Why Can't Anyone Break the Women's Marathon Record?

Paula Radcliffe set the world record in 2003. Since then? No one's come within three minutes of her mark.
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Paula Radcliffe at the 2005 London Marathon. (Photo: Jon Wells/Flickr)

Paula Radcliffe at the 2005 London Marathon. (Photo: Jon Wells/Flickr)

Over the weekend, Dennis Kimetto ran 26.2 miles in 2:02:57, becoming the first person in history to break the 2:03 mark for a marathon. That translates into 4:42 per mile or almost 12.8 miles per hour, which is fast. Put another way, Kimetto ran each 5K in an average of 14:34.9, which is way faster than your average Turkey Trotter. He also ran the second half 33 seconds faster than the first half, which makes me want to throw up. Any way you look at the race, it was an impressive, mind-blowing performance.

Predictably, the Kenyan's remarkable achievement launched a host of stories wondering if and when a man will smash through the two-hour mark. Kimetto's world record was the sixth new world record since Paul Tergat’s in September 2003, each one coming at Berlin's flat, favorable course. Over that span, the mark has plummeted from 2:04:55 to Sunday's 2:02:57. In just the last three years, the record fell 41 seconds, lending a bit of credence to the side of the argument that says breaking the two-hour mark is a matter of when, not if (although that's still a long 177 seconds to go).

Winning a race at a relatively pedestrian pace, which lessens the risk of injury and perhaps allows an athlete to run again sooner, makes more financial sense than attempting to break a very difficult record.

What's more interesting, however, is the time of 2:15:25. That's what Paula Radcliffe ran at the London Marathon on April 13, 2003, a world record time that still stands more than a decade later. No one has come close to that mark since, with the 2:18:37 Mary Keitany ran in 2012 standing up as the second-best non-Radcliffe women's marathon time. (Radcliffe posted three times under 2:18, while Russia’s Liliya Shobukhova ran 2:18:20 in Chicago in 2011, but her results were later annulled due to doping concerns.)

In short, while the men's record continues to fall with serious challenges if not world records set every year, the women's mark remains comfortably standing with no one even close to getting close to breaking Radcliffe's mark. In Berlin, Ethiopia's Tirfi Tsegaye won the women's side of the event with a piddling time of 2:20:18. The question, then, is why?

One easy answer is that Radcliffe's 2:15 is truly exceptional. While it's difficult to determine exactly how a time at one distance compares with a time at another distance, coach and exercise physiologist Jack Daniels invented a system called the VDOT to measure exactly that. It's not a perfect metric but according to VDOT, Radcliffe's marathon run has the highest score, along with the 3,000-meter mark set by China's Wang Junxia more than 20 years ago.

Conceding that Radcliffe's marathon time is an outlier explains some of the struggle, but not all of it. While women's marathoners perhaps shouldn't be expected to break her exceptional record, they should be getting closer than three, four, or five minutes, an exceptionally long time in a marathon. (Losing by five minutes to a 2:15 marathoner is to be almost a mile behind when she crosses the finish line.)

It's not as though the talent isn't out there. "I think the depth is there on the women's side," Terrence Mahon, who coached American marathon record holder Deena Kastor, told Runner's World in 2013. "There are a lot more athletes running in the 2:21-22 range than before.

As he continued on, Mahon touched on the real issue: "I also see that there are more marathons with decent prize money, so that splits up the numbers a bit, as getting paid is a top priority over running fast—there is always a big risk of blowing up when chasing fast times." Radcliffe's $60,000 anti-gravity treadmill aside, women's distance running is not a lucrative sport. Winning a race at a relatively pedestrian pace, which lessens the risk of injury and perhaps allows an athlete to run again sooner, makes more financial sense than attempting to break a very difficult record. Throw in the fact that most of the best female marathoners prefer running in a pack rather than Radcliffe's preferred front-running, and you have a situation where the record stands for more than a decade.

There might be hope, however, as Kenya's Florence Kiplagat broke a three-year-old half-marathon record in February, running 1:05:12. The 27-year-old is transitioning to marathons as many aging runners do, and just two months after her half-marathon record, she finished second in the London Marathon. She ran 2:20:24.

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