Madame Marathon has had her teeth kicked in over recent decades. An event that once struck fear in the hearts of brave combatants has been turned into just another distance to attack.
The combination of increased opportunities, a wider, though more regionally focused talent base, improved training and coaching, scientific fueling, radical shoe development, pacers aplenty (and who knows what else) have combined to rapidly reduce performance parameters.
Of course, beyond the super shoes, and other factors, the abundance of flat, fast courses also contributed to the revolution in fast times.
Still, you might think after all the years of seeing big city marathons play out as one groundhog day after another, with multiple pacesetters arrayed across the road carrying fields to 25K or 30K while erasing all dramatic considerations for most of the proceedings, that a race like Boston 2021, where American CJ Albertson lit out from the gun, opened a big lead, and made us all wonder what might come of it – knowing how Meb Keflezighi pulled off the same trick to victory in 2014 – might give event directors pause enough to consider forgoing pacers now and again just to see what might happen, irrespective of the finishing time.
Truth be told, Chicago tried cutting out pacesetters for three years after Dennis Kimetto set the still standing course record in 2013 at 2:03:45. The following three years produced two 2:09s and a 2:11, and race director Carey Pinkowski quickly returned to the paced format.
A race, by its nature, is unscripted. There are as many potential outcomes as there are runners in the race. The intrigue, therefore, is in the unfolding just as much as in the finishing. Why, then, would you want to control a wild thing? Unless records are deemed the only thing worth selling to the public.
You can tell in the presentations like we saw in Rotterdam today that differentiating the athletes is not really the focus. Instead, it is which one is going to run the course record time?
We don’t hear any individual stories about the athletes as people. Yes, eventual champion Bashir Abdi is Belgian, but was he Belgian-born? How did he end up as a Belgian? Who is going through what turmoil at home, or had a friend do this, or a family member do that? Why did Marius Kipserem the defending champion have his left leg physio-taped? Where is the information that might make us care about these runners as individuals?
We only hear the times every 5K and how those split times stack up vis-a-vis the course record. You can script the thing before the start. Here’s the break when the pacers leave at 25K, then they run together until 35K before somebody, Bashir Abdi, makes the winning move, and finally here’s the finishing time. There’s no backstory to bring out whatever personality exists within the individual competitors.
Wasn’t it fun to see somebody take a flyer, take a risk, throw himself out there like CJ Albertson did in Boston? Yes, many of the chase pack didn’t even realize CJ was out there, but that’s part of the intrigue, too.
Championship-style races are fundamentally different than paced affairs. In championship style races, the questions never stop being asked. In paced races, the only question is can you run that pace?
If everything is controlled, everything is antiseptic, everything is lined up to just run at pace and see who can hold on longest, that’s great for exhibitions like the Breaking2 Project in Monza, Italy 2017, or at the Ineos 1:59 Challenge in Vienna, Austria two years later. Racing, on the other foot, is or is supposed to be, a different animal.
But if you don’t believe in the athletes themselves as the focal point of attention, then you don’t draw attention to them. Instead you turn your attention to the clock. And with the new super shoes in play, the sport has been given a new clean set of pages for the record book, because today’s times don’t relate to what came before.
In that sense, the sport has cast a no-confidence vote in its leading athletes, who all seem cut from the same cloth, whether that is true or not.
If we eliminate the drama of person vs person competition in favor of time trialing, we eliminate any chance of someone like CJ Albertson becoming a storyline, or Meb Keflezighi winning Boston in 2014. If there were pacers at Boston, they would have gone out in 62 minutes for the first half and neither CJ – nor likely Meb in 2014 – would’ve been there. By maintaining time trialing as the preferred event format, we’ve also added another reason to wonder why people beyond the hardcore fan base would watch. People think running is boring because it is staged boringly.
Marathon running can be exceedingly dramatic, as we all know. But let the racers create the drama instead of trying to set it up for tomorrow’s websites or record books. The old distance has been kicked around enough in recent times.
As always, just thinking out loud.