Since 1982 I've written a newsletter, Running Commentary. A new issue appears here each week, and material is archived.

Tue, 13 Nov 2001 09:00:16 -0500

It's About Time


Nothing like this has happened since 1954. A major barrier fell after times had hovered near it for years, then someone else ran faster almost immediately.

Back then the event was the men's mile. The record had stood at 4:01.3 for nine years before Roger Bannister ran 3:59.4. Soon afterward John Landy improved that mark by another 1-1/2 seconds.

Now the event is the women's marathon. A sub-2:20 race has been do-able since 1985, but it didn't come until this year. Then the record fell again a week later.

I wrote an early version of the answers below (to questions posed by Ken Nakamura) after Naoko Takahashi of Japan broke through with 2:19:46 in Berlin -- and before Kenyan Catherine Ndereba ran 2:18:47 the next Sunday in Chicago. Many of the answers now apply to both women, as Ndereba becomes the "Landy" to Takahashi's "Bannister."

BEFORE THE Berlin race what was your expectation for the world best time and sub-2:20 marathon?

A world best was quite likely and a sub-2:20 only slightly less so, if the weather cooperated. A hot day or high winds would have been more to blame than any "failure" on her part.

Berlin is renowned for its fast course (scene of both men's and women's world marks in recent years, as Chicago now is too). And Naoko Takahashi herself had amply demonstrated her talents -- not only with her Olympic victory but especially at the 1998 Asian Games. Her aided 2:21:47 there, run all but alone in steamy weather, might have been the greatest women's marathon effort ever -- including hers and Ndereba's recently.

WHAT DO YOU think of set-up record attempts?

Male rabbits figure into these women's attempts, even when their help is unintended, and this pacing ever-so-slightly taints the record. The men run behind pacers in their own record attemps too, of course, but these rabbits usually are slower marathoners who can't last until the late miles (where help is needed more). A woman can be helped by men faster than herself, who can pace her to the very end.

The purest record will remain the one set on an unaided course in a field of women only. A Japanese woman, Eri Yamaguchi, holds that one at 2:22:12.

AFTER THE RACE what was your first reaction to Takahashi's performance?

This sub-2:20 was long overdue. Ingrid Kristiansen and Joan Samuelson came within 1-1/2 minutes of this barrier in 1985. Marathon observers (including myself) thought at the time that the barrier would fall soon. Yet it stood for another 16 years.

WHY DID it take so long for a woman to run a sub-2:20 marathon?

The men's record improved by 90 seconds between 1985 and 1999, and the women's by only 23 seconds in that time. The cynical answer would be that the drug crackdown began in the 1980s, and the progress of records in most women's events stalled then. However, that argument would imply that Ingrid Kristiansen and Joan Samuelson were drug cheats, which I would never suggest.

A more positive answer is that the marathon was THE distance event for women in the mid-1980s. The 10,000 wouldn't debut at the Olympics until 1988, and the 5000 for another eight years. This led more of the very best runners to focus more closely on the marathon than in later years when they had a choice of events. Kristiansen, for instance, chose to run the 10,000 at Seoul rather than the marathon when she held world records at both distances.

WHAT IS the significance of the record?

This time is already having the "Bannister effect." After Roger Bannister first ran a mile under four minutes, many other runners realized the possibility and did the same. Takahashi now has shown the way to women marathoners. Her performance also helps re-globalize the sport, where records have gone mainly to Africans in recent years.

AFTER BERLIN [and now Chicago] where do you rank Naoko Takahashi [and now Catherine Ndereba] among the all-time great women's marathon runners like Joan Benoit Samuelson, Rosa Mota, Grete Waitz, Ingrid Kristiansen and Tegla Loroupe?

It's hard to argue the relative strengths of runners from different eras who never faced each other -- or Ndereba versus Takahashi until they meet in a big race. However, none of the others has done what Takahashi did -- both win at the Olympics and set a world record. (Joan Benoit Samuelson ran a world best, but on the aided Boston course, the year before her Olympic win.)

It's also the first time since Waitz's initial record in 1978 that a record-setter has beaten the old record-holder (Loroupe finished more than eight minutes behind Takahashi) in the record-breaking race. Ndereba quickly broke that mark, but no one will ever be the first to do what Takahashi did.

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