Welcome to the Science of Sport, where we bring you the second, third, and fourth level of analysis you will not find anywhere else.

Be it doping in sport, hot topics like Caster Semenya or Oscar Pistorius, or the dehydration myth, we try to translate the science behind sports and sports performance.

Consider a donation if you like what you see here!

Did you know?
We published The Runner's Body in May 2009. With an average 4.4/5 stars on Amazon.com, it has been receiving positive reviews from runners and non-runners alike.

Available for the Kindle and also in the traditional paper back. It will make a great gift for the runners you know, and helps support our work here on The Science of Sport.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Top 9 of 2009: Number 3 - the marathon

The revolution in the marathon - 2009 produces an unprecedented explosion in record times

Kibet, Kwambai, Kirui, Wanjiru, Kebede, Gharib, Gebrselassie, Kipruto, Goumri, Makau, Kirwa, Worku, Yegon, Cheruiyot, Kemboi, Tsegay, Keitany, Kisri, Kipkorir, Mutai.

20 names of 20 men who have broken 2:07 in the marathon in 2009.  In what has been an unprecedented explosion of super-fast marathon running, more performances (25) and more men (20) have cracked what was basically the world record only 12 years ago.  2009 thus represents a 56% increase in the number of performances since 2008 (which is itself a 167% increase on 2007, see chart to the left). 

Add to this that 2009 has produced new marathon records in Rotterdam (2:04:27), London (Samuel Wanjiru 2:05:10), Fukuoka (Tsegaye Kebede 2:05:15), Chicago (Wanjiru 2:05:41), Paris (Vincent Kipruto 2:05:47), Frankfurt (Gilbert Kirwa 2:06:14) and Amsterdam (Gilbert Koech 2:06:18).  Of the big marathons, only New York and Boston were won in times slower than 2:08 this year, and only they have course records outside 2:07.

East African ascendancy, everyone else winding down?

So 2009 has been a golden year for marathon running, right?  Well, it depends how you frame the question.  Look again at that list of 20 names – 13 are Kenyan, 4 are Ethiopian and 3 are MoroccanAnd that’s it.  In fact, it turns out (courtesy the IAAF analysis, which is really great) that there were 104 performances of 2:10 or faster this year, but only 13 of them came from anywhere other than Kenya and Ethiopia (64 Kenyan and 27 Ethiopian, by the way).

That’s an incredible perspective on the issue of marathon standards.  Kenyan and Ethiopian athletes are getting faster and faster, while everyone else is slowing down. 

Where have they gone?

When Meb Keflezighi won in New York, breaking the US drought of 27 years, he did so in a time (2:09:15) that is comparable to what a good few US athletes were producing in the 1980s.  The same is true of the Boston Marathon – winning times from the 1980s would be extremely competitive today, and would even win the race in some instances (obviously, weather and race tactics make direct comparisons impossible).  So the fascinating thing is that the dominance of the east Africans, in the US Marathons anyway, is only partly due to the improvement in times by these runners. 

There are numerous factors that account for this – prize money and prestige, as well as sponsorship and time-based incentives that attract the super-fast (2:05 athletes) to the faster courses of Europe (London and Berlin, in particular) mean that the US-soil performances may lag behind those of Europe somewhat.  What would Wanjiru or Kebede do in New York, for example?  They certainly wouldn’t hit halfway in 65 minutes, that’s for sure.

What is more worrying is that nations with something of a marathon heritage have all but disappeared from the scene in terms of times.  91 out of 104 sub-2:10 performances come from Ethiopia and Kenya.  Morocco (3) and America (3) produce six of the remaining 13, with one performance each from Italy, Japan, Bahrain (but actually a Kenyan), Korea, Ukraine, Eritrea and South Africa.

Where then are Portuguese, Spanish, Australian, British, Brazilian and Mexican runners?  These are nations which have previously produced world records, world champions, and big city marathon champions.  Also, surely Japan, South Africa, Italy and Korea should be producing more than 1 such performance per year?  It is an alarming sign of the times, and a fascinating question that a “freakonomics” approach could look at answering (forgive the reference – I just read “Superfreakonomics”, and I love the approach to problem solving).

East African dominance

Numerous theories have been put forward to explain why east Africans dominate running so comprehensively.  This is not the time to write my own dissertation on the topic – I’ll rather sum up and say that it’s like a combination of multiple factors: 

The right genes, nurtured in the best environment, with the optimal living conditions, and the disproportionately large financial carrot of global running success.  And then perhaps most crucially of all, a community of athletes who provide inspiration and self-belief that teaches every young runner that international success is within reach provided the necessary hard work is done.  I don’t think there’s any magic in it - when you see images of young children, 12 years old, jogging to school alongside Olympic champions who happen to be out for a training run, then you appreciate the power of culture and community and the belief it fosters among these individuals.

None of this explains the apparent decline in standard among other nations.  As mentioned above, if these nations produced the same times as they did in the 1980s, they’d feature heavily in the list of times and in the front groups of major marathons like Boston and New York.

Erosion of incentives and belief

I believe the decline is the result of changing paradigms and attitudes towards running (the "is this really worth it?" argument), as a result of the dominance of east Africans, particularly over shorter distances, and in the 1990s.  There is no question that the standard of global running has been propelled forward by Kenya and Ethiopia.  Remember, the world 10,000m record was outside 27 minutes only 20 years ago - that was a time that belonged to Arturo Barrios, of Mexico.  Since then, 51 seconds improvement, and only Africans feature.  That’s testament to all those positive factors that produce so many champions from such a small proportion of the world’s population.

The consequence of that improvement has been a progressive erosion in the desire and belief of European athletes to compete against the Kenyans and Ethiopians.  Is it realistic, for example, to expect a young athlete to spend five years training for twenty hours per week to run 28 minutes over 10km, and finish 12th in a medium level 10,000m race?  To be lapped in an Olympic 10,000m final, where the final 5,000m are now being run in close to 13 minutes, a pace that many European athletes cannot sustain for 3000m?

Now, to this volatile mix of failure and frustration, add the fact that more options exist than ever before – study, other sports (triathlon, trail running), office work – and you see that there are probably fewer world-class runners even making the commitment to race.  I wonder how many 16 year olds, who may possess the ability to succeed globally, make a decision to leave running based on the failure of OTHERS, not even their own? Given the choice to make up the numbers in the middle of the pace, or to start a career in another field, perhaps it’s not surprising that so few Europeans feature – choice may be eroding the standard (what would be really interesting to look at is the participation numbers at competitive club level)

It’s probably not surprising, then, that if you look at the list of 5,000m and 10,000m times over the last decade, you see the same trend – east African dominance, with very few European contenders.  Look also at the World Cross Country championships, where the only thing preventing more African success is the limit on the number of entrants from Kenya, Ethiopia, Uganda and Eritrea.

The point is that what we see in the marathon in 2009 – the absence of non-African athletes, is the result of a shift in track running a decade ago.  Just as the times in the marathon have been driven down by the increased speed of the athletes who now race over 42.2km, the answer to the drain of non-African runners lies in the fact that they are no longer competitive over shorter track distances, and I believe it is partly because they choose not to take the risk (time and energy) to find out.

This is why the performances of Dathan Ritzenheim, Matt Tegenkamp, Ryan Hall and, prior to 2009, Craig Mottram, are so important – their presence in the upper echelons of running, particularly on the track (Ritzenheim’s sub 13 clocking in Zurich is the best example) may serve to inspire similar performances, just as the Kenyan success is built on previous success.

Does it matter?  I know some are concerned about the dominance of Kenya and Ethiopia in running events.  It is never good for a sport to be dominated by so small a population - the NFL provides the best illustration of competitive parity for the health of the sport.  And unquestionably, more participation and greater distribution of titles is good for the sport across the world.

Hopefully,the trend is reversible, and we'll see a gradual rise in representation of these "minor" nations in the top 10 in distance events. 


P.S.  While we're on the topic of marathons, the world's best marathon runner title this year is a shoot-out between Tsegay Kebede and Sammy Wanjiru.  Kebede actually wins on the basis of average time - his two marathons this year were 2:05:18 and 2:05:20, for an average of 2:05:19.  

Wanjiru is not far behind - 2:05:10 and 2:05:41, an average of 2:05:25.  However, Wanjiru won two major marathons - London and Chicago, both in record times, and beat Kebede in London.  Since marathons are all about racing (especially the way Wanjiru runs them), Wanjiru is the undisputed number one.  Kebede's great year, to follow up his Olympic medal and wins in Paris and Fukuoka in 2008, adds something to the world marathon scene, and he will certainly be one to watch in 2010.  Given what happened in 2009, 2010 should be a magnificent year on the roads.  As always, we'll cover it in great detail!

A final word on the African-European performance debate 

And then finally, it would be remiss if I didn't acknowledge that in our debate about European vs African runners, there is a ‘joker in the pack’ – doping.  Far be it for me to pull a Mayweather and accuse anyone of doping (what a farce that is, by the way – if the sport was in any way transparent and clean, it would not even register, yet Pacquiao has responded like a true Tour de France cyclist with aggressive counter-attacks of his own.  But that is another story), but is it possible that the slide in European runner’s performances is due to tighter doping controls?

In the 1980s and 1990s, when EPO use was rife, blood doping was common, perhaps the Europeans managed to push beyond the 'genetic ceiling' to run their 2:08s and claim world marathon titles.  Now that controls are tighter (far from perfect, mind you, but definitely tighter), is it possible that the gap is wider as a result of the relative removal of the pharmaceutical aid?  Of course, this assumes that the African situation has not changed - they either never doped, or they still are - which many would regard as a big if.  Nevertheless, no debate in the sport is complete without at least acknowledging this possibility...


Félix said...

As put this way, the African dominance is truly astonishing! You obviously identified key factors, but I am really surprised that training was not one of them! I don't have the reference on top of my head, but wasn't it the main difference identified by Saltin (or another Swede) and co-workers between Kenyan and caucasian runners? I'm not sure it is the same for running, but for all other endurance sports, the occidental paradigm of training is a lot of long slow distance, with ~15% intensity (see review by Seiler et al. in sportsci.org). We keep hearing that Africans are training fast most of the time. Wouldn't it be the main explanation?
I guess your answer to this question will be fascinating for all readers of this website.
Happy holidays!

SImon said...

Of the "20 names of 20 men who have broken 2:07 in the marathon in 2009" I recognise two.
Now I'm no specialist marathon fan, but it seems to me what you've got right there is the reason why distance running, road or track, gets such poor media coverage.
You've also got the reason why American and European runners are "failing" to perform. What on earth is the motivation to prepare four years for an Olympic marathon (or 5000m or 10000m for that matter) when you KNOW it's odds-on that yet another two or three super-fast African runners you've never heard of are going to pop up and medal?

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi Felix, simon

Thanks for the posts - you both make really good points.

Felix, training is key, you're right. I've heard the key difference that so much of the Kenyan training is done at those higher intensities. Oddly enough, I've also heard that this is a 'myth', and that many of their runners don't in fact train this hard, and the converse, that many non-Africans are doing as much of their training at the so called 'threshhold intensity or higher'.

So I'm not 100% sure about it, I guess the Saltin/Seiler position is a generalization, which is probably true on average, but you'll find exceptions.

The other thing I have heard about the training is that the Kenyans don't force their bodies beyond what they feel capable of - they back right off on some days, train incredibly hard on other days. I think the West suffers from "regression to the mean", where easy days are too hard and hard days not hard enough, though this is of course a pretty bald statement. I only make it because of what I've read and discussed with some of the scientists at the Kenyatta University in Nairobi, where they've tried hard to monitor the top Kenyan athletes.

Then the other key difference is this "community" aspect, which I've alluded to in the post, but not as applied to training. I don't think it's possible to overstate how valuable it is to be part of a group of say 20 runners all of whom aspire to run and win at the Olympics. When you do a hard tempo or track session in that company, you WILL find 2%, and that 2% in training, added up over many years, makes a huge difference.

That's not to say you can't succeed 'alone', but the constant drive, both mental and physical, in training must surely have an effect. I think a whole series on training of east Africans is in order, and maybe on the cards for 2010! Thanks, Felix!

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

To Simon, great point.

I think that's part of the reason why it's so valuable to have a spread of successful runners from around the world. I think it's unbelievable to watch these guys run 2:05 marathons - Wanjiru, Lel, Kebede, Geb, what a privilege to be able to watch it, but in terms of personalities and coverage, only Geb has really ever captured the attention off the track or roads, that has huge implications for commercial viability and success.

Just look at what bolt has achieved - yes, he's burning up records, but not more than a Bekele or even Dibaba did a year ago. They're just about anonymous, Bolt is a superstar. Sport needs personalities, and when the talent pool for distance running is that deep and turns over that often, then it's difficult for anyone but the passionate marathon fan to relate to what is happening.

As for the failure to perform, what you have ended off saying is the perfect Catch 22 - these American and European athletes probably could, if they worked really hard, reach a level where they were competitive. But they don't, because of the investment it takes and the risk. Speaking of risk, I'd guess that we only see 1 in 50 Kenyans succeed. But so many are trying, because of the huge incentive to win. So when 1 Kenyan wins the London marathon, he's the product of years of work and 49 Kenyans who've worked just as hard but failed.

Given a likelihood of 2% (and that much work), then the American and European is going to weigh up some other choices pretty quickly.

It's a dilemma, that's for sure. But I really hope that Ritzenheim, Hall and co inspire a generation though.

One final point - the ultra-distance scene is massive in the USA, and I wonder if that's because these good runners (2:10 to 2:12 marathons, perhaps) have looked at the landscape and identified where they can succeed, in the absence of Africans. I wonder if a little more belief could motivate them to train that little bit more on the marathon, and all run 2:10 or thereabouts? Running 2:10 in Chicago vs winning ultra-marathons at 2:20 pace?


kalenjins said...

Quote from your post : "This is not the time to write my own dissertation on the topic"

But it would be nice to have that dissertation. A scientific and well informed discussion on the topic would be usefull or interesting. A lot have been written on why kenyan runners are so dominant. Some arguments are myth and some other may be right. Would be nice to have a summary on all that from you, some day -of course.

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi Kalenjins

Absolutely, it's a must. For a long time, there was limited research on it - the only info we had was from the work of Saltin and co, a couple of studies which were flawed because they looked at the second-level of Kenyans, who were not really different from the Europeans.

But there's some new stuff coming out now, and so the picture is becoming clearer, genetically, training-wise, diet, physiologically. No easier to imitate, mind you, but hopefully clearer!

Will definitely put it on the agenda for 2010!


Martin said...

hi ross,

you write "In the 1980s and 1990s, when EPO use was rife". Is this correct? In cycling it is generally accepted that EPO didn't really start affecting results in a big way until about 1993, was running really that far ahead of cycling? Also the same question applies to cross-country skiing etc as I've seen all winners pre-1990 as epo clean.

Very pleased with the fact that you're not afraid to mention doping when discussing this. That is very refreshing and makes it a lot easier to actually consider your other points when doping isn't discarded as a factor.


Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi Martin

Thanks for the comments!

You're right, EPO was commercially introduced in 1990. In fact, for an interesting view of what it did to performance, check out this post that I did earlier this year, in August:


Note that this was the COMMERCIAL introduction of the drug. It's been speculated that the pro-peloton in cycling were enjoying its benefits by 1988 - at least, that's the conjecture among some former cyclists and doctors i've had contact with. Never proven, i guess, because it "didn't exist" until about 1990, as far as testing or commercial availability goes.

But strictly speaking, you're right, and what I should have specified is that the 1980s were the amphetamine/blood doping era, and the 1990s brought forth the EPO era. And then of course, the blood doping era could go as far back as the 1950s - it is still thought that the Finnish athletes owed a lot of their success to this practice.

So thanks for pointing that out!

And thanks for the positive feedback - whenever you bring up doping, it always riles people, especially in cycling. I think that there is a lot of denial. i'm with you, it helps to lay the facts out, even if they are 'undesirable'!



Joe said...

In fairness, Ritz ran a 2:10:00 (really a 2:09:59.9 rounded up) in London in the spring, and given his 1:00:00 HM in poor conditions in B'ham, one would think he would have gone 2:08 or so in Chicago and possibly challenged Meb in NY. Hall also would have gone sub-2:10 this fall on a faster course. That would have given the US five or six sub-2:10s and reflected the real state of things in terms of marathoning: You've got the Kenyans, then a big gap, then the Ethiopians (great quality but little depth), then another big gap, then the US, then a small gap, then the Morrocans, then a huge, enormous gap, then everyone else.

I'll be interested to see how Hall and Meb run in Boston -- I wouldn't be surprised to see a win by the former. I'm also curious to see how Ritz runs in a fall marathon. If you believe that his HM was the equivalent of 59:30 or so in good conditions, then 2:06 flat is possible.

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi Joe

Fair points, but I think you'd have to apply this logic to other nations, and not limit it to US men only - for example, if there are two US men who ran relatively slower times on those courses, then there may be another 10 Kenyans, 5 Ethiopians and 5 Moroccans who could also run 2:08 in the "right race".

If you look at the list of top 100 guys, and I venture to say, top 300 guys, you'll find Ethiopians, Kenyans and Moroccans all the way down the list.

I'd guess they'd have just as much claim to a 2 minute improvement on a different day, and so maybe the true state of marathon running is something of a fictional concept!

Where you are right is that outside the African continent, the US leads the way with 5 or 6 men in the competitive bracket. The rest of the world needs to follow that example.


Joe said...

I guess my point was more that setting the bar at 2:09:59 kind of obscured the fact that there is a big gap between the Americans and all other non-African countries. If you had set it at (say) 2:11:00 or even 2:10:01 you would have seen that separation.

I also kind of disagree that you wouldn't find any Americans in a list of the top 100 current marathoners out there. Hall's 2:06 is in the top 40 of all time (though that list doesn't seem to include fall results), and it seems difficult for me to believe that someone who finished third (by a second) in the HM World Championships wouldn't make the list. And that doesn't even address Meb.

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi Joe

Point taken about the gap, but I'm not sure how setting the bar at 2:10 obscures the separation. I mean, there are 64 Kenyans, 27 Ethiopians, 3 Moroccans, 3 Americans, and a few lone individuals in the sub 2:10 group - that pretty much shows the separation.

And also, Ritz is already included in those Americans and so if you set the cut off at 2:10:01 it would make no difference - there would still be 3 Americans in the list of sub-2:10 guys, because I consider 2:10:00 to be in that list. Going to 2:11:00 wouldn't make a difference either - the fourth fastest American is Jason Hartman at 2:12:09. The three 2:10 guys are Meb, Hall and Ritz. So there would never be 5 or 6 in the sub-2:10 bracket.

Then regarding that there are no Americans in the top 100 - I don't recall saying there are no Americans in the top 100. In fact, I said there are 3 - 104 men ran 2:10:00 or faster, three were American. So clearly there are some. What I said is that if you extend this down to the top 300, you'll find dozens of Ethiopians and Kenyans running 2:11 and they too can jump ahead to the sub 2:10 bracket.

Anonymous said...

Hi guys. Very good material. I will replicate this subject in my blog (http://blogsports4you.wordpress.com/). Recently a we watch here in Brazil an interview with Haile, and the reporter asked your opinion about when the your world record will be broken. He believe in almost 5 or 10 years. Based in your article he's wrong, and I believe that.

Happy Holydays

Joe said...

I misunderstood when you said 104 performances -- I thought you were talking races, not runners (so Wanjiru would count twice, one for London and one for Chicago). If that was the case, the three sub-2:10s would be Meb in London, Hall in Boston, and then Meb in NY. If the dividing line was 2:11, Ritz's 2:10 in London and Hall's 2:10 high in NY would also make the list.

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi Joe

Yup, that's right. Except I count 2:10:00 as a 2:10:00 performance, so Ritz is on the list, which makes it 4 Americans in the 2:10:00 or faster.

Extending it to 2:11:00 doesn't change the number of runners, of course, only performances. Interestingly, the USA gets one more name on if you go by performance, Kenya gets 28 new individuals, so it really does show the depth they have!


runningperspectives said...

Hi folks.
A few thoughts on this topic.
* Is the only reason to compete on a world class level to win a marathon major or an Olympic or WC medal? What I mean by that is that for an American or European marathoner capable of running say 2:10 to 2:13, there is plenty of money to be made. The theory that all of these runners quit because they can't compete at the absolute top level does not seem to follow logic, although the statistics, as you say, seem to point in that direction.
* My sense of Boston and New York is that fewer African runners are recruited to run in these races (or at least the cream of the African crop) than in London, Berlin, Rotterdam, etc. That may open the door for Americans to have a better chance, and along with the slightly tougher courses, explain the slower winning times.
These races have a much greater incentive to produce an American winner than the other races, of course.
* The U.S. has made a great effort in the past decade or so to develop distance running in order to compete at the top world level, through grass roots support, camps, etc. The Hanson-Brooks team first showed how it can be done,and others have followed.
It is likely that the some of the other nations that have fallen off the competitive radar have not been willing or able to make this kind of concerted effort. The U.S. has the resources to support elite running in large part due to the great influx of money into the sport from sponsorship and entry fees of the hundreds of thousands of "hobby" marathoners.
Is the kind of effort made by the U.S. to produce a few elite distance runners to compete with hundreds from Africa worth it? That all depends on your perspective.
* Remember the short but astonishing periods of greatness by the Mexican and Italian marathoners in the 1980s? Makes you wonder, in light of their lack of top marathoners since that time.
Thanks for raising this topic for discussion.

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi Don

Thanks for the comments, and questions. I'll try to give my opinion on the points you've raised.

1. What I trying to get at is not that the runners who run 2:10 to 2:13 quit - they don't, otherwise there'd be no one running those times. You'd have a batch of guys running 2:07 or faster, then a huge drop-off.

What I was getting at is that I believe there's a host of guys at the age of 16 to 21, long before a 2:10 marathon features on the radar or in their life's ambitions, who are choosing not to invest 6 years of their lives in pursuit of that target. So it's the 30 minute 10km guy at the age of 17, or the 28:30 10km guy who eventually fades into obscurity, because the incentive to pull them along is not great enough. I believe that in Kenya, those young athletes all follow the same journey, whereas in the USA and Europe, the choices are more numerous and reduce the number of 'viable competitors'.

I think the key is not the guys already running, it's the ones who are not running, but who could have been world class,but chose something else because of the mix of competition and reward.

2. I think that's certainly become the case. It would be interesting to look at ranking lists and see where the runners are who raced in Boston and New York versus London. In recent times, the best are definitely racing in London and Berlin. However, there've been some incredible athletes in Boston - Cheruiyot, Merga, and New York - Lel and co. A big factor is that those races aren't paced, which I forgot to mention in the original post.

3. Great point. If I go back to the 'incentive argument', what guys like the Hanson brothers have done is to give young runners an opportunity to prolong their running and training with purpose. The absence of such opportunities would deplete the running community faster, with more guys fading away after college. That, plus the opportunity to train and earn some money, has been a crucial factor in the resurgence of US running. And now, with guys like Meb, Hall and Ritz, young runners have both opportunity and 'role-models' who are proving what is possible. So the next generation of US runners should be even better. Much like in Kenya, success will come when the opportunity meets incentives meets belief of what is possible.

Finally, yes, the Mexican and Italian success, at the height of the EPO era, makes you wonder!


Anonymous said...

Hi Ross,
Thanks for the quick reply and sharing your thoughts.
One ore comment I forgot to add in my original post, re: the possible siphoning off of top[ marathoners to ultra distance running.
It is VERY unlikely any elite ultrarunners could compete at the top levels of marathon running.
I was very involved in the sport for many years (published UltraRunning Magazine in the U.S. for seven years), and saw the kind of athletes who comprised the upper echelon of that sport. Few if any, were even capable of running a sub 2:20 marathon, let alone a 2:05. Most elite ultrarunners migrate to those distance for the very reason that they do not have the speed to compete at the "shorter" distances such as the marathon.
Scott Jurek, who won the Western States 100 Mile seven times and also the Spartathlon in Greece, made a concerted effort to run a fast marathon and fared no better than the uppers 2:30s.
Even the top Comrades runners are not near the level of the elite African marathoners.
Could sports such as triathlon, cycling etc possibly siphon off a potential 2:05 marathoner? Perhaps, but it seems very unlikely.

Letsswimbikethenrun said...

umm....ever heard of Lukaz Verzbicas??

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi Don

Thanks for the follow-up. Agreed that the ultra-marathon guys are not going to come down and run times anything like world class marathon runners - we have a guy like that in SA, Ryan Sandes. Runs and wins those "extreme" marathons, like the Sahara desert marathon or Amazon. He's quite a sensation over here, but really, 'just' a 2:30 guy in the marathon, so I agree.

However, what I sometimes wonder is whether we're looking at these guys too late. In other words, by the age of 30, it's too late, and if the guy has trained to run 100 miles, then he won't come down to 2:10 or faster, like Scott Jurek

But what I wonder is whether these runners had the capacity when they were 18? At some point in their development as a runner, they abandoned ideas of running 13 minutes for 5km and 27 min 10km, and 2:06 marathons and chose instead to race at 2:50 pace for 100 miles! I wonder if that decision could be altered, and what the consequences would have been? A hypothetical question, of course!

And then I think that certainly, triathlon could very well siphon off potential. I hadn't thought of that sports cross-over initially, but I think it's feasible, yes. The elite men, who run 29 minutes over 10km (without the bike, of course), could presumably throw up at least one guy who is a 27-something athlete without the added training and focus on two other disciplines.

Our second poster, letsswimbikethenrun, has raised the case of Lukas Verzbicas, but it's early days to use him as your example. Perhaps over time he'll evolve into that athlete, who might have achieved 27-minutes of 10km but 'only' runs 29min because of a triathlon focus. But for now, the jury's out. He's not world class in either activity yet (though for his age, he is of course, but the jump to elite adult is enormous).


Burt said...

Hey Guys.

Love the site.

I was wondering your thoughts on the effect of a single below-the-knee prosthesis on ultramarathon performance. Last week a female single lower leg amputee won outright a 24 hour race in Arizona and in doing so qualified for the able-bodied USA national team for the World 24 hour championships. Here is a link to a report:


There has been some discussion in US ultra circles as to if this was an aided performance and if a prosthetic-wering athlete should be eligible for able bodied international competitions. (The Oscar Pistorius of ultrarunning, i suppose.) What, if any, advantage do you think a single-leg prosthesis could confer over an ultradistance race?