There were highs (American Meb Keflezighi‘s magnificent win in Boston) and lows (Kenyan Rita Jeptoo testing positive for EPO), but some things ran along a well worn path in the world of marathoning in 2014. Chief among those was the utter domination of Kenya and Ethiopia in the ranks of the men’s marathon.
Fully 95 of the top 100 times posted this past year hailed from those two nations (57/38), led by Kenyan Dennis Kimetto’s 2:02:57 world record in Berlin in September. By comparison, last year 89 of the top 100 marathon times came from Kenya (55) and Ethiopia (34), led by Kenyan Wilson Kipsang‘s 2:03:23 world record, also in Berlin.
This year presumptive world number one Kipsang had to console himself with major wins in London (2:04:27 course record) and New York City (2:10:59 in chilled and windy conditions). Those two wins sewed up the $500,000 bonus for winning the 2013-2014 World Marathon Majors series. Nice consolation.
However, revelations out of Kenya late this year pointing to a growing drug scandal and corruption charges have left the more cynical among us wondering how pure that dominance may be, or if we truly are in a golden age of the sport or simply an increasingly deceptive one. However, until further evidence surfaces we take what has been presented at face value.
Kimetto’s 2:02:57 win in Berlin marked the second straight year, and third year in the last four, that the marathon world record has been bettered in the German capital. Fellow Kenyan — and bridesmaid supreme — Emmanuel Mutai also bettered the previous record in second place (2:03:13) after establishing a new 30K world record along the way (1:27:37).
And while Kenyans (58) and Ethiopians (37) ran 95 of top 100 times in the world, even the two coming out of Bahrain by Shumi Dechasa (2:06:44, 1st in Hamburg and 2:07:13, 6th in Dubai) might be added to the Ethiopian list as DeChasa only recently acquired Bahrain citizenship. There was also one performance in the top 100 from Qatar, as Essa Ismail Rashed ran 2:07:54 to finish 4th in Amsterdam. Once again, however, Rashed bore the name Daniel Kipkosgei when born in Kenya in 1986. He took Qatari citizenship in 2004.
That means of the top 100 marathon times of 2014 only Japan’s Kobei Matsumura’s 2:08:09 (8th at Tokyo, 86th on the world list) and England’s Mo Farah’s 2:08:21 debut (8th at London) broke the East African lock on the top 100. (In 2011 the Kenyans produced 65 of the Top 100 best times.)
The We-should-just-quit-now-and-turn-off-the-lights performance of the year came from Ethiopia’s Tsegaye Mekonnen who won the Dubai Marathon in January at age 18 in a world junior record 2:04:32. Come on, 18??!! Thankfully, the old distance took a measure of pride back when the lean teen came in only fifth in London in April (2:08:06) before dropping out in Frankfurt just after 30km in October. The 100th fastest time of the year belonged to Kenya’s Ishhimael Busendich Chemtan, whose 2:08:25 won him the Ljubljana Marathon October 26th in Slovenia.
The emotional high point not just of the year, but of the new century came via Meb Keflezighi’s stirring 2:08:37 breakaway win in Boston on Patriot’s Day. Though not among the Top 100 times of the year, Meb’s nervy 11-second victory over a fast-closing, but ultimately fading Wilson Chebet one year after the tragic bombing in Boston, along with the thunderous final miles of the Kipsang v. Lelisa duel in New York City and the blistering Kimetto v. Emmanual Mutai throw down in Berlin — out of which came the world record –gave ample testimony to the primacy of competition over time as the aim of the sport.
The highly anticipated debut of 5000 & 10,000 meter world record holder Keninise Bekele of Ethiopia showed promise in Paris in April. But his 2:05:03 win — sixth fastest debut in history — was little more than a silver platter set-up as he went unchallenged over the final 12Km, even though a tight hamstring caused him to slow significantly over that stretch.
With the Paris test under his belt, Bekele took on real competition In the fall in Chicago. There his goal was Dennis Kimetto’s 2:03:45 course record from 2013. But in Chicago Bekele would come up against his long time track rival Eliud Kipchoge of Kenya, who proved to be a more natural marathoner than Bekele — even though he jumped straight from a career in the 5000 all the way up to the marathon’s 42,195 meters. Kipchoge easily bested Bekele in the Windy City by 1:40, winning in 2:04:11 to Bekele’s fourth place 2:05:51.
From Carlos Lopes to Paul Tergat and Haile Gebrselassie we have seen the track 10,000m world record holder go on to notch the marathon world record as well. And it still may happen for Mr. Bekele. But in 2014 we learned that the longer distance doesn’t come easily to the track and cross country king. “Why do I have to do two hour runs in the forest?” he wondered to his manager Jos Hermens. Bekele under-trained for Paris, then over-trained for Chicago. With the depth and youth plying the trade these days, even an uber-talent like Bekele will require expert coaching and training partners to maximize his potential. But at age 32 (June 13, 1982) will his body withstand that training, and will his mind embrace it? Perhaps 2015 will provide answers to those questions.
Below are the fastest marathon breakdowns for the last three years on the men’s side.
2014 2013 2012
1 < 2:03
2 < 2:04 3 < 2:04
8 < 2:05 9 < 2:05 11 < 2:05
17 < 2:06 14 < 2:06 24 < 2:06
37 < 2:07 34 < 2:07 51 < 2:07
73 < 2:08 60 < 2:08 92 < 2:08
126 < 2:09 111 < 2:09 153 < 2:09
184 < 2:10 184 < 2:10 225 < 2:10
257 < 2:11 280 < 2:11 305 < 2:11
On the women’s side, the annual list leader, Rita Jeptoo of Kenya, has seen a dark cloud come over her two brilliant wins in Boston and Chicago. It was the second straight year that Jeptoo had won both those World Marathon Majors, an unprecedented accomplishment.
However, after her “B” blood sample taken in an out-of-competition test in September confirmed the “A” sample positive for the banned endurance-boosting drug EPO, her victories — and the World Marathon Majors Series title they produced — have been suspended awaiting a final ruling by Athletics Kenya in early 2015. What’s more, that cloud of suspicion has drifted well beyond Jeptoo, a shadow that may unfairly cover the innocent as well as the guilty.
Overall, the East African dominance was less pronounced for women than men. Ethiopia topped the women’s list of 100 best times with 44 performances, followed by Kenya with 27. Japan came third with nine, the USA and Portugal each notched four, Latvia and Ukraine managed two, with Russia, No. Korea, Peru, Germany, Bahrain, Italy, Belarus, and Poland each posting one in the top 100.
Kenya’s double world champion Edna Kiplagat once again proved her racing pedigree in taking the London title in 2:20:21 ahead of countrywoman Florence Kiplagat and debuting Ethiopian Olympic track star Tirunesh Dibaba. Though she was a disappointing 13th in New York in the fall in 2:36:24.
Here is how the top performances of the last three years have looked for the women marathoners.
2014 2013 2012
1 < 2:19 2 < 2:19
2 < 2:20 1 < 2:20 6 < 2:20
9 < 2:21 3 < 2:21 11 < 2:21
13 < 2:22 6 < 2:22 18 < 2:22
17 < 2:23 9 < 2:23 24 < 2:23
26 < 2:24 28 < 2:24 44 < 2:24
36 < 2:25 39 < 2:25 61 < 2:25
57 < 2:26 61 < 2:26 88 < 2:26
80 < 2:27 80 < 2:27 111 < 2:27
Shalane Flanagan‘s third place finish in Berlin at 2:21:14 marked the top American performance of the year, and drew her ahead of Joan Benoit Samuelson into second place on the all-time U.S. women’s marathon list behind Deena Kastor (2:19:36, London 2006). But Shalane’s gritty front-running efforts in both Boston (7th, 2:22:02) and Berlin, while brave and race making, should lean her more toward competing rather than time-based running in the future, though bold front-running has consistently been her modus operandi since high school days in Marblehead, Massachusetts.
Ethiopia’s Tirfi Tsegaye won two World Marathon Majors in 2014 (Tokyo – 2:22:23 and Berlin – 2:20:18). But those marathons are a little less majory than their sister events in Boston, London, Chicago and New York. Plus, without a true world-wide TV contract, such majors aren’t even widely shown, so if we hadn’t been reminded, we might easily have missed Tsegaye’s excellence.
Plus, with Rita Jeptoo’s results in Boston and Chicago now under review, American-based Ethiopian Buzunesh Deba, originally second in Boston in 2:19:59, was stripped of the glory that might well have been hers for being Boston’s first sub-2:20 female. And Mare Dibaba, who was the winner in Xiamen, China (2:21:36), then third in Boston (2:20:35) and second in Chicago (2:25:37) will also be re-evaluated on the world lists once the Jeptoo case is adjudicated. But it is the glory-stealing, not just prize money robbing, that makes the drug cheat so contemptible.
Yet, as we wrap up 2014 the questions and discussions that most concern the sport have to do with lack of international competition, drug policy and politics, the potential loss of core track and field events, and the overall slide in the standing of the sport. Overall, all one can hope is that 2014 marks the bottom of one cycle, before a resurrecting one begins.
The announcement of Abbott as title sponsor for the World Marathon Majors Series in October, and the appointment of former Bank of America marketing executive Tim Hadzima as series general manager in December taken together is one such positive sign. See you in 2015.