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

Thu, 10 Jan 2013 04:59:06 -0500

Non-Records

RUNNING COMMENTARY 971

(The latest, and probably last, home for my magazine column was Marathon & Beyond. That seven-year stay ended in 2011. Now I have permission to republish those pieces. This one comes from the September 2011 issue.)

A confession: I didn’t watch the 2011 Boston Marathon’s live telecast or webcast. It wasn’t because I had to work that Monday morning; following runners IS my work. It wasn’t because my cable package didn’t include Boston TV coverage; Universal Sports did offer it online. It wasn’t because I’d lost interest in marathoners; I’ve never felt closer to more of them who never make national news.

I just don’t care all that much anymore about the race that dominates the race reporting, as live action and later in print. The race upfront at Boston ended before my own run, shower and breakfast did out west. I wasn’t going to miss any of those to watch the pros run.

Finally sitting down to work, I saw the first bulletins from Boston. I might not now remember the results of Kenyan Geoffrey Mutai and American Ryan Hall if they hadn’t run too fast to forget. They had barely cooled down and cleaned up when the first question about what is or isn’t a record reached me.

Hints of what might come appeared even before this marathon was run. The weather forecast called for once-in-a-decade (or less often) conditions: dry and cool with winds of 15 to 20 miles an hour from the southwest, aka tailwinds. This set Boston up for possible “world records” that weren’t. Mutai ran nearly a minute faster than anyone anywhere ever had, and Hall became the fastest American on any course.

Marlene Cimons, a longtime journalist (for the Los Angeles Times) smelled an injustice and wrote about it on Facebook that day: “Wow, 2:03:02! Would someone explain why it’s not an official world record? It seems to me that it’s harder, not easier, to run fast on a hilly course.”

Boston’s course is never easy, with the downhill stretches longer and trickier to negotiate than the ups. But in some years this route can be quite fast. Jumping to mind here are 1975 (when Bill Rodgers ran the course’s first sub-2:10), 1983 (when three U.S. men broke 2:10 and Joan Benoit set a “world record” for women) and 1994 (when Cosmas Ndeti and Utta Pippig set course records).

Geoffrey Mutai said he didn’t feel any wind behind him this year. That’s the thing about the wind. You barely notice it, if at all, when it’s helping, but surely do when it’s hurting as a headwind.

Back to Marlene Cimons’s question: Why isn’t this an official world record? In a word, WIND. A point-to-point course such as Boston has the potential for tailwinds all the way, and even a small breeze at the back can make a big time different in a distance this long. And a wind such as Boston’s in 2011 isn’t small.

My first job in this sport was at Track & Field News, keeping statistics and guarding their purity. The rules in this sport are clear and universally accepted as fair: no wind greater than two meters per second (just under five miles per hour) for the straightaway sprint and hurdle races. Otherwise all the marks would be set in gales.

The road-record rules are equally clear by still widely debated: start and finish within 50 percent of total distance from each other (to negate possible wind assistance on courses such as Boston’s, where the separation is nearly twice the allowable) and no more than one meter per kilometer of net descent (Boston’s is more than three times that much). Boston has asked for an exemption from these qualifications.

Scott Hubbard, a Michigan Runner columnist and stickler for accuracy in this sport, also chimed in on Facebook: “Consider this. If a 400-meter track race were held on a straightaway with a 15-mile-per-hour tailwind, would you regard any times set in that race to be the equal of those posted on the oval? No, you wouldn't. That’s why there are standards for record-eligible road courses.”

We wouldn’t say the wind-aided sprinter had been robbed of a rightful place in the record book. Yet the narrative that took shape after Boston was, ‘Geoffrey Mutai would have set a world record, and Ryan Hall an American mark, if not for those silly rules.’ It should read instead, ‘They would not have run this fast without the tailwind’.”

I soften this comment by adding the one indisputable fact that these were by far the fastest ever run at Boston, where the course was the same as always and the wind had blown favorably before. The times of Mutai and Hall don’t need to be official records to let them stand as runs for the ages. Caroline Kilel and Desiree Davila set no records but ran the best women’s RACE (as opposed to time trial) in Boston history.

Runners at Boston next year are as likely to face a headwind as a helpful one. The wind that giveth can also taketh away. Look what happened at the Mardi Gras Marathon decades ago, when New Orleans city workers’ strike forced the 1979 race onto the Lake Ponchartrain Causeway, the world’s longest bridge at nearly 24 miles.

Friendly winds helped New Orleans runners go wild that year and the next. Crowds of PR-seekers came the third year on this bridge, only to encounter stiff headwinds that slowed the winning times from 2:11 to 2:33 for men and 2:35 to 3:09 for women. The race then returned to the city streets, which were slower some years and faster others.

Back to Boston, the race upfront has little to do with what I do now as a runner, teacher or writer. It’s not my job anymore to watch and cover the elites. It’s not for me to worry whether or not American runners can again lead the world. And it’s not for me to decide what a record should or should not be. I’ve retired from those former reporterly concerns, and retired to paying coachly attention to the runners I know best.

I didn’t watch the pro race live, and still haven’t seen any replays. But I computer-tracked the progress of more friends than ever before. Ask me for details about any leader, and I can say little that you don’t already know. But ask me about Shana and Bob, Cathy and Jeff, Kendra and Michael, and I’ll tell you more about them than you care to know.

Take Shana. At age 50 she’s a second-generation marathoner of sorts. Her daughter Kristi led Mom into the event. Shana went from tears to cheers last year, first thinking she’d missed qualifying by a half-minute and then hearing about the 59-second grace period.

She PRed by a big amount at Boston. No one could tell her or any other non-elite runner who enjoyed similar success there in 2011 that their times are “PRn’ts.” Unlike the leaders, they get to write our own rules about what does and doesn’t count.

UPDATE: Boston marathoners slowed dramatically in 2012, not because the wind shifted but because temperatures soared to near-record highs.


[Many books of mine, old and recent, are now available in three different formats: (1) in print from Amazon.com; (2) as e-books from Amazon.com and BarnesandNoble.com; (3) as printable and shareable PDFs from Lulu.com. Just released was Learning to Walk. Other titles: Home Runs, Joe’s Journal, Long Run Solution, Long Slow Distance, Marathon Training, Run Right Now, Run Right Now Training Log (not an e-book), and Starting Lines, plus Rich Englehart’s book about me, Slow Joe (e-book only). The middle book of the memoir series, Going Far, is being serialized in Marathon & Beyond magazine.]
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