It’s been another memorable year in the world of marathon running even as 2019 begins to rise with news that Chicago Marathon champion Mo Farah will once again run in London next spring, a race he finished third at in 2018. Though Cal International, Fukuoka, and Honolulu remain on the schedule for 2018, the bulk of the year’s work had been completed.
Once again, the two East African nations of Kenya and Ethiopia dominate the top 100 times run during the year, Kenya leading the men’s list to date with 56 performances, Ethiopia topping the women’s ranks with 51 of the top 100.
TOP 100 – Men
Kenya – 56; Ethiopia – 30; Japan – 6; USA (Galen Rupp) and GBR (Mo Farah) – 2; Turkey, New Zealand, Tanzania, Uganda – 1 each.
TOP 100 – Women
Ethiopia – 51; Kenya – 32; Japan – 6; Bahrain – 4; USA (Amy Cragg & Kellyn Taylor) – 2; So. Korea, Belarus, Morocco, Portugal, Australia- 1 each.
Individually, World No. 1 was once again undeniably taken by Kenya’s Eliud Kipchoge. In 2018, he not only won London in the spring but then broke countryman Dennis Kimetto’s four-year-old world record in Berlin in September by a stunning 78 seconds, lowering the record to 2:01:39, a mark that some believe could stand up for quite a span. But who knows about such things, truly? In today’s running world, there is a growing belief that anything conceived is now possible to achieve. And while that might make a mockery of history, like the 54-51 shootout at the Los Angeles Coliseum last night between the winning L.A. Rams and the Kansas City Chiefs in American football, a new dimension in barrier-breaking road running also seems to have been reached.
But getting back to Mr. Kipchoge. He’s proven himself not just the ultimate time-trialist, but the ne plus ultra within the competitive arena, too, most notably with his convincing win at the Olympic Marathon in Rio 2016. And though he has embraced a “Berlin Forever” mentality that binds him to the German capital, don’t you think somewhere down deep that Kipchoge might want to test himself on one of the two grand non-paced marathons of the world, New York City and Boston? Or is the new era in running beginning to define itself strictly along the paced / non-paced continuum? Recall how after a three-year absence, Chicago returned to a paced format in 2018, and instantly returned to 2:05 status after three years at 2:09, 2:11, 2:09.
Has the sport so been taken over by time that pure competition has seeded preeminence completely? Eliud’s performance in Berlin 2018 was marathon mastery of singular note, no doubt, but what were the questions being asked? Everybody knew from the first step on what the deal was. Either you could survive a 61-minute first half or you couldn’t. And of course, nobody but Kipchoge could or even dared try. And behind that, could anyone manage 61:30 pace beside Wilson Kipsang and Amos Kipruto? They were the only ones willing to even make that attempt.
A race is a competition amongst runners to see who comes first to the finish, and time is an indication of the quality of that performance. But it wasn’t originally the purpose of the event. Today, increasingly, it seems to be. In fact, you ask most great runners which is more important, time or position, and most will tell you it’s their finishing time. In that sense, Berlin 2018 was a series of time trials staged concurrently along the same route. There was no strategy involved, only execution of a pre-ordained plan. A stern plan, I grant you, but a pre-arranged one nonetheless.
But what makes racing if not critical thinking and crisis management? If he/she goes, should I follow? When should I go? Is now the time? How do I feel? How does she/he look? These are all the questions that buzz through a racer’s mind as blood courses to working muscles at the expense of flowing to the brain, making critical thinking ragged and frayed.
Eliud Kipchoge certainly has nothing to prove. He won the Olympic gold medal in Rio and won against the best field of contenders we’ve ever seen in London 2018 when, though there were pacers, the warm weather affected the field and turned a time trial into a heat management seminar. So we have seen how Kipchoge has responded when conditions aren’t perfect and winning is all that’s left to be determined.
But I go back to Boston 1963 when the great champions from Ethiopia, Abebe Bikila and Mamo Wolde, took a turn on the old Hopkinton-to-Boston route. They were by far the best runners ever to come to Boston and mounted a record-breaking early pace only to be hit head-on by a cold, East headwind coming off the Atlantic Ocean that stood them up then turned their supple muscles to stone over the top of Heartbreak Hill. They would eventually fall back to 12th and fifth places respectively. The other competitors didn’t beat them that day so much as the conditions and the course did, just like we saw in 2018 Boston when defending Kenyan champion Geoffrey Kirui faded in the bitter, raw rain squall as Japan’s Swiss Army knife of a runner Yuki Kawauchi came from behind to claim victory. I’d love to see Elliot Kipchoge on those rolling hills of Boston to see how well he would stand up to that history. Or, see him take on the five bridges of the Big City marathon in New York City.
Perhaps, as the Abbott World Marathon Majors move forward with their Six-Star medal awarded to anyone who runs all six majors, they could institute a super prize for any athlete who could notch all six titles over a career. Kenya’s Edna Kiplagat came close to standing on all six AWMM podiums in Berlin this year when she finished fourth.
With events and shoe companies both awarding time record bonuses, one question the AWMMs might ask is, how can they incentivize the sport’s stars to make the rounds more often to increase fan appeal and bring pure racing onto par with the mighty paced time tests that have come to define the sport in recent years? After all, time is a sterile judgment for a task that at its core removes us from the bounds of time. For it is the inward journey where the marathon is best defined. Yes, everyone is in search of his or her PR, and Boston uniquely requires a time standard to gain entry for the common runner. But in so many cases, after 42.2K one’s PR could just as easily stand for Personal Reckoning every bit as much as Personal Record, regardless of what numbers appear on the finish line clock.