When was the last time you remember seeing the race leader in a major marathon “hit the wall” and falter in the final stages of a race? Well, there was Brazilian Daniel do Nascimento, who tore out of Staten Island on November 6th in the TCS New York City Marathon, hell-bent for Manhattan like Brooklyn’s Tony Manero in Saturday Night Fever.
But, like John Travolta’s character, do Nascimento wasn’t really ready for the big-time. And in the warm, humid conditions, he collapsed to the ground shortly after reaching the final borough, like he’d just lost a fight. But other than that sort of outlier – who goes out in 1:01:25 through halfway in NYC in hot/humid conditions?! – such crashing and burning just doesn’t happen anymore.
I am old enough to remember when the marathon represented an endurance race of such length and difficulty that merely finishing was to be celebrated, while failure – and even catastrophic failure – was very much a possibility.
Today, the combination of advanced scientific shoe technology, lax governing oversight, large training groups, and support elements like physical therapy, strength training, and recovery drinks have, as a practical matter, reduced the marathon to just another distance race, although still a long one. (Other things probably contribute, as well, but that’s the subject for many other blogs).
Unless extreme weather shows up, the Marathon is no longer the endurance event in the same sense that it once was.
Do the professional athletes toeing the starting line of a major marathon, even in their debut, wonder whether they will finish? Or do they just wonder how fast they will finish?
Today in Valencia, Spain, we saw debutantes in the event run historically fast times with no learning curve – or worry – whatsoever.
Kenya’s 23-year-old Kelvin Kiptum won the men’s race in 2:01:53, to become the third quickest marathoner in history and the fastest debutant. He also notched the fastest, second-half marathon in history, 60:15, highlighted by a blistering 28:05 split between 30 and 40 km. That’s not somebody worried about hitting the wall.
Ethiopia’s Amane Beriso surprised many, including countywoman Letesenbet Gidey, who everyone picked to win beforehand, though it was her debut. Even a challenge to the world record, 2:14:04, wasn’t out of the question.
But, though close on WR pace till 30k, Gidey found Beriso still with her. And in the end, it was Beriso who would pull free, as she won in 2:14:58 to move to #3 on the world all-time list. I guess the marathon could still bare her teeth, to some degree. Gidey faded late, but remained second in 2:16:49, a debut record for women.
This is no longer the era of Emil Zátopek, who ran his debut at the Olympic Marathon in Helsinki 1952 after setting Olympic records on the track at 5000m and 10,000m.
At the nine-mile mark, the man known as “The Czech Locomotive’ turned to Britain’s world record holder Jim Peters, and asked him what he thought of the pace. Peters responded, “too slow.” So Zatopek picked it up and promptly ran away from Peters, who, in trying to match Emil, dropped out from exhaustion – as he famously did two years later in the high heat of the 1954 British Commonwealth Games in Vancouver, B.C.
Remember when Kenyans first started getting involved in the marathon in the 1980s? They would attack the distance like they did a 12k cross country race or a 10k on the roads. Then, when they faltered, everyone would say, “well, they’re just not geared for the marathon.”
Then University of New Mexico grad Ibrahim Hussein showed up and quietly set back-to-back course records at the 1985 & ‘86 Honolulu Marathon. The University of Wyoming grad Joe Nzau had previously won the 1983 Chicago Marathon. Then Hussein won in New York City in 1987, and then three times in Boston (1988, ‘91-‘92).
After that, the lid flew off of the event as the athletes and their coaches learned their lessons and simply out-trained the distance. I don’t believe Hussein ever trained beyond eight weeks for any of his marathons. His personal best was 2:08:17, set in Boston 1992. One wonders what might’ve been if he really focused?
But forget the training. Shoe designers – with the complicity of the absent overseers tasked with regulating the sport – have taken the technology to levels that have reduced the metabolic cost of each stride to the point where running out of energy is no longer a fear issue facing the athletes. Nobody actually runs on the track, the roads, or cross-country anymore; they run on labor-saving devices that interact with the given surface.
Remember, the first guy who ran 40k hard died in 492 B.C.! And that was the metaphorical Sword of Damocles hanging over anyone who attempted the great distance for many years.
In 1976, only 25,000 people finished a marathon in America. If you went to a party back then and told people you’d run a marathon, the word would spread. “Hey, look at this guy! This guy ran a marathon!“
Today, every Tom, Dick, and Harry, not to mention Jane, Edna, and Harriet, has done the same. Hell, 45-year-old Sinead Diver of Australia just ran 2:21:34 in Valencia, ripping almost three minutes off her PB to break Benita Willis’ 16-year-old Australian women’s record by 1:02. No problem.
As always, for everything gained, something’s lost. And what’s been lost in today’s world is the Marathon’s mythical balls.
10 thoughts on “THE EMASCULATED MARATHON”
What a ridiculous take. Run your next marathon barefoot or something if it’s too easy for you. Should all the speedsters on the track slow the fuck down because the 4-minute mile was once really hard to do?
Have you ever heard the term lament? Reavis has written a fabulous take on the marathon lamenting that it has lost its mythical lustre. He’s not against running marathons, he’s lamenting the fact that something magical has been removed from the distance. So now what impresses people? Do we have to run a 50-miler to appear noteworthy? Lamenting is a poetic device that points us to the beauty of life within the tragedy.
And what’s YOUR marathon pr, please tell…
A very meager 2:52.
Nice! Never broke 3 here myself. And you’re right, the marathon has lost some mystique especially as we see women (!!) crushing it when just a few years ago us race directors thought it would kill ’em!
Ibrahim Hussain was an anomoly.
The big leap forward in pace quality is only among the professional elite. Better shoes, diet, and coaching knowledge hasn’t done much below the full-time top few. Men can place 12-20 in a major marathon today in a time that would not have cracked top 50 in 1976-84, ie to the beginnings of the pro era. By the way, Jim Peters’s two dnf’s were a simple matter of dehydration. He was of the generation that believed water would weaken you, and he drank none on the day of or during a race, almost fatally on the very hot day in Vancouver. See Jason Beck’s “The Miracle Mile” for Vancouver, and my “Running Throughout Time” for the accurate story of Pheidippides in 490BC.
An amazing fact, Toni: “…In 1976, only 25,000 people finished a marathon in America.”
Are we really supposed to believe these results? My mom always used to tell me, “If it seems too good to be true, it probably is.” Ban Kenya from international competition until they get their doping situation sorted out.