When Geoffrey Mutai crossed the finish line in Boston on Monday in a time of 2 hours, 3 minutes and 2 seconds, he unwittingly ignited what will be the most hotly debated topic for some time to come:
What makes a world record, a World Record?
And since it's been a question for many people lately, why, specifically, are times from Boston not eligible for World Record consideration? Well, ask and ye shall receive. Here are the requirements, as specified by the IAAF, for marathon world record consideration:
1) The length of the race must not be less than 42.195km, and the uncertainty in measurement cannot exceed 42m (<0.1%). 26 miles 385 yards and 42.195 kilometers differ by about half an inch, and 26.22 miles is generally rounded down to 26.2 miles (the difference being about 6.6 feet). IAAF-certified courses are intentionally lengthened by 1 meter per kilometer to ensure proper measurement, which amounts to an extra 46 yards over the distance.
2) The route must be marked in kilometers. This means that while there can be mile splits, there must also be some recognition of kilometers (generally each 5km, if not every 1km). For IAAF-recognized lesser distances, such as 20km or 30km, marathon runners can be credited with a world record if it is established during the course of a marathon in which the competitor completes the race (such as a 20km record en route to the half marathon WR, or a 30km en route to a marathon world record).
3) Net elevation loss between start and finish cannot be greater than 1 meter per kilometer. Boston's starting elevation in Hopkinton is 145 meters, and at the finish in Copley Square it is 5 meters, a net decrease of 140 meters, or roughly 3.1 meters per kilometer.
4) Start and finish must be within 50% of the total race distance, if a straight line between the two was drawn. In a marathon, that distance is obviously about 13 miles. At Boston, as the crow flies, the distance between start and finish is 23.5 miles (90%). For USATF consideration (in other words, for American Record purposes), that distance is even shorter at 30% of the total race distance.
The Boston Marathon does not adhere to the two big ones, which means it is not eligible for World Record consideration (so Mutai's time will not count as a World Record, nor will Hall's time count as an American Record). But, as was the case on Monday, these rules are in place to prevent "artificially" fast races. The point-to-point nature of Boston, depending on weather conditions, can lead to a tremendously fast race if there is a tailwind, or can lead to a slow race if there is a headwind. Certainly an argument can be made that Boston is traditionally a slower race than London, Chicago, Berlin or Rotterdam - which are (with the exception of Rotterdam, although that is shifting) considered the Major Marathons. New York, the other major, is generally regarded as the most difficult of the majors, and will likely not see any World Record times coming from it, but it does adhere to the guidelines so if one were set there, it would count.
On the Science of Sport blog (easily accessible from the right hand side of ours), they did some further analysis into the potential effect of the tailwind in Monday's race. I say potential, because realistically, it is almost impossible to measure the true effect on the race. The only tangible statistic we can go by is the average winning time at Boston, particularly as it compares to the individual competitors' personal bests at traditionally faster courses. The conclusions made by these Sports Scientists is that, with a 16mph sustained tailwind on Monday, the effect could have led to a 2-3% decrease in energy, or increase in efficiency (half empty/half full), which would have directly led to times being 3-4 minutes faster over the race distance.
THE TAILWIND HAS NO RELEVANCE ON WHETHER THE TIME CAN BE CONSIDERED A WORLD RECORD, which is important to note. At least, no direct relevance. By virtue of the "point-to-point" rule, a tailwind has an indirect relation, as in other races where the start and finish are relatively near one another, wind benefits would essentially be negated.
Ryan Hall is a great example, as many have pointed out already and as we have discussed ourselves. Ryan Hall has run Boston three years in a row now, going from 2:09:40ish in 2009, to 2:08:40ish last year, to 2:04:58 this year. We all know what it's like to have to work for personal bests, and that we reach some level where improvements are measured in seconds, not minutes (unless your name is Beef, circa 2008 to 2010). I watched Ryan Hall run a 1:03:50ish half marathon on what was not a terrificly slow course just one month ago in New York. I can dismiss bad days for what they are - we all have them. But how is it then, that one month later, on what the masses generally agree is a "hard" course (and twice the distance), did he average 1:02:30 per half, and more importantly run a 1:01:57 first half and 1:03:01 second half? This represents a 1 minute 15 second improvement over his previous personal best (London, 2008) and a near 4 minute improvement from his Boston 2010 time. I find it hard to believe that an established runner of his caliber is able to make an improvement like that, especially given his past year of training, racing and coaching changes. It doesn't take away from his remarkable time, and he can still say he has a PR of <2:05 now. Similarly, are we to believe that in his marathon debut, Moses Mosop (2nd) ran the 2nd fastest time ever, by almost a minute?
I may be in the minority, but I do not subscribe to the opinion that Boston is automatically "harder" than other races because of 3-4 hills at a "crucial" stage of the race. The fact is, the first half of that race is almost entirely downhill, and the hills do not begin until mile 17. From mile 21 to the finish, it's almost entirely downhill again. There are arguments that the significant downhills can be as brutal as any uphill, and leave your legs beat up as you enter the famed Newton Hills; I wouldn't disagree with that. But I think that, at the professional/elite level, you are going to be prepared for that, and the ease with which the leaders powered through the hills on Monday (1:01:57 first half, 1:01:05 second half for the winner), showed no indication of being battered EVEN THOUGH they went through the half below WR pace. The reality may be that flat courses are faster, given relative winning times over the past few years, but I don't think that means Boston is any slower of a course. I think if anything, Robert Kiprono Cheruiyot's winning/Course Record 2010 time of 2:05:xx was more impressive, given that he was running into a slight headwind, and that he soloed to utterly devastate Robert Cheruiyot's (the elder) previous Course Record.
I've written a bunch now, and don't want to make this post any longer than it already is, but I find this topic pretty fascinating right now, and I want to write a few other posts about WR progression, gender, motivation and what to expect in the fall marathon season - so I will save those for other posts. I figure it gives you all something to read OTHER than just race results, and at the very least I anticipate the comment section getting pretty hot. I'm interested in others' opinions on this, so sound off. And if you don't have privileges to comment, but want to, send me an email or something and I'll hook you up.