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What's Next for the Women's Marathon World Record?

Brigid Kosgei just ran 2:14 in Chicago—but she believes a woman can run sub-2:10.

Brigid Kosgei breaks the world record to win the Chicago Marathon on October 13, 2019. (Photo: Quinn Harris/Getty)
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Despite all the noise surrounding Eliud Kipchoge’s astounding sub two-hour marathon on Saturday in Vienna, the bigger surprise came the following day. At the Chicago Marathon, Kenya’s Brigid Kosgei smashed Paula Radcliffe’s previously untouchable marathon world record, which had stood for over sixteen years. Before Sunday, the closest any woman had come to Radcliffe’s time of 2:15:25 (set at the 2003 London Marathon) was Mary Keitany’s 2:17:01 (London, 2017). Kosgei ran 2:14:04 in Chicago, improving her own personal best in the marathon by over four minutes.

If there was any lingering doubt that we have entered a new era in marathon running, we can now dispense with such foolishness. Seven of the ten fastest women’s marathon performances have occurred in the past two years. (On the men’s side, meanwhile, the top five times have all happened in the past thirteen months.)

Kosgei’s minute-and-a-half improvement on the previous world record mirrors Kipchoge’s obliteration of the official men’s mark in last year’s Berlin Marathon. But while Kipchoge is in the twilight of his career, Kosgei is only 25 and believes that she hasn’t yet exhausted her potential.

“I think 2:10 is possible for a lady,” Kosgei said at the post-race press conference. “I am focused on reducing my time again.”

Prior to Sunday, the suggestion that 2:10 was attainable “for a lady,” would have sounded even more far-fetched than breaking the two-hour barrier for the men, given that it was over five minutes faster than a seemingly unbreakable record. But in our current era of optimized time trial experiments and trampoline shoes, who’s to say what’s feasible? Perhaps 2:10 in the women’s marathon is the new frontier. 

In 2017, during the lead-up to Kipchoge’s initial “Breaking2” attempt, Outside published an article by Samantha Larson, which suggested that Radcliffe’s world record from 2003 was the women’s equivalent of a sub two-hour marathon. As part of her argument, Larson references the Mercier scoring system, which uses averages from the top-100 track and field performances between 1995 and 1998 to create a statistical model for comparing race times between genders. In the Mercier calculator, Radcliffe’s time converts to a 1:59:55 men’s marathon. Kosgei’s new world record, meanwhile, converts to 1:58:57. (For what it’s worth, Kipchoge’s official world record, 2:01:39, converts to a women’s marathon time of 2:17:54—a mark which has already been bested seven times.) 

What’s more, as ultrarunner Camille Herron pointed out on Twitter, Kosgei’s converted sub-two performance is doubly impressive when one considers that she was running in record-eligible conditions—i.e. in an official race, rather than Breaking2-style event. (Although, to be fair, one advantage that world-class women have in this regard is that they can potentially use male pacemakers for the whole race, as Kosgei did Sunday in Chicago.)

If there’s a mood killer here, it’s that Kosgei’s manager is Frederico Rosa, who has represented several prominent runners who have failed doping tests in the past. (Although it’s hard to believe that this guy would ever break the rules.) These include multiple-time Boston Marathon winner Rita Jeptoo, who is currently serving a four-year ban, and defending Olympic Marathon champion Jemima Sumgong, who has been banned for eight years. Rosa has also represented 1,500-meter superstar Asbel Kiprop, who in 2016 defended his manager with the following bizarre and retrospectively hilarious statement: “If there was doping, they would have given me [the illegal drugs] first because many times I have attempted to run the world record and I'm not getting it.” Earlier this year, Kiprop received a four-year ban for testing positive for EPO. 

Of course, none of that proves that Kosgei has done anything wrong. But it does perhaps make it a little harder to be enthusiastic about her meteoric rise in the marathon. Prior to 2017, Kosgei held PRs of 1:14:08 and 2:24:45 in the half and full marathons. This year, she ran the two fastest times in history for both distances, though her 1:04:28 in the Great North Run last month is not world record-eligible due to the course profile. That’s a lot to chalk up to Vaporfly magic.
 
Or maybe Kosgei is that once-in-a-generation talent who, as she matures as an athlete, will take the women’s record further into the stratosphere. Maybe it’s time for a “Breaking 2:10” event. 

Oiselle founder Sally Bergesen raised this idea in a 2017 Outside op-ed: “Where is the women’s Breaking2? Was it never even considered because, like the four-minute mile, we lack a goal with numeric roundness?”

Full disclosure (and at the risk of losing all 600 of my hard-won Twitter followers): when I first heard this idea, I was skeptical. It’s enough of a challenge to get non-fans to care about arbitrary time goals. Part of me suspects that it would be difficult to generate excitement around the 2:10 barrier when a man has already run under two hours. I’ve also always believed that the emphasis should be on racing, rather than chasing records—and here, women might have the edge. In recent years, I’ve certainly seen more competitively intriguing races on the women’s side of the sport. 

But maybe it doesn’t have to be one or the other. What if Breaking 2:10 somehow pitted Kosgei against four-time NYC champion Mary Keitany? It would be Nike vs. Adidas. The “mixed” world record holder vs. the “women only” world record holder. (The IAAF distinguishes between world records set with male pacemakers and those set without.) In the unlikely event that this ever comes to pass, let’s hope that Keitany can get Adidas to hook her up with some trampoline shoes of her own. 

Filed To: RunningRacingAthletesGender
Lead Photo: Quinn Harris/Getty
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