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Monday, September 30, 2013

World Record? Our Marathon Man Says Not So Fast

Wilson Kipsang from Kenya celebrates winning the 40th Berlin Marathon in Berlin, Germany, Sunday, Sept. 29, 2013. (Michael Sohn/AP)

Wilson Kipsang from Kenya celebrates winning the 40th Berlin Marathon in Berlin, Germany, Sunday, Sept. 29, 2013. (Michael Sohn/AP)

I know what I saw and I still believe the world record in the men’s marathon is the time Geoffrey Mutai posted in Boston on April 18, 2011. Mutai crossed the finish line in 2 hours, 3 minutes and 2 seconds. Another Kenyan runner, Moses Mosop, finished just four seconds behind Mutai that day.

Winner Geoffrey Mutai of Kenya crosses the finish line of the 115th Boston Marathon in Boston Monday, April 18, 2011. (AP/Elise Amendola)

Winner Geoffrey Mutai of Kenya crosses the finish line of the 115th Boston Marathon in Boston Monday, April 18, 2011. (AP/Elise Amendola)

Mutai’s time, however, is not considered the official world record because the Boston course — even though it covers 26.2 miles, just like every marathon course does — runs point-to-point. It starts in rural Hopkinton, Mass., and finishes in downtown Boston. World records in the marathon are only possible, at least officially, on loop courses, like Berlin’s.

Why am I going on about this? Because yesterday on the streets of Berlin, Kenya’s Wilson Kipsang ran a world record marathon. His time of 2:03:23 was 15 seconds faster than the record Patrick Makau of Kenya set in Berlin in 2011. It was the eighth world record set in Berlin in 15 years, testament to the flat and fast course.

Kipsang was going after the world record on Sunday. He and Makau had planned to work together in the race, but Makau had to pull out before Sunday because he’s injured. Kipsang earned $54,000 in prize money for his win and topped that off with another $68,000 for smashing the record.

Kipsang said his inspiration was the another great Kenyan runner, Paul Tergat. “This is a dream come true,” he said. “Ten years ago I watched Tergat break the world record in Berlin (2:04:55) and now I have achieved the dream. I felt so strong, so I attacked at 35k, because the pace had become a little too slow.” Kipsang averaged 4:42 per-mile in his world record run.

After Mutai’s tremendous effort in Boston in 2011 there was a lot of conversation about the fact that his time would not stand as the official world record. That’s because there is prestige in a race being able to say it played host to a world record. Berlin can say that, over and over again, actually.

Mutai said it didn’t matter and the great Australian runner (and former world record holder himself) Rob de Castella offered this perspective when I spoke to him after the 2011 race:

“There’s no such thing as world records in the marathon. Let’s be sensible about this. Every course is different. It’s not like it’s a 400-meter track where you can standardize things. The marathon is unpredictable. It’s variable. It has a certain mystique and a romance about it that you can’t put in a box and you can’t write criteria for, you can’t define. And that’s the beauty of it.”

So what I can say about that April day two years ago is this: I saw the fastest marathon ever run, with my own eyes, even if it’s not recognized as the official world record.

You have to think that Moses Mosop and Geoffrey Mutai, the guys who ran that sizzling race in Boston in 2011, will have their eyes on Kipsang’s 2:03:23 time when they run their fall marathons. Mosop is running Chicago on Oct. 13, and Mutai runs New York on Nov. 3. After all, both of them have already run faster than Kipsang did on Sunday.

Alex Ashlock is a producer for Here & Now and director of the show.

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  • Steve

    Regarding the Boston Marathon record. The Boston course is a downhill race with some minor uphill sections. The start is at 490 feet and the finish is at 10 feet, an elevation net loss of 480 feet. That is why world records are only recognized on a closed course.

    • Alex Ashlock, Here and Now

      Thanks Steve. That is also true.

  • Mike in Massachusetts

    Steve Scott once ran a 3:31 mile, way under El Gerrouj’s 3:43 record. But … Steve’s feat was done on a downhill road course. “Lots” of people (or maybe, several, or perhaps just a few) have run sub 9.58 in 100m, but with a flying start as part of a 200m.

    Records all end up being arbitrary at some point. But the point of records is because we humans like to compare things, as it makes it easier for us to be awestruck. Setting some (necessarily arbitrary) boundary conditions makes it possible to make these comparisons. Otherwise, we can slowly spiral away such that records are completely impossible to compare one to another.

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Robin Young and Jeremy Hobson host Here & Now, a live two-hour production of NPR and WBUR Boston.

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