My old Runner’s World friend and long-time chronicler of the sport Peter Gambaccini wrote on my FB page in response to “WHAT A WORLD!” (RECORD) about the first sub-two hour marathon this past weekend in Vienna: “I am much more impressed by the 2:01s Kipchoge and Kenenisa Bekele ran in “real” marathons (in Berlin 2018 and 2019) than I am by what transpired in Vienna (INEOS 1:59 Challenge).

“Marathon racing is supposed to involve decisions, and Kipchoge had very few to make last weekend. I was glad to see Kipchoge finish hard on his own, and I suppose we should be grateful that elite running got more coverage from the general interest media than it had since the days of Bolt.  But there’s no point in any more extravaganzas like Vienna, is there?”

I thought Peter’s question was worth sharing and answering. So here goes.


Besides Boston, New York City, and to a lesser degree Los Angeles and Honolulu (which don’t invite the same number of top athletes) are there any other “real” marathons left anymore?

Dubai, London, Tokyo, Chicago and Berlin – where most of the super fast running is done these days – remove all questions that might arise with the addition of pacesetters. In those races, the only question is, ‘can you do that?’ Not ‘should you do that?’ Or ‘what if he goes should I go, too?’

 This was especially evident in the years when Chicago stopped using pacers and their winning times shot from 2:04, 2:05 to 2:09 and 2:11.

Meb’s win in Boston 2014

Meb Keflezighi was the master of the strategic marathon with his wins in New York City 2009 and Boston 2014, even his silver medal at the Athens Games in 2004.

But in Athens he made the wrong decision, not covering the move by Italy’s Stefano Baldini at 35K, remembering instead how he crashed and burned in his 2002 debut in New York City. So when he got to the finish line and realized he had fuel left in his tank while Baldini was pretty well done in, knowing the gold-medal could have possibly been his had he not made the decision he did would be a question that always lingered. But that’s the kind of question – go, or not go? – you’re talking about that makes it a “real” marathon.


So when was the last world record set without pacers, then?  Looking at the marathon world record progression list, it’s a bit of a countback before we find one.

I know that in Chicago 1985 Steve Jones killed the rabbits by 2 miles, but they were still there and have to be counted just the same.

Four years before that, Alberto Salazar’s 2:08:13 in NYC 1981 didn’t receive official recognition as the WR once the course was remeasured and found to be 149 meters short. In that sense, Alberto got screwed because he also finished strong and was just measuring his effort in the final miles, not pressing for every tick.

So back in time we go to Ian Thompson at the Commonwealth Games in Christchurch, New Zealand Jan. 31, 1974 when he took the gold medal in 2:09:12.  But that performance is only rcognized by the Association of Road Racing Statisticians(ARRS), not the IAAF. You see, it isn’t easy.

Aussie Derek Clayton’s legendary 2:08:34 in Antwerp, Belgium on May 30, 1969 was run on a course used only once to commemorate the opening of a new highway. And that route was and has always been under a shadow of being short, and could never be remeasured because the road was changed. Nonetheless, Clayton’s time was ratified as the world record by the IAAF.

If we accept the premise that decision making under stress is part of the essence of pure competition, then sure, we ought to recognize a non-paced marathon world record, as well as the ones that were paced.

But we are all still arguing about where to place Kipchoge’s 1:59:40.2 in Vienna. And we already have so many record categories, loop course versus point-to-point, women-only versus mixed gender, do we really need another category to confuse the public and ourselves?

Just the same, Peter, thanks for asking and letting me tunnel through this particularly loamy rabbit hole. 



  1. I too love the thought of getting rid of all appearance fees, but know that marathon organizations know the value of having big names at their events, plus agents love getting a guaranteed wage, even it is cut in half if the runner does not finish. Too bad there cannot be a limit of how much money can be appearance related in a race budget (1%, or $50,000 or whatever), and the rest up for grabs. I’d love to know that a winner of London/NYC/Boston/Chicago, is making a half million. Might get some added attention, though I suppose some people would complain about the money not going to a charity or the race fees being high is the reason for it all.

  2. Poor Simeon..that unfortunately was his last U.S. race..I knew him in Boulder….I don’t think he was a rabbit…he actually training for that race….he did a 30 miler with Deek about 3 weeks before….

  3. In 1985 Carl Thackeray was the only rabbit and spent the first mile and a half going as fast he could just to stay in front of Jonesy who was flying already…..after that all on his own….and fighting the winds on LSD the last few days…..and to top it off he had no idea he was so close to the record since there was no clock on the lead vehicle…so that’s the fastest non paced race…

    But that’s all history…

    Frankly what I would love to see is getting rid of appearance fees altogether….just prize money…that’s the best thing I think could happen in the sport….like the PGA, something the public could relate to. What does it mean to win, say NYC, if race management decides who competes…

    1. Truesdon,

      Now you’re talking. All the appearance money, all the hotel money, all the travel money, all the money spent on athletes should be gathered into one pile and put at the finish line. That way, as you say, the public would realize what is really up for grabs to the best athlete.

      Appearance fees are only good for the athletes and agents. They’re not good for the sport because they’re hidden and the sport doesn’t get credit for having that much money in the game. London spends millions of dollars in appearance fees, but first place is $55,000. To the public that’s pocket change and does not lend prestige to the champion or the event.

      But this system is a holdover from our amateur past that we just can’t quite wean ourselves off. Not helpful. Thanks for chiming in.


      1. Also, Simeon Kigen of Kenya was also a pacer with Carl in Chicago 1985. Jonesy buried him early, too. But technically there were rabbits, not to say they were used.


      2. I’m torn on the appearance vs. prize money argument. I understand your point but to use your example, if a golfer has a bad week they can come right back the next week and make it up. Same with tennis. However, in marathoning you get 1-2, maybe 3, a year so if you put in all of the work and have a bad day, that could be four months of training down the drain. One could say just drop out early and come at it the next week. Well, until there are more prize-money paying marathons that really isn’t an option. I love the thought of getting rid of appearance fees but they do still serve a purpose.

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