Ian O’Riordan: New normal of marathon running is looking strangely abnormal

Sunday’s London Marathon will see elite athletes run 20 laps of St James’s Park

It’s starting where it normally would finish. Instead of being one big lap it’s 20 small ones. Some say it’s more a shoe-down than showdown, others that the winner is less a shoo-in than shoe-in, and if the rain holds off it could end up going where no man or woman has run before.

These are strange times for the marathon aficionado. It’s been over six months now since pace chart and stopwatch at hand and cups of black coffee at the ready, the last big city marathon presented itself around the streets of Tokyo. That was a strictly elite race only, before the problem with the classic distance was that every distance runner was still too near.

So one by one they fell away for the rest of the year – Boston, Paris, Berlin, Chicago, New York and our own dear Dublin. Which is why Sunday’s 40th running of the London marathon, originally set for the end of April, may represent a sort of new normal, at least for the foreseeable future.

Instead of the mass start at Greenwich (42,906 lined up in 2019, 42,549 finished), two strictly elite fields of 39 men and 25 women plus a wheelchair division will set off, three hours apart, on the Mall next to Buckingham Palace and race almost 20 laps of St James’s Park without a single spectator within sight and before an eight-hour live BBC audience of several million.


In or around the same time, there will be 45,000 other runners, from around 109 countries, who will have paid £20 for the right to run 26.2 miles somewhere far away in their own little bubble, and good luck to them.

The true aficionado cares mostly about the elites, and even if the much-hyped shoe/showdown between Eliud Kipchoge from Kenya and Kenenisa Bekele from Ethiopia isn't now happening – Bekele withdrawing on Friday afternoon due to a calf muscle injury – the elite races may still be all or nothing about the shoes on their feet, depending on one definition of normal.

Even before Bekele’s withdrawal, Kipchoge was considered that shoo/shoe-in to win what will be a record fifth London marathon, in part because around this time last year he ran the first unofficial sub-two hour marathon in Vienna, running with a range of forbidden pace assistance to clock 1:59:40.

The shoes on Kipchoge's feet that day were the Nike Alphafly Next%, only now made widely available to all the elites, including defending women's London champion Brigid Kosgei from Kenya, running her first marathon since her world record of 2:14:04 in Chicago last October, taking more than 80 seconds off Paula Radcliffe's 16-year-old mark.

Remember what happened in Tokyo back in March? Led home in 2:04:15 by Birhanu Legese from Ethiopia, the top 17 finishers all ran under 2:08 for the first time in marathon history, Suguru Osako from Japan improving his national record to 2:05:29 in fourth. The top-28 all ran sub-2:10, while women’s Kenyan-Israeli winner Lonah Salpeter also ran a course record of 2:17:45. Of the top 30 men, 28 were wearing the Nike Vaporfly, either the Next% or the new Alphafly model released just days before.

Not everyone believes the Alphafly Next%, which has as a heel stack height of 39.5mm, should be legal for running record purposes, although World Athletics, the governing body of the sport, says any road shoe height under 40mm is fine by them. This is the first time shoes of such height have been unleashed on London, and chances are there will be plenty more abnormal times.

Mike Clohisey and Stephen Scullion, Irish marathon champions in 2018 and 2019 respectively, are among the invited in London and certainly in form to rewrite their bests: Clohisey's 2:13:19 stems from Dublin two years ago, Scullion's 2:11:52 run in Houston back in January, the Belfast runner last month improving his half marathon best to 61:12 in Larne.

That certainly puts Scullion within reach of John Treacy’s Irish record, the 2:09:15 he ran when finishing third in Boston in 1988, his 2:09:56 when winning silver at the LA Olympic marathon in 1984 the only other Irish sub-2:10.

Treacy absolutely believes it’s about time his record is broken, telling this newspaper back in March that “he’d be delighted when my Irish marathon record is broken, but I’d prefer to see it broken without the shoe technology, without the ‘bouncy-bouncy’, athletes running three or four minutes faster than they normally would. To me, that’s undermining the integrity of the sport, and I think World Athletics have made a mistake, not only in allowing the advantage, which in my view is unfair.”

It probably doesn’t help that against this backdrop is the increasingly abnormal number of Kenyan runners who made their name in the London marathon and are now banned for various doping offences. Most notably former world marathon record holder and 2012 and 2014 London winner Wilson Kipsang, who in July was handed a four-year ban for a series of anti-doping violations, including using a fake photograph of an overturned lorry to justify a missed test.

Similarly with Jimima Sumgong, who was all set to defend her 2017 London marathon title, until she tested positive for EPO two weeks before, and later had her ban doubled to eight years, from January 2019, after fabricating her medical records.

Not forgetting Kenya’s Daniel Wanjiru, who won London in 2017, and just last April was also suspended by the Athletics Integrity Unit (AIU) and charged with “use of a prohibited substance [or] method”, similar to Abraham Kiptum, who was all set to start London last year before being pulled just before the race, returning abnormal blood values and last November handed a four-year ban.

Just last week, Patrick Siele became the 66th Kenyan athlete to join the current banned list, suspended for three and a half years for trying to evade the testers by running away and jumping over a fence – given a six-month reduction after he admitted the offence.

Before being banned this year, Kipsang was hailed as the first and last runner to actually beat Kipchoge in the marathon, in Berlin back in 2013, when he ran a then world record of 2:03:23 and no one could have imagined that as being the new normal.