After 31 year-old track and cross country champion Keninisa Bekele’s superb marathon debut in Paris today, 2:05:03 — course record, sixth fastest debut in history, fastest first-time marathon ever by a man over 30 — I thought it would be interesting to look ahead by looking back. After all, records are the lattice upon which the sport of athletics grow, while giving fans a chance to compare and contrast athletes of different eras in much the same way baseball fans compare stats across time (at least until the steroid era kind of ruined that).
Before we glance back, however, let us look into the very near future as we await another highly anticipated debut, that of England’s own double Olympic track champion Mo Farah. Also 31,, the 2012 5000 & 10,000m Olympic gold medalist will hope to thrill the home crowd at the Virgin Money London Marathon. And he will know how high the Bekele standard has been set. But while Paris was a showcase for Bekele with a very good, but not great field, and his manager Jos Hermens riding alongside on a motorbike, Mo will have to negotiate a field of steely-eyed killers, record holders, and Olympic medalists in London.
So while Keninisa was able to pull free of his competition after 25k on his way to victory in Paris, one can expect Mo to be challenged much later into London’s 42 kilometer soiree next Sunday. At the same time, London is historically a faster layout than Paris, so it will be difficult to make a direct apples-to-apples comparison between the two. But why should that stop us from having some fun with numbers?
While it might be sketchy to view Keninisa and Mo from the same glass, it may be easier to compare Bekele’s marathon debut and projected career arc against yet another multiple-time Olympic track champion, fellow Ethiopian Haile Gebrselassie, who pre-dated Keninisa as the world record holder at 5000 & 10,000 meters, before adding the marathon record to his resume in Berlin 2008.
Haile’s 5000m personal best, 12:39.36 (Helsinki 1998), is 99.767% of Bekele’s still standing world record of 12:37.35 (Hengelo 2004). Haile’s 10,000m PB and former world record of 26:22.75 (Hengelo `98) is 99.307% of Keninisa’s 26:17.53 world record from Brussels 2005.
Extrapolating the same arc in performance that Gebrselassie attained from his 10,000m PB to his marathon best of 2:03:59 in Berlin 2008, would take Bekele’s improvement (+ .693%) over Haile at 10,000m and create a marathon PB of 2:03:08 in the marathon, or 15-seconds faster than Wilson Kipsang’s current marathon record (Berlin `13).
However, if we look at it from a slightly different perspective, “Improvement from Debut to PB”, and begin with Kenya’s Paul Tergat, the 5000, 10,000 and marathon world record holder before Haile, we see an improvement of 3:20 from Tergat’s debut in London 2001 to his PB in Berlin 2003 (2:08:15 — 2:04:55). Haile’s arc from Debut to PB stretched some six years, from his third-place debut in London 2002 (age 29) to his world record in Berlin 2008 (2:06:35 — 2:03:59), a drop of 2:36.
2:36 is 78% of 3:20. Projecting that same percentage improvement onto Keninisa’s debut (78% of 2:36) would cut 2:01 from his Paris performance to give him a potential PR of 2:03:02, the same time Geoffrey Mutai ran in the 2011 Boston Marathon.
P. TERGAT H. GEBRSELASSIE K. BEKELE
In either case, 2:03:08 or 2:03:02, we see a time faster than any man has yet “officially” run over the marathon distance. But given the state of the sport, and the new, young blood that keeps arriving on the fast courses of the world, there is no reason to believe that 2:03-low will still be the world record by the time Keninisa Bekele gets around to it.