Not much, really, to add to all the other analysis of April 23rd’s remarkable 2023 TCS London Marathon. Except, gee whiz, for a once feared, myth-making distance, yesterday had to be a pretty humbling experience. Then again, the marathon is old, so maybe it just doesn’t have dental insurance, cause it sure looked toothless out there.

After a day that left your head reeling, or at least shaking, what’s left to wonder about the dear old marathon? A sub-60 minute second half by men’s winner Kelvin Kiptum? Stop it! A come-from-behind, sprint-to-the-tape win by marathon debutant, Sifan Hassan, who was just running to try the distance on for size, got dropped in the first third of the race, stopped twice to stretch, then came back to win against recognized world beaters? Come on! 

Following her dramatic victory, the 30-year-old Ethiopian-born Dutch runner said, “This morning I was telling myself, ‘I’m so stupid. Why am I playing this kind of game? Why the hell am I thinking that I want to run marathon?…I never cry. I cried this morning.”

Yeah, so did we, for the marathon. It’s like the poor thing was getting dry-humped in the backseat of a `66 Ford Fairlane out there. No respect whatsoever. It’s at the point where unless there are hills and/or bad weather, the marathon has to just lie there and take it.

Remember, Marathon was a place long before it ever became the name of a distance race. That place, the Plains of Marathon, lay 40km outside the Greek capital of Athens. And between those two places stood many hills. 

It was those hills, as much as the distance, that made the original marathon event created in 1896 for the inaugural Olympics of the modern era so daunting. That and the absolute novelty of the concept. 

But once folks began to understand the event, then dissect it, then design courses that eliminated hills, and restrict competition with pacesetters, and outfit the competitors with labor-saving footwear – in other words, when they increasingly made the hard road easier, we finally reached the point where the long distance, alone, wasn’t enough to do in the modern-day practitioners. Unless they added more in the way of obstacles, the marathon was gonna need some outside help to keep its membership in the modern endurance sports collective.

Of course, this sport, like all sports, constantly reorders itself. But we may well have seen the end of an era in London in 2023. 

In only his second career marathon, Kenya’s 23-year-old Kelvin Kiptum simply walked away from a strong men’s field, dropping a PB 27:50 10km split between 30 and 40km, including a 13:49 from 35-40km, the single fastest 5km split in marathon history.

Last year in Valencia, Spain, Kiptum registered the fastest marathon debut ever at 2:01:53. In London, he lopped nearly a half minute off that on a slower, turn-twisted course. Watch out for Berlin or Valencia, cause sub-2:01 is right around the corner.

Sifan Hassan wins her debut in London

While Kiptum was certainly among the men’s favorites, women’s one-mile and one-hour world record holder, Sifan Hassan was more of a curiosity among the seasoned women’s field, which included six sub-2:18 performers.

Despite downplaying her fitness and goals before the race, she ended up producing one of history‘s most remarkable performances, which, sadly, also raises red flags because in this day and age, how could it not? In that sense, she’s a victim of her times.

Actually, Hassan’s finishing time, 2:18:34, though impressive, was not all that scintillating on a day that produced the second fastest men’s time ever. More so, it was the manner of her victory. 

The marathon may not be a race in which physical contact is as important as it is on the track. But considering she didn’t look comfortable with the early pace, then got dropped in mile seven, then stopped twice to stretch a tight left hip in mile 12, most observers assumed victory, or even finishing, was off the table, as for hobbled marathon world record holder, Brigid Kosgei, who took a DNF within minutes of the start.

Yet Hassan managed to regain her fluidity, reeled in the four leaders before engaging them in the final 5km fight to the finish. There, against the reigning Olympic champion Peres Jepchirchir (3rd, 2:18:38), and last year’s third placer in London, Alemu Megertu (2nd, 2:18:37), Ms.Hassan’s stride opened as easily as a tin of Chicken of the Sea tuna. Her final 400m lasted around 64 seconds! Neither her opponents nor the marathon itself laid a glove on her.

After training through Ramadan in the month leading in – during which she could not eat or drink during daylight hours – after not training specifically for the marathon, after suffering a little niggle in the last weeks, she looked completely unfazed by the distance and competition. One can only wonder what downhills like in Boston would have done to that hip and those quads?

With world class personal bests spanning 800m to the marathon, two Olympic gold medals, two more in the World Championships, and world records in the mile (4:12.33) and the one-hour run (18,930 meters), Sifan has now elevated herself to at or near GOAT status for women – given we accept everything at face value. And until proven otherwise, that’s the only way to look at the sport in order to still have a viable sport.

Remember, by her own admission, Sifan planned London as an experiment before returning her attention to the track leading up to the 2023 Budapest World Championships. Instead, the 30-year-old delivered one of the most unlikely marathon wins anyone has ever seen. Or didn’t see, depending where you watched, given Flotrack’s livestream feed interruption in the USA. 

Still, hearing about it alone had jaws throughout the running community clanging to the ground. Even Sifan was a little nonplussed by what she had pulled off, telling the BBC, “It was just amazing. I never thought I would finish a marathon and here I am winning it.” 

What remains to be said about the once mighty marathon? With new shoe technology reducing the metabolic cost of each stride, with better coaching and training, better nutrition and hydration, and the advantages of pace-setting, the only thing that could make it easier is if organizers domed the entire course and filtered in the absolutely pristine weather. 

If real money ever comes to the world of ultra distance running, we might yet see a genuine test of endurance play out again. For now, the marathon is no longer the ne plus ultra of human endurance, that we oldsters grew up with it being. Not that it can’t be a great racing distance. We saw how it could last Sunday. Just not an endurance racing distance. If that wasn’t clear before, it has become crystal clear after Sunday in London. 


Short Takes:

40-year-old four-time Olympic track champion, Mo Farah, completed his ten-year, seven marathon career with a ninth place, 2:10:28 finish. Not what he wanted, but Farah’s place in running history was never going to be tied to the marathon the way it was for previous track greats Paul Tergat, Haile Gebrselassie, Kenenisa Bekele, and Eliud Kipchoge. Though Mo won in Chicago 2018 in a PR 2:05:11, his stride never seemed suited for the longer distance.

Only months older, putative running GOAT, Kenenisa Bekele of Ethiopia, may not have officially ended his career in London 2023, but the three-time Olympic and five-time World track champion and now third fastest marathoner ever, no longer seems capable of withstanding a stringent enough buildup to remain competitive with the young, up-and-coming lions. Noting pain, he took a DNF on Sunday. Let the GOAT comparisons go forward.


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