On Rosie and Rossi: Cheating in Modern Footraces

A brief examination of running’s most famous course-cutting allegations.

There is a popular aphorism in the running community that single-handedly describes our sport as intense, ridiculous, and simplistic: my sport is your sport’s punishment. Evoking memories of middle school P.E. when we’d realize to our shoulder-slumping chagrin that we’d be running the mile (or as we might call it today, a time trial), this saying reaches the core of what it means to be a runner.

We run, for long periods of time, through pain, for nothing more than to continue running.

It’s not something we do because we arrived late for practice or missed a shot. It’s not something that makes us groan or paint a bright morning into an otherwise somber gray. For many of us, it’s not the stick, but instead the carrot. We run because we enjoy it and its remarkable simplicity. Yes, it’s the foundation for most exercise regimens and a crucial component in many major sports. But lacing up and jostling our heart for a prolonged period of time can be its own reward, and as we stop our watches at the end of another quality workout, we can feel both refreshed and empowered. Those of us with an intense, perhaps unhealthy obsession with statistics will relish at how remarkably easy and satisfying it is to track and quantify our development in the sport, allowing the real, tangible results to speak for themselves.

These results are crucial for many runners. We want to see that we’re either improving or at least maintaining a good level of fitness. We can do this through emotion – from primal elation or the tricky process of measuring “feel” – or by measuring split times. However, the best way to do this, I believe, is through competition. And unlike almost every other sport out there, this is the arena where everyone comes together, from the top athletes in the world to the guy who lost a bet and everyone in between. The glorious stretch of road or trail that we all tread, writing with each step a new chapter in our lives, is a communal path, a shared experience.

So why would anyone want to tarnish the experience by cheating?

Unsurprisingly, there are many reasons, along with a handful of people who do it every year. At the professional level, elite athletes can gain unfair advantages from performance-enhancing substances or oxygenated blood. Organizations such as the US Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) do their best to crack down on these incidents and provide deterrents to their use. Athletes obviously have many incentives to use these banned substances, such as prize money, national pride and the thrill of winning. On occasion, giants fall, with the most examples in recent years being Kenya’s Rita Jeptoo and Russia’s Liliya Shobukhova. But there has been extensive reporting on this, and it is not what interests me.

I’m more intrigued by what motivates and ultimately causes the average person to cheat in the sport because it sounds so counterintuitive. Thanks to social media, the current running boom has made the sport a meaningful source of support and inspiration. It’s an activity that challenges you to race against thousands of like-minded people, but unless you’re a gifted athlete or a budding amateur, you are competing squarely against yourself. In a showdown against your own best efforts, what can you possibly gain by cheating?

When the average runner cheats, it’s rarely done through the use of performance-enhancing drugs or blood transfusions (and if it happens, the results may not arouse enough suspicion to ever make headlines). Instead, it is usually done by taking shortcuts on the course, or bypassing entire parts of it altogether by car or bike. The intent is obvious: to appear as though one has run the race without actually having to do so. Most of the time, runners are too busy focusing on their breathing and hydration, lost in a carousel of pump-up jams and motivational signs to notice if a nearby runner slips off or on the course. Since the camera crews and pacers are mostly focusing on the lead pack, there are few witnesses who can reliably demonstrate foul play in the thousands of runners behind.

The Unwitting Champion

The most notorious case of this transgression is Rosie Ruiz. Her infamous story, which quickly became a cautionary tale, is as relevant today as it was in 1980, when she accidentally won the Boston Marathon by sneaking into the course just ahead of the eventual winner, Canada’s Jacqueline Gareau. Ruiz not only crossed the finish line first in Boston by cheating, but it was later revealed that her qualifying race in New York City the year before was also a sham.

This incident has not only made her name synonymous with cheating, it has elevated her quite possibly to the ignominious honor of being the world’s most famous marathoner. Sure, a lot of us can name drop a handful of East African superstars and fluidly comment on Olympic hopefuls from many different nations. But the average person might only know Rosie because her story is so compelling, embarrassing and timeless. To date, the world has not received a confession or apology from Ruiz, who instead asserts as recently as 2000 that she ran the entire race. If “long-distance runners [see] themselves as purists of mind, body and soul” as Neil Amdur of the New York Times describes, what would motivate someone to not only brazenly cut the course, but lie about it to this day?

Some theorize that she cut the course in New York to impress her co-workers, who then went on to bankroll her Boston performance. Faced with having to repeat or improve on her false performance for her peers, she had no choice but to cut the course again. Social motivation, as we will discuss later, is indeed very influential. But though her story is fascinating, it is still shrouded in mystery. And of course, she is not alone.

After Rosie, Boston beefed up its checkpoint system, all but ensuring that a repeat performance like hers would be impossible, if not incredibly difficult. As we move closer to present day, we’ve seen races institute chips that record times as runners pass over various timing mats distributed throughout the course. Large races also feature photography stations, which are meant to provide runners with mementos of their hard-earned run, but also serve as photographic evidence that they did, in fact, run. Cutting the course today would mean orchestrating and executing a meticulous plan that involves starting the race on time, registering times at multiple checkpoints and posing for photographers, all while not actually running the full distance. Some have even suggested that because of the logistical plan involved, cheating a result at a major marathon might even be tougher than running the race itself.

And yet, it happens. With the advent of the internet and vigilante journalism, the running community has become a hive-mind of sleuths, investigating aberrations in race results nationwide. Such devout scrutiny has yielded numerous cheaters and more than one cult figure, none more famous than Michigan’s Kip Litton.

The Race and Runners That Never Existed

A dentist by trade, Litton sought to run a marathon in under three hours in every state, an incredibly ambitious and impressive goal by any stretch of the imagination. However, as chronicled in mesmerizing detail in a 2012 New Yorker feature, the enterprise eventually drew suspicion when Litton began placing very close to the podium without ever being seen on the course. He would start much later than the majority of the field, appear in different outfits across the same race, and cross the finish line in strange positions. Over time, the case against Litton became an obsession on the internet, with multiple amateur detectives collecting images, data points, and tidbits of anecdotal evidence to try and disprove or at least cast doubt on his finishing times. There was even one race, the West Wyoming Marathon, where he won the race outright. But thanks to the archival permanence of the internet, a few investigations began to pick away at what seemed like a house of cards.

The result has transformed Litton from another aspiring 50-states marathoner to a legend at best, the subject of a tireless blog at worst. Like Ruiz, Litton stands by his integrity to this day, offering explanations of questionable veracity to explain the bizarre circumstances that have made him the target of all these accusations. Whether you believe him or not depends on how easily you can swallow the conspiracy theorists out there who posit that he not only cheated in a large number of marathons, some of which, like the Boston Marathon, included photographers and timing checkpoints, but also fabricated the West Wyoming Marathon, its entire roster of participants, all while acting as its race director under a pseudonym.

It almost sounds like running a three-hour marathon would be easier.

What is certain is that Litton’s case is fascinating and ripe with peculiar details that beg investigation, none of which definitively prove any wrongdoing. But as tantalizing as it is to speculate about how Litton managed to avoid providing his critics a smoking gun, why he would be driven to cheat is just as intriguing. From the start, he chronicled his countrywide marathon exploits on worldrecordrun.com, a site that has since been re-appropriated to track Litton’s activities. The internet and social media have allowed runners to participate more deeply in the running community by sharing success stories, articles, tips and pictures of the running experience. With more participants every year, it may seem like running a marathon is no longer the singular life achievement that it used to be. Perhaps many of us, Litton included, want to reach that next level and have something to show for our added efforts. Worldrecordrun.com might have been just that – a public outlet for personal fulfillment and gratification. But when the grueling regimen required to run under three hours for the marathon in every state proved too much, a shortcut was needed.

The Burden of Performance

According to Jack J. Lesyk, PhD, the director of the Ohio Center for Sport Psychology, “[people] who thrive on measurable achievements and the reactions of others – racking up titles, medals and accolades in the hopes of impressing friends and family – are more likely to cheat.” In this case, it could have been that Litton’s desire for praise and recognition was strong enough to override the “purity of mind” that is often associated with long distance running. He might have felt beholden to his public goal, enough to break the rules. Almost by definition, cheating discards matters of morality – if you’re going to cheat, you probably don’t care too much about right or wrong.

Dr. Maria Kavussanu from the University of Birmingham thinks differently. She suggests that framing a situation in terms of right and wrong before cheating has occurred has the potential to dissuade athletes against any malfeasance. Kavussanu published an article in Sport, Exercise and Performance Psychology that demonstrated that athletes, when asked to write a story about themselves that explicitly involved morality, were “significantly more likely to experience guilty feelings if they engaged in anti-social behavior during a game and therefore significantly less likely to engage in such behavior when compared to athletes in the control group.” The feasibility of scaling this initiative to combat cheating at the professional level remains to be discussed.

But I keep coming back to the maddening question of “why” by way of utility – what does someone actually gain from cheating? At the professional level, this isn’t really much of a question. An unfairly obtained competitive advantage is, as South African distance runner and confirmed doper Hezekiél Sepeng states, “a shortcut” (and the fact that this word literally describes how the average runner cheats in a marathon is not lost on me). This shortcut, meant to improve performance, can lead to higher earnings, greater visibility in the sport, bigger and more lucrative endorsements. If you’re an East African trying to escape poverty, a magical ointment could literally change your life.

If former World Anti-Doping Agency chairman Dick Pound is to be believed, then there are five fundamental reasons why athletes cheat: to win at all costs, for financial gain, national pressures, individual pressure from coaches or sponsors, and the belief that they won’t get caught.

A middle-aged marathon enthusiast has virtually no shot of making an Olympic team or earning a significant payday by winning a major race. So of the five reasons above, I’d say only the first and the last apply to the average person, but with caveats. If the aim is to win at all costs, we confuse things a bit because the average person doesn’t “win” the race (hence lending some truth to the old saying, cheaters never win). If “winning” simply means “breaking a PR by any means necessary” then you have an unrepentant cheater whose motivations are simple but unexciting. If the average person isn’t aiming to win the race (unless they commit the same error as Ruiz, which a young woman in St Louis unwittingly did as recently as 2015), simply getting away with it is juvenile and again, uninspiring. Then there’s the third reason, which only applies if the “pressures” come not from coaches or one’s country, but from our peer groups and environment.

I won’t discard or even underestimate the heavy burden of social pressures. Despite how openly accepting and loving the running community is, fear of failure is a powerful motivator. It’s very difficult to walk away from a goal, especially if its progress has been carefully documented across social media networks and blogs. If friends and family are supporting us, the thought of letting them down might lead us into uncharted territory. Some of us have just the right combination of traits to make cheating more tempting. According to Maurice Schweitzer, expert on behavioral decision making at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, “a combination of personality traits particular to high-achievers and external pressures can lead to unscrupulous behavior.” One might wonder if high-achievers have also been conditioned to “come out on top,” which can exacerbate a fear of losing, or in this case, disappointing one’s peers or coming shy of expectations.

It is all compounded when we factor in the rise of social media. After all, our online avatars are merely representations of our real lives, manipulated and curated to showcase our best qualities. Some might say there’s just a veneer of truth to our digital selves, so aside from the minute chance that someone will put on their finest deerstalker and begin asking questions, what’s the harm in a little white lie? And does one fraud’s sense of self-worth justify the cost of installing additional timing mats? Recruiting more volunteers who can spot potential cheats? Hiring more photographers?

For some race directors, it’s not even worth the pain. “A lot of times, the race directors just don’t care,” says Josh Stern, owner of Split Second Timing. “They don’t want to have a scene.”

Regardless, these are still difficult questions to answer because they involve complex emotional conflicts. Unless we conduct exhaustive and psychologically taxing interviews on everyone with mildly suspicious checkpoint splits, we simply have to give everyone the benefit of the doubt. Since we don’t do this, we have to assume that cheating happens a little more often than we think. An investigation by Runner’s World suggests that in 2014, about 0.1% of the field at the New York Marathon, or roughly 50 people, were removed from the results page because of suspicious times. If the evidence is substantial, a race may even ban a runner outright.

Anyone who has trained hard for a race and come up short, either from injury or bad luck, knows how gut-wrenching it is to not achieve a big goal. We would never want to let down our support group or our charities, and we certainly don’t want to disappoint ourselves. For 0.1% of us, cheating may be a real option.

And yet, there is one very real, tangible and tempting reason for your average, everyday runner to break the rules and the course, and that is to earn a coveted Boston Qualifying Time. The ever-tightening standards of the world’s most prestigious marathon, coupled with a booming running community ready and willing to fill each and every spot, has made it increasingly challenging to stand at the starting line in Hopkington. Runners are faced with two options: train with all your effort and spirit to improve your marathon time, or maintain your current PR until age 65 (assuming the standard doesn’t get faster by then).

Of course, I wouldn’t be writing this article if there weren’t a third option. This brings us to the most recent target in the online community’s witch hunt: Mike Rossi.

Peaks and Valleys

Rossi reached middling levels of internet prominence when he took a stand against his children’s school principal, who reprimanded Rossi for their unexcused absence from school. Rossi had brought them to see him run the 2015 Boston Marathon as a learning experience and posted a defiant letter to the principal on Facebook. The letter and incident soon swept the internet and he quickly became a viral sensation worthy of television interviews and multiple Facebook Likes.

It wasn’t long before he became the next Kip Litton. Possibly motivated by Rossi’s pontificating tone in the letter, the feverish members of Letsrun.com were quick to pull up his running history and allege that his recent running times did not indicate that he could have qualified for Boston in the first place. What followed was a series of accusations leveled against Rossi so detailed and thoughtful that it defied belief. From finding previous race times archived at athlinks.com to contacting the LeHigh Valley Marathon where he earned the BQ in question, to actually cross-referencing each and every single individual who ran the race with professional race photography shots, the investigative effort was mind-boggling. Much like the Reddit community’s crowd-sourced efforts to (incorrectly) identify the 2013 Boston bombers, the famous race had once again sparked an internet collective into action. It was both a testament to the fierce loyalty of the running community and a disturbing reminder of the internet’s slithery, yet powerful tendrils.

Since the accusations were hurled at Rossi, nothing tangible has come of the ordeal. Both sides have lobbed the burden of proof back and forth, and the fight eventually migrated to Twitter, where Rossi received many vitriolic messages from strangers. Just when you thought the ordeal couldn’t get more hyperbolic, Letsrun.com offered up $100,000 to the embattled runner as prize money for reproducing a similar qualifying time, which has gone unclaimed. In hopes of lowering the bar, the website also offered $1,000 to Rossi’s charity of choice just for a confession. Rossi has vocally stood by his innocence, and neither the Boston nor the LeHigh Valley marathons have disqualified or nullified his results. As is the case with Kip Litton, it is surprisingly difficult to prove an act of cheating in a marathon when the evidence is only an absence of evidence. Without a picture of Rossi in a car at the time of the race or sneaking into the crowd, race organizers prefer to give him the benefit of the doubt.

And yet, why the outrage? If race directors don’t seem to care too much about it, why should anyone else?

In this particular case, Rossi’s accusers would say it’s less about someone’s sense of pride or fulfillment or a debate between right and wrong, but more about him wrongfully taking a spot at the Boston Marathon that should have gone to a runner who earned it. Getting into Boston gets tougher every year, independently of the qualifying standards, which are likely due for a revision soon. To qualify for the 2016 running, applicants had to run 2 minutes and 28 seconds faster than their standard to even register. This means I would have had to run a 3:02:32 last year to satisfy the BAA algorithm that sorts the lucky speedsters from those who just barely made the cut. Naturally, we have to ask ourselves if this will mean a corresponding increase in wrongdoing.

Run Honestly

Pride, ego, bullheadedness. There are many other selfish reasons to cheat through a marathon, either by cutting the course, or showing up just at the start and finish to register a time. But although the act is often overlooked and fails to register any meaningful effect on anyone’s life, it still denigrates the otherwise inspirational running event. I’m not saying that someone’s act of cheating devalues my honest marathon achievement, because I run against myself and my own expectations. But whenever a top athlete is exposed as a drug cheat, it casts a grey pall on the sport in general, tempting unwanted speculation to question everyone else, even if there has never been cause for suspicion. Part of what makes running so popular and confusing to outsiders is its raw honesty. Any breach in that honesty, no matter how trivial, chips away at the sport’s integrity.

Cheaters make headlines. Be it brazenly, habitually, seemingly by accident, questionably so, or done with premeditated intent, cheating happens and will continue to happen. Race directors can either invest in smarter chip-timing technology to lower the likelihood or keep things as they are, writing off the occasional course-cutter as collateral damage. There will always be those who choose shortcuts over the daunting task of battling through 26.2 miles with little else but grit and determination.

But ultimately, the rest of us have to respect the sport by honestly giving it only our very best. This means backing down in the face of serious injury, cutting our losses if the weather doesn’t cooperate, or simply accepting that everyone has bad days. We can’t give into that urge to “outsmart” the system or furtively circumvent the rules just to gain an artificial accomplishment, even if that means training just a little harder as an insurance policy against potential interlopers taking our prized spot on Patriot’s Day.

I remember participating in a Big Wheel race in Kindergarten. It was held in the parking lot of my school on a blustery day, my parents and sister watching from the sidelines. The distance was an afterthought – a quick thirty yard dash to a turnaround, then back to the starting line. Though I was only five or six, I had a distinct sense of pride about how fast I could go on my Big Wheel. I knew I would win that race, even though I had never really competed with my neighborhood friends.

Almost because I refused to lose, I spun the handlebars before the turnaround, cutting the distance by just enough to make it back to the finish line first. Though I was a wee lad with an undeveloped sense of justice, I was somewhat aware that I had broken the rules. If my nascent ideas of right and wrong weren’t guiding me, my parents laughing at the blatant course-cutting confirmed it. This being Kindergarten, I still received a trophy (though it’s possible that every child did).

I lost that prize not long afterward. It probably got swept away during a move or a seasonal purge of household items. But I know that if I had won the race honestly, I would have kept it and featured it prominently among my stuffed animals and Ninja Turtle action figures. It would have meant something to me. But since I cheated, it fell victim to the gales of time, blown away forever. But I still remember the event, I remember the decision, and I’m sure anyone who has ever cheated at a sporting event knows what they did, even if they keep it buried.

Because it’s one thing to admit wrongdoing, but another to injure a sport that only asks that you honor yourself by doing the best you can.

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The 2-Hour Marathon: Running’s Great Debate

The 2-Hour Marathon: Running’s Great Debate
With the Berlin Marathon coming up this weekend, it is time to ask the popular question: is this magical mark impossible or inevitable?

I sat in my living room watching Universal Sports narrate the 2011 Berlin Marathon, my dad asleep on the couch next to me.  I was disappointed that they were only showing highlights and not the entire 150-minute race itself but I got over it as the announcer began to read off the marquee athletes.  Drawing huge cheers from the 35,000 runners behind him was the star of the race, the Emperor himself, Haile Gebrselassie.  With his hands in the air and a brilliant, toothy smile he waved to his fans, who knew he was out there to break the world record.  After his grateful and statesmanlike introduction, Haile retreated into the elite crowd.  The announcer then introduced his main rival, Patrick Makau of Kenya.  Much younger and more reserved, Makau stood staring at the cameraman looking uncomfortable, as if a Saw movie were playing above the lens.  He was awkward, clearly not used to being a famous, sought-after athlete like his Ethiopian competitor.

As the camera panned between these two great marathoners, the announcers simultaneously annoyed and invigorated me by spoiling one key fact: the world record for the marathon had been broken earlier that day by one of these men, and they were going to reveal the winner … after these messages.

Years later, I’m struck by how similar those announcers sound to those narrating large, big-city races in real time.  They both talk about the inevitability of a new world record, marking each 5K split and heralding it as a sign of a potential world’s best.  It’s impossible to watch any World Marathon Major today and not hear the words “world record” at least seven times before the race has even begun.  Just having more than one runner with a personal best in the 2:05 range in a large race portends blogposts, articles and endless chatter about an assault on Makau’s 2:03:38 standing record.  It’s the talk of the marathon community and there’s a reason for it.

In the last 11 years, the world record has been broken five times, lowering Khalid Khannouchi’s 2:05:38 by a full two minutes.  Every time it has been broken, the time has lowered by no less than 21 seconds.  While that may seem like very little when you’re out there running for two hours, the margin is large enough to have every marathon aficionado speculating about a topic that seems to split the running community.

When will we (or will we ever) see a runner go under two hours for the marathon?

A fellow blogger floated this topic to me as a comment on my recent article about music.  Simply because there’s so much to discuss, I was immediately drawn to and intimidated by the topic.  Oddly though, I didn’t have an established opinion on the matter.  I had read many speculative articles about it, listened to many race announcers’ predictions and can personally rattle off every top elite athlete’s PR and in what race and year it was achieved.  But ask me if I think a 1:59:59 is possible and I have to sit back and reflect on it.  But before I could reach my own conclusions, I decided to figure out what the world thinks of it.  After reading articles from sports scientists, professional commentators and the athletes themselves, I reached a simple, irrefutable conclusion: some say yes, others say no.

But what’s fascinating is what characterizes each camp.  While each group of people is certainly not homogeneous, there is a tangible difference in each argument that says a lot about the different ways people think and how they tackle seemingly insurmountable problems.

“No question … [it] will need 20 to 25 years, but it will definitely happen.”
Haile Gebrselassie

When you hear something like that from Gebrselassie, who has broken almost 30 world records in distance running, you pay attention.  He first broke the marathon world record in 2007 on Berlin’s flat, super fast course in 2:04:26.  He came back the next year to break his own record and become the first person ever under 2:04, all at the age of 35.  Although he seems to naturally exude optimism, a common remark from those who meet him, his prediction that a 2-hour marathon will happen has its merits in addition to many supporters.

The world is going through an explosion in running enthusiasm.  Participation in the sport is higher every year, millions of dollars are being poured into large, sponsored title races and the top athletes are fully professional, living off the sport.  The largest international races, especially those with exceptionally flat courses like Chicago, Rotterdam and Berlin, lure the fastest in the world with staggering cash prizes and even bigger bonuses for breaking the world record.  Chief among these is the Dubai Marathon, which aptly calls itself “the world’s richest race,” offering a potential world record breaker a cool million dollars.

In other words, the environment and enthusiasm are present for extremely fast times.  All the ingredients are there for magic to happen, and it is evident with the top times in the world all under 2:05 for the last six years.  Let’s remember that the world record was 2:05:38 just eleven years ago.  In 1981 the world record was 2:08:33 – there were 60 times run faster than that in 2012 alone.

So when will it happen?  In order to figure out how much time we have to wait, we need to see how far we’ve come. This method of looking back in time and gauging how much the time has improved is a popular tactic for proponents of the forthcoming 2-hour marathoner.

chart-WSJMore than one investigative outlet has charted out the world record progression for the marathon, showing an unmistakable descent, a logarithmic curve trending toward 2:00, or perhaps lower.  Michael Joyner of the Mayo Clinic believes that “someone out there should have run about a 2:01:50 by now” citing that the current marathon record isn’t fast enough.  University of Glasgow’s Yannis Pitsiladis, a scholar in Kenyan marathon studies, says that the two-hour marathon “will fall sometime between 2020 and 2030,” but that great breakthroughs in science and training could make it happen “as soon as the next five years.”  The Wall Street Journal’s Matthew Futterman tracked world records over the last thirty-three years and showed that the marathon record has improved by 4.2%, which hasn’t happened for its shorter brethren the men’s 100m (3.5%) and 110m hurdles (only 1%).

Looking back though, has anyone properly predicted where the world record is now?  A pair of researchers from the University of Montreal developed a model in 1989 to calculate fast marathon times based on human physiology.  That original projection had the world record at 2:05:23 by the year 2000, 1:59:36 by 2028 and 1:57:18 by 2040.  As the New York Times points out, Kannouchi ran the world record run of 2:05:42 in 1999, just seconds off their prediction.  If their stats hold, then we should see times start dipping below 2:03 in the next few years, culminating with the first 1:59 marathon in the middle of the 2020s.

Although everyone in the camp agrees that it will happen, there is no consensus on the timeline.  Emmanuel Mutai, winner of the 2010-2011 World Marathon Majors and a 2:04 marathoner says that “it’s a matter of time before we start running in two hours.”  Jason Henderson at Athletics Weekly tempers his enthusiasm, suggesting that “it will happen sometime in the next 20-50 years.”  The late Sammy Wanjiru, whose sensational victories at such a young age presaged a brilliant career in the sport, wasn’t so sure.  Speaking for himself, he said he could potentially run a 2:02, but that two hours would be impossible, a task left to “maybe the new generation, you could get strong people.”

“Records are there to be broken.”
Paula Radcliffe

Liliya Shobukhova (in green), the 2nd fastest female marathoner of all time is still 3 minutes slower than Paula Radcliffe

Liliya Shobukhova (in green), the 2nd fastest female marathoner of all time is still 3 minutes slower than Paula Radcliffe

World record holder Paula Radcliffe also believes it will happen, although she doesn’t give such an unequivocal endorsement.  “Records are there to be broken … but someone is going to have to run really hard to beat this one.  That’s the kind of mindset it will take.”  The English athlete certainly has the credibility, owning the three fastest times ever for women in a sport largely dominated by East African athletes.  What’s remarkable about Radcliffe’s world record of 2:15:25 from the 2003 London Marathon is that the next fastest time ever by another runner is almost three minutes slower.  That’s an enormous difference.  The last time the men’s world record was bested by a similar margin was in the mid 1960s.  Radcliffe’s record is so dominant that the only other time to come close was Radcliffe’s 2:17:18, followed by Liliya Shobukhova’s 2:18:20.  It begs the question: what are the odds that we have yet to see the male Paula Radcliffe run the world’s most shockingly fast marathon?

With no agreement on when it will happen, experts and aficionados instead focus on who.  It’s no secret that the sport is dominated by athletes from Kenya and Ethiopia with the occasional standout performance from Uganda, Eritrea and Morocco.  Although athletes from these countries churn out logic-defying performances, it’s still a very limited pool.  If we’re serious about the possibility of improving the current record by another 3 minutes and 38 seconds in any sort of “fast” timeframe, then it’s clear that we need to expand the base.  In an interview with Runner’s World, journalist, popular author and former competitive runner Malcolm Gladwell notes that breaking the barrier “would be a function of socioeconomic things and not athletic things.  So if running became a huge deal in India and China, I would say we’re going to break two hours.”  Dick Patrick, former Olympics writer for USA Today, agrees.  “Maybe we’ll see some more prospects emerging from Uganda after Stephen Kiprotich’s victory in the Olympics.  How many unknown talents could there be in Eritrea?”

For the moment, let’s look at three East African athletes who, at some point or another in their careers, have been regarded as potential new world record holders.

  • Moses Mosop was a complete unknown to me until his 26.2-mile debut at the 2011 Boston Marathon, where he finished second behind Geoffrey Mutai in 2:03:06.  Due to its net downhill and point-to-point course, the Boston Marathon isn’t eligible for world-record purposes.  But that doesn’t mean he and Mutai didn’t light the running world on fire by notching what was considered an impossible time on a challenging course.  Known as “Big Engine,” the Kenyan athlete later went on to break the world record for 30k on the track, immediately afterward saying that he could run a 2:02 on a flat road marathon.  Three months later at the 2011 Chicago Marathon, he started the race with an aggravated Achilles and ran at what he claimed was only 80% of his potential.  He crossed the finish line in a course record 2:05:37.
  • Ayele Abshero burst onto the scene in January of 2012 by winning the Dubai Marathon in 2:04:23, making him the fourth fastest marathoner ever at the time, the fastest debut marathon of all time (not counting Mosop’s record-ineligible run), and the youngest athlete ever to run under 2:05.  It took Gebrselassie six attempts to run a similar time.  The young Ethiopian is a prime example of the new wave of athletes who spend little time on track and go straight to the marathon to show great promise.  Abshero, however, hasn’t quite matched his debut time with a similarly impressive feat, having dropped out of the 2012 Olympic Marathon and placed third in this year’s London Marathon.
  • Kenenisa Bekele is a living legend on the track, owner of a myriad of Olympic and World Championship titles and the current world-record holder for both the 5K and 10K.  His kind of pedigree is reminiscent of Gebrselassie, who transitioned almost magically from the track to the marathon.  However, a long series of injuries after 2009 kept him from earning any titles.  He has recently come back to form, running his first half marathon last weekend at the Great North Run, finishing first in 1:00:09, one second ahead of Mo Farah.  The world is looking to Bekele and Farah to use that raw track power to tackle the marathon at paces hitherto unknown.

I’m not saying any of these three will go on to run under two hours.  Rather, these are the kinds of athletes that have the potential to challenge Makau’s record, nudging it ever closer to the magical 2:00 barrier.

I want to return to Paula Radcliffe’s comment because it has echoes of an earlier great debate.  By saying “records are there to be broken” she talks about the lure of certain milestone times and the way that dedicated athletes are drawn to them.  American marathoner and silver medalist at the 2000 Sydney Olympics Meb Keflezighi cuts straight to the chase with a similar thought, saying that this debate “is like Roger Bannister and the four-minute mile.”

The metric mile world record progression

The metric mile world record progression

Before becoming a household name among runners by becoming the first human being to run a mile in under four minutes, Roger Bannister was a full-time junior doctor.  For years prior to his accomplishment, many athletes were tantalizingly close to the four-minute barrier.  From 1942 to 1945, the mark was lowered from 4:06 to just above 4:01, so naturally the world was looking for someone to make it happen.  However, progression stalled after that, with Sweden’s Gunder Hägg’s 4:01.4 remaining the world record for almost nine years until Bannister crossed the four-minute threshold.  For many at the time, the feat was inevitable and only a matter of who would do it.  This debate is once again taking place but in an event with an additional 25.2 miles.

Mentioning Bannister in a debate like this can be inspiring.  It’s the story of a tremendously difficult goal and the ordinary person who conquered it.  Calling it anything from one of the greatest moments in athleticism to a parable for life wouldn’t raise too many eyebrows.  In a nutshell, it also encapsulates the arguments not just for running a marathon in under two hours, but for its imminence.  Even the most intransigent skeptics concede that given enough time, it will happen.

The Bannister story also brings up a common argument among the Yes crowd, that of the psychological barrier to success.  Keflezighi notes that “no one had [broken 4 minutes] before him, and now we’re nearly 17 seconds beyond that.”  This suggests that the minute the announcer finally said “three” ahead of his finishing time, the entire athletic world was suddenly awakened and freed from its shackles.  A month later, Bannister’s pacer John Landy ran 3:58, a record that would be broken four more times in the following decade.  Five years after Haile ran 2:03:59, four athletes had run faster marathons.  Dick Patrick agrees.  He says that “the biggest boost will come from so many athletes running so fast.  That sort of competitive incubator makes for an atmosphere that defies reason.  You throw logic out the window and prepare to be amazed.”

In the face of such unbridled enthusiasm, what argument could the nay-sayers possibly have?

“The call to faith erodes the more important idea that we are very often wrong, so we must critically question our beliefs.  We must rely on our intelligence and available evidence to determine what to believe because we have nothing better.”
Eric Normand

Many of those who support the idea that a two-hour marathon is in the near future use facts and figures to support their claim.  They look at how the record has fallen in recent decades, they compare it to Roger Bannister’s quest for the 4-minute mile and they cite that newcomers are faster than the greats were in their prime.  But what you hear the most in their arguments is passion.  It is no doubt an indispensable tool in the runner’s arsenal.  Passion is what fuels amazing performances and keeps the athlete training all throughout the year.  But this same passion is what leads journalists, scientists and marathoners to “throw logic out the window” in the words of Dick Patrick, and unabashedly claim the two-hour mark as something we’ll see soon.

world-record-progressionTim Hutchings of Bannister’s Great Britain aptly summarizes the counterpoint to this argument:

“I’m trying to work with ‘knowns’ rather than ‘unknowns’ when forming an opinion on this … while there may be a bit of slack to be taken up in training knowledge and techniques, while a David Rudisha-like youngster is probably out there running a few miles to school in Africa or Mexico or China or the Andes, he’ll not have a heart the size of a basketball.”

In other words, the numbers don’t add up yet, despite the evidence from earlier.  The physiological hurdles an athlete would have to overcome in order to jump from 2:03:38 to 1:59:59 are, at the moment, too big.  Ross Tucker from The Science of Sport compares the marathon world record progression to that of the 10k, which he alleges is a far more reliable indicator of marathon performance than measuring VO2 max or lactate threshold. He notes that the fastest 10k times have stabilized over the last decade with only Kenenisa Bekele breaking Gebrselassie’s 1998 world record.  Though Bekele has broken it twice, the total improvement has only been about five seconds in fifteen years.  Prior to that, it was broken every single year from 1994 to 1998 by about the same amount every time.  Such stabilization suggests that the marathon should also be reaching its plateau, as it too went through great improvements and is now slowly evening out.

Earlier we looked at several charts that show how the marathon is moving toward two hours  To the right is an even longer one with more data points.  However, some say that those tiny incremental gains will eventually yield a 2-hour marathon but very far down the line (as in, by 2099).  A physicist and blogger at Gravity and Levity has created his own chart, showing that the maximum possible time a human can run a marathon according to the data, is 2:02:43.

The sober lack of enthusiasm doesn’t end there.  The task’s true difficulty is made more apparent when we break the time down into its smaller components.

It is clear that in order to run 1:59:59 for the marathon, a runner would have to average under one hour for each half.  As of this writing, there are 89 men who have run a half marathon in 59:59 or faster, but absolutely none of them have run that time as part of a marathon (though to be completely honest, this is the only fact that I can’t verify, but if this had ever happened, I would have read about it).  In fact, there is only one person that has ever run two half-marathons back to back under 1:02 and that man is the current world record holder, with Wilson Kipsang coming close with 1:01:40 and 1:02:02 splits.  As the data suggest, to ask that someone run two sub-60 minute half marathons (on average) in a row is unreasonable.  There might be some hope in someone like Zersenay Tadese of Eritrea, whose 58:23 half marathon world record was run averaging 4:27 minutes per mile, eight seconds faster than the 4:35 pace required to run a two-hour marathon.  But given his 2:12 and 2:10 marathon times, he might not be our guy.

Similarly, many of us are familiar with the (flawed, but popular) conversion between your half marathon time and your potential marathon, which involves multiplying your half time by two and adding ten minutes.  We reach something of a wall here because it either suggests that the half marathon world record is too slow (should be 56:49) or that the marathon is too fast (should be 2:06:46).  Either way, we’d be waiting for someone to run a 55-minute half marathon, which is an equally preposterous demand.

Perhaps success lies not in the big picture but with improvements in the smallest components of race performance.  But even when we look at 10k and 5k breakdowns, the skeptics continue to shake their heads.  To better illustrate this, let’s look at a specific time and place.

Gravity and Levity's chart

Gravity and Levity’s chart

Without pointing to anyone specific, Matthew Futterman builds the prototype two-hour marathoner.  He says he “should be fairly small, probably shorter than 5’7” and weighing about 125 pounds … He will also have a freakish ability to move oxygen through his body, but run fast using limited oxygen – an attribute likely helped by being born and growing up at high altitude.”  But the person isn’t enough.  Veteran marathoner Amby Burfoot chimes in with the proper conditions: “sunny, dry, minimal wind … temperature around 40 degrees.  Success at the marathon comes from 50 percent human physiology and training, and 90 percent good weather conditions.”

For the sake of argument, if we were to find a situation that matches these requirements, we would be discussing Tsegaye Kebede, one of my favorite marathoners, and the 2013 London Marathon.  At 5’2” and 110 pounds, Kebede exceeds Futterman’s physical demands and since 2007, rarely places below 3rd place in any marathon, which I believe satisfies the “freakish” cardiovascular requirement.  The 2013 London Marathon was held in perfect conditions, the mercury barely cresting 13°C (55°F) for the day.  Alongside him was quite possibly the most competitive field of elite marathoners ever assembled, featuring the likes of Patrick Makau, Wilson Kipsang, Geoffrey Mutai, Emmanuel Mutai, Feyisa Lilesa, Abel Kirui and Martin Lel.  With so many gifted runners on the course and the official pacers told to run the first half in 1:01:30, it looked like London was aggressively flirting with new records.

But that didn’t happen.

The elite athletes at the 2012 Chicago Marathon, where Kebede finished with a 2:04:38 PR, also in ideal conditions

The elite athletes at the 2012 Chicago Marathon, where Kebede finished with a 2:04:38 PR, also in ideal conditions

Ross Tucker examines this race carefully, using it as evidence against the imminence of the two-hour marathon.  The first half was run as planned, in 1:01:34, the equivalent of just over four 14:35 5Ks, right on pace for a new world record.  Immediately afterward, the pacers increased their speed below 14:30 for 5K and what followed was universal meltdown.  It wasn’t just one or two athletes who couldn’t keep up the insane pace – it was everyone, resulting in a second half that Tucker calls “attritional” with the eventual winner being crowned “the athlete who died least.”

That winner was Kebede who went on to finish in 2:06:04, an excellent time by any standard, but far from the 2:03 that organizers were expecting and light years away from 2:00.  Aiming for a world record in pristine conditions, the world’s top runners had to run 14:35 5Ks, which is much slower than the 14:13 5Ks needed to run a two-hour marathon.  But that pace proved too much and Makau’s time stood.

“The man who can drive himself further once the effort gets painful is the man who will win.”
– Roger Bannister

It’s a spirited debate that reveals two sides of the human psyche: the passionate dreamer and the pragmatic scientist.  One wants to break down walls, reach for the stars and forget what the doubters say, with the other choosing to take careful stock and look forward with restraint.  These aren’t mutually exclusive mentalities.  How many times have we decided to just gun it during a race, finishing with a time that surpassed our wildest expectations?  And how many times have we sat with pace calculators, mapping out our potential times based on history and current level of fitness?

If you ask me what I think, I’d tell you that I lean toward the two-hour crowd.  I do think someone will run a marathon under that time and that I will be around to watch it happen.  However, I’m confident that I won’t see that day anytime soon.  It won’t be a superstar performance that comes out of nowhere (and the knee-jerk accusations of doping would definitely sully the accomplishment).  Instead, it will be a Bannister-like run, the catalytic and successful effort following a long line of close calls.  Over the years, new discoveries will be made about lactic threshold, which when coupled with breakthroughs in performance nutrition, training structure and shoe technology, will make it so the two-hour mark will no longer be an impossibly distant beacon.  The magical run that one day has to happen will no doubt immortalize the runner and the rich history of struggles, aches and pains that he carries with him.  At that point, all speculation will end, and distance running will usher in a new era where no challenge is beyond the reach of its strongest athletes.

But while the top tier of the sport attempts to chip away at Makau’s breathtaking record, I will focus on my own modest goals that I regard with a similar duality.  Will I ever qualify for Boston?  Do I have it in me to train for a sub-3 hour marathon?  Can I maintain this level of enthusiasm for another ten years?  As I tackle these questions, I will channel both dispositions – dreamer and scientist – to keep moving forward.

9/29/2013 Update: The official world record was broken today by Wilson Kipsang at the 2013 Berlin Marathon by another fifteen seconds, lowering the mark to 2:03:23.  The speculation continues as the mark approaches 2:00.

9/29/2014 Update: Wilson Kipsang’s world record only lived to be a year old.  Kenya’s Dennis Kimetto at the 2014 Berlin Marathon is the new world record holder with his spectacular run of 2:02:57, the first man ever to run under 2:03.  Another psychological barrier surpassed!

Do you think we’ll see a 2-hour marathon soon?  Are there goals that simultaneously scare and inspire you?  Do you lean toward dreamer or scientist?  Was this article longer than it should have been?  Did I lose you as a reader?