Twenty four hours is a long time in marathon running. Barely was the ink dry on Eliud Kipchoge’s ‘aided’ sub-two hour run in Vienna on Saturday morning than his Kenyan compatriot Brigid Kosgei was writing her own impressive headline, breaking the seemingly inviolable women’s world record at the Chicago Marathon on Sunday morning, with two hours, 14 minutes and four seconds. That takes all of 81 seconds off the record of 2.15.25 set by Paula Radcliffe in London 2003; for good measure, Kosgei’s 2.14.04 also broke Radcliffe’s course record from Chicago 2002, which was the preceding world record, 2.17.18.
All of which must have come as a bit of a shock to Radcliffe herself, who was watching from above the finish line. But she responded admirably, as expected, immediately going down from the spectator gantry to congratulate Kosgei at the finish line, and then gamely joining in a television interview with her usurper right afterwards.
Since Radcliffe was commentating on the London Marathon earlier this year, when Kosgei won in 2.18.20 she will have had an inkling that the 25 year old Kenyan had the potential to threaten her record; nevertheless, running over four minutes faster was quite a feat. But Kosgei clearly meant to try, since she covered the first few kilometres of the race a minute faster than Radcliffe had done in London 2003. Even better, she kept going. Her halfway time of 66.59, again over a minute faster than Radcliffe indicated a finishing time adjacent to 2.14. And that’s exactly what she achieved.
It was almost inevitable that when Radcliffe’s record was broken, it would be by a Kenyan or an Ethiopian. For close to 40 years, distance running has been increasingly dominated by East Africans, born and nurtured at altitude. Athletes like Radcliffe, a world junior cross country champion who went on to spend lengthy periods training at altitude were able to compete, as her marathon best indicates. But it remains to be seen whether another Radcliffe, ie a non-East African can ever challenge again at the highest level in long distance running. Because, since the East Africans emerged in force almost 40 years ago, at the world cross country championships in Madrid 1981 – where but for a mistake in the lap count, the Ethiopians would likely have had the top six – they have become increasingly dominant.
Of the current top 20 marathon men in the world, all but one was born in East Africa, and they supply 80 per cent of the top 100. The situation among the women is similar, only Sara Hall of the USA (18th) is in the top 20; and the domination in the top 100 is only a little less than in the men, at 75 per cent. And as that domination has increased in the last two decades, so the times have decreased.
It is almost exactly 18 years since Naoko Takahashi of Japan ran the first women’s sub-2.20 marathon, with 2.19.46 in Berlin 2001. At the time, the men’s world record was 2.05.42, also run in Chicago two years earlier, by the then Moroccan Khalid Khannouchi. Then Paul Tergat and Haile Gebrselassie got into gear. The top 10,000 metres track men turned to the road and the records tumbled towards the now 2.01.39 by Kipchoge, with perhaps the most talented distance man of recent years, Kenenisa Bekele returning to top form a week ago with 2.01.41. And now, thanks to Kosgei, Radcliffe’s ‘outlier’ time has been reduced even further.
We can only watch in wonder.