Women’s Marathon American Record – Why Has It Stood for So Long? – Runner’s World

Women’s Marathon American Record – Why Has It Stood for So Long?  Runner’s World

Shalane Flanagan aimed to do it at the 2014 Berlin Marathon—and fell short, finishing in 2:21:14. Jordan Hasay raised hopes, following her 2:23:00 debut in 2017 in Boston and a 2:20:57 the same year in Chicago, but she has struggled with injuries and setbacks since. And Sara Hall tried at the the Marathon Project in Chandler, Arizona, staying on pace halfway before fading and winning in 2:20:32.

The result: Deena Kastor’s American marathon record has stood since 2006, when she won the London Marathon in 2:19:36. And although 54 women’s performances faster than 2:20 have been recorded since then—by 33 athletes, 25 of them from Kenya and Ethiopia—no other Americans have yet crossed the barrier. (That list includes three athletes who later served doping bans: Sarah Chepchirchir, Lucy Wangui Kabuu, and Rita Jeptoo.)

Hall, 38, has publicly declared her intention to go for the record again on October 10 at the Chicago Marathon. While many believe the odds are in her favor, should the weather gods smile on the Windy City, it’s worth asking: Why has it taken this long?

Technological advances have sped times worldwide—most notably, carbon fiber-plated shoes, which have boosted marathon times by an estimated 2.6 percent among women and contributed to recent recordbreaking performances at other distances.

And by many measures, the depth in American women’s distance running is unprecedented. A record 511 women qualified for the 2020 Olympic Marathon Trials. Flanagan won the New York City Marathon in 2017, Desiree Linden prevailed through a storm in Boston the following year, and Molly Seidel won bronze this summer in the women’s Olympic marathon.

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The times have lagged, though, to Kastor’s surprise. “I always thought my American record would go far before Paula Radcliffe’s [world] record did,” she told Runner’s World. But on a crisp fall day in October 2019, Brigid Kosgei of Kenya ran 2:14:04 to win the Chicago Marathon, shattering Radcliffe’s 2:15:25 from the 2003 London Marathon.

As a stacked fall season of World Marathon Majors kicked off, Runner’s World spoke with coaches, athletes, and other insiders about the record and Hall’s chances of claiming it. They identified several potential reasons American women haven’t yet surpassed it, or even dipped below 2:20, including:

Kastor was an outlier—an incredible athlete

Every discussion with someone other than Kastor starts the same way—with “mad respect for Deena and what she did,” as Hall’s husband, coach, and American half marathon record-holder Ryan Hall put it.

“I think Deena was the best American distance runner of all time, potentially, male or female,” said coach Ben Rosario, whose Northern Arizona Elite team includes 2020 Olympic Marathon Trials champion Aliphine Tuliamuk (who has a personal best of 2:26:50) and 2:24 marathoner Kellyn Taylor.

Kastor first broke Joan Benoit Samuelson’s 2:21:21 American record, which she set in 1985 in Chicago, by running 2:21:16 to place third in the 2003 London Marathon. She went on to win bronze in the 2004 Olympic Marathon in Athens, claim victory in 2005 in Chicago in 2:21:25, then break the record again in her 2006 London victory.

She was only the eighth woman anywhere to run under 2:20, and her time remains tied for 43rd best in the world.

To add further context, some calculators equate sub-2:20 for women to 2:03:08 for men; only 11 faster performances have been clocked, three by Eliud Kipchoge. (And in comparison to her countryman, the men’s American record of 2:05:38, run by Khalid Khannouchi in London in 2005, ranks 188th.)

The next time Kastor lined up at the Olympic Marathon Trials, in 2008, no other American woman had a qualifying time below 2:30, Rosario pointed out. “It’s not like there was this swarm of women that were waiting to go after this record,” he said. “It was Deena and no one else.”

The opportunities haven’t aligned

Though the American pool has deepened since then—in 2020, 18 women qualified for the Trials with a time below 2:30, with five sub-2:25—their best days haven’t matched up with record-producing conditions, said Kevin Hanson, cofounder and coach of the Hansons-Brooks Distance Project, who coached Linden for years.

Others concurred, including Kastor and Sally Kipyego, 35, who finished third at the 2020 U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials and holds a personal best of 2:25:10. “It’s difficult to run under 2:20, period. And I think you need a lot of things to align,” she said. Nearly everything, from weather to the course to the competition, needs to be just about perfect, agreed Carey Pinkowski, Chicago’s race director.

And in many of the places America’s best have competed, that hasn’t happened. Hills and wind slowed paces at the 2020 U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials in Atlanta, and heat and humidity made the Olympics themselves brutal. Similarly, sweltering temperatures meant Amy Cragg needed only a 2:28:20 to win the 2016 Trials in Los Angeles.

When they have a choice of where to run, Americans at the peak of their careers are drawn to Boston and New York—tougher courses and, in the case of Boston, ineligible for records. Even Kastor almost chose to run Boston for the win in 2006 instead of going for the record in London. As she describes in her book Let Your Mind Run, she let her dog Aspen decide by choosing between two stuffed animals, a moose for London and a bear for Boston.

In part, the appeal is financial. Fast courses abroad, including London (where 13 sub-2:20s have been run, three by Radcliffe and two by Kosgei) and Berlin (home of nine sub-2:20s), aren’t likely to offer the same generous appearance fees to Americans as domestic races, said David Monti, who was the professional athletes consultant for New York Road Runners from 2001 to 2020.

And races like Valencia and Dubai, which have each produced 11 sub-2:20 times in recent years, prioritize the world’s fastest athletes, so they’re also unlikely to court Americans. Appearance fees are only part of an athlete’s compensation—beside prize money, races can offer bonuses for times, records, or other accomplishments, as can shoe companies, Hanson said. But these incentives may also influence athletes’ choices in ways that don’t align with running their fastest.

Of course, Chicago is also a fast course. It claims seven sub-2:20 performances and two world records (Radcliffe’s first, 2:17:18 in 2002, and now Kosgei’s), but the weather is far from predictable. “We’ve had 80-degree days in Chicago; we’ve had 38-degree days,” Kastor said.

Add the fact that many top athletes aren’t strictly time motivated. Some—like Tuliamuk, Rosario said—favor preparing for tough courses and championship races. “It hasn’t been, I don’t think, part of the culture to go super fast, to go after Deena’s record,” Pinkowski said.

For all these reasons, talented Americans have chosen other challenges, or simply missed their chance. “It’s just kind of where the opportunities fall, and where the best people are running,” Hanson said. “If we had a big contingency of Americans at the last Chicago Marathon, when the world record was set at 2:14, I think there would have been women under 2:20.”

Few live high, even if they train high

Though there’s been significant speculation, research hasn’t pinpointed a specific genetic or physiological reason athletes from Kenya and Ethiopia currently dominate distance running, said Sandra Hunter, Ph.D., who researches neurophysiology, sex differences, and athletic performance at Marquette University in Milwaukee.

But the environment may play a role. Many towns in East Africa sit as high as 8,000 or 9,000 feet, meaning athletes who are born there spend their entire lives at high altitudes. As a result, their blood may carry more energizing oxygen to hard-working muscles.

Kastor attributes much of her success to living at 8,000 feet in Mammoth Lakes, California, since 2001. “A lot of people have gone and done altitude stints of training, but physiological research shows that when you actually live in altitude, your body can hold that altitude effect for a longer period of time,” she said.

Greatness begets greatness—and fearlessness

Another factor often cited in studies of athletes from Kenya and Ethiopia is motivation. Athletes can significantly improve not only their own lives, but also those of their families and villages, with their winnings. Runners from wealthier countries don’t always have the same drive, Hunter said.

The training in East Africa tends to differ a bit from the way many Americans approach the distance, often including more intensity, said Ryan Hall, who’s trained in Ethiopia, and he and Sara also adopted four daughters from the country in 2015. But he thinks any distinction lies less in the details of their preparation and more in the confidence with which they race—a willingness to take risks and go out hard that few American athletes exhibit.

“Running, I think, often goes in waves—there’s a point where there’s a surge of really great performances,” said Kipyego, who grew up in Kenya and came to the United States to run in college at Texas Tech University. In the past decade, runners like four-time NYC champion Mary Keitany of Kenya and Tirunesh Dibaba of Ethiopia, one of the most decorated distance runners in history, have pulled other athletes along. And unlike in the U.S. in Kastor’s prime, there’s been a depth of talented women just behind them.

“If you have 10 women training together and somebody goes and runs 2:17, every woman in that group thinks they can run 2:17,” Kipyego said. “Chances are, they will probably run 2:19. That’s the way I see it, and we’re just not there yet.”

What are Hall’s chances?

Could Hall be the athlete who begins an American surge? “I think she will have a better chance now than perhaps just about anybody has had thus far,” Rosario said. Reasons he and others cite for optimism include:

She’s chipped away at it

Hall had a suboptimal debut—she ran 2:48:02 in Los Angeles in 2015—and has endured other disappointments, including dropping out of the 2020 Olympic Marathon Trials after mile 22.

But in between, she’s gradually whittled down her times. At the Berlin Marathon in 2019, she ran 2:22:16. In last year’s London Marathon, she unleashed an impressive kick to finish second in 2:22:01 on a rainy day.

The first time she officially targeted the record was at the Marathon Project—a pandemic-inspired, elite-only race held just 11 weeks after London. She went through halfway in 1:09:38, then gradually slowed. Still, she averaged a 5:22 pace and took 90 seconds off her personal best to finish in 2:20:32. (Flanagan, meanwhile, had a personal best of 2:22:02 when she targeted the time.)

Having that rhythm in her legs may benefit Hall both physically and psychologically. “She can come through in 69:40 in this race and be like, ‘I’ve done this before, I’ve been here before, I know I’m gonna be okay,” Ryan said. “ Now I’m gonna go even further this time, my fitness is better.”

Her training points to ongoing improvement

About that fitness—both Halls said Sara has done more, and faster, training than ever. Her long runs have stretched out longer than a marathon, up to 28 miles, some with a 12-mile tempo in the second half.

In late September, she ran a 15-mile threshold run about 6 seconds per mile faster than she did before London—5:26 pace, near 9,000 feet of elevation in Crested Butte, Colorado, Ryan Hall said. She did two stints there this cycle, two weeks in the summer and three in September.

“There’s something about the magic of coming down from altitude. You feel like you have a third lung all of a sudden. The mental aspect of it is huge,” Ryan Hall said. The Halls also moved to 7,000-foot Flagstaff in 2018. “We found the longer that Sara’s lived at altitude, the more she responds to going up even higher.”

Her race performances during her buildup haven’t been stellar. On September 12, she ran the USATF 10 Mile Championships in 52:43, finishing fourth. Paradoxically, Hanson viewed that as a plus, and told her so when he saw her there. “Four weeks out from a marathon, you should be in the bulk of your training,” he said. “If she was super sharp there, I would think she had less of a chance.”

Chicago has some advantages

Rosario and Josh Cox—an agent who represents Hall, among many other athletes—designed the Marathon Project to optimize nearly every variable. Hall had personal pacesetters, ideal temperatures, and a flat, fast course. The fact that she didn’t run under 2:20 there—even while wearing ASICS’ super shoes, the MetaSpeed Sky—is a testament to just how tough it is, Rosario said.

But due to COVID, spectators weren’t allowed. Chicago will have what Ryan Hall calls “race day magic”: competition from the likes of 2:17:08 marathoner Ruth Chepnegitch, along with a cheering crowd. “Every time she hears someone yell her name, that’s going to give her a little boost,” he said.

She knows time is ticking away

At age 38, Hall feels a sense of urgency knowing her peak days may soon be behind her. “Realistically, I’ve still been able to improve, but I don’t really know how much longer that’s going to continue,” she said. “At some point, it’s not.”

Many marathoners can run faster into their 30s, since slight declines in variables like maximum heart rate are often offset by improvements in efficiency or running economy that come only through years of training, Hunter said. Kastor set her record at 33, one of 21 women who’ve dipped under 2:20 at age 30 or older. One, Helalia Johannes of Namibia, ran 2:19:52 in Valencia in December at age 40.

Even the prospect of a looming decline can factor in psychologically, however, pushing Hall to new heights. “If she sees this as her last, absolute chance, the motivation may be absolutely tremendous, and she might push herself that extra minute,” Hunter said.

What will happen when the record falls?

Kipyego also likes Hall’s odds—and thinks if she or another American breaks 2:20 soon, others are likely to follow.

For one thing, more companies are producing super shoes, which feature lighter foam and carbon fiber plates, so athletes like Hall who have contracts from non-Nike brands can benefit. And because one theory holds that the shoes also reduce fatigue, the improvements could continue to accrue over time, as athletes recover faster, train harder, and perhaps even extend their careers, Kastor said.

But more important, the record falling may show other American women what’s possible. Women who are close might then choose to push the envelope, Kipyego said.

Others within striking distance of 2:20 include Emily Sisson, 29, who debuted in 2:23:08 in London in 2019, and Seidel, 27, who ran 2:25:13 in her second marathon in London. Keira D’Amato, 36, ran 2:22:56 to finish second behind Hall at the Marathon Project. And of course, there are likely high school and college students who will eventually prove to be physically capable, Rosario said.

Hall hopes that some of the people she’s motivating through her efforts are those whose running journeys haven’t been linear. “I really struggled a long time in this sport,” she said. When others doubted, Ryan—and her faith—encouraged her to continue. “It didn’t really make sense to me at the time, and I didn’t even really believe in myself at times. I just didn’t feel a peace to move on.”

And one person who’ll be cheering them all on? Kastor. “If I had in my contract that I had a bonus for every year I kept the record, I might feel differently,” she said. “But it’s time. I love to see progress in the sport. It totally excites and thrills me that not only are we having more people on podiums and important races, but also that times are getting faster and records are falling.”

Contributing Writer Cindy is a freelance health and fitness writer, author, and podcaster who’s contributed regularly to Runner’s World since 2013.

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