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The 2:00 marathon barrier
by on Monday, September 30, 2013  (8 comments)
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8 comments
Ryan

Tangentially related to this post, Andrew noted where I linked to this blog post that PEDs could change the equation. I believe he said he could see it happening by 2025 if those in charge don't get serious about PEDs.

As I noted in response, this blog post assumes PEDs, genetic engineering, etc don't play a major role in the progression. Maybe a faulty assumption. There is no doubt that PEDs could change the equation significantly and 2025 or at least 2035-2040 could be possible if they aren't dealt with aggressively.

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Ed

I was thinking it would be 50 years which is in my life time. The last 50 years saw an improvement of around 11 minutes or so. We all know that the trend will slow and that the margins will decrease unless of course, as stated, there is a miracle breakthrough in health and or training. However, only 30% of that progress is needed to break the 2:00:00 mark over the next 50 years. Sadly, I believe that PEDs will be overlooked as the big money will come from chasing that mark. Just look at the home run record chase in baseball from years back. Everyone knew those two were loaded up on crap but it drew a ton of money into baseball. Same thing will likely happen to our sport.

We will see that 1:59:59 in our life time. Whether there should be an asterisk (from us purists) or not, remains to be seen.

I'll chase my personal goals regardless!

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Andrew A.

As Ed implies, there is little to indicate that the conflict-of-interest that has led the current powers-that-be down this merry record chase path will alter significantly going forward. What happened to the huge doping story coming out of Kenya earlier this year? The running media celebrates the WR in lock-step fashion, nobody questions the pink elephant looming in the corner of the room. With a wink and a nod, the sub-2 WR will be here before most will anticipate it.

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Ryan

Ed, it can be all about how you slice the data. 11 minutes over the past 50+ years but 6 minutes over the past 40+ years. Cut off a decade, cut off nearly half of that improvement.

That said, as I mentioned, I changed my tune as I was writing this post. I think we will see the record broken. As you and Andrew note, the question is more about how the conflict of interest in doping regulation will play out in determining how soon we will see it. If enforcement gets serious, I wouldn't be shocked to see it take 40-50 years. If not, maybe in the next 10-20 years.

Of course, I'm getting more cynical about records all the time. They fascinate me but I don't put much faith in them. I don't think it's news to Andrew that I used to consider him a huge cynic. Now, I see that I was trying too hard to believe in the good in people. I'm still an eternal optimist and I still want to believe in the good in people but I'm also a realist and know that, where big money is involved, some people will do anything to get even a slight advantage.

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Andrew A.

Let me just say that I have been too close to this thing too often, and I do not see it as being about the good or bad in people, per se. I do not consider my three friends who have been implicated in doping scandals to be necessarily prone to bad intents, all were good to me and as far as I can tell were good to others as well. I see it more as the influence of the institution or administrative structural culture than anything else, which can shift the perception of what is normal and ethical. You see it in corrupt law enforcement agencies, religious sects, housing projects, governments, powerful corporations, high-profile sports (collegiate and pro), etc. There is a saying in sports that goes: "if you're not cheating then you're not trying (hard enough) and it's only cheating if you get caught." We saw it become deeply entrenched in pro cycling, where any rider knew that essentially all of the riders ahead of him were cheating with PEDs and that if he had real designs on winning then he better be doping, too. It's a rationalization that if all who are contending for a win are doping then there is no unfair advantage, the field is level - or that if essentially anyone can get away with doping then the rules mean nothing and it's really just a free-for-all with no real consequences. Of course, we know that realistically (via science and psychology) that simply isn't the case, as it goes to who responds best to the en vogue doping methods, who is willing to assume the greatest personal risk to dope, who can afford the most effective doping methods, etc. People have said that pro distance running isn't as team-centric as pro cycling so there is less pressure/opportunity to dope than in pro cycling. Except then the news broke about the agents and doctors who brought PEDs into Kenyan training groups/camps. Group training within a team environment with attached svengali coaches and special doctors certainly doesn't end at the Kenyan borders, either. And even a guy like Christian Hesch could be lured into doping by the level of his winnings on the circuit -- he did it in return for little more than chump change (though perhaps it was more than his earning potential outside of running) and Letsrun message board adulation -- so it is not as if huge prize purses and major endorsement deals need to be on the line for the appeal to take hold. On the flip-side, I wouldn't consider myself a cynic as I'm genuinely optimistic that there is great potential for enough people with good intents to unify and demand better from those who run the sport, that improvement in the sport's competitive culture is quite possible. It's less about the decisions individuals face and make and more about the collective will of those who care enough to be involved in the sport's competitive culture. It's going to take more than Dopers Suck socks and hashtags, it's going to take real leadership and significant risk from those who have a lot at stake. We just have to collectively stop burying our heads in the sand and standing idly and silently by as the fawning media spins fairy tale smoke screens of nobility.

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Andrew A.
However, the marathon is going through a sea change we can't expect to continue. It's in a renaissance. Distance events on the track are becoming less lucrative and, in the case of the 10,000 at least, even less plentiful. At the same time, the amount of money available to marathoners is increasing significantly. This is pushing many top athletes who would normally stay on the track into the marathon. The marathon record trend I mentioned above precedes this trend but the only runner who took part in the record trend I mentioned above who wouldn't be part of this trend away from the track and toward the marathon was Haile Gebrselassie, considered by some to be the greatest distance runner ever and by many to be at least among the greatest distance runners ever. Geb is a once in a generation runner. We can't expect a Geb to pop up and shatter the record every few years. By the way, does anyone else remember back around 2000 when people were analyzing what Geb might do if/when he would move up to the marathon? I remember at least a couple people mentioning the 2:00 barrier as his to break at that time.


I see plenty of reason to expect this sea change to not only continue but to swell going forward. With top African talent forgoing the track for the marathon due to significant and expanding earning potential across the globe, a growing talent pool will feed into the marathon to a far greater degree than when Geb ran his first marathon as a pro. Bekele hasn't even run a marathon yet and he's rewritten Geb's records on the track and is showing a dominating competitiveness on the roads at sub-marathon distances. The next Geb (or Bekele) may never show any track form, starting straight into road racing at age 17. Kipsang was not a superstar track prodigy, nor was Khannouchi. With a larger talent pool being drawn to the event, the chances of outlier talents popping up to dominate record-setting runs every few years (if not every year) is only going to increase. It's a simple numbers game and it's not as if mud runs or light runs or color runs or any other 'event' would be a threat to bleed talent away from the marathon.

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Ryan

Good points Andrew. First, to be clear, when I mentioned the good in people I was thinking more the influencers than the athletes themselves. Maybe I'm being naive again but I think most athletes who dope are facing a circle of influence that encourages that doping. Those individuals, in my opinion, are not very good people. The athletes may just be caught in a catch-22. I suppose the people in the circle of influence could be facing the same catch-22. Maybe my position is evolving as I type. Such is the nature of such a complex issue, I guess.

I suspect the level of doping is much less, though, at the level of Hesch. I would argue the more money, the more likely you are to find large portions of the field doping. Sure, there might be one or two people competing at the level you and I compete at who are doping for some crazy reason. However, they are rare to say the least. As you move up toward the level Hesch was competing at, you get more who perceive some benefit in doing it. As you get to the sub-2:10 range or sub-2:25 to sub-2:30 for women, it's probably difficult not to.

As for the talent pool, many are already essentially skipping the track. Kipsang and Wanjiru are the first examples that come to mind. Have either of the Mutais spent any significant amount of time on the track? Not that I can recall off the top of my head. To be honest, Bekele may have been left behind. The trend may have simply passed him. He could still do very well and run faster than Geb ever has when he moves up to the marathon but he's already going to be competing with that new wave of marathoner. As is Mo Farah when he debuts in London next year.

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Andrew A.
Ryan: Good points Andrew. First, to be clear, when I mentioned the good in people I was thinking more the influencers than the athletes themselves. Maybe I'm being naive again but I think most athletes who dope are facing a circle of influence that encourages that doping. Those individuals, in my opinion, are not very good people. The athletes may just be caught in a catch-22. I suppose the people in the circle of influence could be facing the same catch-22. Maybe my position is evolving as I type. Such is the nature of such a complex issue, I guess.


Sure, though at some level it has to be clear that people do choose their influencers. I recall the outcry when Marion Jones and Tim Montgomery publicly embraced Charlie Francis as an adviser, though in hindsight that was a pretty obvious sign. They didn't have to go with someone with that type of reputation, yet they did anyway. There are many roads to Rome, no need to tie your fate and reputation to someone who doesn't clearly have your overall best interests at heart. This is not the NFL, MLB, or NBA where you have relatively little choice over the where, how, and with whom of your training/coaching and competition.

I suspect the level of doping is much less, though, at the level of Hesch. I would argue the more money, the more likely you are to find large portions of the field doping. Sure, there might be one or two people competing at the level you and I compete at who are doping for some crazy reason. However, they are rare to say the least. As you move up toward the level Hesch was competing at, you get more who perceive some benefit in doing it. As you get to the sub-2:10 range or sub-2:25 to sub-2:30 for women, it's probably difficult not to.


I argue that money is too narrow of a motivator, I would suggest that it is reward that more accurately fits the bill. That could be achievement, fame, and/or fortune. Did Regina Jacobs make enough from the sport to retire and never work again? Hardly. Liza Hunter-Galvan and Eddy Hellebuyck were not making a small fortune from competing, either. There is a book that came out in the past few years, The Doper Next Door, in which the author was prescribed testosterone under the guise of anti-aging to enable himself to be a better age-group cyclist. The competitive cycling community was up in arms over what this guy did, though I see it more as a matter of he pulled the wool back from their eyes. He showed them something they didn't care to see or consider, especially given the technical/doping culture of competitive cycling from the top down. I know a local masters runner who makes no secret that he supplements liberally with prescription testosterone. Not my deal yet apparently he must sleep fine at night believing that he is only doing what is medically necessary for sound health. If I know one then there are probably three or more others around here doing it and it's likely a similar story in any significant competitive running scene. Like I implied, Hesch can't have been doing it solely for the money, he clearly did it because he primarily liked the feeling of winning and the attention that went along with that. He was in love with the lifestyle of being a top competitor and enjoyed having the image of being a winner, the income (modest as it was) simply enabled it all. And if he hadn't been careless with his paraphernalia then he might have continued to ride the crest of that wave indefinitely.

As for the talent pool, many are already essentially skipping the track. Kipsang and Wanjiru are the first examples that come to mind. Have either of the Mutais spent any significant amount of time on the track? Not that I can recall off the top of my head. To be honest, Bekele may have been left behind. The trend may have simply passed him. He could still do very well and run faster than Geb ever has when he moves up to the marathon but he's already going to be competing with that new wave of marathoner. As is Mo Farah when he debuts in London next year.

Yes, precisely. This is what will fuel the continued sea change in the marathon with respect to pushing the WR down close to 2:00:00, a lot more top talent going to the event in prime performance years and pushing each other to go ever faster. It is no longer solely or even primarily the elder statesmen from the track leading that charge.

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