The Greatest Race in the World and what that would look like

After the success of the Berlin marathon to facilitate another marathon world record, I started thinking about what it would take to create a race with the sole intention of making it the Greatest Race in the World – the GRW.

The greatest marathon course possible

Screen Shot 2013-10-02 at 08.22.27
Kipsang on his way to 2:03:23

In the case of the Berlin marathon, I think there are a very large number of factors that come together to make it the course upon which so many marathon world records have been set. From my experience of running it, and in no particular order, here are a few that I suspect play a part:

  • a flat course (as flat as you can make a 26 mile loop)
  • a course that conforms to IAAF stipulations (the Boston Marathon course – over which the fastest ever marathon has been run – does not conform so Geoffrey Mutai’s 2:03:02 run there in 2011, does not count)
  • great crowd support
  • flawless organisation
  • good road surfaces underfoot all the way around
  • as few twists and turns as possible
  • no bottle-necks (not such a big deal for the elite runners, but for the rest of us trying to run a PB, it can be important)
  • as many runners as possible to race against / work with

There are also factors that vary from year to year – cool conditions, ideally no rain and either no wind or at least as little head wind as possible – are ideal. But even the GRW can’t control the weather. Although the greatest race might be able to take prevailing wind directions and weather conditions into account to limit the chances of a freakily bad day.

What about races apart from the marathon?

Of course, the marathon is not the only race, despite it being my obsession. So what about GRWs over other distances and on other terrains? I suspect that many of the factors that would go into creating the 26.2 mile GRW would apply equally to all endurance road races, certainly from 5km upwards. But if you think that the GRW might be a trail race, then being flat and on tarmac, would not be considered ideal. In that case the factors that might make for the greatest race might include the technicality of the trails, inspiring views, aid stations stocked with cheese and coca cola and so on. There would also be different requirements for the GRW if it was a fell race or an orienteering race.

What would make for your ideal race?

I once read an article where the author imagined the race that would need to be created to allow the perfectly trained athlete to break the 2 hour barrier for the marathon. The article focussed quite a lot on the training that the athlete had undergone, the technology used to monitor the athlete while he or she ran and the clothing and footwear that would facilitate the record attempt. I think that for us mere mortals, the training varies enormously depending on the runner and the kit is just whatever you feel good in. But the course is something that, if done right, can help everyone to run a faster time than they have before.

So my big question is, what would you suggest would make up your dream race – if you could imagine the Greatest Race in the World, what would it look like? Leave your suggestions in the comments below and perhaps, one day, we can make that race a reality. Then there’d be no excuses, right?

Three is the magic number – interviewing Kipsang, Mutai and Makau at the 2013 London marathon

Mutai, Makau, Kipsang
Mutai, Makau, Kipsang

It seems as though every year, the organisers of the London marathon bring together “the greatest field ever assembled” for their race – London is one of the six major marathons and is an iconic race on the bucket list of runners from the very elite all the way to the back of the pack. So the job of getting the best runners in the world to London, whilst obviously not easy, is something that the London marathon organisers pride themselves on. But perhaps this year more than any other, in the afterglow of the Olympics, Hugh Brasher, the London Marathon race director, has outdone himself by bringing together a really incredible men’s field. And today, thanks to the marathon’s sponsors adidas, I got to meet three of them: Patrick Makau, Wilson Kipsang and Geoffrey Mutai – the fastest three men over 26.2 miles ever.

Patrick Makau

Serious business
Serious business

Patrick Makau is the marathon world record holder, having run a time of 2:03:38 in Berlin in 2011. Sadly he pulled out of the London marathon last year with an injury and subsequently was not selected for the Kenyan marathon squad for the Olympics.

I started by asking Patrick whether he knew, in Berlin, that the world record was in his sights. He said “From the average spilts that I got during the race, I knew that the world record was possible” and he confirmed that he went in to the race knowing what the record was and what splits would be required to break it.

I asked Patrick what he thinks will be required for his current record to be broken and he told me that it will require

someone to train very hard and be in good condition on the day of the race

This idea that hard training is the key was repeated again and again when I talked to the athletes. I wondered if there are other requirements when it comes to running fast and Makau told me that racing along with a fast group, like the one assembled for Sunday, really helps and that whilst he doesn’t train with Kipsang and Mutai, he knows them and they meet at races, so they will be familiar with each other on the day.

Terrible photo. Great athlete!
Terrible photo. Great athlete!

When it comes to training, Patrick told me that he doesn’t have a coach and that he trains himself. He said that he has been running for so long that he “know what I need to do and how to do my speed sessions” which for me, reinforces the theory that all the fundamentals required to create a world-class training programme could be written in a single side of A4!

So I asked Patrick what he thinks is the best advice for someone looking to improve their running.

Quite simple – you need to be good and consistent in training. Be disciplined and follow your training programme. And don’t forget to train twice a day

See, I told you it was simple!

 

Geoffrey Mutai

The fastest man over 26.2 miles!
The fastest man over 26.2 miles!

Geoffrey Mutai is the fastest man over 26.2 miles having run the 2011 Boston marathon in a blistering 2:03:02 – which is 4’42” pace! However this is not recognised as the world record because the course layout and profile of Boston is not within the regulations the IAAF stipulates for marathon record courses. Nevertheless, 2:03:02…! And if you need more convincing that Mutai is an incredible runner, his (legal) 58:55 half marathon PB should suffice. That an a victory in the New York marathon, again in 2011, in 2:05:05.

I started by asking Geoffrey whether he goes into races with a plan. He told me:

I cannot ever say how I will race and I never start with a plan. The plans only come during the race and I have to adapt and make decisions as the race develops. Instinct plays a big part

Like Makau, Mutai said that having a fast group like the one we will see in London this year is a good thing. He said that he enjoys the challenge of a race and that having fast runners with him will provide an added boost.

Keep. It. Simple.
Keep. It. Simple.

Unlike Patrick Makau, Geoffrey does train with Wilson Kipsang and they know each other well. He said that when it comes to race day he knows that sometimes he will beat his rivals and sometimes he won’t. But whichever way it goes, he is ready to race again as soon as the opportunity arises.

Mutai also said to me that he knows that running is a solo pursuit. He said that being the fastest in the field is not important and that all he worries about is himself. I asked him what he does if he feels that a race is not going well and the simplicity that seems to be a theme for all three runners I met, came through again:

Reacting to problems is all physical. If I can respond it is physical – if I have the energy to push I will. If not, then I don’t

For Geoffrey, this London marathon is a race that he has been looking forward to for a long time. He seems genuinely excited and happy to be here and said to me that racing is one of the best things about being an athlete. His philosophy is just that:

one of the best things about being an athlete is having discipline and enjoying your career. You must be happy when you run. You must be happy when you win and when you lose

I had to ask Geoffrey what he would advise any runner who wants to improve, aside from enjoying running. He told me that “through focus you can get the most from your training and if you sacrifice yourself in training you will succeed”

I finished by asking Mutai whether he thinks that he will win on Sunday. He said that he has done the training and feels prepared. He said that

God willing, I will win

I loved meeting the fastest marathon runner ever – he is a truly lovely man and I for one really hope he does have a great race in London.

Wilson Kipsang

VLM defending champion.
VLM defending champion.

Wilson Kipsang won the bronze medal in the London Olympic marathon and returns to the street of the capital as the defending champion, having won in 2012 in 2:04:44. This made him only the second man, after the great Haile Gebrselassie to finish three marathons in under 2hrs 5mins.

His 2:03:42 in Frankfurt in 2011 makes him the second fastest marathon runner ever, behind fellow Kenyan Patrick Makau and he has a pretty handy half marathon PB too – 58:59.

However by the time I sat down in front of Wilson Kipsang, he was ready to leave. The interviews were taking their toll and he was hungry. I had just given Geoffrey Mutai a couple of TORQ bars that I had in my bag after he told his agent that he was hungry. Wilson said something in Swahili and the second, unopened bar that Mutai had was handed over. Then he looked at me, smiled and said

Hi, I am Kipsang!

I only had a couple of minutes so I ploughed straight in with a question about tactic for the race on Sunday. Like both Mutai and Makau, Wilson said that whilst he had a rough idea of what he would like to do, the plan would be developed at the race went on.

I asked what he would do in the couple of days left before the race and he said that he would keep it simple: go for a gentle run, relax, drink water and eat well. He said that he also wanted to make sure he stayed focussed.

When it comes to the race, Kipsang said that he will constantly think about how he is feeling as they motor along. He said it is essential that you “feel the pace” and think about how far you have left to go in the race. And this translates into the advice that he gave me for the marathon itself:

Make sure you train so you feel comfortable running at a faster tempo. Be sure in the race to listen to your body and try, as hard as you can, to increase the tempo at the end of the race

My time with Wilson was up. But he finished by telling me, once again, that simplicity is the key – train hard, focus in training and racing, enjoy what you are doing and be dedicated.

Three really is the lucky number

It was an amazing experience to meet Patrick Makau, Geoffrey Mutai and Wilson Kipsang. I think that I was expecting – or is that actually hoping for – demi-Gods or people who are somehow other-worldly. After all, what they are doing seems super-human. But the reality is that they are just lovely, easy going, friendly and enthusiastic runners who keep their approach simple, dedicate themselves whole-heartedly to their sport, train hard from an early age and race to win every time they go out. It is those qualities that I think make them the best runners alive and the knowledge that miles ahead of me on Sunday they will be duelling it out on the streets of London, will certainly spur me on to do my best.

As for whether one of them will win… well I asked them all the same question. They were all too shy to really answer, but you know that they will make sure they give it their best on the day. If you’re running, I hope you do too.

A nice problem to have

Patrick Makau of Kenya during the Virgin London Marathon 2011 (Christopher Lee)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Today in the Sunday Times there is a very small article about something that is undoubtedly a very big issue in the country in question: the problem that the Kenyan Olympic selectors have in choosing a team to send to the 2012 games in London. The Times reports that Kenya has produced too many of the world’s top marathon runners to be able to choose the maximum three that they are allowed to send to the Games this year.

According to David Okeyo, the head of athletics in Kenya

It’s nothing short of a headache

The list that Okeyo and his team must choose from is really extraordinary and includes:

  • Abel Kirui, two-time world champion
  • Patrick Makau, world record-holder
  • Geoffrey Mutai, winner of the Boston and New York marathons
  • Emmanuel Mutai, winner of last year’s London marathon
  • Wilson Kipsang, who won the Frankfurt marathon

I recently wrote about the way that the USA picks it’s marathon team – get all the leading contenders together and have a race. In the case of the Americans this will be at the Houston marathon in a few weeks. You can read my thoughts on that here.

But the Kenyans use a similar process to many Olympic team selectors, including Team GB. They are supposed to just pick the runners that (a) have met the qualifying standard and (b) they think will give them the best hope of at least one medal. So how do the Kenyan selectors pick? Well this is the most interesting bit. Quite a few of the runners in contention want the Kenyan selectors to let all those who want to be considered for the team have a race and the first three home come to the Games in London in August.

Now whether or not you think this is the best way to pick a team, if that is what the Kenyan selectors decide to do there is a distinct possibility that they will pick a race that is very close to my heart as the trails race – the London marathon in April 2012. Can you imagine? That would have to be the most tremendous smack-down of all time. I’m just disappointed that if they do go down that route, I’ll be too busy with  my own race to see it unfold live!

The route to success

In my other life – the one where I am not running, writing about running, reading about running or thinking about running – I work in the design industry. I subscribe to a blog written by a man considered by many in that industry to be a guru; Seth Godin. His daily emails are pithy and thought provoking, often helping me to think about the industry and business in which I work, in new ways. Today my two worlds collided, when I received this in my inbox;

Adversity and the route to success

Resource-rich regions often fall behind in developing significant industrial and cultural capabilities. Japan does well despite having very few resources at all.

Well-rounded and popular people rarely change the world. The one voted most likely to succeed probably won’t.

Genuine success is scarce, and the scarcity comes from the barriers that keep everyone from having it. If it weren’t for the scarcity, it wouldn’t be valuable, after all.

It’s difficult to change an industry, set a world record, land big clients, or do art that influences others. When faced with this difficulty, those with other, seemingly better options see the barrier and walk away.

Why bother? The thinking is that we can just pump some more oil or smile and gladhand our way to an acceptably happy outcome.

On the other hand, people who believe they have fewer options take a look at the barrier and realize that even though it will be difficult to cross, it’s the single best option they’ve got.

This is one of the dangers of overfunded/undertested startup companies. Without an astute CEO in charge, they begin to worry more about not losing what they’ve already got than the real reason they started the project in the first place.

I think what Seth describes is not only “one of the dangers of overfunded/undertested startup companies” – it is also one of the dangers for overfunded and undertested athletes who live very comfortable lives in societies where there are much easier (and let’s face it, more reliable) ways to earn a very comfortable living. So what is it that drives the best to be the best? It must be pretty powerful, because if you believe what Matthew Syed, Daniel Pink, Rasmus Ankersen and others say (you can read my take on that here and here) then it is only due to hard work that they will succeed, which is difficult in a comfortable world.

IAAF performs marathon u-turn

In my experience of running marathons, if you are going in the right direction then performing a u-turn is generally a bad idea – you will find yourself running against the tide of people. However if you find yourself running the wrong way then a u-turn might be the best course of action. In the case of the IAAF they made a decision that Paula Radcliffe’s world record for the marathon of 2 hours 15.25 minutes achieved at the London Marathon in 2003 would be down-graded to a ‘world best’ (you can read all about that here) and found themselves running head-on against the tide of public opinion. Now it appears that they have performed a tactical u-turn and might now be able to focus on tackling all the more important issues that affect our sport.

This is how ESPN reported the news released by Associated Press:

The IAAF has decided to let Paula Radcliffe keep her marathon world record from 2003, after previously saying it would reduce one of athletics’ outstanding performances to a world best because the English runner set the mark in a race with men.

IAAF Council member Helmut Digel told The Associated Press on Wednesday that the governing body will keep the mark in the books, despite an August decision to only recognize records achieved in all-women races from now on.

You can read the full text here.

The Adidas AdiZero Adios (and a new love affair)

As I have admitted before I have never really run in Adidas shoes. In the case of Adidas it was a big sulk caused by a bad retail experience, the impression that Adidas shoes are too narrow for my rather wide feet and the fact that with so many other brands to try, I never had the need to buy Adidas.

However, after being invited to the launch of the new Adidas range for 2012 and then being sent a pair of the new AdiZero Adios, I am converted. In fact I would go so far as to say, I am really impressed with the shoes.

The new Adidas AdiZero Adios

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

These are the shoes worn by Patrick Makau in Berlin a couple of weeks ago when he broke the world record and I can certainly see why they would be his choice for the marathon. They are light and flexible. The upper is really breathable and whilst the fit is snug (bear in mind I do have wide feet) they seem to hug my foot rather than restricting it.

Three test runs

Low profile and yet just enough cushioning

I have worn the Adios for the last week on three runs and they performed superbly on each.

On Wednesday night I had a progressive 10 mile run on the canal towpath in the gathering gloom. This was my first run in the Adios and I was delighted by how light they felt despite providing a good deal of cushioning on a relatively long run on the hard concrete towpath. The grip was excellent despite some dampness on the ground and I really felt like I was floating along in the Adios. I was also really happy that the upper of the shoe is very breathable and as I pushed the pace I could feel the cool evening air through the top of the shoe which was great for cooling my feet.

The second outing for the Adios was a speed endurance session on Saturday. This involved extended threshold periods and multiple short fast hill reps in between. Again the Adios were perfect, with just the right balance of lightness and cushioning to ensure that I finished the session with my feet feeling great.

And then I took the Adios out for a long run today. I always try to do at least part of my long run off-road if I can but today that wasn’t possible. However despite the lightness and low profile, the Adios were great even after 16 miles and I didn’t miss my usual, much more cushioned shoes in which I do most of my easy running.

Features

Continental rubber provides excellent grip

The Adidas AdiZero Adios have quite a few features that I really like;

  • they are really ‘grippy’ – this is in part thanks to the section of Continental rubber at the front of the sole – this rubber from the famous German tyre manufacturer, it is claimed, can save up to 1mm of slip every meter, which I guess over 42,125 meters adds up. I’m not sure about that, but I do know that the shoes had great grip even when I was running on wet canal towpaths
  • the shoes have a very low profile – I’m not sure what the heel drop is, but these – to me – are real racing flats with no sign of a thick heel. As a result they really encouraged me on to my mid-foot as I ran
  • the Adios are really light – 217g according to my scales
  • comfortably wide toe-box aligned with a snug mid-foot means that the shoes were not restrictive but at the same time didn’t feel that there were slopping around as I ran. I would however suggest trying a half size bigger than usual especially if you are not used to racing flats
  • the Adiprene material under the fore-foot provides great, light-weight cushioning, which makes them ideal for the marathon in my opinion

Conclusion

My conclusion is simply this; for many of us the search for the perfect shoe is a long and arduous one, especially the search for the perfect race-day shoe. I have known for almost as long as I have been running that many of the greatest runners in the world wear Adidas shoes and yet I stubbornly refused to give them a try for a rather petty reason. That was a mistake. I really like the Adidas AdiZero Adios. It is a great race-day shoe and one that will have a permanent place in my shoe rack. It is a shoe that for me combines all the things that I am looking for – lightness, breathability, flexibility and cushioning – with the fewest possible compromises. And it is very, very orange (which I like). I’m glad I have finally got over my jilted-lover syndrome and embraced the Adios – I think we’ll have a long life together.

The new Adidas AdiZero Adios will be available in the UK from January 2012.
If Carlsberg made running shoes...

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Postscript, here are some official notes from Adidas about the technology built into the AdiZero Adios:

The fastest marathons ever (and where the runners come from)

This list was published on Track and Field News

All-Time Marathon Top 10

The all-time men’s marathon top 10, following the Frankfurt Marathon this weekend:


 

 

 

 

 

 

1. 2:03:38 Patrick Makau (Kenya)    25 Sept 11
2. 2:04:42 Wilson Kipsang (Kenya)    30 October 11
3. 2:03:59 Haile Gebrselassie (Ethiopia)    28 September 08
=4. 2:04:27 Duncan Kibet (Kenya)    5 April 09
=4. 2:04:27 James Kwambai (Kenya)    5 April 09
6. 2:04:40 Emmanuel Mutai (Kenya)    17 April 11
=7. 2:04:55 Paul Tergat (Kenya)    28 September 03
=7. 2:04:55 Geoffrey Mutai (Kenya)    11 April 10
9. 2:04:56 Sammy Korir (Kenya)    28 September 03
10. 2:05:04 Abel Kirui (Kenya)     5 April 09

And for those runners whose times don’t count because they were achieved on an ‘aided course’:

2:03:02 G. Mutai 18 April 11
2:03:06 Moses Mosop (Kenya) 18 April 11
2:04:53 Gebre Gebremariam (Ethiopia) 18 April 11

Astonishing!

Adidas’ new range for 2012

First of all a confession – I haven’t ever really run in Adidas footwear before (I did have a pair when I very first started running, but I can’t really remember them and they were consigned to the bin fairly quickly after I discovered I had bought a size too small for me). The reason for this is rather ridiculous, but is something that I hope many runners will understand; I had a bad retail experience and then never went back to the brand I was annoyed by.

After I started running I always went to a specialist running shop for my shoes, but after a few years, I started to think that I knew what felt good on my feet. So I went to a huge Adidas shop on Oxford Street, in London’s West End, with the intention of trying on, and buying, some Adidas racing flats. After all these were the shoes that Haile Gebrselassie had worn when he and I ran the Berlin marathon earlier in 2008; he set the then world record of 2:03:59 and I ran a PB in 2:51:52.

The problem is that I am not good at shopping. I don’t like hanging around and I don’t like what I perceive to be bad service. So after waiting for a preposterously long time to be served and for the shoes I wanted to try to arrive, the sales assistant dropped the shoes on the floor at my feet and started serving another customer… and I left and walked straight into the arms of ASICS, where I remained until earlier this year.

But I have always liked the idea of Adidas. My favourite racing shorts are Adidas. My favourite t-shirts, long- and short-sleeved, are Adidas. And so many runners I know love their shoes, I often felt I was missing out. But I can be a bit stubborn and there wasn’t really a good reason to stop racing in my ASICS.

But now I might relent and finally succumb to the lure of the three stripes. Why? Well I have stopped wearing the ASICS that I was so faithful to and started trying different brands. And the new Adidas range looks pretty interesting.

Shoes for racing

Being shown around the Adidas shoes today by Kirstyn from the KTB PR agency, I finally grasped the different ranges that Adidas have and who they are aimed at. There is the Response range, aimed at the beginner and designed to provide a choice of entry level shoes. Then there is the Supernova range, offering slightly lighter and rather sleeker-looking shoes with lower profiles and an overall racier feel, aimed at the ‘improver’. These shoes include Adidas’ torsion system in the sole along with a larger area of Formotion cushioning but without any extra weight. Next up is the adiStar range, which is considered to be for the serious runner with further technical additions and even lighter weight. And finally there is the adiZero range which contains Adidas’ racing flats, as worn by Gebrselassie and, perhaps more significantly, Patrick Makau in this years Berlin marathon, when he set a new world record for the marathon: 2:03:38.

The Adidas adiZero range

There are two shoes in the new adiZero range that I am really keen to try; the adiZero Adios and the Feather.

The Adios is the shoe that I think could become one of my favourites. Handling the shoe, it is undoubtedly light and feels well balanced and with just the right amount of flex. The innovation in this shoe that I think is really interesting is the link-up between Adidas and the tyre manufacturer Continental, who have supplied rubber that has been incorporated in key areas of the sole to aid grip. The areas of rubber are quite small to ensure the shoe remains extremely light, but the rubber is exactly where my racing flats always wear the fastest – mainly at the front of the toe-box – and if the Continental rubber adds traction (the KTB PR team informed me that some boffins somewhere have estimated that the rubber saves 1mm of ‘slip’ per 1 meter, which over a marathon adds up I guess!) and longevity, then I think Adidas could be on to a winner.

The other interesting shoe in the range, that caught my eye, is the Feather (see right). As the name would suggest this is a very light shoe indeed and has something that I haven’t seen in a long-distance shoe before. The ‘sprint frame’ that the shoe is built around is a full-length rigid plastic base – similar to the sole of a track spike – that the upper is bonded on to (thereby saving stitching which might make the shoe  more attractive to those who prefer running without socks) and onto which is stuck the adiPRENE cushioning material. I must admit that I am not convinced that a shoe that has such rigidity in the sole is going to be a good idea, but I hope I’ll get a chance to try them out and report back.

Adidas adiZero and Supernova apparel

The other things that caught my eye were the adiZero clothing range and the official London marathon apparel.

As I have said before, I really am a big fan of the Adidas adiZero clothing range. The latest offerings feel really great; super-light, well made with body-mapping technologhy which means that different materials are used in key areas to aid moisture management or improve ventilation. Oh and they are orange (and I mean really orange – see left!) I know that personally I am highly likely to end up adding to my already considerable collection of running wear with some items from this range and as soon as I do, I will post some reviews.

The final items I had a look at were the Supernova pieces that will make up the official London marathon range (at the time of writing this they are not available, but you can have a look by following the link). Again, orange is the colour of choice – see right – and I think that the collection looks good and really is high quality, so if you are keen to show-off that you have run the London, then this kit is the way to do it and is also pretty good technically.

So I would say that from what I have seen, Adidas have some pretty exciting products coming out in the next few months. I hope that I will have a chance to try at least a few out and I will put something in the review section. In the mean time if anyone reading this wants to add a review of some kit they are currently using please let me know (and that goes for any brand, not just Adidas) whilst I am going to pull on my new trusted Mizunos and head out for a little run.    

No news is good news?

On Thursday last week I was invited to the official opening of the Nike store in Westfield Stratford, on the Olympic park being built for the Games in 2012. The added draw was that Paula Radcliffe would be there, talking about running and giving tips and discussing her training and of course, discussing her meeting with IAAF president Lamine Diack to discuss the recent ruling that means that as of January 2012 Paula’s world record of 2:15:35 will be down-graded to a ‘worlds best’ from it’s current world record, because the race was a mixed race.

History stands

On arriving at the new store, everyone there was given a ‘History Stands’ t-shirt and we were able to nose around the very impressive new retail space, while a DJ played. But it was clear to me, that everyone was there to hear Paula being interviewed by Charlie Webster. And we didn’t have to wait long.

As I would expect, the message that Paula delivered from the IAAF was that they are sympathetic to the points she made and that they would look into the issue. Bodies like the IAAF rarely reverse decisions quickly or publicly, but my thoughts about this ruling are pretty clear;

  • if pacers are not allowed in women’s races then surely they have to be banned in men’s races too?
  • there doesn’t seem to be much compelling evidence that being in a mixed race actually provides assistance
  • the vast majority of big marathons have mixed fields which makes them ineligible for a world record attempt, so this limits women’s opportunities to run a world record
  • Paula didn’t use pace-makers. She did race men in the field, but at no time was she running behind a shield of pacers or anything like that
  • the ruling affects many more women than just Paula Radcliffe – for example the US women’s record is currently 2:19:36 by Deena Kastor at the London Marathon (not in a women’s-only race) and if the ruling were applied across the board, the record would suddenly belong to Joan Benoit Samuelson who ran 2:24:52 at the 1984 Olympic Games.

Paula Radcliffe on running in a group

I think that like many of the people at the event, I was a bit disappointed that there wasn’t more positive news from the meeting with the IAAF, but when you have a super-star like Paula Radcliffe on stage being interviewed by a knowledgeable interviewer and runner like Charlie Webster, who was sporting trainers with ‘Break 3:30’ embroidered on the tongues, to remind her of her next target, there is always going to be some good stuff to take away.

Charlie asked Paula for any advice that she had for marathon runners who are starting out on training for the marathon and I was really pleased that Paula raised the subject of finding a training group, whether that is an athletics club or a group of friends. I have written about the value of running in a group which you can read about here and Radcliffe also talked about the importance of running in a group as the nights draw in from a safety point of view. Indeed after the talking was done there was an opportunity for the assembled crowd to go for a NikeTownRunners blast lead by a team from the store, which happens every Monday and Thursday and includes women-only groups, which I think is likely to be quite popular.

Paula’s focus on the Olympic Games 2012

Moreover I was delighted that Paula talked so positively about her experience in Berlin and the surgery that she had just afterwards. It was really great to see the fire in Paula’s eyes when she talked about the decision she had to make mid-race to back-off from challenging the eventual winner Florence Kiplagat who finished in 2:19:44. Paula has her eyes on the gold medal in London and I am delighted to see that she is prepared to do whatever it takes to make sure she is on the start line in the best shape possible. Can you imagine if she runs a world record that day… what would the IAAF say to that?

 

 

A world record… or is it?

I recently re-read one of my favourite books ‘The London Marathon’ by John Bryant and in one chapter, the author describes a fictional scenario for how the 2 hour barrier will be broken in the marathon;

It is 6 May 2024, London Marathon Day, the date set… after detailed discussions with the Ministry of Climate Control – the day when running 42.2 km should be perfect.

Millions are gathered around the course and a battery of television cameras are focused on the bright orange strip of all-weather running track two metres wide that snakes the miles from Blackheath to Buckingham Palace… Tufimu [the fictional athlete in this fantasy] is not wearing shoes as such for this marathon. His feet have been painted just 90 minutes before the race with a tough, flexible weatherproof coating – and one of the latest wafer-thin energy-return soles have been laser-glued to the bottom of each foot…

Bryant goes on to imagine that the runner will have an ear-piece plugged in to a feed from his personal hypnotherapist and that micro-chips under his skin will feed data back to a control centre, etc, etc. All very amusing.

The 2-hour marathon

But it makes a serious point. The 2 hour barrier for the marathon will, I have no doubt, be broken (hopefully in my lifetime) and it will also probably require a series of developments in both the way the athlete prepares and the kit they use. This was the case when Roger Bannister broke what many considered to be an impossible barrier – the 4 minute mile. In the case of Bannister’s historic run, it was the use of pace-makers that was the new (and in some quarters highly controversial) development, and one which has changed the face of athletics ever since. But does that mean that Bannister didn’t run a mile in under 4 minutes? No, it doesn’t.

That is part of sport. Things develop. Cars get faster, balls get lighter (or heavier or rounder or whatever), tracks and pools get ‘faster’ and sport should look forward. But I don’t believe that sport can, with one obvious exception, look backwards.

Paula Radcliffe’s world record

So how is it that the IAAF has announced recently that Paula Radcliffe’s world record for the marathon – 2:15:25 – set on 13 April 2003, will no longer be recognised as a world record (it will instead be listed as a ‘world best’ what ever the hell that means)? And the reason that this record is being down-graded is that Paula ran it in a race where there were men alongside her. Not men that Paula asked for and not, as we saw in the men’s race in Berlin this year, a peleton of runners in a ‘V’ formation in front and to the sides of her. The pace-makers in 2003 were just in the race, at most offering a target to help with the psychological challenges of keeping up the incredible pace Paula ran at.

Drug cheats

The obvious exception to all this, of course, is when it comes to drug cheats. And there the IAAF is in murky waters. I believe most strongly that if an athlete is found guilty of cheating by taking drugs, then all of their victories and all of their records should be disregarded. If they prove to be as capable clean, as they were when doping, then once they return after they have served their ban, they will surely regain their records. If they don’t… well then maybe the records weren’t legitimate anyway. But certainly in the case of many shorter distance events, almost all of the the women’s world records, mostly set in the 1980’s – before the introduction of mandatory drug testing was introduced – are so far beyond what the world’s current best are capable of, that there is a strong whiff of suspicion. There is a great article about this very subject here.

But Paula Radcliffe is not under suspicion of any misbehaviour. She is however in danger of having one of the most increadible feats of athletics, down-graded because of the occurrence of men on the course at the same time as her (ESPN have a great piece on this storm here). For what it is worth, I for one don’t think that is either sensible or fair and certainly brings into question whether ‘assisted’ marathon world records are going to be banned in which case Kenya’s Patrick Makau had better enjoy breaking the world record (2:03:38) last weekend, because he definitely hid from the wind behind a phalanx of pacers and if there is one rule for women, it is only fair that it should be applied to men. What do you think?