Berlin Kipsang broke countryman Patrick Makau’s two-year old marathon world record by 15 seconds on the same course that has hosted the last five marathon world records. But with double Olympic track champion Mo Farah of England about to give the distance a full go in London next April, are we on the cusp of a brave new world?

“It’s possible,” said Bob Larsen, the highly respected former coach at UCLA and the Mammoth TC who mentored Meb Keflezighi to an Olympic silver medal (Athens 2004) and a New York City Marathon title (2009).  “There is certainly a skill set involved in going 26 miles beyond running a fast 1500 meters, but a guy who combines sub-3:30 (1500m) ability with the half-marathon, like Mo,  yeah, I think he can do it. Whether he can his first time out in London, I don’t know, but anyone who runs a fast 10K can run a fast marathon, I think.”

Though he awaits his debut over the full marathon distance, Farah has run three half-marathons to date with a best of 60:23 from his debut at the 2011 New York City Half Marathon.  This past February in New Orleans he ran 60:59 at the Rock `n` Roll Half, while just last month (Sept. 2013) ran a nipping-at-his-heels second to fellow double Olympic 5,000 and 10,000 meter gold medalist (Beijing `08) Kenenisa Bekele of Ethiopia at the Bupa Great North Run half in Newcastle (60:10).

The 30 year-old Somali native coached by marathon legend Alberto Salazar has also gone halfway at this year’s Virgin London Marathon as a dry run for his debut over the distance next April.  It all leads to an intriguing showdown, especially if Kenenisa Bekele signs on for his own highly anticipated debut in London, too.

The marathon has evolved quickly in recent times.  Once the purview of pure strength-based runners, and men who had finished their careers on the track, today the event is luring fresh-legged speed to its starting line, and the results have been startling.

Recall that both Paul Tergat and Haile Gebrselassie were world record holders at 5000 and 10,000 meters before moving up to the marathon, and Haile had an indoor 1500m PR of 3:31!  But Tergat was 34 years old when he finally notched his marathon record in Berlin 2003 (2:04:55), while Haile was 35 at the time of his 2008 world best (2:03:59) in Berlin.  It is fair to say that both men had lost a little off their fastballs by the time they succeeded at the distance.   Mo Farah, on the other hand, will come into the marathon in his track prime, coming off his double Olympic gold in London at the 5000 and 10,000 meters, and a jaw-dropping 3:28.81 1500 meters in Monaco in July 2013.

Coach Bob Larsen
Coach Bob Larsen

“Prestige and money is wrapped up in the longer distance now,” pointed out Coach Larsen.  “That’s where their income is.  So we don’t see the potential great guys on the track like we once did.  What would Sammy Wanjiru (the late 2008 Olympic marathon champion) have run if he concentrated on the track?  I know he ran a few good ones, but we see more and more guys jump right to the marathon.  It’s an interesting era, for sure.  I’d like to see more guys on the track, because you need that speed.  Just mechanically, it forces you to do things that you can get a little lazy with just running on the roads alone.”

The last two marathon world record holders, Patrick Makau (2:03:38, Berlin 2011) and now Wilson Kipsang (2:03:23, Berlin 2013) have almost embarrassing PRs at 5000 and 10,000m on the track, Makau = 13:42, 29:31; Kipsang = 14:20, 28:31.  Both emerged as pure half-marathon / marathon men.  Makau was 26 years old at the time of his marathon record run, Kipsang is now 31.

Mo Farah is already 30 years of age, four months older than Eliud Kipchoge, the one-time teen sensation who won the 2003 World Championship 5000 in Paris against Morocco’s 1500m great Hicham El Guerrouj and Ethiopia’s distance king Kenenisa Bekele.  Kipchoge has run 3:33 for 1500m, and now sports a 2:04:05 marathon PR from his second place finish in Berlin last week in only his second marathon.  With PRs of 3:26:00 (world record) for 1500m and 12:50.24 in the 5000m, one wonders what El Guerrouj might have done over the longer span.


Photo by Dominic Ebenbichler/Reuters
Photo by Dominic Ebenbichler/Reuters

Though a double World and Olympic 5000 and 10,000 meter champion, himself, Mo has yet to attack track world records.  His best performance according to the All-Athletics.com performance scale is 1265 points off his 8:08.07 two-mile in Birmingham 2012.  By comparison, Tergat’s top score on the All-Athletics performance table is his 1278 points off his 26:27 10,000m world record in Brussels in 1997.  Haile reached 1300 points for his 12:50.38 indoor 5000m in Birmingham 1999.  Makau’s top performance, by far, is his marathon world record 2:03:38, worth 1278 points from Berlin 2011.  For his part, Wilson Kipsang’s top scoring mark has been 1283 for his recent marathon world mark, while his second best is 1240 point off a 58:59 half-marathon at the RAK Half-Marathon in 2009.

So is the marathon still a pure endurance event ruled by slow-twitch fiber types?  Or has it, or is it soon to become, a speed event at distance where turn-over at 1500 meters will determine the marathon king, as well?  Could it be possible, with the right inducements, to see the impossibly long-legged Asbel Kiprop, the dominant 1500 meter man in world, make a jump up?  Kiprop vs. Mo vs. Bekele?  Oh my! We might be talking pay-per-view now.

“Remember, all the best 400 meter runners in Kenya are running the 800 meters,” added Bob Larsen.

My English colleague Ed Caesar is putting the finishing touches on a book about the quest for the sub-2:00 marathon right now.  It will make for fascinating reading as we continue to ponder the limits to human performance.


P.S. Nice analysis of Kipsang’s Berlin 2013 with Makau in 2011 and Haile in 2008 on colleague Alberto Stretti’s blog.


  1. Hi terrific blog! Does running a blog such as this take a great deal of work?

    I have virtually no expertise in computer programming but I was hoping to start my own blog
    soon. Anyhow, if you have any recommendations or tips for new blog owners
    please share. I understand this is off subject however I
    simply wanted to ask. Thank you!

  2. An intriguing discussion is worth comment. There’s no doubt that that you should publish more on this topic, it may
    not be a taboo subject but usually people don’t talk about these topics.
    To the next! Cheers!!

  3. My observations from the early 1980’s was if in future you didn’t have 4 minute mile leg speed you couldn’t win a major competitive marathon. Even if the pace is slow when the running starts you need to melt the asphalt.

  4. Thanks, Greg. Endlessly fascinating topic. I spoke with Haile coach Gebre Meskel in 2000, long before Haile’s debut. He said, “it would take time to turn a sports car into a rally car,” as 5000 and 10,000m running didn’t necessitate a close control of fuel resources like the marathon does. So Haile had to get off his toes and become a more efficient consumer of fuel over distance. But with today’s training methodology becoming more and more specialized, I think guys like Mo can make the jump a little sooner than his predecessors. But, as always, no guarantees, which is why we keep watching.

  5. Before Haile Gebresallasie ran his debut at London in 2002, there was speculation and boasting that he would break the WR in his first try. Instead, he and fellow debutante Paul Tergat were crushed by the marathon specialist (and mediocre 10K runner), Khalid Khannouchi. And this was after (I believe) Geb had already run a sub-60 half-marathon. Although Geb and Tegat both would eventually break the WR, it took several years of marathon-specific training to do so. It takes much more than 5K or 10K speed to run a great marathon. That is why all of the top marathoners right now are marathon specialists. In fact, we rarely see them at any race shorter than the marathon.

    And BTW, Khannouchi is 2 years older than Geb (but also 2 years younger than Tergat), so I think it is hard to argue that Geb waited too long to move up, especially since he ran his first WR marathon at age 34, his fastest at 35, and then was still running jaw-dropping times right up until his retirement at 39.

    1. Excuse me for nitpicking (on a two-week-old post to boot), but Geb hasn’t retired. His HM in under 61 minutes vs. Bekele and Mo demonstrates this.

  6. I did stats on the all the 2012 Olympic Marathon Trials qualifiers– one thing that’s certain is “marathon predicts marathon” and “experience counts”. Those who qualified through the 10K or HM faired considerably worse at the Trials vs. those who qualified through a marathon performance. It’s a bit of a crap and not much predictability on whether someone will fair as well in the marathon as they do at shorter distances. You can read about stats here:

    1. Thanks, Camille. I agree that the marathon preps you best for the marathon. But training is getting more and more sophisticated, and with pacers taking the runners so deep into the race, the wild-card, racing, has been eliminated from many of the top 26-milers of the world. Unfortunate, I think.

  7. To begin to answer your question, I think you need to be primarily a 5k runner who can occasionally drop down to the 1500m and still hang to have success at the marathon. Bekele has shown that he has the natural speed to complement his strength (3:32.35 for 1500m and 4:49.99 for the 2k indoor WR). His countrymen Markos Geneti and Hailu Mekonnen are good examples of this type of runner as well.

    It’s still tough for see what Bekele will run for 26.2 miles, though. For example, take Zersenay Tadese. He had run 12:59.27 and 26:37:25 before he set the then half marathon WR of 58:59 (he lowered it in 2010 when he ran 58:23). But he’s never broken 2:10 for the full.

    Despite all of this, Tadese has never run a 1500m that I can find. That would have been the missing piece in this puzzle because his 5k/10k marks are comparable to Farah’s.

    Lastly, I don’t think Kiprop has the right tools to be successful on the roads. He’s run some longer cross country races, but I think he’s more of an El Guerrouj-type that can eventually move up to just the 3k and 5k.

    I also took a look at miler/marathoners using point values, too. Here’s the link if you’re interested: http://flo.mx/19UTYUw

    1. Thanks, Mitch. Very intriguing question, and one reason the sport keeps us guessing. There are always exceptions to every rule. Zersenay Tadese is a real mystery that one day, I’m sure will be solved, just like it took Tergat six tries to win his first marathon. Haile remains the gold standard 1500 to marathon. Every one of his marks on the distance chart are top notch. He’s the one man who could literally do it all.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.