The Marathon As We Knew It Is Gone
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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.
To give more context, the 13th-fastest marathon this year is faster than the world record was until late 2003. Since January, forty five men have run under 2:08, something only two Americans have done in history. The second-fastest marathon of 2007 would not crack the top 20 in 2011.
If we exclude doping as a possibility—and with no evidence of it, there is no reason to think that we shouldn't—these performances do not appear to be the result of a technological innovation, the equivalent of swimming's rubber suits. The shoes aren't much lighter, the roads aren't bouncier, and the water isn't more hydrating.
So why the surge? Among the plausible explanations, the most interesting to me is a psychological one. Kenyan men, following the example Sammy Wanjiru set when he broke the Olympic marathon record in 2008 in hot, terrible-for-marathoning conditions, have learned that it is possible to race the marathon like a sprint. Which is to say: all out from the start, with no regard for the consequences. This is a change from a past era, which now seems very conservative, in which the distance itself was assumed to be stronger than the athlete.
In high school, I believed with some earnestness that the main thing holding me back from glory wasn't talent or fitness but pain. Most of my friends felt that if we were tougher, we might be able to run with the best in the state. I remember chatting with a teammate, a 4:50 miler, on an easy run when he guessed that he could run 4:20 if he wasn't a bit of a wimp. At the time, it didn't strike me as an unreasonable estimate.
In the ensuing years I've become less enamored with the toughness-as-ability idea. You can't just decide to run faster. There are very real, difficult-to-manipulate physiological limits on human performance.
Unless, maybe you can just decide to run faster. Isn't that exactly the implication of the last 11 months?