Skip to main content

New York City Marathon shows speedy evolution of 26.2-mile race

The course record in New York makes a clean sweep for the men. In 2011, the men's world record fell, as did men's course records on every World Marathon Majors course -- London, Boston, Berlin and Chicago before New York.

Sunday's performances continued a preposterous three years in the marathon. From 2004 to '08, the mincing progress made it look as if marathon course and world records would forever be inching down once every few years. In the last three years, the average of the top 10 men's marathon times have been faster than what the world record time was in 2002.

And the athletes flambéing the record books have been getting younger. In 2001, the average age of the top 10 men was 28.5. A decade later, it's 26.5. The women's marathon world record has stood since '03, but the depth of the field has improved dramatically and quickly. In '01, six women ran under 2:24. In '10, 13 women did so, and this year 23 women went under 2:24.

As track and field sputters in non-Olympic years -- the biggest news in U.S. track and field of late has been the departure of the Millrose Games from the grand stage of Madison Square Garden and a U.S. athletes' grass-roots revolt over how the sport restricts sponsorships -- the major marathons have become lucrative, celebrity bedecked mini-Super Bowls of running. (Among the celebs in New York this year were Mark Messier and singer Mya.)

The distance is no longer "something you do at the end of your track career for a last shot," said Deena Kastor, 2004 Olympic marathon bronze medalist.

Even luminaries like Haile Gebrselassie and Paul Tergat, both of whom set world marathon records, didn't turn to the distance until they were 29 and 30, respectively, after throttling the track record lists.

Said Kastor, "now people are gravitating toward the marathon in their prime."

Particularly Kenyans. In 2001, six different countries had a top-10 men's marathon runner. In 2011, it's Kenya one through 10.

"The track and field market is done," said Gabriele Nicola, the Italian coach of a number of top Kenyans, including Mary Keitany, who finished third Sunday.

"The marathon is the only remaining market. Track is [Usain] Bolt and clapping hands," he said, meaning that the reward for many track athletes is adulation from the crowd as opposed to big money. "In Kenya, if you don't go to the marathon, you remain a farmer. So talented athletes are coming right to the marathon without spending time in track."

And they are being more handsomely rewarded. In 2006, the five premier marathons came together to form the World Marathon Majors circuit that offers $500,000 to the man and woman who accumulate the most points in the series of races. And the individual race pots are burgeoning as well. This year, New York saw a 30 percent increase in corporate sponsorship from 2010, and 140,000 recreational runners applying to pay for one of the record 47,107 starting spots. In 2010, the race paid out $800,000 in prize money -- not to mention appearance fees, which are in the tens of thousands for top pro athletes.

In New York, earnings are not restricted by finishing place. Any man who runs under 2:10, for example, gets $25,000, as does any woman who runs under 2:26. Doesn't matter if they finish first or 20th. And the faster they go, the more lucrative the time bonus. More than half of Kenya's population lives on less than one dollar per day. In April, Geoffrey Mutai made $225,000 in two hours and three minutes for winning Boston in record time and added $200,000 for the New York win and course record Sunday. Kenyan Emmanuel Mutai, who is not related to Geoffrey, cleared $635,000 Sunday because he finished second, ran faster than the previous course record, and won the World Marathon Majors 2010-11 circuit. (Ethiopian Buzunesh Deba, who lives in the Bronx -- where the per capita income is about $17,000 -- made $105,000 for finishing second in under 2:23:30.)

Nicola identified two other causes behind the marathon eruption. First, the mentality effect. If one person can run fast, well, dammit, you can train or race with them, and you can, too. As much as we might say this is "in your head," if it's in your head, it's in your body, at least within limits. The second is specific to the women's side, namely improved training for female Kenyans.

Get this: in April of 1987, Rich O'Brien, now an editor at Sports Illustrated, wrote a seven-page April Fools' article for The Runner magazine about Kenyan Mary Kipruto. The joke was that Mary was a young Kenyan woman who could run the marathon in under 2:20. Hilarious! "Many here say running is not for mothers," said the fictional Kipruto.

"There [has been] a total change in the way to imagine the possibility of a woman training in Kenya," Nicola says. "Before, in Africa, the idea was the girls are weaker than the men. They are mothers first. We could not propose for them the intensity and quantity of training."

Nicola thinks it will be another 15 years before women runners in Kenya truly will have surmounted hurdles of perception, "but then it will not go back." (i.e. More fast Kenyan women coming to a course near you.)

Scroll to Continue

SI Recommends

The declining exposure and limited financial incentives on the track have driven a culture shift in the way that athletes think about the marathon as well. In 2004, it was huge news when American distance legend Bob Kennedy, then 33, decided to make his highly anticipated marathon debut in New York. Everybody wondered what the great track runner would do.

He didn't finish. But Kennedy wasn't even in the twilight of his career at that point, he was two minutes to midnight, and retired shortly thereafter. In decades past, the 5k and 10k were seen as things you do if you don't have enough speed for the 1,500 meters or the mile, and the marathon was the thing you do when your 5k/10k track speed began to fail. A second career, of sorts, on the runway to joggerdom. That was accompanied by a mentality that the bodies of the young hadn't pounded enough pavement to handle the marathon. Nevermind that there was scant evidence on the issue one way or the other, or that some younger runners had already fared quite well in the marathon. Alberto Salazar famously won New York three straight times from 1980-82, beginning at age 22.

"I think people are starting to figure out the training and physiology better," said American Dathan Ritzenhein, who made his marathon debut in New York in 2006 at the age of 23 and finished ninth in the Olympic marathon in '08. "Maybe there's not as much stigma about doing it early on, as opposed to you go there when your track career is over with."

Mary Wittenberg, CEO of the New York Road Runners, which puts on the New York City Marathon, knows that the marathon has become "clearly the glory event," she said. But even though she's had a giant's hand in making that happen, she doesn't think the surge of young marathoners is an unequivocally good thing.

"I'm not sure that athletes skipping track careers is the best thing for the athletes or the sport," Wittenberg said. "What's proven to be a phenomenal formula for building stars, like Paula [Radcliffe], Haile, Tergat, is before they went to the marathon people knew them from the track. Maybe it's not as big a stage, but they were in all these cities. Paris, London, Stockholm, Shanghai -- and people saw them and they built a following. ... The first thing we say now to an agent or athlete [who wants to race New York] is, 'Build your resume. Make sure people know who you are.'"

An aspect of the drop in marathon times that Wittenberg does not like is the emphasis on coordinated aid to get top runners to the finish in fast times, like the flying V of pacesetters deployed at the Berlin marathon. Then there's Rotterdam, where the leader can make the "this round's on me" hand signal and a car will drive up with the glycogen cocktail of choice. "Head-to-head racing [sans pacesetters as in Boston and New York] is more exciting and sustainable," said Wittenberg, even if it doesn't drop the world record very often.

The big question is whether the bodies of young marathoners will be sustainable. The marathon "definitely beats you up," Ritzenhein said. "I think [running marathons early and often] might shorten some careers. There might be only so many 2:03s in your legs."

Krista Austin, a physiologist who works with pro runners, thinks that this generation of young Kenyan marathoners will have a shot at long careers because "the Kenyans are just starting to do some of the basic [injury prevention] things, like stretching and massage and Pilates."

Kastor thinks that the very lack of experience helps some of the youngest athletes push the 26.2-mile pace.

"When you're young, you take more risks in a race," she said.

No one more exemplified that than the late Sammy Wanjiru, who at 21 years old led the 2008 Olympic marathon in Beijing from gun to tape in the most ferociously bold marathon performance of alltime. No more coasting the first 20 miles. Since Wanjiru, the race starts when the race actually starts.

There may be a few simple reasons why some younger runners have turned to the marathon. Kenyan Caroline Rotich, who finished seventh on Sunday, says that she skipped over track because, "I didn't like to be running in the same place."

Ethiopian Gebr Gebremariam, who won New York in 2010 and placed fourth this year, noted that the rainy season in Addis Ababa ends around the time track season ends and marathon season takes over, so his best preparation comes after the track season.

But it is the increasingly narrowed running spotlight that will continue to heighten the focus on the marathon.

"There are three distances people know: the 100 meters, the mile and the marathon," said Meb Keflezighi, who you probably don't know held the American 10k record for nearly a decade, but who you may know became in 2009 the first American man to win the New York City Marathon in 27 years. "If I say I ran a 5k or 10k people ask, 'How far is that?' The technology is better, the training is better, recovery is better and more and more young people are going to get into the marathon."

Expect marathon times to continue to prove it.