The world’s fastest marathoners are getting faster.
Eight of the 10 quickest men’s marathons in history have come since Sept. 16, 2018, when Kenya’s Eliud Kipchoge ran two hours, one minute, 39 seconds to set a new world record. Ethiopia’s Kenenisa Bekele missed Kiphcoge’s mark by just two seconds at this year’s Berlin Marathon, and Kipchoge went under two hours (1:59:40) in a high-profile time trial in Vienna last Saturday. A day later, Brigid Kosgei ran 2:14:04 to break the women’s record in Chicago.
Organizers and elite competitors at Sunday’s Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon hope the trend toward faster times continues. The men’s course record is just under two hours and seven minutes, and the women’s record, established last year, is 2:22:29. Pacemakers have instructions to target both marks.
Philemon Rono, the course record holder and a training partner of Kipchoge, says working out with the greatest marathoner ever has primed him for a new personal best.
“There’s a possibility. It’s a strong field (Sunday),” Rono said. “Eliud ran 1:59 and I train with him, so I expect 2:05 or 2:06.”
Several trends in the running world have driven marathon times downward.
Appearance fees and prize money at road races have lured world-class distance runners away from track, while other elite track runners have followed a traditional career trajectory that sees track stars ripen into road runners in their 30s. Kipchoge, 34, is a two-time Olympic medallist on the track, and the 37-year-old Bekele holds track world records in the 5,000 and 10,000 metres.
Cam Levins, a 2012 Olympian in track, completed his transition to road racing last year and promptly smashed a Canadian marathon record that had stood for 43 years, running 2:09:25. He says he can still improve, but doesn’t know by how much.
“You never know how quick you’re going to go until you’ve done it,” Levins said. “I’d love to get into (the 2:05 range) but who knows? Who knows if I’ll even go faster?”
And then there are the shoes.
Dennis Kimetto ran 2:02:57 in 2014 and Adidas quickly issued a news release pointing out that he broke the world record in their new Adizero Adios Boost running shoes. But the recent rash of fast times all involve Nike Vaporfly racing shoes, which launched in 2017 with the famous Breaking2 time trial. Bekele wore an updated version for his near-world record in Berlin, as did Kosgei when she smashed Paula Radcliffe’s 16-year-old women’s record. Kipchoge’s Vienna time trial featured an as-yet-unreleased pair of Vaporflys.
The shoes depend on thick midsoles made of springy foam and reinforced with carbon fibre plates to improve running economy, and spare runners’ leg muscles the pounding that can drain them late in races. Veteran Canadian Reid Coolsaet estimates that, under race conditions, the shoes can make an elite marathoner a full minute faster.
It’s a trivial interval to a layperson, but a distinction worth hundreds of metres and thousands of dollars to world-class performers. Organizers of this weekend’s race are offering a $50,000 bonus to anyone eclipsing course records.
“If I was a minute slower in 2011, I would not have made the (2012) Olympics,” said Coolsaet, the third-fastest Canadian marathoner in history. “And if I was a minute faster, I would have broken the Canadian record. It would have gone from not that many people caring to really big news.”
But elites racing Sunday cite a couple of reasons Nike’s Vaporflys don’t give runners an unfair advantage.
First, Levins says, shoe companies constantly update their own technology to keep pace with competitors. Whatever advantage Nike claimed in 2017 has likely shrunk by now.
“It seems like the technology is becoming available to everybody,” said Levins, who is sponsored by Hoka One. “Each company’s shoe is different, but the idea behind it seems to be transferring throughout … All the companies are fighting this war with incredibly efficient shoes.”
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And while Coolsaet acknowledges that the New Balance racing shoes he’ll wear Sunday are technologically superior to shoes he’d have used a generation ago, he accepts equipment upgrades as part of the sport.
“It’s already here. You can’t fight it,” he said. “Jesse Owens had to dig holes in the track. They didn’t even have starting blocks … It’s just an evolution.”