Sammy Wanjiru, Oscar Pistorius, Paula Radcliffe
Sammy Wanjiru, Oscar Pistorius, Paula Radcliffe

The Top 10 Running Stories of 2011

From bureaucratic wrangling to the death of the sport's most exciting star, the sport of running was in flux a year before the Olympic Games

Sammy Wanjiru, Oscar Pistorius, Paula Radcliffe

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The sport of running was in flux in 2011, with fundamental changes to how runners enter the world’s most prestigious race (the Boston Marathon), the death of two champions, and a raging debate over whether a double amputee should be allowed to compete against able-bodied runners. As the Olympic Games edge closer next summer, bringing running into its once-every-four-years limelight, how these stories are resolved will shape the character of the sport for years to come.

10. Runners Love Corporate Logos
9. Mo Farah beat who?
8. A Prodigy Quits
7. Grete Waitz Dies
6. Boston Raises the Bar
5. American Milers on Top
4. IAAF Hates Rabbits
3. Kenya Gets Even Better
2. Disabled, or Aided?
1. A Champion Dies Young

10. USATF Bows to Athlete Pressure on Logos

After a bitter battle, athletes win right to dress more like NASCAR drivers

NASCAR driver Jeff Gordon
NASCAR driver Jeff Gordon (PresidentBertho/Flickr)

Track and field has a long and inglorious history of governing bodies meddling with athletes’ rights, and U.S.A. Track and Field’s refusal to allow athletes to put multiple sponsor logos on their jerseys struck many runners as unfair and bad for the sport. 

But facing a confrontation with athletes at a conference in November and protests from two high-profile runners, USATF said it would back down from rules limiting the number of sponsors runners can rep on their uniforms. Whether the decision will bring more money and attention into a sport struggling for both is anyone’s guess, but it’s a step in the right direction—especially as the international media begin to focus on track and field before the London Olympics.

Read more at The Wall Street Journal

9. Mo Farah Hits the Big Time

British runner emerges as the world’s best non-marathon distance runner after moving to Oregon

Mo Farah en route to a silver medal at the 2011 World Championships in Daegu, South Korea
Mo Farah en route to a winning a silver medal at the 2011 World Championships in Daegu, South Korea (Erik van Leeuwen/Wikimedia)

Kenyans owned the marathon in 2011, but from 3,000 meters to the half marathon, a Somali refugee with British citizenship living in the United States put together a near-perfect season.

After joining Alberto Salazar’s Nike-funded training group in Portland, Oregon in February, 27-year-old Mo Farah defeated a world champion in his debut half-marathon, set a British record for 5,000 meters indoors, beat one of the finest 10,000-meter fields ever assembled at the Prefontaine Classic, broke his own British record for 5,000 meters outdoors, and, finally, won silver and gold at the world championships in Korea. This after failing to finish higher than seventh at a major championship before 2011.

Read more at Universal Sports

8. Lukas Verzbicas Quits Running for Triathlon

The fifth sub-four miler in U.S. history says he can’t compete as a runner

Lukas Verzbicas wins the 2011 ITU Junior Triathlon World Championships
Lukas Verzbicas wins the 2011 ITU Junior Triathlon World Championships (Charles McCain/Flickr)

Of the five American high schoolers to run under four minutes in the mile, three—Jim Ryun, Marty Liquori, and Alan Webb—would become fixtures on the world track circuit. (The fourth, Tim Danielson, was arrested for killing his ex-wife in June.) Lukas Verzbicas is the fifth, but for now he isn’t even a runner.

After a high-school career that netted him junior records at 2 miles and 5,000 meters and included two Footlocker cross country titles, Verzbicas signed up to run for legendary coach Vin Lananna at the University of Oregon.

In between, though, he won a world junior title in triathlon, and when his first cross country races as a Duck didn’t go well, he quit, moved to Colorado, and announced that he would devote his efforts to triathlon. “I don’t know how I will feel later,” he told writer Phil Hersh, “but I can’t see myself now running a 2:03 marathon or a 12:35 for 5,000, which is what it would take to be the top world level.”

Track fans were pissed

Read more at The Chicago Tribune

7. Grete Waitz Dies of Cancer

Norway’s greatest runner won the New York City Marathon nine times

Grete Waitz
Grete Waitz (Adidas on Youtube)

Grete Waitz wasn’t even planning to finish the New York City Marathon when she entered as a pacemaker in 1978. But finish she did, setting a new world record and winning the first of nine New York City Marathon titles. That number still stands as the most in race history and made Waitz both a star in New York and a beloved figure in the running community.

Waitz was diagnosed with cancer in 2005. She rarely spoke publicly about her illness and died on April 19 in Oslo, Norway. “Every sport should have a true champion like Grete, a woman with such dignity and humanity and modesty,” said New York City Road Runners Chairman George Hirsch.

Read more at The New York Times

6. The Boston Marathon Revamps Registration

Entering the country’s most venerable race gets tougher—and more fair

Runners cross the finish line at the 2007 Boston Marathon
Runners cross the finish line at the 2007 Boston Marathon (Ecnerwal/Flickr)

In October 2010, the Boston Marathon became a victim of its own popularity: Too many people hit the race’s qualifying times, and, on the first day of registration for the 2011 race, overwhelmed the Boston Athletic Administration’s servers and hit the race’s max capacity in eight hours. As recently as 2008, registration had stayed open just before the race itself in mid April.

Four months of deliberation later, the BAA rolled out a new system that favors faster runners and spreads the registration process across a two-week period. And at a time when more people are running marathons in the United States but average finish times continue to get worse, Boston gets credit for bucking the trend and raising its standards. Want to run Boston? Better train harder.

Read more at The Boston Globe

5. Jenny Simpson Wins Gold

U.S. runner surprises with world 1,500-meter title

Jenny Simpson wins gold at the 2011 World Championships
Jenny Simpson wins gold at the 2011 World Championships (Victah Sailor/

How important was Jenny Simpson’s world title in the 1,500 meters at the World Championships in September? No U.S. woman had won gold in any major global championship—in any distance event—since 1984. Which means, very.

To make the story even sweeter, Simpson spent most of 2010 laid up with a stress fracture. She barely qualified for the U.S. team to Daegu and wasn’t expected to be the top American finisher in the 1,500 final, not to mention the outright winner. But the race started slow and finished fast, a perfect scenario for her strong kick, and favorite Morgan Uceny tangled with Kenya’s Helen Obiri just as the action heated up on the last lap. As a pack of six women hit the final turn, a door opened for Simpson to run wide and stay out of trouble clear to the finish. Simpson would later recount her own astonishment: “I’m coming down the stretch thinking, ‘How did I get here?'”

Add in 21-year-old Matthew Centrowitz’s equally surprising bronze medal in the men’s 1,500, and on the eve of the London Olympics, U.S. runners are suddenly among the best in the world in one of track and field’s marquee events. 

Read more at Competitor

4. The IAAF Bans Male Pacers

Paula Radcliffe loses, then regains, her world record

Paula Radcliffe wins the New York City Marathon in 2008
Paula Radcliffe wins the New York City Marathon in 2008 (fergie lancealot/Wikimedia)

Do women who run with male pace setters get an unnatural or unfair advantage? According to the International Association of Athletics Federations, the answer is yes, to both, and in August the body moved to strip male-paced times from the women’s record books.

That decision came as a blow to world record holder Paula Radcliffe, who ran alongside pacers when she set the standing mark of 2:15:25 at the London Marathon in 2005. A spokesman for the IAAF said the organization was worried that “there was too much of a difference” between races with male rabbits and races without them and decided they had had enough.

The merits of the decision, not to mention their implications for records set in open or mixed-gender races, remain a bit muddy. But the IAAF was widely condemned for making the rule retroactive and stripping Radcliffe of her mark even though she hadn’t broken any rules in 2005. Thankfully, Radcliffe and sponsor Nike objected, and in November the IAAF elected to implement the rule beginning in 2012.

Read more at The New York Times

3. Here Come the Kenyans

Everybody knew Kenyans could run. Nobody knew they could run like this.

Patrick Makau en route to setting a new a new world marathon record, 2:03:38, at the Berlin Marathon
Patrick Makau en route to setting a new a new world marathon record, 2:03:38, at the Berlin Marathon (Dirk Ingo Franke/Wikimedia)

It’s no news that Kenyans win marathons, but 2011 presented something unprecedented in the sport: A Kenyan man dropped the course record at each of the year’s five major marathons, often by hard-to-believe margins, four Kenyans ran under Haile Gebrselassie’s old world record of 2:03:59, and Kenyan woman swept all six of medal positions in the marathon and 10,000 meters at the world championships, something no country has ever accomplished. 

Two things are happening: First, men’s marathon running has become more competitive, thanks to dwindling opportunities for distance track racers, a shift in training philosophies, and a belief that the marathon can be raced more aggressively thanks to Sammy Wanjiru. Second, economic development in Kenya and the advent of government-funded primary and secondary school education have begun to boost Kenyan women’s opportunities to pursue running as a career.

Read more at The Science of Sport

2. Pistorius Competes at the World Champs

A double amputee runs one of the year’s fastest 400s

Oscar Pistorius
Oscar Pistorius (Harry Borden)

Depending on your perspective, Oscar Pistorius’s 2011 track campaign was either one of running’s most heartwarming or most pernicious stories. In June, Pistorius, a double amputee who runs on carbon-fiber prostheses, ran 45.07 seconds for 400 meters.

That time qualified him to race at the Daegu world championships and reignited a debate over whether his carbon-fiber legs give him an unfair advantage or should inspire disabled athletes worldwide. Outside editor Chris Keyes would later call Pistorius “amazing,” while Science of Sport bloggers Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas gave him a nomination as 2011’s “villain of the year.”

Pistorius credibly reached the individual 400-meter semi-finals, but his world championships appearance was marred by an IAAF decision that restricted him from running any leg but the first on South Africa’s 4-by-400-meter relay. A slow starter, South Africa’s coaches didn’t want him on the first leg, and he was forced to watch from the sidelines as his team won silver behind the United States.

Read more at Outside

1. Sammy Wanjiru Dies at 24

In his wake, men’s marathon running may never be the same

Sammy Wanjiru wins the CPC Den Haag Half Marathon in a then world record of 58:34 in 2007
Sammy Wanjiru wins the CPC Den Haag Half Marathon in a then world record of 58:34 in 2007 (FaceMePLS/Flickr)

Sammy Wanjiru’s career was short—he set a world half marathon record in 2007, won Olympic marathon gold in 2008, and died in May of this year—but deeply influential. 

Even among Kenyan runners, a group known for aggressive racing, Wanjiru was unusually bold. His 2:06:32 win at the Beijing Olympics changed the way marathons are now raced on the international stage and precipitated what some have called a revolution of the sport.

Wanjiru died in May, at age 24, in a fall from a first-story balcony at his house in Nyahururu, Kenya. On the night he died, his wife found him in bed with another woman after a night of drinking, and the exact circumstances of his death remain unclear.

Wanjiru’s final race at the 2010 Chicago Marathon may have been his best. He arrived in Chicago, according to his own coach Federico Rosa, out of shape and ill, yet still won a brutal, head-to-head battle with Ethiopia’s Tsegaye Kebede. “You can’t imagine how bad things looked in Kenya 10 to 12 days ago,” Rosa told reporters after the race. “In Italy, we have an expression: We say a runner like this has very big balls.”

Read more at Grantland

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