At a certain point in 2008 I lost interest in professional swimming because every major race yielded a new record and the records began to feel cheap. The swimmers, of course, were wearing swimsuits that made them faster, so in some sense the records really were cheap.
Course records have fallen at each of the world's five most important marathons this year, beginning in Boston in April, hitting a high point in Berlin in September, when Patrick Makau broke the world record, and ending Sunday in New York. All of the record breakers, and indeed each of the 20 fastest marathon runners this year, are Kenyan. Two weeks ago at the Frankfurt Marathon a second-tier runner named Wilson Kipsang finished within a hair's breath of Makau's new mark and became the second-fastest marathon runner ever.
Salomon-sponsored Jennifer Pharr Davis broke the Appalachian Trail speed record on July 31, 2011 when she hiked and ran the 2181-mile trail in 46 days, 11 hours and 20 minutes—26 hours and 11 minutes faster than the previous record holder, Andrew Thompson. Most hikers take five months to complete the trail. Pharr powered through supported by her husband and a friend, and driven by her desire to put hiking on the map as a sport. It was her third time hiking the trail. The first time, while walking at a much slower pace, she saw zero bears. This time, while at times running along, she saw 36.
Photo of Aspen Vista trail by taylorandayumi/Flickr
The other weekend I ran a trail race for the first time since moving to New Mexico earlier this year. It didn't go well.
I'm not in good shape, which I blame on adopting a puppy who likes to chew my hands, hates sleeping, and has these namby-pamby "growth plates" that won't close for another year and mean he'll "get arthritis" if I take him running. (I predict a return to glory once he can train with me next summer. So, watch out.) Making matters somewhat worse, the course I ran started at 10,000 feet and climbed 5.8 miles to 12,000 feet, an elevation I've exceeded only one other time in my life, then returned to the start.
On Wednesday, author Chris McDougall posted a critique of Lance Armstrong's running form on his blog. McDougall is famous for writing Born to Run, the 2009 bestseller about Mexico's Tarahumara Indians and barefoot running. It's hard to overstate how influential that book has become in the two years since it was published, and McDougall deserves a great deal of credit for bringing hugely important ideas about barefoot running to the sport's mainstream.
Last month, the International Association of Athletics Federations decided that women who run alongside men in road races cannot set world records. The IAAF now believes that male pacers give women an undue advantage, and have made the incredible decision to remove male-paced times from its record books. Officially, that disqualifies the standing world record, Paula Radcliffe's 2:15:25, which she set while running alongside two Kenyan men at the London Marathon in 2003, and elevates the world's third best time, 2:17:42, which Radcliffe ran in 2005 on her own. The IAAF has been concerned about male-paced female records for some time, and became especially concerned when Kenya's Mary Keitany broke the half-marathon world record while drafting off of a man earlier this year.
Women who run with men do gain some advantage. A male pacer is likely bigger than a female pacer and may block more wind. A man will also be able to run all or most of the race, and because he's not redlining, he can hit more consistent splits. (This is a point Phil Hersh of the Chicago Tribunewent out of his way to avoid last week.) So by removing men from the pacing duties, the IAAF has made women's times, in a very, very narrow sense, more natural. But because the rule is inconsistent and retroactive, the IAAF's decision is bad.