After New York: how did marathoners get so fast?
Another major marathon, another jaw-dropping course record — pretty much what we’ve come to expect in 2011. Geoffrey Mutai’s 2:05:06 at yesterday’s New York Marathon, a course record by 2:37, continues the string of unbelievable performances from Boston, London, Berlin, Frankfurt and so on that have redefined our (or at least my) perceptions about what’s humanly possible at this distance. For a great post-race look at what’s going with the marathon, check out David Epstein’s piece at Sports Illustrated (and for more background, read Ross Tucker’s Science of Sport piece from last week).
Epstein gives a nice overview of the various forces that are converging to give us all these 2:03 marathoners — most obviously money (more of it in marathons, less of it on the track), which is bringing talented runners to 42.2K earlier in their careers. But I just wanted to highlight two quotes from his piece. First:
“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.
And second (on the topic of whether all these runners moving to the marathon at a young age will end up having shorter careers than guys like Geb and Tergat, because of the inevitable physical toll of the distance):
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.”
The juxtaposition of these two quotes made me smile a bit. One on hand, Ritz saying that marathoners are getting faster in part because of greater understanding of physiology. On the other hand, Austin is correctly pointing out that the runners who are most obviously the fastest (the 20 fastest male marathoners of 2011 are ALL KENYAN) are barely taking advantage of even the most rudimentary suggestions of sports science. If we’re judging by results, we might want to think carefully about which approach we emulate!
Obviously it’s a very complex issue, and I won’t even get into the whole genes/environment question. But in addition to money, I think Epstein (citing Gabriele Nicola, the Italian coach of several of the top Kenyans) nails a vital point:
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.