Mary Keitany of Kenya is favored to win the women’s race Sunday at the New York City Marathon. She might even set a course record, but one thing she will almost certainly not do is set a world record.
The bridges and hills of New York are not accommodating to unprecedented performance. The fastest that any woman has run here, 2 hours 22 minutes 31 seconds, is more than seven minutes slower than the fastest time ever run, 2:15:25 by Paula Radcliffe of England at the 2003 London Marathon.
Technically, Radcliffe’s time is now considered a “world best” instead of a “world record.” In August, track and field’s world governing body made a controversial ruling, striking Radcliffe’s two fastest times from record consideration because they came in races in which she was paced by men.
Now, the official women’s record is 2:17:42, run by Radcliffe in a women’s-only race at the 2005 London Marathon. That is still nearly five minutes — or about a mile in distance — faster than any woman has run in New York, and 38 seconds faster than any other woman has covered 26.2 miles on any course.
Lately, the men’s world record has been batted around like a volleyball. It has officially been broken three times in the past four years. Patrick Makau of Kenya set the current record of 2:03:38 at the Berlin Marathon in September. That time had been beaten in Boston in April, but the course is not certified for records; and it was nearly eclipsed last Sunday in Frankfurt.
Meanwhile, the women’s record has gone unchallenged for years. The reasons are varied. First, Radcliffe is an outlier who radically changed the way women trained and raced, piling on the mileage and speed in workouts and setting a blistering pace from the starting gun, as elite male runners now do.
“Paula was ahead of her time,” said Deena Kastor of the United States, the 2004 Olympic bronze medalist in the marathon. “She could go out at a grueling pace and keep it. I think it brought a realization to the men as well that you don’t have to be so timid going into a marathon.”
Regarding training, Kastor said: “I think people go into a marathon so concerned about riding the line between getting as fit as possible without overdoing it, and that was never Paula’s concern. She goes out there and grinds on a daily and weekly basis. It’s very admirable. Sometimes, it leads to injuries with her, but the end result is that she’s got this untouchable world record and a well-deserved one. I think 2:15 will be in the books for a while.”
While the numbers of elite women are growing, the depth still does not match men’s marathoning. In particular, few women are fast enough to serve as pacemakers for a world-record pace. Only a few women have even run a half-marathon at Radcliffe’s record marathon pace, said Dan Lilot, the agent for the American marathoner Kara Goucher.
And given the new rules in the sport, men can no longer be used to pace women to record times.
“I don’t know how you find a woman pacesetter to go through the half in 68 flat,” said Mark Wetmore, an American agent who represents a number of female Ethiopian runners. “If a woman can do that, she’ll want to race. Maybe you’ll need to have two women in 2:20 shape and one decides to take care of the other and help her out so she can run 2:17. There are very few of these women.”
Women tend to run the marathon later in their careers, when they face decisions about motherhood, which inevitably disrupts training and can lead to protracted comebacks. Werknesh Kidane of Ethiopia won the world cross-country championship in 2003 and finished second in the 10,000 meters at the 2003 world track and field championships in a stirring 30:07.15; many projected her to be a sub-2:20 marathoner. But she then had two children and essentially took a three-year break from competition from 2006 to 2009.
Married to Gebre Gebremariam, the defending New York City Marathon champion, Kidane has finally taken up the marathon this year at age 29. She finished seventh in Boston in April in 2:26:15 and will run New York on Sunday, but she remains well short of earlier projections.
“When you take off 6, 8, 10 months, it’s hard to come back,” said Wetmore, Kidane’s agent. “Werknesh is just getting back to her premotherhood self.”
A number of the top female distance runners are still competing on the track and are expected to move up to the marathon after the 2012 London Olympics. They include Tirunesh Dibaba of Ethiopia, the 2008 Olympic champion at 5,000 and 10,000 meters; Meseret Defar of Ethiopia, the 2004 Olympic champion at 5,000 meters and 2008 bronze medalist; and Vivian Cheruiyot of Kenya, the 2011 world champion at 5,000 and 10,000 meters.
They can be encouraged by the marathon debut in Chicago last month of Ejigayehu Dibaba, Tirunesh’s sister, who won a silver medal at 10,000 meters at the 2004 Olympics. She finished second in Chicago in 2:22:09, the third-fastest debut marathon for a woman.
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But the question for track runners moving up the marathon is always one of timing: “Did they wait too long?” in the words of Mary Wittenberg, director of the New York City Marathon.
Although Radcliffe’s best times have not been challenged, this year has produced some encouragingly fast results. For the first time since 2008, a woman has run a marathon under 2:20. Actually three of them have. Keitany ran 2:19:19 to win in London in April. Florence Kiplagat of Kenya ran 2:19:44 to win Berlin in September. And Liliya Shobukhova of Russia ran 2:18:20 to win in Chicago last month, making her the second-fastest female marathoner.
“I feel like marathons have been more tactical in the last 5 or 10 years,” Goucher said. “In the past year, some women have shown more interest in running fast.”
Women from Kenya and Ethiopia are moving up to the half-marathon and the marathon at an earlier age, according to runners, coaches and agents.
Keitany did not have a long track career, running a half-marathon at age 24 in 2006. Six months later, she paced the London Marathon.
“I was not afraid” of the distance, Keitany, 29, said.
She represents another development among female African runners, who have begun in larger numbers to break free of traditional subservient roles in society to become full-time professional athletes.
“Finally, after many years, you are seeing women have the possibility to approach athletics like a job, not just as mothers who run,” Gabriele Nicola, an Italian who is Keitany’s coach, said.
This growing professionalization can be found in their wearing GPS watches, which give the precise distance run during workouts; using electrolyte drinks instead of water; and having a diverse support staff.
Keitany has a support group of 10 people, including physical therapists, masseuses and male runners hired to pace her during workouts. Her sister-in-law watches her 3-year-old son, Jared, so Keitany can train and sleep between twice-daily runs.
“She is already in the Olympics as a sleeper,” Nicola said with a laugh.
A whispery figure who is about 5 feet tall and 88 pounds, Keitany finished third in New York last year in her marathon debut in 2:29:01 but shaved nearly 10 minutes off that time in winning London in April. In February, she shattered the world half-marathon record in 1:05:50, breaking the previous mark by 35 seconds.
Eventually in the marathon, Keitany said, “Maybe I can run under 2:18.”
But everyone seems to agree that Radcliffe’s 2:15:25, the fastest time ever run, will remain safe for years. As fast as Shobukhova was in Chicago, she would have to run nearly three minutes faster to reach that mark.
“I don’t realize how you train for 2:15,” Shobukhova told reporters after the race.