Even in modern times, there are those of us who remember when people used to think running the marathon wasn’t just a challenge, but a risk.
Bobbi Gibb, the first woman to run the Boston Marathon in 1966, had a father who thought the event was downright dangerous, and was angry at his daughter for even thinking about running it – “he thought I was mentally ill, but he didn’t know I had been training.”
Who could blame Bobbi’s dad in 1966? After all, the entire mythology of the event was based on the Greek messenger Pheidippides running himself into his grave bringing word of victory in a battle against Persians 2500 years ago.
With a debut like that, it’s no wonder it took 2400 years before somebody attempted the distance again. But once it got going and they stripped away that ‘maybe you’re going to die doing it’ element, the marathon boomed because it came to represent the ultimate test of athletic endurance in an increasingly sedentary world.
That’s the thing about consensus beliefs, tasks readily accepted today were once deemed unattainable. Such is the scientific method and the manner of progress. Observation and experimentation lead to the formulation and the testing of hypotheses, and thus does evidence accumulate and knowledge expand.
Of course, there are always science deniers, the proudly lunkheadish, but people generally accept what the data indicates.
It wasn’t that long ago that there was a school of thought that believed trying to run the mile in under four minutes was as physically dangerous as trying to break the sound barrier in flight, another thought-to-be-impossible human endeavor. In fact, the frisson of danger was a big part of why people were intrigued by such monumental undertakings.
Tragedy, after all, could happen, and you could be witness to it. There was a perverse car-crash appeal to such danger. “Playing at the edge” was the mindset for what a long, hard running effort might bring about.
Today, because of improved coaching, better nutrition, and generations of experience, most of the danger once assigned to long distance running has been eliminated, especially for the top trained athletes. In fact, for the zoom-zoom types like defending BMW Berlin Marathon champion Eliud Kipchoge and his 2013 counterpart Wilson Kipsang, danger doesn’t even register a blip on their radar.
Instead, the dangerous old game has been reduced to a speed event at distance. Kipchoge’s 2:00:25 behind a revolving group of world-class pacers at Nike’s Breaking2 Project in Italy last year represented a 4:36/mile average.
With more people doing marathons than ever before, and the best essentially out-training the distance, the dangers that still lurk come mostly in the form of an undiagnosed genetic abnormality that is uncovered on race day, or unseasonable weather conditions like in Boston 2018.
Yet the challenges required to run such a length remain addictive and rewarding. The only question remaining is how fast? And that is why the pool of fans awaiting the outcome of the 45th BMW Berlin Marathon remains deep and wide.
Last year Eliud Kipchoge backed up his Italian exhibition with a neat 2:03:32 win in Berlin under rainy, mid-50s conditions. The latest forecast for Sunday morning in Berlin again calls for a mid-50s start and a near 70s finish, though no rain. That is hardly the ideal, as Dennis Kimetto’s 2014 record in Berlin of 2:02:57 was run in perfect mid-40s conditions.
Is Kipchoge’s 61-flat pacing goal risky? History suggests that it is. But the glory such history represents is always a dangerous proposition. Bobbi Gibb knew it in 1966. Eliud Kipchoge has the same understanding in 2018.