Top 9 of 2009: Number 3 – the marathon  //  The revolution in the marathon - 2009 produces an unprecedented explosion in record times

28 Dec 2009 Posted by

Kibet, Kwambai, Kirui, Wanjiru, Kebede, Gharib, Gebrselassie, Kipruto, Goumri, Makau, Kirwa, Worku, Yegon, Cheruiyot, Kemboi, Tsegay, Keitany, Kisri, Kipkorir, Mutai.


20 names of 20 men who have broken 2:07 in the marathon in 2009.  In what has been an unprecedented explosion of super-fast marathon running, more performances (25) and more men (20) have cracked what was basically the world record only 12 years ago.  2009 thus represents a 56% increase in the number of performances since 2008 (which is itself a 167% increase on 2007, see chart to the left).

Add to this that 2009 has produced new marathon records in Rotterdam (2:04:27), London (Samuel Wanjiru 2:05:10), Fukuoka (Tsegaye Kebede 2:05:15), Chicago (Wanjiru 2:05:41), Paris (Vincent Kipruto 2:05:47), Frankfurt (Gilbert Kirwa 2:06:14) and Amsterdam (Gilbert Koech 2:06:18).  Of the big marathons, only New York and Boston were won in times slower than 2:08 this year, and only they have course records outside 2:07.

East African ascendancy, everyone else winding down?

So 2009 has been a golden year for marathon running, right?  Well, it depends how you frame the question.  Look again at that list of 20 names – 13 are Kenyan, 4 are Ethiopian and 3 are Moroccan.  And that’s it.  In fact, it turns out (courtesy the IAAF analysis, which is really great) that there were 104 performances of 2:10 or faster this year, but only 13 of them came from anywhere other than Kenya and Ethiopia (64 Kenyan and 27 Ethiopian, by the way).

That’s an incredible perspective on the issue of marathon standards.  Kenyan and Ethiopian athletes are getting faster and faster, while everyone else is slowing down.

Where have they gone?

When Meb Keflezighi won in New York, breaking the US drought of 27 years, he did so in a time (2:09:15) that is comparable to what a good few US athletes were producing in the 1980s.  The same is true of the Boston Marathon – winning times from the 1980s would be extremely competitive today, and would even win the race in some instances (obviously, weather and race tactics make direct comparisons impossible).  So the fascinating thing is that the dominance of the east Africans, in the US Marathons anyway, is only partly due to the improvement in times by these runners.

There are numerous factors that account for this – prize money and prestige, as well as sponsorship and time-based incentives that attract the super-fast (2:05 athletes) to the faster courses of Europe (London and Berlin, in particular) mean that the US-soil performances may lag behind those of Europe somewhat.  What would Wanjiru or Kebede do in New York, for example?  They certainly wouldn’t hit halfway in 65 minutes, that’s for sure.

What is more worrying is that nations with something of a marathon heritage have all but disappeared from the scene in terms of times.  91 out of 104 sub-2:10 performances come from Ethiopia and Kenya.  Morocco (3) and America (3) produce six of the remaining 13, with one performance each from Italy, Japan, Bahrain (but actually a Kenyan), Korea, Ukraine, Eritrea and South Africa.

Where then are Portuguese, Spanish, Australian, British, Brazilian and Mexican runners?  These are nations which have previously produced world records, world champions, and big city marathon champions.  Also, surely Japan, South Africa, Italy and Korea should be producing more than 1 such performance per year?  It is an alarming sign of the times, and a fascinating question that a “freakonomics” approach could look at answering (forgive the reference – I just read “Superfreakonomics”, and I love the approach to problem solving).

East African dominance

Numerous theories have been put forward to explain why east Africans dominate running so comprehensively.  This is not the time to write my own dissertation on the topic – I’ll rather sum up and say that it’s like a combination of multiple factors:

The right genes, nurtured in the best environment, with the optimal living conditions, and the disproportionately large financial carrot of global running success.  And then perhaps most crucially of all, a community of athletes who provide inspiration and self-belief that teaches every young runner that international success is within reach provided the necessary hard work is done.  I don’t think there’s any magic in it – when you see images of young children, 12 years old, jogging to school alongside Olympic champions who happen to be out for a training run, then you appreciate the power of culture and community and the belief it fosters among these individuals.

None of this explains the apparent decline in standard among other nations.  As mentioned above, if these nations produced the same times as they did in the 1980s, they’d feature heavily in the list of times and in the front groups of major marathons like Boston and New York.

Erosion of incentives and belief

I believe the decline is the result of changing paradigms and attitudes towards running (the “is this really worth it?” argument), as a result of the dominance of east Africans, particularly over shorter distances, and in the 1990s.  There is no question that the standard of global running has been propelled forward by Kenya and Ethiopia.  Remember, the world 10,000m record was outside 27 minutes only 20 years ago – that was a time that belonged to Arturo Barrios, of Mexico.  Since then, 51 seconds improvement, and only Africans feature.  That’s testament to all those positive factors that produce so many champions from such a small proportion of the world’s population.

The consequence of that improvement has been a progressive erosion in the desire and belief of European athletes to compete against the Kenyans and Ethiopians.  Is it realistic, for example, to expect a young athlete to spend five years training for twenty hours per week to run 28 minutes over 10km, and finish 12th in a medium level 10,000m race?  To be lapped in an Olympic 10,000m final, where the final 5,000m are now being run in close to 13 minutes, a pace that many European athletes cannot sustain for 3000m?

Now, to this volatile mix of failure and frustration, add the fact that more options exist than ever before – study, other sports (triathlon, trail running), office work – and you see that there are probably fewer world-class runners even making the commitment to race.  I wonder how many 16 year olds, who may possess the ability to succeed globally, make a decision to leave running based on the failure of OTHERS, not even their own? Given the choice to make up the numbers in the middle of the pace, or to start a career in another field, perhaps it’s not surprising that so few Europeans feature – choice may be eroding the standard (what would be really interesting to look at is the participation numbers at competitive club level)

It’s probably not surprising, then, that if you look at the list of 5,000m and 10,000m times over the last decade, you see the same trend – east African dominance, with very few European contenders.  Look also at the World Cross Country championships, where the only thing preventing more African success is the limit on the number of entrants from Kenya, Ethiopia, Uganda and Eritrea.

The point is that what we see in the marathon in 2009 – the absence of non-African athletes, is the result of a shift in track running a decade ago.  Just as the times in the marathon have been driven down by the increased speed of the athletes who now race over 42.2km, the answer to the drain of non-African runners lies in the fact that they are no longer competitive over shorter track distances, and I believe it is partly because they choose not to take the risk (time and energy) to find out.

This is why the performances of Dathan Ritzenheim, Matt Tegenkamp, Ryan Hall and, prior to 2009, Craig Mottram, are so important – their presence in the upper echelons of running, particularly on the track (Ritzenheim’s sub 13 clocking in Zurich is the best example) may serve to inspire similar performances, just as the Kenyan success is built on previous success.

Does it matter?  I know some are concerned about the dominance of Kenya and Ethiopia in running events.  It is never good for a sport to be dominated by so small a population – the NFL provides the best illustration of competitive parity for the health of the sport.  And unquestionably, more participation and greater distribution of titles is good for the sport across the world.Hopefully,the trend is reversible, and we’ll see a gradual rise in representation of these “minor” nations in the top 10 in distance events.


P.S.  While we’re on the topic of marathons, the world’s best marathon runner title this year is a shoot-out between Tsegay Kebede and Sammy Wanjiru.  Kebede actually wins on the basis of average time – his two marathons this year were 2:05:18 and 2:05:20, for an average of 2:05:19.

Wanjiru is not far behind – 2:05:10 and 2:05:41, an average of 2:05:25.  However, Wanjiru won two major marathons – London and Chicago, both in record times, and beat Kebede in London.  Since marathons are all about racing (especially the way Wanjiru runs them), Wanjiru is the undisputed number one. Kebede’s great year, to follow up his Olympic medal and wins in Paris and Fukuoka in 2008, adds something to the world marathon scene, and he will certainly be one to watch in 2010.  Given what happened in 2009, 2010 should be a magnificent year on the roads.  As always, we’ll cover it in great detail!

A final word on the African-European performance debate

And then finally, it would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge that in our debate about European vs African runners, there is a ‘joker in the pack’ – doping.  Far be it for me to pull a Mayweather and accuse anyone of doping (what a farce that is, by the way – if the sport was in any way transparent and clean, it would not even register, yet Pacquiao has responded like a true Tour de France cyclist with aggressive counter-attacks of his own.  But that is another story), but is it possible that the slide in European runner’s performances is due to tighter doping controls?

In the 1980s and 1990s, when EPO use was rife, blood doping was common, perhaps the Europeans managed to push beyond the ‘genetic ceiling’ to run their 2:08s and claim world marathon titles.  Now that controls are tighter (far from perfect, mind you, but definitely tighter), is it possible that the gap is wider as a result of the relative removal of the pharmaceutical aid?  Of course, this assumes that the African situation has not changed – they either never doped, or they still are – which many would regard as a big if.  Nevertheless, no debate in the sport is complete without at least acknowledging this possibility…

This post is part of the following threads: News/Controversies, Year-in-Reviews, 2009 – ongoing stories on this site. View the thread timelines for more context on this post.

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