November 8, 2019

Avatar of Kieran Sullivan
News Column

One hour, 59 minutes, 40 seconds. That’s how long it took Eliud Kipchoge to run a marathon in Vienna last month. That is equivalent to a 4:34 average mile pace. This means that if Berkeley High School’s (BHS) track team from last year ran against him, no one could keep up with him for even one mile, while Kipchoge could keep chugging along at the same speed for 25 more miles.

Before the 34-year-old did it, no one had ever run the marathon in under two hours. Even after Kipchoge “went to the moon and came back to earth,” as he puts it, the marathon world record remained the same as it was two hours earlier (2:01:39, run by Kipchoge at the Berlin Marathon in September 2018).

Kipchoge’s time from Vienna will not be counted as the world record because it was not completed in “race conditions,” according to International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF) rules. It is true that the circumstances in which Kipchoge completed this feat were unusual. In fact, this wasn’t a race at all: there was no other competition on the course; it was an event created by the British chemical company INEOS, with the sole intention of Kipchoge breaking two hours. He was surrounded by a rotating group of over 40 top-notch runners from around the world who served as pacemakers, ensuring that he maintained the correct speed to reach the achievement and blocked the wind from slowing him down.

Unlike a typical marathon, where runners have to deal with different conditions in different sections of the course and adapt to them, the event was run on a flat six-mile loop. It is clear that Kipchoge was running in unusual conditions for a marathon, but it isn’t right to deny him the world record he earned.

Let’s be clear; Kipchoge didn’t cheat. He didn’t take steroids or a shortcut, he trained extremely hard and ran the fastest 26.2 miles the world has ever seen. Many have compared it to Roger Bannister breaking four minutes in the mile for the first time in 1954, running 3:59.4. But unlike the mile, which is always four laps on a flat track, the marathon varies in difficulty, differing from all other track events. Even so, the IAAF recognizes times and records from a wide variety of marathon courses and conditions. Because of this preexisting ambiguity about the race, the IAAF should recognize Kipchoge’s time as the world record. A 3:58 mile will always be a greater feat than a 3:59 mile, but a 2:05:00 marathon may be more impressive than a 2:00:00 marathon, depending on the course. For example, it would have been far more impressive if Kipchoge had run his world record time on the hilly San Francisco course instead of the Berlin course, which is known for producing fast times.

The IAAF should change their rules so that no one is robbed of a world record in the future. Pacemakers are already allowed, they just can’t rotate. As I mentioned earlier, the marathon is the only event in track and field where the difficulty of the race isn’t standardized. It would not be difficult for the IAAF to make these small changes, and it would clear up confusion about the marathon and make timing and records more straightforward.