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Going Head to Head: Speed Limit on the NYC Course?

October 09, 2013 at 7:15pm EST | by Barbara Huebner, Marathon News Service

In 2011, Geoffrey Mutai won the ING New York City Marathon in 2:05:06, crushing the course record by more than 2 ½ minutes. Last week, Mutai—who will return to defend his title on November 3—told Agence France Presse that he has been inspired by training partner Wilson Kipsang’s 2:03:23 world record in the BMW Berlin Marathon last month. “I know the [NYC] course is very tough but running 2:04 can be achievable if the weather is good,” he added. Which begs the question: how fast can the ING New York City Marathon be, with ideal conditions? After all, few thought that the course record for the Boston Marathon would ever read 2:03:02—a feat managed by Mutai himself. How low can the record go in NYC, and what would it take to get it there? Sam Grotewold, professional athlete manager for New York Road Runners, and broadcaster extraordinaire Toni Reavis weigh in.

Sam Grotewold: It wasn't a surprise to me when Geoffrey Mutai broke the ING New York City Marathon course record in 2011, running 2:05:06. After all, nearly every result he turned in that year was eye-popping, capped by his sparkling 2:03:02 marathon in Boston that April, the fastest marathon ever run. What did surprise me was by how much he broke the NYC record: Mutai’s time was 2:37 (more than a half-mile, at those speeds!) faster than the previous best, Tesfaye Jifar’s 2:07:43 from 10 years earlier.

Mutai’s 2013 results indicate that he’s still among the top two or three road racers in the world, at any distance. His races at 10K and the half-marathon this year have all been faster, in some cases substantially so, than those leading up to his 2:04:15 result in Berlin last September. Mutai knows how to prepare for the marathon, and I choose to believe that fast performances in his shorter races are a positive sign of his marathon fitness.

Mutai is also no slouch at running by himself; his 59:06 half-marathon clocking in Udine, Italy, last month was a victory by nearly two minutes, and another sub-60 race in Brazil in August was nearly a minute up on his closest rival. But credit for his best performances over the marathon distance goes, at least in part, to the guys finishing behind him. The race in Boston two years ago was only sealed over Moses Mosop halfway down Boylston Street, with just a few meters remaining. His course record in New York was spurred on by the late-race presence of Emmanuel Mutai and Tsegaye Kebede, who both joined Mutai under the old record. His 2:04:15 clocking in Berlin last fall was only one tick of the clock ahead of his training partner Dennis Kimetto, who gamely ran with Mutai the entire way. Going back a few years, Mutai’s 2:04:55 race in Rotterdam and 2:05:10 in Berlin, both in 2010, came on the heels of Patrick Makau, who finished a few seconds ahead in both races. 

The question isn’t really whether or not Geoffrey Mutai can lower his course record in New York. He can. In my mind, the question is whether or not there’s anybody entered in the race who will push him to do it.

Toni Reavis: I agree that Mutai remains among the very top distance men alive, and when we compare his 2013 performances against the ones in 2011 that led up to his course record by 2:37 in NYC, there is little to choose between them. In other words, he’s on form for the race on November 3. But when we start talking about sub-2:05, that may well be a bridge too far.  

You mentioned that Mutai’s 2:05:06 in 2011 took down Tesfaye Jifar’s record of 2:07:43, a record that had lasted for 10 years. But Jifar’s mark broke Juma Ikangaa’s previous record, 2:08:01, which had lasted for 12 years. And Ikangaa’s record broke Alberto Salazar’s 2:08:13 mark (though the course was re-measured short by 149 meters), which had stood for eight years. Meaning in the 29 years between Salazar’s 2:08:13 and 2010 (the year before Mutai), the record over the five-borough course had only come down by 30 seconds. This leads me to believe that Mutai’s 2011 performance in NYC, like his 2:03:02 in Boston that spring, is a one-off type performance that may last longer than any previous New York City Marathon record.

SG: I think it’s interesting to look at the New York standard during the 29-year span you cite in the context of what happened to the world record during that same time frame. For sure, the NYC record has progressed more slowly: Between 1981 and 2010, the world record was broken 12 times by 10 different men—Khalid Khannouchi and Haile Gebrselassie are the only two with the distinction of bettering their own WR, which I imagine has to be a good feeling—and was lowered by a just over five full minutes during that time (it’s now 5:38 if you count what happened in Berlin last month). 

As you note, the NYC record during that same span was only broken by two men, Ikangaa and Jifar, and by a grand total of 30 seconds. I have to sit through web ads that are longer than that. Meanwhile, the pool of athletes running fast in the marathon was getting wider and deeper. In short, when Mutai stepped to the line in 2011, the NYC record was due to be broken. And although nobody expected it to get there in the course of a single morning, Mutai probably brought the record down close to where it should have been in the context of what was happening in the sport globally. And it’s still happening. Of the 229 sub-2:07 clockings in history, almost a third (67) have come since Mutai’s New York run (and we can probably expect a few more in Chicago this weekend). Athletes are just beginning to figure this sport out. And Mutai has demonstrated over the last few years that he’s been one step ahead of everybody else.

TR: To continue with the numbers game, to date there have been 31 sub-2:05 marathons in history: 10 in Dubai, nine in Berlin, six in Rotterdam, and two each in London, Chicago, and Frankfurt.  Notice that every one of those marathons was run on a flat course with pace setters, some going as far as 35K. On the other hand, NYC’s five-borough layout is twisty and hilly, and has no pacers.

Yes, Mutai ran 2:05:06 in 2011, but there were many factors playing to his advantage that year, including his own condition; the weather, which is the real wildcard; the quality of field; and the carrot of Olympic team selection that hung over the strong Kenyan contingent. The odds are that we won’t hit another such Perfect Storm day (excuse the metaphor) for a while. 

Even so, because there are no pacers and given the nature of its five bridge crossings, NYC’s pace tends to swing wildly from conservative to ultra-fast. In 2011, the men went through five miles at 24:40, which is 2:09 pace. Then Mutai brought it home in 28:43 for the final 10k, a 2:01:21 pace, to destroy the field and grab the record.

So while the sport has continued to see record times fall almost everywhere else, only New York and Boston of the major marathons remain true Olympic-style competitive races that require athletes to think for themselves the entire way. That may not produce the same fast times as, say, Dubai, but look at how the Dubai boys fared in London’s Olympic Marathon 2012: not very well. All three Ethiopians who were selected in Dubai DNF'd in London. So, which would we rather see, the fireworks up First Avenue and the drama down Fifth Avenue, or an even-paced solo record effort? I know how I’d vote.

SG: Right there, I agree with you 100 percent. As a fan, I would rather watch a compelling head-to-head competition won in 2:10 than one guy surrounded by a phalanx of pacemakers gunning for 2:04. I think we both consider ourselves lucky that we were able to be at the finish line of both Boston and New York in 2011, where we got both compelling competitions and historic fast times.

Your numbers don’t lie: Lots of guys have run faster in Dubai, Berlin, Rotterdam, London, Chicago, and Frankfurt than anybody ever has in New York. But remember that until the BMW Berlin Marathon adopted its model of swinging for the fences every year, it was Chicago that was seen as the course and race best suited to helping athletes run fast. And then consider that until Tsegaye Kebede ran 2:04:38 in Chicago last year, the course record in New York—the race where it was impossible to run fast—was a half-minute better than anything Chicago had ever produced. And even that mark was only established in 2011, which supports my earlier point that athletes are just beginning to scratch the surface of what's possible. 

For now, though, the real sign of what’s possible is Boston, where a lack of pacemakers and a course notoriously difficult to get right has produced the two fastest marathons ever run. It does take a special athlete on a special day. It does take competition that is up to the task. It does take near-perfect weather. It probably also takes a little bit of luck. But if an athlete like Geoffrey Mutai can get those things right, as he has on more than one occasion, anything is possible.

TR: As we are all-too-painfully aware from last year, the weather in New York in early November can be anything. But in 2011, the 42nd ING New York City Marathon began under clear skies, at 40 degrees Fahrenheit, with low humidity and calm winds. As opposed to Boston’s pure West to East layout, where performances can be assisted (2011) or hindered (2007) by a prevailing wind, on New York’s five-borough loop the wind becomes a less critical factor. As such, calm is as good as it can get, as was the case in 2011. Now add Geoffrey Mutai’s unparalleled condition; the challenge of Emmanuel Mutai, who set the Virgin London Marathon course record that spring; Gebre Gebremariam, the defending NYC champion from Ethiopia; and the tiny terror Tsegaye Kebede, also of Ethiopia, and I challenge anyone to align a more perfect scenario.

If Geoffrey Mutai—or anyone else, like Olympic champion Stephen Kiprotich of Uganda—has designs on a sub-2:05 in New York, he’ll have to either hire his own phalanx of pacers and/or be willing to risk all by attacking right from the cannon shot on the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. Since Mutai already has the course record in hand, and the win in New York has always been more important than its winning time, I see Mutai’s 2011 mark standing for some considerable time.

Now let's see how wrong they will prove us come November 3.

Categories: Marathon News