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 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.
LET’S GO BACK
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.