Pro road racing keeps putting too much emphasis on lowering the world record
Oh, the trials of distance running fandom! The money spent on dodgy streaming services to watch obscure track meets. The feeling of frustration when marathon broadcasts cut away from the action during the most crucial phase of the race. The heartbreak of yet another doping scandal.
And yet, there are moments when the fickle mistress decides to love you back. This Sunday’s Berlin Marathon would seem to be one such moment. The best marathoner ever (Eliud Kipchoge) versus the best track runner ever (Kenenisa Bekele) versus the former world record holder with five Marathon Major wins to his name (Wilson Kipsang)—competing on the world’s fastest course. It’s Kenya versus Ethiopia. It’s Adidas versus Nike. It is, as the LetsRun.com people put it, going to be a total “barn burner.”
But here’s the thing: once again, the hype in the leadup to the race has been all about the world record. And it’s not just the media. The athletes have all stated their bold intentions: Kipsang (who is probably the underdog of the superstar trio) recently tweeted: “Am better placed than anyone else to break the world record. I have done it before and believe I am able to do it again. #beatBerlinWR”
Maybe the record will fall on Sunday. Maybe it won’t. Either way, professional road racing keeps making the same mistake of putting too much emphasis at the outset on lowering the all-time mark. This isn’t a sustainable long-term strategy to keep people interested. Yes, it’s exciting when someone runs a marathon faster than any human in history, but only a tiny segment of the population can appreciate the difference between, say, 2:05:42 (the world record in 2002, set by Khalid Khannouchi) and Dennis Kimetto’s current mark of 2:02:57. Even among the distance running cognoscenti, it’s not necessarily the fastest performances that endure, but the most competitively compelling ones; I’ll always take Salazar and Beardsley battling all the way onto Boylston Street in the 1982 Boston Marathon over Eliud Kipchoge running a 2:00:25 time trial behind a Tesla pace car.
I’m sorry, but I had to bring it up. Because the Breaking2 project looms large in the run-up to this weekend’s race. An hour-long documentary of Nike’s choreographed attempt to run a sub two-hour marathon was just released this week on National Geographic’s YouTube channel. Kipchoge, the phlegmatic hero of the story, is also the favorite to win in Berlin—thereby bolstering his unofficial marathon world record with an official one on the streets of the German capital.
Although I was taken in by the spectacle of Breaking2, its excessive focus on finishing time (indeed, that was the whole point) is precisely what irks me about the pre-Berlin hype. The race should always come first. If a record falls, fantastic, but to prioritize it at the outset is to dampen the sport’s most intriguing element: head-to-head, or, rather, shoulder-to-shoulder competition. (Coach and writer Mario Fraioli, among others, addressed this issue in his criticism of Breaking2 a few months ago and again this week.)
There’s even been speculation, put forth by this story in the Daily Nation and this article on FloTrack.com, that Kipchoge and Bekele might be working together to run a fast time, presumably by drafting off each other once the pacemakers fall away in the second half of the race. (They will both be representing the NN Running Team—an initiative sponsored by Nike and the NN Group, a Dutch asset management company.) Let’s hope that there isn’t anything to this rumor. What’s the point of pitting two all-time greats against each other if they’re going to be de facto teammates? (Valentijn Trouw, who manages both Kipchoge and Bekele for Global Sports Communication—another company that sponsors the NN team—didn’t respond to my email query about whether the two runners planned on working together during the race.)
“By improving performances on the world-class stage, it is also hoped the profile of the athletes will improve, allowing them to flourish into household names,” the NN Running Team states in the “About Us” section of its website. The assumption seems to be that running ever-faster times and breaking records will increase the popularity of the sport. This is a dubious claim at best. If you’re still reading this article, then you probably already belong to a subset of distance running enthusiasts. So, can you name the last five men and women to hold the world record in the marathon?
What it comes down to, at the end of the day, is that the significance of records and finishing times has become too inflated.
“The world now is just 25 seconds away,” Kipchoge says at the end of the Breaking2 documentary.
The world? If you watch the trailer for the film, it’s clear that we are supposed to think of a sub-two-hour marathon as a landmark in human striving akin to the moon landing and the first successful attempts at aviation. That seems a little bit of a stretch—particularly for an event as contrived as Breaking2. The context was too far removed from the road-racing (emphasis on racing) environment that gave the two-hour marathon its status as an “impossible” goal in the first place. (What would we consider “impossible” today if Bekele—who holds the world records in both the 5,000 and 10,000-meters—had attempted a few Breaking2-style events in his prime? 1:58:30? Can you imagine getting excited about that?)
Not that Kipchoge running 26.2 consecutive miles at 4:35-pace wasn’t an astonishing feat to behold. But if Kipsang, Bekele, and perhaps an unsung outsider end up giving Kipchoge a run for his money on Sunday, it has the potential to deliver a thrill that no orchestrated record attempt will ever be able to match. If Kipchoge and Bekele are still neck and neck when they pass through the columns of the Brandenburg Gate, setting up a finishing sprint showdown against the most opulent backdrop in all of road racing—then, my friends, we’d have a barn burner indeed.