Slow are getting slower while records continue to tumble for elite marathon runners

In the absence of the Kenyans and Ethiopians, Dublin Marathon might produce a first Irish men’s winner in 20 years

Kenya’s Wilson Kipsang poses with his new world record time after winning the 40th edition of the Berlin Marathon in Germany in September. John MacDougall/AFP/Getty

Kenya’s Wilson Kipsang poses with his new world record time after winning the 40th edition of the Berlin Marathon in Germany in September. John MacDougall/AFP/Getty


These are worrying times for the marathon runner. What’s the forecast for Monday? Am I properly hydrated? Who used all the Vaseline? How much longer will my world record last?

It’s what happens when the autumn marathon season reaches its peak, and even if Dublin doesn’t exactly follow recent trends, it seems the fast are getting faster, while the slow are getting slower. Not everyone who runs 26.2 miles worries about the clock, and not everyone worries about breaking a world record either. The worry is that this doesn’t seem to matter as much anymore.

It’s not easy keeping track of the conveyer belt of Kenyans and Ethiopians whose sole motivation is running against the clock, partly because the rest of the world can’t keep up – and partly because the financial rewards may mean never having to work, or indeed run, again.

This autumn marathon season has been the fastest in running history, at least at the front of the race, including Wilson Kipsang’s brilliant world record in Berlin last month of two hours, three minutes and 23 seconds.

Kipsang knocked 15 seconds off the previous world record of fellow Kenyan Patrick Makau, also set in Berlin, just two years ago. Having also run 2:03:42, when winning the Frankfurt Marathon in 2011, Kipsang is the first man to have run two sub-2:04. His 2:03:23 in Berlin also saved the IAAF some blushes, in that it broke the first and surely now only world record of 2013, at least in an official Olympic event. The last time athletics went without any world record in the one year was 1907 – when the IAAF was founded.

Record holders
More importantly, Kipsang joined the very contemporary list of world marathon record holders. Just over a decade ago, the world record stood at 2:05:38, set by Moroccan-turned-American Khalid Khannouchi, in London in 2002. Since then they’ve been knocking small chunks off, including Paul Tergat and Haile Gebrselassie (twice). Amazingly, there are now 40 men who have run quicker than 2:05:38, or 62 performances in total, not forgetting either the 2:03:02 that Kenya’s Geoffrey Mutai ran to win the 2011 Boston Marathon, ruled out for record purposes because of the marginally illegal downhill gradient.

Further evidence of the fast getting faster came earlier this month when Dennis Kimetto won the Chicago Marathon in 2:03:45 – a course record – in what was only Kimetto’s second ever marathon. Not bad for a man who only began running three years ago, when asked to join Mutai’s training group. Mutai, who also trains with Kipsang, is looking to extend that group winning streak in New York on Sunday week, and although that course has never favoured world records, it will not be slow.

In the meantime the last few weekends have also produced course records in Beijing (Tadese Tola from Ethiopia winning in 2:07:16), Amsterdam (Wilson Chebet from Kenya winning in 2:05:36), and Toronto (Deressa Chimsa from Ethiopia winning in 2:07:05). At this rate the first sub-two hour marathon might well happen in our lifetime after all. Either way, with Mo Farah making his marathon debut in London next April, and Kenenisa Bekele among the opposition, that world record of 2:03:23 is unlikely to survive long into 2014.

There will be no Kenyans or Ethiopians lining up in Dublin on Monday – at least not that we know of. The Dublin organisers, originally without a headline sponsor, decided to cut the elite international fund, and by the time a sponsor was secured it was too late to go back on that. So, while the course record of 2:08:33, set by Kenya’s Geoffrey Ndungu in 2011, will definitely not be tested, this does pave the way for the first Irish men’s winner in 20 years, when John Treacy was the first man home, in 1993, in 2:14:40.

Blow up
Yet there is little to suggest Treacy’s 20 year-old winning time will be tested, either. Joe Sweeney, who is making his marathon debut, might not be that far off if everything goes smoothly. His coach former twice-Dublin winner Jerry Kiernan, told me this week that he’d be “very disappointed if Joe didn’t win it” before adding: “Of course these things can blow up in your face.”

Back in 1993, when Treacy led the way home, the top six men were all Irish, and all ran sub 2:20. Of the 2,617 finishers on the day, the first 30 ran sub 2:30, and the first 316 ran sub 3:00. Last year, of the 12,204 finishers in Dublin, only the first 20 broke 2:30 (almost half of whom were Kenyans), and only the first 425 ran sub 3:00. That’s a significantly lower percentage: in order words, at least towards the back of the race, the slower are getting slower.

This is not limited to Dublin. The average men’s finishing time in US marathons is now 44 minutes slower than it was in 1980, with veteran American running commentator Toni Reavis blaming this on the “dumbing down, slowing down” of marathon running. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, however, when participation is soaring, and the basic health benefits of running are further spread among the masses.

What hasn’t helped, however, is the increasing influence of the “bottom line”. The US Competitor Group, which organises 80 road running events around the world, including the Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon series, recently decided to eliminate the elite international fund, also doing away with any appearance fees, which certainly won’t encourage the slower to go any faster. It doesn’t help either when people like John Bingham of Runners World tells his readers “The miracle isn’t that I finished. The miracle is that I had the courage to start.”

Let’s hope Dublin will restore its elite international fund for 2014, and perhaps the first Irish men’s winner in 20 years will help encourage some faster Irish times in the near future, all of which may help slowly change the worrying trend of more people running a marathon as opposed to actually racing it.