[A couple of weeks ago, Dennis Kimetto became the first human being to cover the marathon distance in less than two hours and three minutes, with Emmanuel Mutai only a few seconds back. Kimetto’s record run re-inflamed the speculation about if/when a man would run a marathon in less than two hours. It also send my searching through my old posts for marathon-related stuff. Today’s “From the Archives” is from a post six years ago after Haile Gebrselassie became the first man to run a marathon in under 2:04. It was originally published Oct. 1, 2008]
Over the past week, I’ve had a lot of conversations about the new marathon world record, mostly with non-runners. Geb’s 2:03:59 record run has been big news in the mainstream media, and several people at work have mentioned it to me, looking for my reaction.
Unfortunately, this is one of those cases where I find it difficult to talk running with non-runners. I know it’s my own fault, too. Somehow, I’m too dense to understand that people are just trying to be sociable, to make a connection by bringing up a topic in which I might be expected to take an interest. But no, I always assume that a question about running is an opportunity to convey the full picture that represents the “runner’s perspective”. After several minutes in which I inflict that perspective on my listener, he or she usually changes the subject or wanders away with a slightly pained expression and a resolve to make the next conversation about something safe — like politics or religion.
Why can’t I be more like Amby Burfoot, who goes on NPR and gives a perfectly cogent, simple explanation of what Geb’s marathon was all about?
Why do I feel compelled to make my listener understand that even ONE 4:43 mile is REALLY fast, an impossible feat for the vast majority of human beings on the planet. After even a few hundred meters at that pace, most of us will begin experiencing a series of bio-chemical events that are the physiological equivalent of the worldwide credit crisis.
And why do I have to add that I HATE it that Geb smiles so much after these astounding time trials. Is he trying to make it seem like running a marathon in 2:04 is nothing more than a pleasant diversion, a strenuous but ultimately enjoyable romp through the streets of Berlin? Is it possible that he experiences it that way? What does that mean for the rest of us, the ones who trained and trained and trained — back in the day — the ones who ran ourselves silly and didn’t come within a minute per mile of Geb’s pace?
Do you know, I ask, how hard it is to find anyone who can even PACE Geb through a half-marathon at under 1:02 pace? Do you realize how talented and how fit and how elite you have to be even to lose badly to such a performance?
As my listener’s eyes glaze over, I continue: Do you realize that Geb ran his last 5K in a time (14:29) that would have placed him 12th in the 2008 U.S. 5K Road Race championships? Do you realize that he averaged 14:42 for each 5K of a 42K race? It’s pretty impressive to run even one 14:42 5K. You have to train and train and train to do it. I’ve never done it. None of my training buddies have done it. It’s heartbreaking to think that when we were young and fit and well-trained, none of us would have been able to stay with Geb for three miles at his marathon pace.
Oh, it used to be that people won marathons in sensible times like 2:11 (5:00 pace). I could accept that. Then it seemed that if you couldn’t run under 2:10, you weren’t even a serious contender, and then in the last few years, people like Ryan Hall ran 2:06 and finished fifth. How are we supposed to even relate to that?
Should we just nod and say “it’s just another record,” exciting but nothing more or less special than the last one?
No, I say, a new world record is a traumatic event, as well as a celebration. it is a cleaning-out of the athletic closet, consigning previous records and standards of excellence to the dustbin.
In desperation, my listener pulls away and tries to leave, but I’m not done yet. You see this picture of Geb, beaming in front of a digital clock showing the new record? Don’t be fooled by that wide grin; that is the smile of an assassin, my friend, and we are all the victims.