The Berlin Marathon isn’t shy of its history and reputation for producing some astonishingly fast times since it was first run in 1974, and in recent years they’ve been inviting back former winners to mark those running milestones.
Ahead of last Sunday’s 39th edition of the race, 1997 women’s winner Catherina McKiernan was that honorary guest and latest inductee into their Hall of Fame. Her victory that year in 2:23.44 was astonishing on several fronts: it improved the Berlin course record by a minute and a half, broke the Irish record by almost four and a half minutes, was the then fastest debut in women’s marathon running – and eighth fastest of all time.
At age 27, McKiernan also won by over a minute from Russia’s Madina Biktagirova, her negative splits – 72:42 for the first half, 71:01 for the second – further reflecting the ease and comfort of her conquering the classic distance.
“When I was being interviewed last Friday, for the Hall of Fame, I said Berlin that year actually felt more like a 10km,” McKiernan says. “I definitely felt I could have run faster, had more to give, and Berlin is such a great course, always a great atmosphere.”
McKiernan’s invitation naturally extended to Sunday’s race, a prime seat at the finish, where any pre-race hype about Eliud Kipchoge improving his men’s world record of 2:01.09 (he did win a fifth title in 2:02.42) was promptly eclipsed by Tigst Assefa from Ethiopia winning the women’s race in 2:11.53 – utterly obliterating the previous world record of 2:14.04.
At age 29, Assefa isn’t without some reputation, winning Berlin last year in 2:15.37, having made her debut earlier in 2022, running 2:34.01. Long before that her only reputation was on the track, clocking 1:59.24 for 800m in 2014, two years before running that event at the Rio Olympics.
By the finish of Berlin on Sunday, Assefa had taken two minutes and 11 seconds off Brigid Kosgei’s previous world record (the Kenyan running that 2:14.04 in Chicago in 2019), her race pace an unrelenting 66.20 for the first half, 65.33 for the second – with some truly astonishing average splits including 5.01 per mile, 15.38 per 5km, and 31.15 for 10km.
Given her relative inexperience, Assefa’s time has been greeted with mild surprise by some, open scepticism by others. For McKiernan, in part perhaps by being there to witness her finish, it’s certainly not outside the realms of possibility.
“I wouldn’t be getting too excited about it, to be honest. Or be overly surprised by a woman running a 2:11 marathon, let’s say. Because things are moving on and improving all the time.
“Okay, 11 or 12 minutes faster than what I ran in 1997 may sound a lot, but things have improved so much, so I would kind of expect that, and it’s only going to get better and better again.”
Still, it’s only the second time the women’s marathon record has fallen in 20 years, Kosgei’s 2:14.04 improving the 2:15.25 which Paula Radcliffe ran to win the 2003 London Marathon. That was long before the so-called super shoes era, Assefa making no secret of the fact she was wearing the new Adidas Adizero Pro Evo 1 (at $500 and 138 grams, the new super of the super shoe.)
“Okay you have the new shoes as well,” McKiernan says. “I know the shoes Assefa was wearing are new again, and they must be bloody magic.
“But it’s such a big business now, they have everything put on for them. I’d like to think if I had their set-up in my day, I’m not saying I’d run 2:11, but if I was living their lifestyle, in the age we’re in now, I wouldn’t put a time on it, but I think I could run very, very fast.
“The shoes do make a difference, although I wouldn’t say they’re everything. The running science has moved on, the training and the recovery, diet, all of that. So again, I wouldn’t be overly surprised by it all.
“And we expect even faster times in the future. If you look at the times we were running 25 years ago, and you think 25 years before that women weren’t even allowed to run marathons. It just goes to show how things can progress.
“But I do still have mixed feelings on the shoes, depending on my humour, I suppose. It is what it is now, you have to accept the progression in technology, like everything else. Then at times I think it’s a bit ridiculous too, in that there’s something physically in their shoes that is making them run faster.”
Indeed Assefa’s opening 10km of 31.44 was her slowest. She followed that with a 31.07, 31.20, and 31.02, her last 2km only four seconds slower than what Kipchoge finished in. It’s also the single biggest improvement in women’s marathon running in 40 years, since Joan Benoit took two minutes and 45 seconds off the record, clocking 2:22.43 in Boston in 1983.
For McKiernan though, 2:11.53 is now just another time to beat: “You’ll always have freaks of nature as well, and Assefa was born to run obviously. Someone else will come along, run faster again, that’s just the way it goes.”