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Hitting the wall: Why have women’s marathon times stalled?

April 22, 2011 – 5:04 PM

By Laura Pappano

Whether or not the IAAF decides to recognize as a new world record Geoffrey Mutai’s win in the Boston Marathon, crossing in 2:03:02 – 57 seconds faster than Haile Gebreselassie’s 2008 record of 2:03:59 – is, in some ways, immaterial.

He was fast. He was so thrillingly fast (and on a course that – let’s be honest, rarely sees records) that people are resurrecting that tantalizing debate: Will someone break a two-hour marathon? Could that happen?

Sadly, the discussion about speed and possibility is only on the men’s side.  On the women’s side, we wonder: Will anyone ever again run as fast as Paula Radcliffe did eight years ago?

Consider that in April 2003, when Radcliffe ran the London Marathon in a new world record time for women of 2:15:25, the men’s record was held by Khalid Kannouchi with a time of 2:05:38, set the previous year in London.

But here’s the stunner: His time has been bested 29 times since then (counting Mutai’s race in Boston last week).

Not only has Radcliffe’s best time not been beaten, it hasn’t even been challenged (the next fastest time is also hers, and it’s nearly two minutes slower). The next five fastest women’s marathon times were recorded in 2005 – and earlier.

The most recent “fast” times for women were this year in London — Mary Keitany finished in 2:19:19 and Liliya Shobukhova came in second in 2:20:15. But these are several minutes from the record.

The nagging question: Why have women’s marathon times plateaued?

While Radcliffe’s 2003 record put her on par with men’s records of the 1960s, women’s “fast” times now – 2:19 — are what record-holding men ran in the 1950s.

Debate about female limitations and what women are “capable of” is not new. In 2001, conventional wisdom held that women weren’t physiologically able to run a sub-2:20 marathon. Then in a spurt of speed, that record fell, again and again.

So what’s next? More women are running marathons. We have better training, nutrition, coaching, support, prize money.

In the week that we lost the great Grete Waitz, it’s time to reflect: How do we find the next gear?

 

 

 

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