Wednesday, September 28, 2011


This article came out last week in the New York Times, following the ruling by the I.A.A.F. on what constitutes the women's World Record in the marathon (and, similarly, other road race distances).  The issue at hand: whether women's records should count if they are receiving a benefit from pacing by male runners.  The World Record had stood at 2:15:25 by the UK's Paula Radcliffe (London, 2003), during which she had the benefit of male pacers.  The somewhat mind-boggling discrepancy between that, her fastest time, and the 2:17:18 she ran in Chicago in 2002 aside, even that one is tossed out.  Instead, the new World Record will be her 2:17:42 (London 2005) from a race in which the elite women started 45 minutes ahead of the field. 

This topic brings to the forefront, once again, what we consider World Records and what will simply be considered "World Bests" - just like what we saw happen at Boston this year.  As has been a point of discussion on some of our runs this past week, I think a majority of us would agree that, for WR consideration, pacesetters should not be allowed.  But, as argued previously and I'm sure would be argued again, is it unfair to consider the fastest time to cover a particular distance a World Record? 

And this is why there are rules.  I personally think it's kind of wrong to retroactively take away Radcliffe's World Record from 8 years ago, because that's just the way races were run back then.  As the article addresses, is it more unfair for women to be paced by men than it is for men to be paced by men?  It truly is much harder to find women to pace other women, because, let's face it - any woman who can run a 1:07 half should probably just stay in the race and try and win it herself.  It's also the rules that rule out Boston as being a venue for World Record performances.  Everyone knows that going into it, so it should come as no surprise after the fact.  Of course, every RD wants their race associated with World Records.  I can see the Boston Marathon media for 2012 now:  "Home of the World Best *but not World Record".

Now that the fall marathon season is underway, it will be interesting to see what happens.  Could the fact that the women's time is now a full 2:17 slower than it had been just a month ago have an effect on what someone runs at, say, Chicago?  The women's winner at Berlin over the weekend became just the 5th or 6th woman to ever go under 2:20, so at just about 2 minutes back of the new WR, perhaps someone else will think they have a shot in a few weeks.  Or, perhaps next year at London. 

No matter what, I do think that elite women should have to start on their own.  When they are chasing huge prize purses, it only seems fair that they should have to do it without help, whether official pacesetters or just guys that happen to run about 2:17 that are also in the marathon.  For men, I think they need to take the pacesetters away as well.  It was interesting to see at Berlin this weekend that when Haile Gebreselaisse had to stop, a pacesetter fell back and waited for him.  That just seemed absurd to me (particularly since the pacesetter appeared to be Kenyan and Geb is of course from Ethiopia). 

Oh and in case you hadn't heard, and if you missed the 12 seconds of Berlin Marathon coverage on Sunday night on Universal Sports, Patrick Makau ran a new World Record, 2:03:38, besting Geb's 2:03:59, also from Berlin. 


Meg said...

I don't see how a female being paced by a faster male would have any greater advantage than a male being paced by a faster male. Either allow it for both or don't allow it for either.

Ben said...

I think pacers should be allowed for world records. If there was a race where all the top guys happened to be in approximately the same shape the effect would be about the same as having pacers. How do you decide whether someone has been "paced" vs. "competed" against. What happens if somebody turns their ankle and drops out with a mile to go - was the other guy "paced"? The grandaddy of all world records - the first sub-4 minute mile had pacers. Do we go back and say that Roger Bannister wasn't actually the first man to break 4 minutes in the mile?

As for the male/female issue - I agree with Meg - male pacers shouldn't have any advantage over female pacers other than there are more of them that can run that pace.

I know this seems to go against my "Boston shouldn't be a world record" argument. But, if it's good enough for Roger Bannister it's good enough for me. And yes Ryan, I was there when he broke the record.

fbg said...

I agree with Ben. Even if pacers sometimes make a race less competitive, it is impossible to eliminate them entirely from competition. If nothing else, guys from the same country or team will work together, which is usually a type of pacing. So, it's better to have it out in the open than in under-the-table deals.

On the other hand, any "pacers" should be eligible to compete in the race itself. This may not be true of everyone, but I know that running behind someone for the entire race drops my 5k time something like 10-20 seconds, and so comparing the man-paced womens times to women-only times is generally not fair. Also, "faster" men don't pace men (should we allow bike pacers?), which makes man-paced womens races and mens races unequal.

While I agree that retro-actively taking away the world record and american record seems unfortunate, those times are still world and american "bests". If I'm not mistaken, it wasn't too long ago that the IAAF didn't even have a "world record" for road races. They were all "world bests" anyway.

In the end, though, we're just talking about lists, and every list needs to have well-defined, standardized rules for a performance to appear. Downhill or point-to-point courses obviously can't be allowed without some sort of denotation. And, man-paced womens times shouldn't be included on the main list for two reasons: (1) no other world record is possible while being paced by people ineligible for that record, making road races even more different from track races, and (2) elite women now race almost exclusively without men, so most future times will not be man-paced.

In the long run, this is definitely the right decision, but unfortunately for Paula and Deena, it's a bad time to be a record holder.

This discussion reminds me of the high-tech swimsuit issue from the last few years in elite swimming. THAT is a tricky question when compared to this one. I think all swimmers should have to swim naked.

c-rad said...

By its very nature, competition means using all SAFE resources to set oneself up for success- whether that be eating right, sleeping adequately, hydrating, having lightweight shoes, or hiring a male pacer. I'm a little put off by the I.A.A.F.'s decision because it's stance toward the title "world record" misleadingly lumps the safely executed and well-intentioned effort to hire a male pacer right in with the unsafe and ill-intentioned ease of doping with dangerous performance enhancing substances. If female elite athletes are going to push limits to advance their sport, I'd rather they did it with testosterone in front of them, then inside of them!

(***Of course when it comes to swimming, only female swimmers should have to swim naked. No one wants to know what other parts of Michael Phelps are webbed***)

RM said...

Swimming's issue become more of a question of technology vs man, though. In running, you have your shoes, and that's it. You can run barefoot if you want. In swimming, you can build a faster pool - the depth, volume, temperature, construction of the lane lines - it all factors into the time, and since these events are essentially the equivalent of track races, you are talking about minor advances in WRs. It would be totally different in open water, as time wouldn't factor in as much as "the race". But in swimming, even in the pool, they do also draft.

There is a sport in which you actually have teammates whose sole purpose is to propel their marked leader to the line ahead of all the others, making it easier for that person to ride the entire race: cycling. If running were more like cycling, you would possibly see teams of Kenyans take on teams of Ethiopians and Moroccans and maybe a few Americans. But that's running for country, not for a trade team (often at Cycling World Championships you see teams split because while they all are from a certain country, they generally race for different trade teams). They also aren't going for WRs because there aren't any - except in the velodrome.

So running stands alone, and while I can get behind the points that argue that teammates could effectively pace others, they aren't. You will not see Galen Rupp go out there and set the pace for Bernard Lagat. BG is also correct in that World Records in road events are still a pretty new thing. Maybe they just shouldn't consider them. Unless you run a marathon on a track or something, don't have a record for it.

Ben said...

Ryan - "teammates" might not pace each other in track - but there are still paid pacers in track races. How is that different than paid pacers in road races?

cheese said...

arjun and i have spent plenty of time arguing this one. unless you're going to allow men pacers in women's races on the track, i think this is the right call. personally, i'd be ok with declaring all world records to be from time trials only, but obviously that's not going to be as fast times. on the other hand, i think it's ridiculous to sit on someone an entire race too. obviously nobody is going to argue that retroactively stripping PR and DK's records sucks, but at least they decided to draw a definitive line somewhere.

still, whether or not it's labeled a "world record", everyone knows that a 2:15 is the fastest time run, and that time isn't going to be forgotten because it's got a different name. no woman is going to go into a race thinking she'll run fast but not a WR, so i can't see anyone running a race and being surprised to have a would-be WR but not have it count. if a woman wants to run a world's best and needs men pacers, go for it. if she wants the title of world record holder, she knows the conditions it has to meet.

RM said...

Ben - I didn't say that I was for rabbits on the track.

In fact, it's only obviously 800m and up that you see rabbits. In the sprints you just run as hard as you can. I never have understood why an 800m race needs a rabbit. Mile, 2 mile, 5k, you seem them a lot. I feel like you don't see 10k's run all that frequently so I don't really remember a lot of rabbited races, just slow ones. And steeple - fuhgeddaboutit.

Dart said...

Does being paced by a retard count? It lasted maybe 1/3 mile, but Remus found a way to get out first at the Boston Marathon one year.

I just hope "sex appeal" and his fake Olympic rings never again wears a thong and arm warmers that match neon green spikes in 90 deg weather.