Friday 26 April 2013

Reflections on Boston, Thoughts on the Sub-2 Marathon, and P-K POMs

We often hear that what sets running apart from other professional sports is that the fastest and the slowest in the world mingle more or less freely at many of our major events-- the annual big city marathons, and the many large non-marathon races that attract similar numbers in places as obscure as Spokane WA, Davenport Iowa, and Falmouth MA. What enables this unique mixing of the world's best with the average recreational athlete is, in part, running's openness and informality even at the highest levels. Elite runners have never been nervous about close proximity to crowds of non-elites, and all runners the world over have been blissfully innocent of the potential threat to their well being posed by the fact that they regularly gather en mass in urban centers. Until last Monday.

The bomb attacks on the spectators and competitors at last week's Boston Marathon mark the first time that a mass urban footrace has been the target of large scale, politically motivated violence (and early indications that these attacks were politically motivated, even if possibly not international in their planning and coordination). I am not even aware of there ever having been a threat made against a high profile gathering of runners (outside of the Olympic Games, which has, of course, been both threatened and attacked on a couple of notable occasions). Runners and running, in fact, might be alone in having been so spared. Before now, who would have thought it conceivable that a mass gathering of runners and their supporters might somehow be seen as a deserving target of political violence? A mass running event like the Boston Marathon represents, after all, a kind of social truce in and of itself. Few things could be considered more inherently peaceful and non-confrontational than masses of people of all kinds, from every walk of life, of every political stripe, of all religions and creeds, gathering together to test their wills against the course and the conditions. Running is competitive, of course, but it does not entail any of the physical confrontation or aggressive regional, quasi-tribal fanship of most team sports. (Parents, tellingly, never fight or argue at children's running competitions). As such, the Boston attacks represent a profound loss of innocence for our sport; it will never be quite the same. Runners will still amass each year in the streets of Boston, London, Chicago, Berlin and elsewhere, perhaps in a spirit of defiance; but, never will we experience these gatherings with quite the same sense of ease and openness in each others' company. The Boston bombers, after all, posed as spectators waiting for the arrival of their friends or loved ones, their weapons concealed in that most ubiquitous of running accessories, the knapsack. Unfortunately, from now on, it will take a new kind of courage to line up alongside thousands of others in a high profile urban event. But, as one commentator put it in the early aftermath of the attacks, whoever would challenge the human spirit by attacking runners has chosen the wrong target. Runners everywhere will find this courage, and more. Expect Boston 2014 to be the biggest and best yet, scars and all.

The Sub-2 Marathon (and why it is not the new sub-4 mile):

The Virgin London Marathon was the first big city race to stage following Boston and, after solemn expressions of sympathy and support for the victims-- and the aforementioned defiance-- the focus shifted back to where it belonged: on the running itself. This year's men's race was billed as the greatest ever, with the field containing four of the 10 or so fastest ever, and all four of the most current "Marathon Majors" winners (i.e. champions of Boston, New York, Chicago, or Berlin). An assault on the world record was a foregone conclusion, and success was given better than a gambler's chance by many. Pacers-- all of them world class distance runners in their own right-- were assembled with instructions to tow the leaders to an almost unprecedented first half split of 1:01:30, which, if sustained, would bring the winner in under the current world best of 2:03:38. The pack would indeed pass the halfway mark at the designated time (actually, 1:01:27), helped by nearly perfect weather conditions. In the end, however, not a single man would come even close to maintaining this pace through the 2nd half, with most slowing dramatically (the winner struggled home in 2:06, taking 5 minutes to complete his final mile, as compared with a first half average of under 4:40). What does this mean? Quite simply, that even the best in the world are subject to the same physiological limits as the rest of us when it comes to the unique demands of the marathon, the mastery of which requires more than just great aerobic power; it requires metabolic parsimony. No matter how easy it might feel, and no matter who you are, if you go too fast, and thereby burn too much glycogen, in the first 30k of the race, you will hit the "wall" somewhere in the final 10k. And, for the best in the world, 1:01:30 is still, apparently, unsustainably fast.

What does this say about the prospects for a sub-2 hour marathon, thought by many to be this century's 4:00 mile? Rather a lot, actually, and none of it promising. If, after 100 years of progress by runners from the advanced industrial world, and three decades of influx by athletically and financially determined East Africans, much of it lately concentrated specifically in the marathon, the world's best athletes cannot pass the halfway mark within 90 seconds of the required pace without having to pay it back with interest, what are the chances that we will ever see a clean athlete run 26.2 miles in under 2 hours? Recent claims about the possibility, indeed the imminence, of a sub-2, including in the latest issue of Canadian Running Magazine, make vague references to improved training and other technologies, but the argument really amounts to the following: the marathon world record will continue to improve simply because it always has; we don't know exactly how, but then we didn't know how it would go down to 2:03 when the WR was at 2:06:50. Except we did, or should have, and it had nothing to do with new technologies (doping aside, it is in fact remarkable how little the basic science of training for running has changed since Lydiard's pioneering insights in the 1950s!) When the world record was 2:08, then 2:06, there was still plenty of room for greater participation by the world's best athletes, who tended to concentrate their efforts on the track, with the marathon generally reserved for championships, and the Olympics in particular. The 1980s saw an explosion of the urban marathon, a steady increase in prize money, and a steady decline in the world record. As participation in the marathon by the global best began to equal, and lately perhaps even surpass, that of track and shorter road racing, progress has, after a very rapid burst of improvement in the past 5 years, begun to show signs of leveling off (interestingly, even as depth has increased). This year's London marathon is probably an excellent indication of what we can expect for the foreseeable future-- incredible depth, but a pronounced slowing of the rate of world record decline, just as happened at the shorter track distances, in which standards have actually declined in the past 8-10 years. People may not want to look like those hapless "experts" in the 1950s who thought the 4:00 mile was a physical impossibility, but that's not likely. Comparisons between a sub-4:00 mile in the 1950s and a sub-2 hour marathon in 2013 aren't very meaningful. On the eve of Banister's historic sub-4:00, the record was 4:02, and global participation in track and field was still minimal, and could reasonably have been expected to skyrocket, as the developing world decolonized and grew somewhat richer (I can't find them, but I'm quite sure that their were other "experts" who were predicting the imminence of a sub-4:00 mile on precisely this basis, or at least should have been). In the end, Bannister's sub 4 represented a mere one per cent drop in the previous record. By comparison, a sub-2 marathon would represent a drop of almost 3 per cent, and this at a time when global participation rates and prize money are not likely to increase significantly any time soon. Add to this the fact that the current record may have been propelled by oxygen vector doping (now showing up significantly in Kenya) and the odds of ever looking silly for ruling out a sub-2 marathon look pretty long-- unless we actually break a new frontier in doping for endurance sport, in which case all bets are off (and the sport rendered all but meaningless, but that's another story.) The world is approaching the limit of quite a few things these days, including, I would argue, those of absolute athletic performance. Other than doping, the old mainsprings of rapid performance at the top end of distance running seem to be losing some of their resilience, with new ones still the stuff of pure speculation (interestingly, not even the most optimistic call for a sub 2 hour marathon in the next 15 years, with most saying 20-30-- the time scale of science fiction when it comes to sports).

P-K POMs for January, February, and March:

Serious racing by P-Kers generally slows to a crawl in January, as nearly everyone is busy rebuilding from the long fall racing season. Nevertheless, online athlete Kevin Coffey managed a very fine mid-winter 8k of 24:56 at the Kingston Road Runners Resolution Run (well below his personal best of 25:52, even allowing for a slight deviation which shortened the traditional Fort Henry course by 150-odd meters). Congrats to Kevin on his first POM win!

February saw a few of us hit the indoor track, but the racing scene was still quiet, as it usually remains at this time of year. A bright spot, and the February POM winner, was junior Adrienne Morgan's breakthrough 3k of 10:25, finally erasing her stubborn 10:36 from almost two year earlier. This result represented Adrienne's return to form after a couple of years of minor injury setbacks. Congrats to Adrienne on her second ever POM win (the last one being for her old 3k best).

March, wintry as it was, saw the opening of the road racing season for club members. Only the aforementioned Kevin Coffey seemed to have been unhindered by the months long terrible training weather. In the dark of January and February, Kevin had run prodigious numbers of kms in preparation for a breakthrough performance at the historic Around the Bay 30k. In the end, his aim was true. Hoping for a time in the 1:41-42 range, Kevin delivered an outstanding 1:39:20, passing the HM mark in a personal best. Congrats to Kevin for a performance that looks set to contend for POY when the snow flies again next January.

Stayed tuned for April's POM in the next week or two (with K-town Race Weekend kicking off tomorrow, their may be even more contenders in a month that has already seen at least two very strong runs).