Last Monday’s so-called Boston Marathon has made a mockery of long distance running. The world’s best practitioner of the art, Haile Gebrselassie ran 2.03.59 in 2008, on an admittedly fast, but fully authenticated marathon course, in Berlin; and now sees two Kenyans, Geoffrey Mutai and Moses Mosop run almost a minute faster on the Boston course.
That Mutai and Mosop are fine distance runners, no one can doubt. What should be in doubt is whether the road race from Hopkinton to downtown Boston, held on Patriots’ Day every year should be called a marathon.
The regulations governing marathons stipulate that the distance be 42.195 kilometres, plus or minus 0.1%, ie 42.195 metres. Organisers often add an extra 42m, just to be safe. The other major stipulations are that the permissible drop in elevation between start and finish should be the same, ie no more than one metre per kilometre, hence a maximum 42.195 metre drop; and that the start and finish cannot be further apart than 50% of the course distance, viz 21.0975k.
Boston fits the first but neither of the other two requirements. The race is a point-to-point, with the finish over 40k from the start. And the drop in elevation is 135 metres.
Maybe the once-in-a-lifetime following winds, of between 20 and 30k/hr did most to produce these sensational times. But the above stipulations are in place for that very eventuality.
So, if those strict criteria are applied, the Boston road race is not a marathon. So why not call it the Boston Road Race? Or even The Boston Road Race?
Of course, Boston has the most distinguished history in long distance running. Created in 1897, by the Boston Athletic Association, one year after their contingent had supplied the many of the US athletes in the inaugural Olympic Games, in Athens 1896.
The irony, of course is that Marathon to Athens is also a point to point, but 21k of that is uphill, and no matter how much of a gale the runners might have behind them, Stefano Baldini’s magisterial 2.10.55, to win the Olympic race 2004, in over 30C is going to take some beating.
The guardians of the Boston ‘flame’ will of course deride my suggestion, as they have already nixed the idea of a proper marathon course; Tom Grilk, executive director of the BAA telling Sports Illustrated that the race isn’t going to change just to meet the IAAF criteria. “If somebody wants to put up a dome and chase Swifty, the rabbit from Wonderland (dog track) around, God bless them,” said Grilk. “We’ll keep doing what we’ve been doing for 100 years: Firing off a gun and saying, go”.
But the Boston Road Race does have simplicity to it, doesn’t it? It fits in with those other great sporting precursors, like The Open Championship (British Open Golf) or simply, The Championships (Wimbledon). It implies a status above everything, which frankly Boston deserves.
But so does Haile Geb (and whoever breaks his record on a recognised course) deserve the kudos without the inevitable asterisk.
And the guardians of the Boston ‘flame’ have been known to make major changes in the past; none more so than back in the early 1980s, when the first road running boom was accelerating the move to pro athletics. There was even a strong possibility back then that road racing might separate from mainstream athletics, and even from under the aegis of the IAAF.
However, the Boston mandarins decided that they would not join the gold rush. With the recently created New York and London marathons offering substantial prize money, Boston organisers decided that their event was too pristine to be sullied by the greenback.
That attitude lasted two years, during which time, Geoff Smith, prompted (and rewarded) by his sponsors won the race by a huge margin, in 1984 and 1985. The rest of the elite stayed away, and the BAA got the message, forcefully. They changed their minds, and John Hancock raced to the rescue faster than Paul Revere. The giant insurance company has bankrolled Boston since then, and the race has reassumed its rightful place, in the vanguard. And become a founder member of the Marathon Majors.
But, again I ask, is it a marathon?