HALF-MARATHON PERFORMANCE LIST: NURTURE OR NATURE?

After Galen Rupp’s 59:47 win at the Huawei Rome Ostia Half Marathon last Sunday, 11 March 2018, I combed through the IAAF.org all-time half-marathon performance list to see what I could see.

To date, there have been 317 “official” sub-60:00 half marathon performances dating from Moses Tanui‘s 59:47 win in Milan in April 1993 (366 when we add what are/were considered the *aided courses like Lisbon ‘98).  Rupp’s own 59:47, though ineligible for record purposes due to Rome’s net downhill, point-to-point course, nevertheless was an excellent prep for next month’s Boston Marathon, as Rome mirrored the p-t-p, downhill Boston layout.

Historically, his 59:47 half-marathon PR places Rupp equal 211th best all-time (258th on all courses), but equal-fourth with New Zealand’s Zane Robertson on the all-time non-African related breakdown. (Again, noting Mo Farah, GBR, has a 59:22, 59:32, and 59:59 to his credit)

  • 1 Marilson Gomes Dos Santos – BRA – 59:33 – 7th, Udine, Italy `07 –  equal 137th best performance ever
  • 2 Antonio Pinto – POR – 59:43 – 1st, Lisbon `98 = = 226th best (all courses)
  • 3 Ryan Hall – USA –  59:43 – 1st, Houston `07-  =185th  best ever
  • 4 Zane Robertson – NZL – 59:47 – 2nd, Marugame `15 – =211th best
  • 4 Galen Rupp – USA – 59:47 – 1st, Rome-Ostia `18 – =211th best
  • 6 Sondre Nordstad Moen – NOR – 59:48 – 4th, Valencia `17 – = 221st  best
  • 7 Fabian Roncero– ESP – 59:52 – 1st, Berlin ‘01
  • 8 Dathan Ritzenhein – USA – 60:00 – 3rd, Birmingham `09 – =318th best
  • 8 Callum Hawkins – GBR – 60:00 – 1st, Marugame `17 – =318th best
  • 10 Jake Robertson – NZL – 60:01  – 1st, Lisbon `17 – =326th best
    (This January Jake Robertson won the Aramco Houston Half Marathon in 60:01 against a loaded international field to equal his 2017 PR).

The half-marathon world record has stood since 21 March 2010 when Eritrea’s Zersenay Tadese won the Lisbon Half Marathon in 58:23, breaking his own previous mark by eight seconds set the year before on the same course (which had been slightly altered to comply with record standards  from the layout that Pinto ran his sub-60 on in ‘98).

To show the rapid improvement in – and scheduling of – half-marathon races, it is interesting to note that only six of the 317 (366) sub-60 half marathon performances to date were set in the 20th century:

  • 1 Moses Tanui – KEN –   59:47 -1st, Milan 1993
    2 Paul Tergat  –   KEN –  59:56 – 1st, Milan 1995
    3 Shem Kororia – KEN – 59:56 – 1st, Kosice 1997
    4 Moses Tanui  –   KEN – 59:58 – 2nd, Kosice 1997
    5 Antonio Pinto – POR –  59:43 – 1st, Lisbon 1998
    6 Paul Tergat  –     KEN – 59:22 – 1st, Milan 1999

Looking deeper at the top list, we find that Norway’s Sondre Moen and the Kiwi Robertson brothers have something else in common. All three lived and trained in Kenya before running their breakthrough races. What’s more,  the top American on the list, Ryan Hall, grew up in Big Bear, California in the San Bernadino Mountains at an altitude of 2058m, 6752 ft.  Two-time New York City Marathon champion Marilson Gomes Dos Santos, the leading performer among non-African born athletes, was reared in Brazilia at 1,172 meters (3,845 ft) altitude atop the Brazilian highlands.  Dathan Ritzenhein, however, grew up in Grand Rapids, Michigan, at a paltry 640 ft. above sea level.  And Callum Hawkins, the other 60-minute-flat man, hails from Elderslie near Paisley, Scotland a short distance outside Glasgow at an even lower elevation of 70 ft.

So, while some athletes with fast half-marathon times do have a high altitude background in common with East Africans, not all do. Therefore, rather than ascribing the wealth of East African-based performances in distance running to the cardio-vascular strengthening effects of altitude,  perhaps the mind-shaping aspects of the ascetic lifestyle and simple diet that attends the high altitude should be considered as the causal effect of their long-standing excellence.

After Sondre Nordstad Moen set the European marathon record 2:05:48 to win last December’s Fukuoka International Marathon, my Italian colleague Alberto Stretti interviewed Moen’s coach Renato Canova, and asked about Moen’s preparation.

“He worked in summer in mountains in Italy in Sestriere for 50days running also 220k per week and running also 45k long run once,” said Canova. “I was impressed about his choice of life to book an apartment alone, living and training there alone for all days. After Valencia Half (4th, 59:48) he came in Kenya with me for second period of work.” (my underline)

The isolated training camp, the subsistence farming way of life, foot versus motor transport, all contribute to a lifestyle that lends itself to distance running. Former marathon world record holder Wilson Kipsang spoke of going hunting all day with his father.

“And if you got tired, fine, then walk home,” he quoted his father as saying. “But you were already 20K away from home, so really, what choice did you have? And so you continued, and at the end of the day you would come home with a small antelope for your family.”

Moses Kipsiro of Uganda told Jeff Berman, head of his host family at the Beach to Beacon 10K in Cape Elizabeth, Main a few years ago that he used to walk 15 kilometers to and from school every day. And often times he and his friends would put coins or maize in a cup or a bowl, and the first one to school would win the maize or coins. It was a natural competition that helped build both their cardiovascular systems and their competitive spirits beginning as kids. That is a hard wager to make when you take the bus or get driven by mom.

History’s first sub-60 half-marathoner and 1994 & `95 Boston Marathon champion Moses Tanui once predicted the Kenyan advantage in long distance running would come to an end as their agrarian way of life gradually disappeared.

In any case, it seems true that the hardship of want in early life helps spring load the desire and fuels the passion that soon is reflected at race courses worldwide.  To compete against athletes who are so formed requires a similarly monastic approach, not easy for a Western-reared athlete for whom the entire society is built to reduce the hardships of life.

It is no different than the calculus that created championship boxers throughout the 20th century that closely mirrored the immigration patterns into the U.S., and which today fashion so many title-holders and contenders from Mexico and Russia.

“Being rich white Americans in dirt-poor places where many people, especially the young, yearned openly for the life, the comforts, the very opportunities that we, at least for the seemingly endless moment, had turned our back on – well, it would simply never be okay,” wrote William Finnegan about his time in Tonga in the South Seas in his Pulitzer Prize-winning memoir, Barbarian Days, A Surfing Life.

I know that feeling, having traveled to the far reaches of the running world where much the same yearning still exists.

Final thought.  With Sondre Moen backing up his 59:48 half marathon in Valencia, Spain in October 2017 with a 2:05:48 win at the Fukuoka International Marathon six weeks later, given that Boston is a non-paced marathon that can feature some wildly fluctuating weather in the springtime (just ask New Englanders about today’s third N’oreaster storm in the last two weeks!) it will be interesting to see where Mr. Rupp might end up on the all-time marathoning list after the 122nd  Boston Marathon next month.

END

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9 thoughts on “HALF-MARATHON PERFORMANCE LIST: NURTURE OR NATURE?

    1. David,

      I saw Terry’s Fontana Half result, but notwithstanding its certification, it was such an outlier that I didn’t include it. Pinto’s 59:43 in Lisbon ‘98, though also net downhill, only slightly so as the race crossed The 25 de Abril Bridge (Ponte 25 de Abril, 25th of April Bridge) over the Tagus River, and that downhill section of the bridge accounted for the aided element. Rest of the course dead flat along the river. Thanks for replying.

      TR

  1. Toni- I don’t know how it affects your numbers at the beginning about official courses, and maybe it’s just the way I read it, but Lisbon was used as the example for an aided course. That was true several years ago but the elites now start in a different location than the masses and run an entirely flat course that is not aided so recent times from there should be in the official course category.

    1. David,

      Thanks. Yes, I was aware of that distinction. I was covering Lisbon in 1998 when Antonio Pinto ran 59:43. That performance was considered aided. But newer times at Lisbon are accepted. That’s why I put both numbers, 316 and 366, in the article. Very confusing to the non-running world all these asterisks. Thanks for replying.

      Toni

  2. “Moses Tanui once predicted the Kenyan advantage in long distance running would come to an end as their agrarian way of life gradually disappeared. (Or perhaps when out-of-competition drug testing comes to the Great Rift Valley)”.

    Unnecessary snark ruins what could have been a good article. Basically claiming all, or the majority, of East African talent is aided by drugs – no true expert on endurance running believes that is the case. And out-of-competition testing is now improved, in Kenya at least.

    1. Mike,

      I certainly don’t believe anywhere near the majority of East African athletes use PEDs. So, yes, snarky, but considering the news of the last few years, not a non-issue, either. I do believe the vast majority of the athletes are simply highly motivated and extremely hard working.

      Toni

  3. Excellent article, Toni.

    ” (Or perhaps when out-of-competition drug testing comes to the Great Rift Valley).”

    WOW! 😱

  4. This is really interesting Toni. I saw Moses and then Paul break an hour at Stramilano years ago. And I’m shocked that there have now been 300 plus sub 60 minute performances. G

    >

    1. Good to hear from you, George. Hope you are avoiding the lovely springtime weather. Yes, not sure if it’s because there are so many more half-marathons being offered, or something more iffy, but the 60:00 mark, while still the gold-standard, is no longer the WOW! it once was. All the best,
      Toni

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