In Stride

Kimetto and Mutai ran together most of the race, but the younger man had more at the end.     Photo: alter.keeper/Flickr

How Fast Is Berlin and Why?

Dennis Kimetto set a new world record Sunday. Was it the course? You bet.

Running in excellent conditions yesterday in Berlin, Kenya’s Dennis Kimetto broke the world record in the men’s marathon, clocking a time of 2:02:57. (If you haven’t yet had your daily dose of humility, that’s an average mile split of 4:41.36.) The 30-year-old’s time was 26 seconds faster than the previous record of 2:03:23, which fellow Kenyan Wilson Kipsang ran last year on the same course. Emmanuel Mutai who finished second in Sunday’s race, also broke Kipsang’s record, finishing in a pedestrian 2:03:13.

The takeaway here, other than that Kenyans are good at running, is that if you want to run your fastest marathon, Berlin might be a good place to do it.

So how fast is Berlin’s course?

Consider this: the last six official world records in the 26.2-mile distance have all been set on the streets of the German capital, dating back to September 28, 2003 when Paul Tergat (KEN . . . surprise) ran 2:04:55, thus becoming the first man to run under 2:05.

Gimlet-eyed marathon geeks will be looking for an asterisk here and, finding none, will be quick to pose the question: What about Boston?

In 2011, Geoffrey Mutai and Moses Mosop finished 1-2 in the Boston Marathon, running 2:03:02 and 2:03:06, respectively. Until yesterday, these were the two fastest marathon times ever, but the net elevation loss and potential for wind assistance on Boston’s course render it ineligible for world-records, according to the International Association of Athletics Federations. In the same 2011 race, Ryan Hall finished fourth in 2:04:58, which would be the all-time American mark, but will remain in distance running purgatory unless the IAAF changes its rules.

However, since most of us won’t be too worried about the legitimacy of our marathon world record time, the question remains: is Berlin the fastest course?

Short answer: Yes . . . if you’re a man. Runner’s World published a chart averaging the top 10 performances in race history for the world’s major marathons, including Boston. For the men’s race, Berlin took the top spot with an average time of 2:03:55, while Boston came in sixth at 2:05:39. For the ladies, London came first with an average of 2:18:59, with Berlin and Boston coming in third and forth.

That being said, you don’t have to be Nate Silver to know that these charts should be taken with a grain of salt. Average top 10 times are influenced by factors other than course difficulty (e.g. the financial incentive for world-class talent to participate), and one or two lightning-fast times can skew the stats. (Case in point: Paula Radcliffe’s seemingly untouchable 2:15:25 at the 2003 London Marathon.)

Nevertheless, no one is disputing that Berlin’s course is flat and fast. There are hardly any perceptible inclines. And while one could say the same about Chicago, the course in the Windy City can be—brace yourself—extremely windy. Chicago also has more 90-degree turns than Berlin, which can have a slowing effect—especially if, unlike Kimetto and co., you find yourself more toward the middle of the pack. (Kimetto ran Chicago last year in a course-record time of 2:03:45.)

Finally, as any seasoned marathoner knows, temperature is a crucial factor. While you can be unlucky and line up in Grant Park in mid-October, or in Hopkinton in late-April, and face unseasonably humid conditions, it is far more unlikely to be hot in Berlin in late-September. It was 46 degrees Fahrenheit at the start of yesterday's race. (We’re talking the 52nd parallel north here, folks.)

So start training. Berlin 2015 is only 364 days away. 

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