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Guest Column: 2008 Was TrulyA Spectacular Year In Marathoning
Marathoning Has Come A Long, Long Way Since 1953
January 26, 2009

by: David Graham

Editor's Note: Earlier this month, many of you likely read the staggering stats about how fast marathoning was in 2009. David Monti looked at the statistics compiled by the Association of Road Running Statisticians and published in the latest edition of the Analytical Distance Runner and determined:

"In 2008 there were 1342 sub-2:20 statistically valid performances by men, up 11% from 2007, the previous record year.  Truly elite performances also exploded, with 257 sub-2:12 marks, 169 sub-2:11, 106 sub-2:10, and 66 sub-2:09.  Each of those totals were records. At the very highest end of the sport, sub-2:08 performances grew to 36, up 33% from the previous record in 2003, while there were 16 sub-2:07's, and seven sub-2:06's.  All of these totals set records. The story was similar on the women' side, except at the very top end.  There were 1353 performances below 2:50, up 16% from the previous record of 1164 set in 2006.  Truly elite performances (sub-2:32) hit 199, up 21% from the previous record, and sub-2:30 marks hit 136, also a record."

Guest columnist, David Graham, looked at those staggering stats and tried to tell us what they all mean. He wrote the column just prior to Geb's WR attempt.


Jim Peters became the first person to ever break 2:20 in the marathon with a splendid 2:18 in 1953.  In 2008 alone, the 2:20 barrier was broken 1,342 times.  (Peter's was alone at the top of the marathon peak in 1953.  For comparison, Mount Everest was first climbed in 1953.  It  is estimated that somewhere between 1,200 and 1,500 people have climbed it since then...with over 140 people dying.  So Everest is deadlier than running sub 2:20, but both have now been accomplished by a lot of people.)

When I first became interested in the competitive side of running in the late 1970s, a 2:11 marathon was a newsworthy item (e.g., Bill Rodgers won the 1977 New York City marathon in 2:11:28).  This past year, this mark was equaled or bettered 257 times.

A 2:10 marathon was big news back in the 1970s.  When Jeff Wells and Tony Sandoval won the 1979 Nike OTC marathon in a tie of 2:10:20, it was the kind of result that made you widen your eyes, whistle, and say, "Impressive."  It was the 14th fastest time in history.  Now, just in 2008 alone, that time wouldn't even make the top 100 for the year...

In 1975, Bill Rodgers won Boston in 2:09:55, breaking Frank Shorter's American Record of 2:10:30 (from Fukuoka in 1972).  Rodgers became only the 4th man in history to break 2:10 for the marathon (the others being Derek Clayton, Ron Hill, and Ian Thompson).  In 2008, 2:10 was broken 106 times....wow.

I still remember talk about Derek Clayton's world record 2:08:34 back in the 70s.  Clayton had run so hard in that 1969 race in Belgium that he had blood in his urine afterwards (myoglobinuria) and he himself said that he was never quite the same afterwards.  What an effort.  Some even wondered aloud if the record would ever be broken.  Now, in 2008, that time wouldn't even crack the top 40for the year!

Belayneh Densimo's 2:06:50 came in a fantastic race in 1988, breaking the WR by 22 seconds.  Ahmed Salah's 2:07:07 for 2nd place was also under the old WR.  Up until early September of 1998, Densimo's time was the ONLY sub 2:07 in history.  Sept. 1998 wasn't that long ago....Well, in 2008 (only a decade later) 16 men broke 2:07 just in one year...

I remember quite well the first time a human broke 2:06 for the marathon because I was in that race.  But Khalid Khannouchi got to the finish line before I did (owing, I am fully convinced, to his place in the first row on the starting line, which gave him an an immediate eight second advantage over me that I could never make up during the race) and I still recall crossing the finish line in Chicago, looking up at a big electronic scoreboard, and seeing these messages flash on it, "NEW WR......Khalid Khannouchi 2:05:42...1. Khalid Khannouchi 2:05:42 2. Moses Tanui 2:06:16 3. Ondoro Osoro 2:07:59"  (Tanui's time would have been a new WR only a little more than a year earlier).  The next day, in the Oct. 25th 1999 edition of the Chicago Tribune (I have it in my lap as I write this), there was a huge photo of Khannouchi wearing gloves, crossing the finishing line on this cold day with the caption "Cold man, hot feat".  It was thrilling to be part of a race like that - first man under 2:06!

Three years later, in 2002, Khannouchi lowered his WR by four seconds when he won London, defeating Haile Gebrselassie and Paul Tergat in a race that put them on the cover of Track & Field News with the caption "A Marathon for the Ages".  And yet...and yet...in this year's London race, Khannouchi's time...would have gotten him 4th place ....just in the race!!!!!!!

Moreover, Khannouchi's 2:05:38 - which, again, got him a cover on T&F News - would have been buried in obscurity in 2008...a mere six years later.  How do I know it would have been overlooked?  Because in this year's Berlin Marathon, James Kwambai beat Khannouchi's time by two seconds, with a scintillating, 2:05:36...and nobody gave it a second thought, because he was over a MINUTE AND A HALF behind the winning time!

That's how far we've come in such a short time - a 2:05:36 gets a nice pat on the back and a line buried in an article of the type "Oh, and by the way, 2nd place went to James Kwambai who - yawn - finished in 2:05:36."

Also, for the second Olympiad, Kenya has left a 2:05 marathoner off of their Olympic team!  In 2004, Evans Rutto (2:05:50) didn't make the team and this year, William Kipsang's magnificent 2:05:49 win in a major marathon (Rotterdam) was not good enough to put him on the Kenyan Olympic team.  There just wasn't room on the team for a "mere" 2:05:49 marathoner when you have a team consisting of one fellow who ran 2:05:16, another who ran 2:05:24, and last year's World Champion....It's scary to see how deep Kenya's talent is...

One thing not reported by the article was that 2008's total for of sub 2:05 marathons was 2, which did NOT beat the previous record.  It tied the number run in 2003 (Tergat's 2:04:55 and Sammy Korir's 2:05:56 in the same race).  

And, of course, the man responsible for both sub 2:05's in 2008 was also responsible for the only sub 2:04 in history, the nonpareil Haile Gebrselassie.  His 2:03:59 = 4:43.7/mile.  My sophomore year in high school, my best mile was a 4:41 - and I felt spent after running that race.  So running 4:43 mile after mile after mile is just mind-boggling to me.  As I've said before, the man has a different engine under his hood.

On the women's side, in December of 1971, Cheryl Bridges ran the marathon in 2:49:40 - a new women's world record.  This past year, that time was bettered over 1,300 times..."You've come a long way, baby!" (as the 1970s Virginia Slims cigarette adds used to say)

In 1978, Grete Waitz took two minutes off the women's WR with a fantastic marathon debut of 2:32:30 at New York.  In 2008, that mark was beaten well over 200 times...

The next year, Waitz took another five minutes off the women's WR with a 2:27:33 at New York...

And the next year, she took another chunk off with a WR of 2:25:41....and three years later, in 1983, she ran 2:25:29 in London.  In all, she took nine minutes (!!!) off the women's WR....and yet, in 2008 alone, 32 women ran under 2:26....

And ten women ran sub 2:24's, so that Waitz's PR (a 2:24:54 at London in 1986) wouldn't even have gotten her in the top 10 for the year...  (Waitz's time is currently #205 on the all time list...another sign of how far women's marathoning has come.)

So all in all, I'm amazed by how far marathoning has come in such a short time.  Just looking at this year's Olympics, if you had told me before this year that Dathan Ritzenhein would run a 2:11:59 on an 80 degree day, I would have said, "Wow, awesome race.  That's a guaranteed medal, maybe a gold medal."  (Luke Kibet won the hot World Champs in 2007 in 2:15:59.)  If I were then to find out that 2:11:59 only got 9th place, I would have raised two eyebrows in surprise...and if you had told me that this time put him almost 5 1/2 minutes behind the winner, my mouth would have dropped open.

2:06:32 on an 80 degree day??!!  2:07:16 for silver on an 80 degree day??!!

Wow.

And now we are into 2009...we'll see what the year brings, starting with Gebrselassie's race in Dubai next Friday.

Folks are predicting Geb's WR to be taken down possibly by himself, and then by either Sammy Wanjiru or Martin Lel.  I've one other name to add to the list of possible WR breakers: Tsegay Kebede.  He's only 21, yet he's already run 2:06:40 to win Paris this year, 2:10:00 on an 80 degree day to take the bronze in Athens, and 2:06:10 to not only win Fukuoka but to break the course record (running faster than either Wanjiru or Gebrselassie ran at Fukuoka).  

Evolution = change.

That's track and road running in a nutshell.


Guest columnist David Graham is a general surgeon who works at a mission hospital in Shell, Ecuador.  A fan of LetsRun.com since 2002, he can be rearched at [email protected] :

We asked him for a bio and he wrote: "I was never a highly talented runner (good enough to make All Conference in high school in Johnson City, Tennessee and make varsity at a division III school - Wheaton College, west of Chicago, where I graduated in 1986 - but I was never an elite runner).  However, I've always been a fan of the sport.  One of my first real inspirations was a guy named John Stewart, a 4:02 miler for Tulane who made it to the finals of the 1972 Olympic Trials in the 1,500.  He gave me a pair of his old spikes back in the early 70s (back when the tracks we ran on were cinder) and from there I got started.  By vocation, I'm a general surgeon By avocation, I'm a running enthusiast.  I've been a fan of Letsrun.com since someone first told me about it in 2002."

If you are interested in writing a guest column, please contact us at: [email protected]

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