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Tuesday, November 01, 2011

The marathon era: A seismic shift and commercial influence

The (r)evolution of the marathon: An unprecedented era

The marathon is in the midst of a quite extra-ordinary and unprecedented era.  This was encapsulated on the weekend by an incredible performance from Geoffrey Mutai in winning the New York Marathon in 2:05:05, breaking the difficult New York course record by an astonishing 2:38.

Only a week earlier, Wilson Kipsang, until then an unheralded name in marathon running, gave Patrick Makau's six-week old world record a real fright by running 2:03:42 in the Frankfurt Marathon.  

Kenyan dominance

But then again, perhaps we should not be surprised at what Kenyan marathon runners are producing this year.  Mutai's victory in New York wraps up the 2011 Major Marathon season, and it means, quite incredibly, Kenyans have won every single major marathon this year.  No exceptions.  They took London, Boston, Paris, Chicago, Berlin, Rotterdam, Amsterdam, New York and the IAAF World Championships in Daegu, Korea.  Even more amazingly, the course records in every single one of the World Marathon Majors has been broken THIS YEAR (all by Kenyans, of course).  The London record fell to Emmanuel Mutai (2:04:40), Moses Mosop won Chicago in 2:05:37, and then Geoffrey Mutai bagged two, first in Boston in that amazing 2:03:02 (admittedly, wind-aided), and then New York this past weekend.

And of course, there was Makau, who took Gebrselassie's world record in Berlin with his 2:03:38.  The world is used to Kenyan dominance in distance events, but not like this.  Looking back, Kenyans have consistently made up more than half of the world's top 20, so it's not too surprising.  However, their "monopoly" has always been broken by the odd Ethiopian, a Moroccan.  They have, to date, been absent in 2011 - Kenyans occupy every one of the top 20 places in the world-rankings, and the highest ranked non-Kenyan this year is Marilson dos Santos of Brazil in 21st place.  The best placed Ethiopian is Bekana Daba, down in 26th (he is also the first non-Kenyan to win a marathon of any significance this year - Houston in 2:07:04).

But in the larger scheme of things, Kenyan dominance aside, the marathon is currently in the midst of a quite remarkable "paradigm shift".  It was less than a decade ago that the world record stood at 2:05:42 (Khannouchi).  Jump ahead, and the average time of the top 10 in the world has been FASTER than this since 2009.  And consider this: having been the fastest time in history until 2002, FIVE men bettered it in 2008, 7 in 2009, 8 in 2010 and 9 in 2011.  The world record from a decade ago would now only just scrape into the top 10.  It is an incredible surge in both quality and depth, the likes of which have not been seen in any event before.

Putting the marathon evolution into context - the stats

To put this into context (and a graphical form), I looked back over the last eleven years of marathon running.  And below is a graph that is pretty heavy on data, but it shows four key stats:
  1. The bars represent the AVERAGE time of the top 10 athletes per year
  2. The blue diamond shows the world record time coming into the year (as it stood on Jan 1 of that year)
  3. The black circle shows the fastest time in each year
  4. Below the graph, two numbers - the top one is the number of runners who broke 2:07 and the lower number (in maroon) is the number of Kenyan athletes in the Top 20 of the world rankings

What you are looking at here is a shift in performances, particularly over the last three years.  For example, look at the black circles, showing the fastest time in the world each year - since 2007, the fastest time in the world has been better than the world record as it stood in 2007.  In other words, the performance that would have broken the world record in 2007 is now beaten yearly.  The average time of the top 10 men since 2009 has been at least 20 seconds faster than Khalid Khannouchi's 2003 world record of 2:05:38! 

This exceptional increase in quality has been accompanied by a huge growth in depth - the cumulative number of sub-2:07 performers in 2009, 2010 and 2011 is greater than the preceding eight years.  A typical year used to see between 5 and 10 sub-2:07 performers.  This year, it's 25 already, with 20 and 19 in the preceding years.

And finally, the Kenyan dominance has become, if anything, more dominant.  Marathon running has always been the domain of the east Africans.  The only year in the above graph when east Africans did not dominate was 2001 - back then, five out of the top 10 were Europeans.  However, every year since, Kenya have produced more than half of the top 20, with the bulk of the remaining places filled by Ethiopians.

Interestingly, the Ethiopians are now absent from the top lists.  Three will race in New York this week (Gebremariam, Kebede and Lelisa), but their absence has cleared the way for near-complete monopolization at the top by Kenya.

The progress of the evolution

That dominance aside, and looking at the larger picture, it is interesting to track the seismic shift in marathon running.  Back in 2003, when Paul Tergat broke 2:05 for the first time, it was a taste of what was to come, but interestingly, it didn't produce an immediate change in the way the marathon was raced, as we are seeing now.  Instead, the times in 2004, 2005 and 2006 went back to pre-Tergat days - the number of sub-2:07s declined, average time got slower and nobody came close to threatening 2:05 again.

This first drop then, was the "Tergat-effect", but it would take a few more years for the next kick to happen.  It was inevitably going to come, however, because in the 1990s, the world records on the track were being broken in astonishing amounts by the athletes who would soon move up in distance.  When Tergat and Gebrselassie, the two champions of that track-generation, eventually moved up to the marathon, it was inevitably going to break barriers.

Tergat was the first to succeed, whereas Gebrselassie took longer.  Not that he was unsuccessful, and he topped the yearly lists with amazing consistency.  But the big breakthrough took until 2007, when he ran 2:04:26 to win in Berlin.  That, in hindsight (and one must be careful to find patterns where there are none) was the performance that broke open the flood-gates.

2008 ushers in the "brave new world" with Wanjiru and Geb showing the way

The following year was 2008, and Gebrselassie went even better, breaking the sub-2:04 barrier, and all of a sudden, a host of other runners were breaking 2:06 - call this the "Gebrselassie-effect".  It's not shown on the graph, but in 2007, Gebrselassie was the only man under 2:06 (so the "Tergat-effect" had still not caught on).  In 2008, however, it's a different story - five men broke 2:06, the first time since 2003 that anyone other than Gebrselassie had done it.  Of course 2008 was notable for the breaking of another barrier - 2:04, when Haile Gebrselassie ran his 2:03:59 world record in Berlin.

That Berlin performance was perhaps not even the most significant marathon of 2008.  As long-time friend Jim Ferstle points out in his comment below, it was Sammy Wanjiru's performance in Beijing that may have been the real catalyst for the attitude of marathon runners today.  For it was his courage and fearlessness, on a hot, humid day in Beijing that transformed the marathon from an event that demanded caution to one where aggression would be rewarded.  Jim wrote about this recently, ahead of the Chicago Marathon, and he sums up the "Wanjiru-effect" very nicely.

Remember, no Kenyan had ever won gold in the marathon - it was a glaring omission from the world's dominant distance nation, and Wanjiru responded to that pressure in a manner rarely seen.  Tactics?  Fast and hard early, conditions be damned.  Many would have warned against a suicidal pace early on - Wanjiru seemed to interpret this as a means to kill off any pretenders to gold.  It was, and remains, one of the great dominant marathon performances ever seen.  And so the next time you watch a major city marathon and a Kenyan man is surging at 30km while on world record pace, think of Sammy Wanjiru...

And so perhaps it was the combination of Wanjiru showing the world a new attitude towards marathon running, and Gebrselassie showing it a new target, a 2:03:xx, that lit the way into the era we now find ourselves.  In 2009, we saw two men race head-to-head and run 2:04:27 in Rotterdam, and another six would break 2:06 that year.  So in total, that's EIGHT sub-2:06 performances, and now the floodgates were open and runners, most of the Kenyan, were pouring through it.

Commercial forces: Driving marathon at the expense of track

Kenyan dominance is however nothing new, so something else must be in play to explain why the last three of four years have seen such a shift in the event.  It's still too early to tell if this is just a golden patch (and if we're being fooled into seeing a pattern where there isn't one), or if something real is driving it, but there are some good debates about it.  There's always a good discussion of genetics, training, opportunity and culture when it comes to Kenyan distance running, and that's a debate I will save for another time.  For those who want a taste of what the talent vs training discussion involves, you can read Part 1 and Part 2 of my series on this from a few months ago.

But one of the key factors driving the current shift, I believe, is the growing commercial value of the marathon (for the event organizers, that is). In the past, there was a pretty well-established "pipeline" that led a great runner onto the track for a few years before he turned to the marathon later.  The exception was the athlete who never quite possessed the speed to compete over 10,000m, and who would turn to marathons early.  But this runner had a capacity of maybe 28-min for 10km, and so was always going to battle to run much faster than 2:08.  However, as a result of being in this pathway, the best track runners often stepped up to the marathon when they were 5% beyond their very best, in the twilight of their careers.  The result is that the "experiment" of taking an athlete with 26:30 potential (ala Terget and Geb) and exposing them to marathon training and racing had never really happened.

However, this seems to have changed, and runners with tremendous pedigree are racing marathons much sooner than was the case a decade ago (it would be very interesting to compare the average age of the winners and top 10 of the big six marathons now and in 2000).  The late, great Sammy Wanjiru was perhaps the first to make this move, racing marathons at 20.  He pulled along a host of others, again, mostly from Kenya, who are racing marathons having by-passed that track pipeline.

From a commercial point of view, it's really interesting to consider why the marathon attracts so much money compared to track.  It's mostly dictated by sponsorships and very importantly, who owns the rights to the event.  For potential sponsors, the ability to engage with many thousands of runners (New York had 47,000 for example, who succeeded in a lottery that attracted a staggering 140,000) is superior to taking out what is effectively a billboard at an athletics meeting made of up 100 athletes and 25,000 fans for one night only.

The total exposure and awareness is much higher for a marathon, because the event is self-standing, the focal point of all sponsor advertising, and usually involves much more television coverage and a week-long expo to allow what is called experiential marketing.  Being seen is not enough given the clutter in the 'marketplace' - what sponsors want is to be experienced, and the marathon affords more opportunity to leverage the sponsorship to potential customers.

Allied to this, there may be more focus on health and participation, and also a reduction in the sponsorship spend in general as a result of the economic climate, and the net result is that an event for the masses may appear far more valuable to a potential sponsor than an elite spectator event.  What money is available is funneled to those 'products', and therefore, a relatively smallish event like the Frankfurt Marathon can attract valuable sponsorships.  

It is not for nothing that the sponsorship value of the New York marathon rose 30% in the last year, despite the economic conditions that are negatively affecting sponsorships in many other sports (including athletics).  The marathon, at least at that large scale, remains 'recession-proof'.  The impact all this will have on track and field is another matter entirely.  In the words of one agent, "Track is Usain Bolt and clapping hands", and it has a fight on its hands to sustain interest.

These marathon sponsorships in turn find their way down to athletes in the form of appearance fees (essential, because guaranteed income always trumps potential income, it's a valuable premium) and prize money for successful athletes.

And athletes are not exactly in short supply - the demand to race from within Kenya is extra-ordinary, and for every Kipsang, Mutai or Makau, there could be ten more who COULD produce similar performances given the right support and circumstances.  The end result is that there are now dozens of lucrative opportunities, extreme competition to secure those opportunities, and performance is being driven ever faster as a result.  The culture of the sport in Kenya further tears down barriers, and so more and more athletes are recognizing a) how fast they can run, inspired by others, and b) what riches and rewards await them when they do.

All in all, it's a perfect melting pot, and a possible (and brief) explanation of what may be driving the graph above.  Of course, there's much more to it than this, and the genetic discussion is too good to miss, especially for a sports science point of view.  Perhaps for another time!

Until then, enjoy Kipsang's pursuit of the World Record from Frankfurt, and a really great marathon finish - I agree with the Letsrun.com guys, this is what the sport needs to get even more commercial value!