The Marathon along with its half distance cousin is the only footrace that has a name rather than a distance as it’s calling card. And in that name there lies multitudes because for more than a century that name has represented the great endurance challenge of the modern age, at times even a life-threatening one. And why wouldn’t it? After all, it was born in the mists of myth and legend, then resurrected two and a half millennia later as an Olympic challenge.
Until the 1960 Olympics in Rome, however, the name Marathon stood for endurance alone, not speed. Only with the arrival of Ethiopia’s Abeba Bikila did the event give way to a runner who could attack the distance rather than simply survive its length. Still, until the first running boom of the 1970s, it was either-or, either you were a marathon runner or you competed at the shorter road, track, and cross country distances. Today, top runners move back and forth more fluidly, taking the opportunities as they present themselves.
Look at this year’s Standard Charter Dubai Marathon, always the bellwether of the coming year. Winner Mosinet Geremew of Ethiopia was 25 when he ran 2:04:00 this January. His PBs include 13:17, 27:18 and 59:11 over 5000, 10,000, and the half-marathon distances, hardly the makings of a pure endurance athlete. Dubai runner-up Leule Gebrselassie, also Ethiopian, also 25, carried a 13:13, 27:19, 59:18 resume. And third-placer Tamirat Tola, again of Ethiopia, a year older at 26, had 26:57 and 59:37 credentials.
In the past, the best runners avoided the marathon until evidence of their inevitable slowing on the track forced them to transfer allegiance to the roads. For many, and still to a few like Kenenisa Bekele, Galen Rupp, and Mo Farah, the Marathon was the last stop on the career arc from shorter races to the more strength oriented 42k.
But modern athletes have tried on the distance much earlier than did their predecessors and then tailored their training to its particular specifications. Why? Cause that’s where the money is!
Look at the 5000 and 10,000 PRs of the current crop of top guys, Eliud Kipchoge, Kenenisa Bekele, Geoffrey Kirui, or Galen Rupp. All are track burners – Bekele is the 5000 and 10,000-meter world record holder. While some, like current marathon world record holder Dennis Kimetto (28:30), or former record holder Wilson Kipsang (14:20, 28:31), have only modest track credentials, there’s no doubt they could have produced faster track times if they had taken that path. The others are all 13-minute 5k guys with 10,000 meter PBs in the 27s or high 26s, and half marathon PBs near or below one-hour.
The conclusion is simple, the best runners are training toward the best payoff. After Kenenisa, Galen and now Mo, where are the pure track specialists? You can’t find them. Who can afford to be just a track man, anymore? Take Kenya’s Geoffrey Kamworor, newly minted 2018 IAAF World Half Marathon champion and last fall’s New York City Marathon winner. This coming season he said he will be competing back on the Diamond League Track circuit.
Interesting, too, because at last weekend’s 122nd Boston Marathon only winner Yuki Kawauchi of Japan fit into the old mold of the pure marathoner. His 13:58 5000 and 29:02 10,000 bests were way slower than the pre-race favorites. But in the inglorious conditions confronting the athletes in Boston, the old combination of pure strength, marathon savvy, and experience in dire conditions (the snows of Nagano 2013, the freezing rain in Zurich 2016, or the 1F freezer this New Year’s day in Marshfield, Mass.) conspired to redraw the distinction between the old and the new.
The cold rain and strong south, south-easterly headwinds in Boston essentially added distance to the Hopkinton to Boston trek, perhaps more than a five-minute mile’s worth – that’s the difference between Lelisa Desisa’s 2:09:17 Boston win in cool, rainy and less head-windy conditions in 2015, and Kawauchi’s 2:15:58 victory last Monday in the frigid, sheeting rain.
Yuki Kawauchi and Desi Linden are tried and true pros. Odds are they would have placed high at Boston whether the weather was hot, normal, or cold, whether the wind was a tail, still, or strong from the east. But while Desi was being touted as a potential winner regardless the weather, it likely required those cold,wet, headwinds that tortured the field this Patriots Day to lift Yuki to the top step of the winner’s podium.
This weekend in London the weather tables are forecast to flip. Race week temps have been up near 80F. On race morning this Sunday, temps are forecast to near 70F. Though far from ideal, that forecast remains just this side of dangerous, too. As such, the old order will likely reestablish itself with race favorites Eliud Kipchoge, Kenenisa Bekele, Mary Keitany, and Tirunesh Dibaba challenging for the win, if not the world record. That still requires a perfect set-up. And until they engineer a means to dome the course, the kids will have to compete in the conditions they are given.
With modern athletes training full-time at high altitude under savvy coaches, with diet, physical therapy and cross training knowledge unknown even one generation ago, the Marathon has seen much of its bite removed. No longer a pure endurance event, today’s Marathon is more a distance race at speed. Unless that is, Mother Nature teams up and adds a little something extra to the mix.
Records are always thrilling. But with Boston’s brutal conditions, we were once again reminded that the old-fashioned qualities of endurance and grit can be just as entertaining and satisfying as pure speed. So one last congrats to all who took on the challenge last Patriots Day and made it all the way home to find out how rewarding that could be. And good luck to those in London, too. Hell, every day is a challenge, true?