Why U.S. Women Are Outperforming Men in the Marathon
A friendly reminder that a 2:10 marathon is actually still pretty hard
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Last month brought sobering news for U.S. running fans: following surgery on his left Achilles, Galen Rupp said that there was “no chance” he’d be racing a marathon next spring. Barring some sort of divine intervention, this effectively means that there’s also no chance that we’ll see an American man win next year’s Boston Marathon. Love him or hate him, Rupp is currently without equal among American marathoners and the only one capable of competing with the best in the world. Anyone questioning that supremacy need only glance at the qualifying list for the 2020 Olympic Trials, which records the fastest U.S. marathon performances since September 1, 2017. Rupp tops the list thanks the 2:06:07 that he ran in Prague last May. Meanwhile, Tim Ritchie’s 2:11:55, set at last year’s California International Marathon, is a distant second. That’s not a talent gap—that’s a chasm.
Meanwhile, as you might have heard, the American women have talent in abundance. There have been several articles making the case that, thanks to stars like Shalane Flanagan, Amy Cragg, Jordan Hasay, Des Linden, and Molly Huddle, U.S. women’s distance running is deeper than it’s ever been. Flanagan, Linden, and Huddle all took part in last weekend’s New York City Marathon, a race which, for some, illustrated the current disparity between elite men and women’s running in this country.
“The recent American women’s performance stands in contrast to the men’s,” the Times’s Lindsay Crouse wrote after Sunday’s race. “Since 2014, no American man besides Galen Rupp has run a marathon under 2 hours 10 minutes—effectively equivalent to the sub-2:30 mark for women. This year in New York alone, four American women broke 2:30. No American men finished in the top five; the American women placed two there,” Crouse added.
In fairness, both the men’s and women’s races in New York saw four Americans place in the top ten. But, as LetsRun.com noted, that stat doesn’t mean too much when roughly half of the elite fields consist of U.S. runners. Most American races are going to be disproportionately stacked with local athletes, so finishing times are perhaps a more useful metric to assess the competitiveness of our top runners. If we use the 2:10 mark as a barometer, what does that tell us about the state of professional men’s marathoning in this country?
I’m not the first person to pose this question. Writing for Runner’s World, Sarah Lorge Butler recently published an article titled: “Where Are All the Sub-2:10 U.S. Marathoners?”
In her piece, Butler points out that most of the fastest American marathoners tend to race in the United States, largely because marquee events like the New York City and Boston Marathons offer appearance fees for U.S. athletes. Since New York and Boston are un-paced and have challenging courses, those races don’t necessarily yield fast times.
But while there’s certainly some truth to that, it’s not clear why the same wouldn’t hold for American women, who are outperforming their male counterparts. In 2017, no American man cracked the top 100 of the fastest marathon times for the year, while five American women did.
When I emailed David Monti, the editor and publisher of the running industry news and results service Race Results Weekly, to ask why American women are faring better than the men, he noted two important factors. For one, the marathon is still a relatively “new” event on the women’s professional circuit: it was only added as an Olympic event in 1984. Partially because of this, even in the last decade much has been learned about how women should train for the marathon. As with women-specific exercise science in general, there’s a lot of catching up to do.
Per Monti, “Women are handling mileage loads and doing workouts coaches wouldn't dare give them 10 years ago.” More so than the men, American women are perhaps still establishing what they are capable of over 26.2 miles. Then there’s the competition. Without taking anything away from the achievements of Flanagan, Linden, and co., Monti points out that the “sheer number of men trying to be competitive in the marathon globally is still far greater than the number of women,” and so it’s more difficult for U.S. men to be competitive.
Of course, as Eliud Kipchoge’s recent marathon world record performance of 2:01:39 should illustrate, the bar is set pretty high right now. Only 17 American men have ever run a 2:10 marathon or faster, and only nine since 2000.
That’s not a knock against U.S. men, but more of a reminder that we’ve never had sub-2:10 guys in droves. I hate to shatter any illusions, but sub-2:10 has always been towards the upper limit of what’s been attainable for American men. (For what it’s worth, last month Cam Levins became the first Canadian to break 2:10 when he set a national record in his debut marathon.) On a global level, the mark has just become far less impressive over the last two decades, as the top East African runners have taken the marathon world record into the stratosphere. While Khalid Khannouchi’s American marathon record (2:05:38) dates back to 2002, 48 of the 50 fastest marathons ever run have happened over the last ten years. And every single one of them was run by someone from Kenya or Ethiopia.
So maybe it’s less that the American men are in a slump, and more that the top Kenyans are unfathomably good. Not exactly a blazingly astute insight, but it bears stating when we seem to be suddenly scratching our heads about why the U.S. isn’t producing off-the-charts times in the marathon; the same could just as easily be said about U.S. performances in the half marathon, or 10K. (Perhaps we could learn something from Japan, a running-obsessed nation which, in anticipation of the Tokyo Olympics in 2020, has recently produced a slew of sub 2:10 athletes thanks to a corporate sponsorship system. Just a thought.)
To be sure, American men aren’t the only ones with a lot ground to make up on their Kenyan “rivals.” Anyone who watched Mary Keitany blast a 66:58 for her second half split in New York on Sunday knows that, when they’re performing at the top of their game, the best Kenyan runners are still untouchable.
“I don’t have the physical capability to have an answer for that,” Flanagan said during post-race press conference in response to Keitany’s audacious second half. And Flanagan had a terrific race. Although she didn’t defend her title, Flanagan was once again on the podium last Sunday, fighting her way to third place and top American honors.
On the men’s side, the top American was 2016 Olympian Jared Ward, who finished in 6th. Afterwards, Ward took to Instagram and pushed back against the notion that American men are currently not bringing it in the marathon.
“Skeptics claim we have Rupp and then no one else. I disagree. While Rupp is on a different level, we have guys closer than the clock has said,” Ward wrote before touting the talents of fellow NYC runners like Shadrack Biwott (who finished 9th) and Scott Fauble (7th).
“The race for the Olympic team will be a competitive race with and against friends. I don't know who will be on that team, but when we send 3 guys to Tokyo they are going to be good,” Ward added.
Time will tell. In the meantime, Ward has every reason to be optimistic. After all, his second half split on Sunday was only one second slower than Keitany’s.