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Saturday, August 04, 2007

The marathon revolution – how the track redefined the distance

There was a time, not long ago, where the marathon was an event that was dominated by runners who would often be described as “strong, having great endurance and staying power”, which was basically a euphemism (in many cases) for saying they lacked the basic speed necessary to be a great track runner. At least, that’s where it often came up in conversation – don’t seem to have the speed to compete in the 10km event? That’s fine, just run marathons instead! And that’s not to take anything away from the marathon specialists, because they were great runners who deserved every accolade they got, but the reality was that many were specialists by default – decent times over 10km, but weren’t quite fast enough to cut it and so stepped up a level and raced over the marathon.

Scan through any textbook of physiology at the same time, and you’ll see much the same kind of message – a marathon runner does not have to have great speed, they tend to be slow-twitch fibre dominant, with the key to marathon success being running efficiency and the ability to run submaximal speeds for long periods. And all this is true, but this is the year 2007, and the marathon has changed. It’s been a ‘silent change’, difficult to pin down and impossible to identify one runner who ushered in a new breed of marathon runner, but we at the Science of Sport suspect that history will show that the last ten years have been a watershed moment for the marathon, and our prediction is that there is another such phase on the horizon.

Perhaps the revolution began with de Castella, Salazar, Jones and Lopes in the 1980’s. Lopes’ especially had a great pedigree, starting in 1976 at the Olympic Games where he won silver behind Lasse Viren in the 10 000m event (pictured right). Jump ahead 6 years to 1982, and he runs a 10 000m in 27:24, a time which, even today, would turn heads at all but a few countries’ national meetings! It was off the back of this speed that Lopes managed to take almost a minute of the marathon world record with his performance in Rotterdam. This performance was notable not only because it was the first sub 2:08 clocking, but may have been the culmination of a new type of marathon runner – this group had between them moved the 12-year old marathon record forward by 90 seconds over 4 years in the 1980’s. That’s not to mention some of the classic races at the time. This golden age culminated in 1988, when Belayneh Dinsamo of Ethiopia ran 2:06:50, a time that would remain unbeaten for 10 years.

Now jump ahead to the 2000’s. The creation of a marathon racing league, featuring runners who had graced the track in the 1990’s with some of the greatest performances ever seen. This group was led by Moses Tanui (left), the great Kenyan who won 10 000m titles on the track in the early part of the 1990’s and then stepped up to the half marathon, breaking 60 minutes for the first time in history, and eventually ran the marathon with success in the mid-1990’s. But it’s been the next generation who have changed marathon running.

From 1993, distance running on the track had a golden period – 8 world records between 1993 to 1998, which saw the 10 000m record fall by an amazing 45 seconds in 5 years! And it was Haile Gebrselassie, spurred on by a rivalry with Paul Tergat, who were mostly responsible for taking this record down so dramatically in this period. Of those 45 seconds’ improvement, Gebrselassie alone contributed 22 seconds! (All were African, by the way – the last non-African to hold the world record over 10km was Arturo Barrios up to 1993). The 5000m event went through a similar ‘refining period’, falling by 18 seconds during the same period.

In fact, so prosperous was this period that not a single time from before 1993 remains in the top 80 times ever over 10 000m – the best time from before 1993 is in fact Barrios’ WR from 1989, down in 85th place. Even more amazing, in the 5000m event, you would have to go down to number 146 to find the first time outside of the period from 1994 onwards! In the 1500 m event, by comparison, there are times from 1985 in the top 60 all-time performances, a sign that the 5000m and 10 000m events really did jump forward in this period.

So when this golden age came to an end, shortly after the 2000 Olympic Games where Gebrselassie and Tergat concluded their rivalry with an incredible duel on the track (shown left), it was inevitable that the effect would continue on the roads in the marathon. It had in fact already begun, where Khalid Khannouchi was moving the record down below 2:06. And what this did was change the requirements for an elite marathon runner, though as we have pointed out, this is a gradual change, not overnight. But today’s elite marathon runner almost has to have the basic speed to run close to 27 minutes for a 10km, with a half marathon of 60 minutes or faster. Often, they’ll even need to have the speed of a 12:50 5000m runner! The fields that line up in London, Boston, New York and Chicago would not be out of place in a half-marathon being run at sub-60 pace, and they would probably hold their own on the track at the Olympic Games too! Think Martin Lel, Cheruyiot, and of course Tergat. Of course, the training for the marathon distance nullifies some of this speed – it has to, but the basic requirement is still there, but the history can’t be taken away and the athlete has that capacity for world class track performances. And so our suspicion is that today’s marathon runner probably has the same physiological makeup (whatever that means – it’s different things to different people!) as the track runner of 10 years ago. The most obvious example will be muscle fibre type, which is certainly no longer the clichéd pure 100% slow twitch fibre!

In the women’s event, the effect is even more marked. Think of women’s running, and you think Paula Radcliffe. Having improved the WR by 3 and a half minutes, she’s without question changed the event – we are now starting to see competitive races at sub 2:20 pace, which was unheard of even 5 years ago. Her background? Commonwealth records at 3000 m, 5000m and 10 000m. Even won titles at 1500 m on the track! A sub-14:30 5000m PB, and a 30:01 10km best time. That is speed that few other woman marathon runners can boast, and she has an awesome pedigree over the cross-country as well. What she lacked, however, was the finishing kick of the Ethiopians (and Szabo), and so people often think of her as an under-achiever on the track. Far from it, I would venture to say that apart from a few Ethiopians, and Fernanda Ribeiro, she’s the greatest track runner of all time. And so when she stepped up to the marathon, she brought with her basic speed on the track that no other marathon runner had, and the 3 minutes we all saw are the result of that.

So the marathon has changed, it’s no longer the playground of the steady and strong, it’s now an event where five men can race at close to 2:40/km over the final 2 km of a race, hitting the final 400m like track runners at the bell! It’s an event where a background of speed is critical to success – if you want to be successful at the marathon, it’s our opinion that the key is to stay on the track for as long possible, and develop speed that you can carry into the marathon. Of course, there are exceptions, that’s the beauty of the sport – all shapes and sizes racing one another. And that’s fine, but the majority of great marathon runners in the future will come from a great track background. And that leads to a prediction – the 1990’s were a golden age for track running. Well, the period from 2004 onwards has seen a similar age, though we are possibly nearing the ceiling. But we have seen Bekele and a group of Kenyans (whose names are seemingly forgotten in a season) race consistently faster than 26:40, where before the time was sub 27. So this 20-second improvement represents what we would predict as the next marathon revolution – it won’t happen now, but in perhaps 6 to 10 years’ time, when the current generation move up, then we’ll be in line for another step forward. As for the women, well, when the Ethiopians who currently dominate the 5000m event move up, first to 10000m and then to the marathon, we’ll be in for some great (and fast) racing, so that’s the next watershed!

All of this has great practical implications, even for the runner aiming to crack 3:00, maybe even the 4-hour runner. It also has massive implications for why countries like South Africa fail to produce world class marathon runners. But this issue is for other posts, where we’ll look at the training for the marathon and also the development of talent, aimed at coaches and managers!

Ross and Jonathan