Lots of news coming out of Valencia, Spain yesterday with a new world record in the men’s half marathon, 57:32 by Kenya’s Kibiwott Kandie, and four men in total busting through the old mark of 58:01. But that’s not what I found most interesting about Valencia 2020.
With the Covid-19 pandemic forcing so many events to either cancel their 2020 race or just go virtual, like everything else, the sport of marathoning took on a very different look these past nine months.
Yesterday, 30 new sub-2:10 marathon times were run at the Valencia Marathon in Spain, and seven more in Japan at the 74th Fukuoka International Marathon. Those two events brought the total number of sub-2:10s run in 2020 to 163 year-to-date.
Kenya’s unheralded Evans Chebet led the way in Valencia with a course record 2:03:00, a two-minute PB, sixth-best all-time, and the fastest time of the year. Japan’s own Yuya Yoshida won in Fukuoka in 2:07:05. Until yesterday, 2:04:15 by Ethiopia’s Birhanu Legese in Tokyo on March 1st had held the year’s top time, while only 125 men had previously dipped under 2:10, well off the pace of the last several years.
2020 – 163
2019 – 293
2018 – 215
2017 – 186
2016 – 152.
In fact, pre-Valencia and Fukuoka, 2020’s number of sub-2:10s represented the lowest batch since 2009 when only 99 were run worldwide.
But 30 sub 2:10s in one race? Well, now you know what marathoning was like in the early 1980s.
In Boston 1983, Kimbia’s Tom Ratcliffe ran his first marathon coming out of Brown University. He ran 2:19:51 to finish in 83rd place. 83 sub-2:20s in one race! Know why? Because London was only in its third year, and other noted spring marathons like Dong-A in Seoul and the Paris Marathon were still mostly regional affairs. In other words, there were far fewer international opportunities to race, so top runners tended to go to the most famous spring marathon, Boston. It was the same in the fall in New York City, and in those days, Fukuoka was recognized as the unofficial World Championship for marathoning each December.
Nowadays, there are so many opportunities, athletes can pick and choose where they want to run, and even cherry-pick to avoid competition and improve their financial probability. This is good for them but not so much for the sport because you don’t get the big marquee matchups anymore like we used to. According to MarathonGuide.com, there are over 500 international marathons to choose from, and 384 more in the USA.
Did you see where 350 of the top triathletes in the world are trying to break free from the Ironman Triathlon Inc.’s control of the sport by forming their own new professional series? A New Challenge for Professional Triathletes: Toppling Ironman Inc. (behind New York Times pay wall)
Like running, triathlon has been celebrating their thousands of “paying” entrants for years rather than focusing attention on building the top end of the sport. Now, today’s top end triathletes want to do something about it.
The Ironman Championships on Kona pay their winners $120,000 out of a total purse of $650,000. That purse is in the same ballpark as the Abbott World Marathon Majors. For example, the Boston Marathon pays out a total purse of $868,000 to open, masters, and wheelchair athletes, with $150,000 going to the top male and female runners. The big difference between major marathons and the Ironman Triathlon is appearance money, which marathons use to lure top runners, while Ironman doesn’t, perhaps because there is no competition for the big Kona race.
So 350 triathletes are going off on their own and even corralled a billionaire investor to help them bankroll their new enterprise. It will be interesting to see how well they do.
Athletics has made several attempts to go pro over the years, of course, but like Sysyphus has never been able to push the rock over the top. It may be too late now, anyway, because athletics is far more widely spread internationally than triathlon, and consists of far more events that have little interaction with the other events that they share a venue with.
Road running, for instance, is dominated by a quickly rotating cadre of young athletes hailing from the highlands of the Great Rift Valley in East Africa who simply don’t have the age, experience, or length of careers needed to create or organize a proper tour. Plus, their NGBs are far more powerful and completely control athletes’ entry into the sport. And the agents, too, are accredited by the national governing bodies and World Athletics. And NGBs are tied up with the shoe companies and with the Olympics as the cherry atop their cake. So the whole system in running is far too deeply entrenched into its status quo to change.
Triathlon, however, is still young enough as a sport to develop new properties that might allow them to escape the Ironman stranglehold.
Oh, getting back to the marathoning world of 2020, of the 163 sub-2:10 men’s marathons run this year, Ethiopia has notched the most with 54, Japan is next with 34, and perennial leader Kenya has only produced 29. In 2019, Kenya produced 123 of the 293 sub-2:10s worldwide; Ethiopians ran 98, and Japanese runners only 16. In 2020, only Galen Rupp ran sub-2:10 for America, that coming at his win at the Februay Atlanta Olympic Trials (2:09:20).
And finally, while the Valencia Marathon produced a staggering 30 sub-2:10s yesterday, it also produced 77 sub-2:20s, coming tantalizingly close to Boston 1983’s total of 83. But even more tellingly, six of those 77 sub-2:20’s in Valencia were run by women! Leading the way was Kenya’s Peres Chepchirchir in 64th place overall in 2:17:16. For comparison’s sake, Joan Benoit (Samuelson) ran a 2:22:43 world record in Boston 1983, finishing in 121st place overall.
Everyone stay safe and well and masked up.