The formula behind women’s mid-distance dominance in the U.S.
American marathoners are floundering. While Kenyan and Ethiopian runners regularly sweep the top 10 spots at major events, for the past three decades, U.S. women haven't had the same depth. In recent World Marathon Majors, the U.S. placed just two women in the top ten at 2014 NYC Marathon; two in the top ten at 2015 Boston; and none in the top ten at the 2015 London Marathon. But our middle distance ladies are kicking ass—and it’s no coincidence. Here’s a look into why.
First, let’s see what’s happing in middle-distance races. Never before have there been more than a dozen American women competing at the same time who’ve run two minutes and faster for 800 meters, and hover around the four-minute mark for 1,500 meters. These are benchmarks for global competitiveness, and there’s a flying squadron of maybe 20 contenders ready to take on the world.
Jenny Simpson, for example, won a silver medal in the 1,500 at the 2013 World Championships; Brenda Martinez took bronze in the 800 at that same competition; Chanelle Price won 800-meter gold in the 2014 Indoor World Championships; and (I get emotional just writing it) last summer, 19-year-old Ajee Wilson ran down world champion Kenyan Eunice Sum to win a Diamond League 800 meters in 1:57.67, a clocking that led the world at that time.
Better Training and Development Methods
“There’s less tendency to try to get everything out of girls while they’re in high school, and more interest in building a strong base for their future in running,” said Bev Docherty, a middle and high school track coach at Mounds Park Academy in St. Paul, Minnesota. “There’s an understanding that senior year is not the end.”
Sports writer Marc Bloom noted in a recent Runner’s World article that in 2003, twelve girls broke 4:50 for the mile, and only one broke 4:45. In 2013, thirty-five girls broke 4:50, and 16 went under 4:45.
More High School Runners = More College and Pro Runners
The NCAA Sports Participation Rates Report shows that in 1982, just over 9,000 women participated in outdoor track. In 2014, that number rose to 27,752. While there’s always a steep drop-off in track participation post-collegiately, more runners in college means more runners after college.
Middle Distance Is More Lucrative, Less Time Consuming
“You can race more often, and make more money,” says Virginia Brophy Achman, executive director of Twin Cities in Motion (the organizer behind the Twin Cities Marathon and other races), and former member of the USATF women’s long distance running committee. “There are just more opportunities to run 800s and 1,500s. The training and recovery time is far less for middle distances than a marathon. If you fall or have a bad race in an 800, you can do another in a week or less.”
Frequent racing makes middle distance runners attractive to sponsors, whose brands get exposure almost weekly from January to September.
Marathoners Are Less Attractive to Sponsors—For Now
Marathoners spend the vast majority of their time pounding pavement out of the public eye, train for at least four months for one race, run two marathons per year, and require a month of recovery after each event; the return on investment simply isn’t as great.
For that reason, less than half of the women who run the Olympic trials marathon receive sponsor support, meaning they pay for their own kit, travel expenses, race entries, coaching, and physical therapy. One of the top U.S. marathoners, Annie Bersagel, works a full-time professional job. She signed with Under Armour only a few months ago after nine years of going it alone. Nearly all the women who’ve qualified to participate in the Olympic trials at mid-distances, however, receive either corporate or collegiate support.
Training groups—Hansons Brooks, Team USA Minnesota, ZAP Fitness, Nike Oregon Project, Northern Arizona Elite, Brooks Running and others—were established to ease marathoners’ hard, lonely life and improve U.S. competitiveness in that distance. Ironically, most of those groups have had more success with their middle distance runners than their marathoners. It’s a risky proposition to pay a marathoner’s room and board, and keep her injury-free through four months of high-mileage (often destructive) training on the chance she will place in the top three or five spots in a prize-money race. Nike Oregon Project, who’s original goal was to create an “American resurgence in distance running,” now has no marathoners in their stable.
Biology Doesn’t Favor Marathoners
“The peak age for running a marathon is also about the peak age for starting a family,” Brophy Achman said, that age being around 30. “You have to wonder if childbearing plays a role in the small number of elite marathoners.”
Again, it seems biology is kinder to middle-distance runners, whose shorter training and races let them bounce back more quickly from pregnancy. Twenty-nine-year old 800-meter star Alysia Montano, for example, was running very fast times at age 21, and was training for and competing in her event throughout college, a time when most future marathoners have not yet logged their first 20-mile run. Last year being a non-World Championship year, she had a baby in the summer without missing major competition, was training again by late fall, raced successfully six months after giving birth, and, less than a year into motherhood, was part of a gold medal-winning 4 x 800 at the World Relay Championships. Last weekend, with daughter Linnea less than a year old, Montano won her sixth U.S. National Championship in the 800. She will represent the U.S. at the World Championships in August.
In contrast, American record holder in the marathon, Deena Kastor, ran her amazing 2:19 race in 2006 at the age of 33, typical for a marathoner. In fact, all of her fastest times were posted when she was between 29 and 33 years old, and childless. She put off having children until she was 38 years old. A year after the birth of daughter Piper, Kastor placed what was to her a disappointing sixth at the 2012 Olympic Trials Marathon. She told Runners' World she could not make running and motherhood coexist peacefully: “After that [race], I put health and family first, running and business second.”
Marathoning Is New
Consider this: The women’s marathon at the top level is still relatively new. The first women’s Olympic marathon took place in 1984.
“Thirty-one years—just over one generation—is pretty brief when you’re talking about long distances,” Brophy Achman said. “It takes a while for large numbers of women to feel strong enough and confident enough to take on a marathon.”
For immediate gratification, get yourself to a track meet—high school, college or professional—and enjoy what is certainly a golden age of women’s middle distance running.